States to Imagine by Kathie Johnson

Column: First Books

States to Imagine

by Kathie Johnson

In my children's library, I offered another geographic reading contest last summer. We focused on the mid-Atlantic states: Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, as well as Washington, D.C. In order to provide enough books for eager readers, I included as well the early frontier states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

My hope is always that the children reading these books will have their worlds expanded, and I heard that happening as we talked about them. My California kids are reading about places very far away from them, and they begin to understand how people live in other parts of the country. My hope for you—if you live in the region we covered—is that you will be directed to aspects of it you may have overlooked. If you live far away, as I do, you may be able to travel with your kids to new places—in your imagination.

These states lend themselves to including many biographies. There are the famous Virginians—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee, as well as Pocahontas of Jamestown; with the frontier states included, there are Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. Many children's biographies have been written on each of these people. One series that has been popular, the Random House Step-Up Books, includes at least four of them (Jackson, Washington, Lee, and Jefferson). These books feature large print and some pictures. Parents enjoy reading them to younger children, and they are just right for good second- and third-grade readers.

For the general geographical area, I was surprised to discover that several books are by a favorite author of mine—Cynthia Rylant. That made me want to know where she grew up. It was in West Virginia, which I had already learned is the only state entirely in the -Appalachian Mountains. Rylant has written a lovely picture book titled When I Was Young in the Mountains, as well as one with more text, titled Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds, which lovingly describes the people and homes of that area. Another picture book with wonderful, colorful illustrations is The Relatives Came, which is about a large family from Virginia coming to see relatives in the hill country. For the older child, A Blue-Eyed Daisy tells of growing up in the hill country as the youngest in the family.

A book on this area by a different author is the picture book My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Arizona grows up going to a one-room school and eventually becomes a teacher there, traveling only in her mind and through her students.

The Mid-Atlantic States

For Maryland, my favorite picture book is Waterman's Child by Barbara Mitchell. One thing I learned in reading about Maryland is that everyone who works harvesting oysters on Chesapeake Bay is a called a waterman, male or female. This book tells of three generations of watermen and shows with wonderful illustrations the changes that took place through those years.

All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen tells about a family saying goodbye to the husband/father, who is going off to war. The rest of the family goes to live with the grandparents on Chesapeake Bay. Yolen's deceptively simple story packs a surprisingly big punch.

Flute's Journey by Lynne Cherry is the amazing story of a wood thrush that nests in the woods of Maryland and migrates to Costa Rica and back. For the older reader, Katherine Paterson has written Jacob Have I Loved. The main character is a less-loved twin on a Chesapeake island who gradually learns to find her own value and strength.

For Virginia, there are lots of books set in Jamestown and Williamsburg. An unusual book about Jamestown is the picture book The Lucky Sovereign by Stewart Lees. A boy and his father are sailing to Jamestown to settle. During the trip, the boy makes an enemy of a sailor whom he catches stealing, and trouble ensues.


Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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