First Books

Four Final States

As I have done for the past seven years, I held a reading game last summer in conjunction with my children's library. We covered the four states that had not been included in earlier years: Florida and Louisiana—which had not been included with the South because they have their own distinctive cultures—and Arkansas and Missouri. The many children who took part were enthusiastic and read widely.

Biographies

Biographies of notable figures from these four states were included in the game. For instance, Louis Armstrong, who was from New Orleans, was the popular subject of several books. Among those that focus on his childhood and his early eagerness to play the trumpet are Alan Schroeder's Satchmo's Blues and Roxane Orgill's If I Only Had a Horn, both vividly illustrated. Muriel Weinstein's When Louis Armstrong Taught Me Scat is a fun introduction to that style of jazz singing.

Though born in Wisconsin, Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in Missouri most of her adult life and did her writing there, so books about her also qualified for the reading game. Pioneer Girl by William Anderson does a good job of telling her life story and has beautiful illustrations on each spread. Carol Greene's easy-reading biography features both original illustrations and photographs. And Laura's Album, a scrapbook of mementos collected by William Anderson, is full of items that bring her to life.

Older girls read several books taking off from the Little House series, telling more stories of Laura, her sister, her daughter, and even her grandmother. Books set in Missouri include Roger Lea MacBride's Little Town in the Ozarks and T. L. Tedrow's The World's Fair, which fictionally has Laura covering the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904.

Another popular subject from Missouri was Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who grew up in Hannibal. Two of the many good biographies of him are A Brilliant Streak by Kathryn Lasky, which concentrates on his earlier years and how they inspired his writing, and Mark Twain and the Queen of the Mississippi by Cheryl Harness, a beautifully illustrated book that concentrates on Twain's time as a steamboat pilot but also covers other aspects of his life.

Among the Floridians the children read about was the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville. An easy-reading book about her is Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree by William Miller, which tells about her childhood, including her engrossment in the tales of the great storytellers in her area, and her closeness with her mother, who died of cancer when Zora was still young. Ray Charles, another Floridian, is the subject of a good biography by Susan Sloate, in the Childhood of Famous Americans series.

Nature Books

Florida and Louisiana, with their distinctive habitats, are the subject of many fine nature books. Manatees, which inhabit the coastal waters of Florida, fascinated many young readers. Francine Jacobs's Sam the Sea Cow tells the story of a baby manatee who gets stuck in a pipe and has to be rescued. Jim Arnosky's Slow Down for Manatees illustrates the ongoing danger for this slow-moving animal of being hit by boat propellers. Books about alligators were also popular, especially with the boys. A good beginner's book in the I Can Read series is simply called Alligator, by Evelyn Shaw. For the middle reader, Jean Craighead George's The Moon of the Alligators is especially good.

George has also written a lovely book called Everglades, which not only describes the wildlife but also tells about the history of that Florida region. Another good Everglades book is Welcome to the River of Grass by Jane Yolen. A beautiful, simple book by Jim Arnosky called Babies in the Bayou shows the variety of creatures that live in these quiet, marshy waters, while Brenda Guiberson's Spoonbill Swamp contrasts two very different swamp animals—the roseate spoonbill and the alligator.

A more unexpected animal shows up in Donald and the Fish That Walked, an I Can Read book by Edward Ricciuti. A boy in South Florida sees a walking fish and reports it to his parents, who don't believe him. He then meets a scientist who explains that these are an invasive species of catfish from Asia. Eventually the cold weather kills most of them. Another fascinating creature is featured in A Dragon in the Sky, a book for middle readers by Laurence Pringle, which tells the story of a dragonfly and its migration along the east coast from New York to Florida.

True & True-to-Life Stories

One popular picture book of the summer relates a true story. In Radio Rescue, Lynne Barasch tells about her father, who, as a boy in 1920s New York, became fascinated with a new technology—ham radio—and learned enough to contact people all over the world. During a hurricane in Florida, he picked up a distress signal from people who were about to drown and was able to direct rescuers to the family. In When Grandma Almost Fell Off the Mountain by Barbara Ann Porte, two girls delight in the story their grandmother tells about a hilarious and harrowing road trip she took to Florida when a young girl in the 1930s. Sweet Magnolia by Virginia Kroll is a beautiful book about a young girl who leaves her northern town to visit her grandmother in Louisiana, who lives in a house up on posts near a bayou and works as a wildlife rehabilitator. When the girl finds a bird with a broken leg, she asks her grandmother to help it, but once it is healed, she finds it hard to let the bird go free.

For older kids, of course you have to start with Mark Twain's classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Also popular with this age group is Kate Klise's "Regarding" series about a middle school in Missouri, each book of which tells, through letters and news articles rather than straight narration, how a particular problem—e.g., Regarding the Fountain, Regarding the Trees, or Regarding the Bees—was solved. Another series, The Orphan Train Adventures by Joan Lowery Nixon, also has Missouri settings and is very popular. E. L. Konigsburg's The View from Saturday features four Florida sixth-graders who have to discover their gifts upon being selected to compete on an academic bowl team. Finally, Betty Horvath has written a fine book titled Sir Galahad, Mr. Longfellow, and Me, in which a Missouri schoolgirl tries to learn how to write poetry.

As usual, I have here only scratched the surface of the many good children's books about people, places, and fauna in these four states. I always hope that when children immerse themselves in books set in a different part of the country from where they live, they will emerge with a better understanding of and appreciation for their own lives and empathy for people in other places.

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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