A new middle school student enjoys his or her own locker, an in-depth exploration of subjects, and the freedom that comes with switching classes every hour. But one vestige of elementary school should never be abandoned – the picture book read aloud. The best children’s literature not only teaches, but captivates audiences of every age. When I read aloud, my 8th grade students edge close, even wanting to be on the floor. The guys rest their chins on their tattooed forearms and stare up at the pictures, not even bothering to feign disinterest.  

As a World Geography teacher, one of my obvious favorites is Uri Shulevitz’s “How I Learned Geography.” In this biographical tale, Uri recounts (in less then 20 words) how his family fled Poland during WWII. Then the story starts. Instead of buying the expected bread, Uri’s dad buys a map. Initial anger brought on by an empty stomach relaxes into wonder as the map floods the room with color and Uri’s mind with possibilities. The rest of the book is filled with Shulevitz’s illustrations of the snowy mountaintops and teeming cities he imagined as a child.

After I read this to my students, I reinforce the lesson by asking them to brainstorm examples of the deserts, beaches, mountains, jungles, and cities that Uri fantasized about in his book. Then each group designs a customized trip around the world that Uri might have enjoyed. A biographical map of Shulevitz’s own life also provides fodder for discussions, as he fled Poland in 1939 to live in modern day Kazakhstan, Paris, Israel and then the USA.

Another favorite is Carmen Agra Deedy’s “14 Cows for America,” gorgeously illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. It’s a story about the Maasai people of Kenya. My students, like most of us, are used to hearing negative stories about Africa. They see poverty stricken children on TV. They hear about wars and genocide and AIDS.  My African-American students want nothing to do with Africa, viewing it as a continent of mud huts and shame.      

Then we read “14 Cows for America.”

In this true story Kimeli returns to Kenya and tells his people about his time in America. He tells them about New York, he tells them about that one September day. The Maasai people are horrified into silence when they hear Kimeli’s tale. Then they spring into action, determined to help right the injustice, determined to ease the suffering of these poor people who live in America. The Maasai give up what is most precious to them – the cow. The Maasai donate fourteen cows to the USA, “because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

I love that Ms. Agra Deedy automatically knew that my kids were brilliant readers!

For further suggestions on great books and ways to use them in the classroom, check out “Every Book is a Social Studies Book,” by Andrea Libresco. This one is a true gem, complete with lesson plans and ready-to-use handouts for students.