Education Opinion

Read-Aloud Books No Student Can Resist

By Judy Freeman — November 01, 1991 7 min read

READING ALOUD IN SCHOOL IS NOT A frill or a time waster, as whole language teachers will attest. There’s nothing more comforting, more life-affirming--for students of all grade levels--than hearing a memorable book read aloud.

One problem for teachers is deciding what to read. How can we manage the herculean task of keeping up with the flood of children’s books published each year? Four thousand, give or take a few hundred, come rolling out like doughnuts from the unstoppable doughnut machine in Robert McCloskey’s classic Homer Price. Reading reviews in professional journals, attending book workshops, haunting public libraries, loitering in bookstores, and swapping titles with other book- obsessed colleagues all help. Here are some read-alouds published in the past two years that no class can resist.

Begin your class with a tongue twister, a foolish verse, or a conundrum like one of the folk tales in George Shannon’s More Stories to Solve: Fifteen Folktales from Around the World (Greenwillow, $12.95; Gr. 2-7). Each brief tale ends in a twist, leaving listeners to puzzle out and explain the mystery.

Then hook your students with the first page of a gripping book like Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $15.95; Gr. 6-9), about a young princess who runs off to escape her marriage to a mindless prince and becomes cave keeper for a dragon: Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show--it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it. Flash some cash to your class and then read them Eric A. Kimmel’s home-on-the-range yarn, Four Dollars and Fifty Cents (Holiday House, $14.95; Gr. 2-6). Shorty Long, a cowboy who plays dead to escape paying what he owes to the Widow Macrae, is almost rendered noseless when some outlaws find him coffin-bound in the cemetery. Watch your students reach up and cover their proboscises when the bad guys slam the coffin lid on poor Shorty’s too-long honker.

When students are trading anecdotes about pets, introduce them to a hind-leg-walking Siamese cat who stages a tightrope rescue in Mary Calhoun’s charmer High-Wire Henry (Morrow, $13.95; Gr. K-3) or to a circus dog who somersaults through the air to a trampoline far below in Lisa Campbell Ernst’s Ginger Jumps (Bradbury, $14.95; Gr. K-2).

Ken Kesey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fame has ventured into children’s stories with the uproarious Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear (Viking, $14.95; Gr. 2-5), an Ozark tall-tale variant of the folk tale “Sody Saleratus.’' Practice your growl for Big Double’s jolting arrival at the Bottom where he terrorizes and eats forest creatures until Little Tricker gives him a run for his money. With dialogue and descriptions that crackle with downhome wit, this demands to be read aloud. But practice beforehand because it requires split-second timing and well-disciplined breath control.

One of the most important legacies you can impart to your students is a sense of humor. Every subject becomes more appealing if you can laugh about it. Word play, starting with nursery rhymes, is one place to begin. Sing Paul O. Zelinsky’s jaunty pop-up version of The Wheels on the Bus (Dutton, $14.95; Gr. preK-2) with a class of young children; they will want to rip the book out of your hands. The doors open and shut, the windshield wipers swish, and the babies cry plaintively. Your audience can sing the song, do the motions, and make up new words. Libraries have a love-hate relationship with pop-up books because eager young fingers cause the pop-ups to sag and the pull tabs to bend after just a few frenzied sessions. But this one is worth the trouble.

There’s nothing not to love about Jack Prelutsky’s new anthology, For Laughing Out Loud: Poems to Tickle Your Funnybone (Knopf, $14.95; Gr. preK-5). The watercolor illustrations prance across every page with manic abandon, and Prelutsky’s 132 selections, including seven of his own, are perfectly hi- larious. For those who think that children’s poetry begins and ends with Shel Silverstein, Prelutsky’s compilation is a crash course in the works of almost five dozen of the best children’s poets, including William J. Smith, Mary Ann Hoberman, William Cole, Arnold Spilka, Lois Simmie, Colin McNaughton, John Ciardi, Dennis Lee, Myra Cohn Livingston, Ogden Nash, N.M. Bodecker, Arnold Lobel, Karla Kuskin, Eve Merriam, Judith Viorst, and that perennial favorite, Anonymous.

Editor Paul Janeczko has turned out yet another stellar collection of free verse, Preposterous: Poems of Youth (Orchard, $13.95; Gr. 7-12). The book’s 108 poems by 82 writers range from poignant to cynical and reflect the conflicts and memories of the high school years. Teenagers who think that all poems are flowery and rhyming will take these to heart and be eager to set down their own angst on paper, too.

Read some books aloud for the sheer absurdity they exhibit. David Wiesner’s almost wordless Tuesday (Clarion, $15.95; Gr. preK-4) takes us on an evening romp with airborne, lily pad-riding frogs, who zoom through the neighborhood. Anthony Browne’s Changes (Knopf, $14.95; Gr. K-3) provides a surreal look at a young boy named Joseph, who has been told by his father that things are going to change. Soon, Joseph notices the armchair turning into a gorilla and his soccer ball into an egg. Everywhere he looks he imagines odd goings-on, all unexplainable until his parents bring in his new baby sister. Now, he understands what his father meant.

Other read-alouds offer a global view. Many folk tales, for example, give us a window into other cultures. Tololwa M. Mollel’s haunting Masai story, The Orphan Boy (Clarion, $14.95; Gr. 2-4), about an old man whose chores and herding are taken over by a secretive young child who is really the planet Venus come to Earth, is reminiscent of the Japanese tale “The Crane Wife.’'

Margaret Mahy’s The Seven Chinese Brothers (Scholastic, $12.95; Gr. K-4) is another version of the tale about a brother who is saved from death by his identical siblings, each one displaying a singular talent. In this story, we travel to the Great Wall as it is being constructed and watch a despotic emperor drown in the seventh brother’s copious tears.

Older students will thrill to Milton Meltzer’s vivid and factual account of one of history’s most renowned mariners in Columbus and the World Around Him (Franklin Watts, $13.95; Gr. 6-Adult). Select passages read aloud will convince history-shy scholars that they need to know more. Why can’t all history be taught with material as alluring as this warts-and-all biography?

Why Cynthia DeFelice’s frontier adventure story Weasel (Macmillan, $11.95; Gr. 4-7) wasn’t chosen as a Newbery Honor title is hard to fathom. When 11-year-old Nathan and his 9-year-old sister, Molly, are led to their wounded father by the reclusive but gentle Ezra, Nathan is faced with a decision that could cost him and his family their lives. The 1939 Ohio frontier settlements have been preyed upon by the infamous and murderous Weasel, who now stalks and kidnaps Nathan. Will killing Weasel be a suitable revenge or a further evil? Plenty graphic and powerful, this is one book students will remember for a long time.

Evil shows itself in modern dress in Vivien Alcock’s The Trial of Anna Cotman (Delacorte, $13.95; Gr. 5-8). Hungry for acceptance, new-girl-in-town Anna agrees to join manipulative Lindy’s older brother’s new “club,’' the Society of Masks, SOM for short. Gradually, the secretive group turns nasty, tormenting one unfortunate boy whom Anna defends, until the group turns on her and tries her for disloyalty. A Lord of the Flies type of tale, this goose-bumper gives a gripping portrayal of mob politics, to which peer-pressured adolescents can relate.

Many young readers take books for granted. When children study the “olden’’ days, they are startled to learn that there was once a time when books were not available. That every school does not have a library puzzles them. Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland’s The Day of Ahmed’s Secret (Lothrop, $13.95; Gr. K-4) will stun these young students. Young Ahmed takes us on his daily rounds through Cairo as he works to earn money for his family. Ted Lewin’s watercolor illustrations shimmer with heat and color as we travel the teeming streets and gaze at the pyramids. At the end of an exhausting day, the boy shares a secret with his family and us: He can now write his name. It seems such a simple task to many children. But Ahmed reminds us that being able to write your name connects you with the ages. The Day of Ahmed’s Secret is an eloquent hymn to world understanding and literacy for all ages.

Look upon each book you read aloud as an original experience, and go out of your way to make each one an event. If you keep track of your literary outbursts and add to them each year, your repertoire will bulge in no time. You can give your students no greater gift.

The reviewer, author of Books Kids Will Sit Still For: The Complete Read-Aloud Guide (Bowker, 1990), is librarian of Van Holten School in Bridgewater, N.J.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Read-Aloud Books No Student Can Resist