Education Commentary

Read-Aloud Books: The Best Of The Bunch

By Judy Freeman — November 01, 1992 9 min read

There have always been teachers who read aloud to their students. I can still picture my 3rd grade teacher, nestled in a chair, reading Charlotte’s Web to the class. Now, more than 30 years later, I read aloud to children in my elementary school library every day. And I never tire of hearing a good story. Some teachers protest: “I don’t have time to read aloud. I have too much to teach.” Others, regardless of curricular pressures, find the time—somehow. Whole language teachers affirm that reading aloud teaches children about literature in a way that silent or independent reading never can.

Charlotte’s Web is still a favorite in schools; great books never die. But many other outstanding children’s books are published each year, and these shouldn’t be overlooked. Last year, the editors of Teacher Magazine asked me to review briefly the best recently published read-aloud books. They have asked me to do it again this year. Here, then, are 17 readalouds no student can resist. Each one is a gold mine.

Some books can change our outlook on the world. In just 74 spare pages, author Michael Dorris stuns us with Morning Girl (Hyperion, $12.95; Gr. 4-8), a lyrical story about a loving island family, told in alternating first-person narratives by Morning Girl and her younger brother, Star Boy. It’s not until the epilogue that we realize who these gentle people are: the Taino Indians, on the verge of being “discovered” by Columbus.

Paula Fox’s Monkey Island (Orchard, $14.95; Gr. 5-8) is horrifyingly realistic in its depiction of homeless people in New York City and society’s reaction to them. When 11-year-old Clay Garrity’s pregnant mother deserts him at the welfare hotel where they’ve lived since his father ran out on them, Clay runs away to a city park to avoid the authorities. Sheltered from the worst of the street’s dangers by Calvin, an alcoholic and a former teacher, and Buddy, a down-on-his-luck young black man from the South, Clay never gives up hope of finding his mother. Five harrowing weeks later, he does. Children will empathize with each character and want to discuss what can be done to ameliorate such tragedies. Pair this story with Eve Bunting’s affecting picture book Fly Away Home (Clarion, $13.95; all ages), narrated by a young homeless boy who lives with his Dad in an airport.

How do children in violent or war-torn countries or communities survive? Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland successfully dramatize this tough topic in their picture book, Sami and the Time of the Troubles (Clarion, $14.95; all ages). Sami, the story’s pensive 10-year-old narrator, lives in war-ravaged Lebanon. He and his family spend the bad days, when there is gunfire, in the basement of his uncle’s house. Sami thinks of his father, killed by a bomb in the marketplace. When he is permitted outside, he and his best friend play war in the rubble; it is the only life he knows. Ted Lewin’s glowing watercolors help display the resignation, despair, and dreams of people living in a community under siege.

Avi’s Nothing but the Truth (Orchard, $14.95; Gr. 6-10) is a tragicomedy of errors, half-truths, and distortions. This 1992 Newbery Honor book centers on the relationship between Philip Malloy, a bright but unmotivated 9th grader, and his nemesis, dedicated English teacher Miss Narwin. When Philip’s cavalier attitude toward Jack London and literature earns him a failing grade in English, he is dismayed to learn that he will now be ineligible for membership on the track team. His attempts to get out of Miss Narwin’s class and homeroom backfire, causing his suspension and, ultimately, her forced retirement. This unconventional and disturbing tale is related solely through school memos; letters; Philip’s diary entries; transcripts of conversations between Philip, his parents, friends, and teachers; and newspaper reports.

Nowadays, not many students are familiar with the pilot who made the first nonstop transatlantic flight on May 20, 1927. They’ll never forget him once you’ve read them Robert Burleigh’s powerful and thrilling picture book Flight: The Journey of Charles Lindbergh (Philomel, $14.95; Gr. 2-12). The terse present-tense narration, including quotes from Lindbergh’s flight diary, and Mike Wimmer’s dramatic oil paintings allow us to accompany the aviator on his miraculous 33-hour ordeal.

Coming-of-age stories give readers a window into other lives. Fictional narrator Sonny Mendoza reminisces about growing up as the son of a fisherman in Hawaii in Graham Salisbury’s mesmerizing volume of short stories, Blue Skin of the Sea (Delacorte, $15; Gr. 7-12). Spanning the years 1953 to 1966, Sonny recalls bullies, a family bet, first love, and coming to terms with his fear of the sea. Pick a favorite story and read it aloud.

In Chicken Sunday (Philomel, $14.95; Gr. 1-4), author and illustrator Patricia Polacco recalls the summer she and two neighbors, African-American brothers Stewart and Winston, sought a job from Mr. Kodinski so they could buy the boys’ beloved Gramma the Easter bonnet of her dreams. Instead, the children find themselves falsely accused of throwing eggs at the old man’s hat shop. How the three children win over the Russian proprietor makes for a warmhearted tale of compassion, responsibility, loyalty, and love.

The 1991 Newbery award winner, Shiloh (Atheneum, $12.95; Gr. 3-7), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, is one of those simple-seeming stories that leaves a lasting impression on readers. In a first-person narrative flavored with West Virginia hill-country dialect, 11-year-old Marty Preston is faced with an ethical dilemma when he takes in and hides a maltreated, love-starved beagle that he knows belongs to someone else. In order to keep Shiloh, he finds himself telling an escalating series of lies to his family and best friend. When the dog is attacked and badly hurt by another dog, Marty must own up to and make amends for his actions.

Humor is a natural grabber. Attaboy, Sam (Houghton Mifflin, $13.95; Gr. 2-5) is Lois Lowry’s witty sequel to her popular 1989 book All About Sam (Houghton Mifflin). Four-year-old Sam Krupnik is planning a boffo birthday gift for his mother. While older sister, Anastasia, struggles to write a commemorative poem, Sam collects samples of his mother’s favorite smells to invent his own original perfume. Ingredients range from Dad’s pipe and chicken soup to yeast and the odor of little babies. But when he blends them together in a grape jar, the concoction, for some reason, smells terrible and begins to fester.

How can a boy whose parents and siblings are all musically talented have a tin ear? In Lensey Namioka’s Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear (Joy Street, $13.95; Gr. 3-5), Yingtao and his musical family have just moved from China to Seattle, where he is adapting to a strange language and culture. In the process, he finds a new love: baseball. Yingtao is hopeless on the violin, but his new friend Matthew would rather play music than sports. So the two boys cook up a plan to make everyone happy.

Imagination is a strong, positive force in childhood. Take Grace, a child who loves to listen to and act out stories, in Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (Dial, $13.95; Gr. K-2). When her teacher announces that the class will be doing the play Peter Pan, Grace knows the part she wants. “You can’t be Peter—that’s a boy’s name,” Raj tells her. Natalie whispers: “You can’t be Peter Pan. He isn’t black.” Grace is determined, thanks in part to Nana, her grandmother, who tells her, “You can be anything you want, Grace, if you put your mind to it.” Caroline Binch’s radiant watercolors introduce us to an unforgettable child who will incite listeners to go for their goals, too.

Folklore is a good way to introduce children to universal themes and ideas. In Seven Blind Mice (Philomel, $16.95; Gr. preK-2), author and artist Ed Young uses simple language and brightly hued collages to recast the Indian fable “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” This visually exciting readaloud follows the baffled rodents as they piece together information to determine what manner of creature they have discovered. “Wisdom comes from seeing the whole,” is the mouse moral we humans would do well to recall.

The Algonquin Indians told their own version of the ubiquitous “Cinderella” story. In this tale, the woman who is able to see the powerful and handsome Invisible Being will win his hand in marriage, and it’s The Rough-Face Girl (Putnam, $14.95; Gr. 2-6), all burned and scarred from tending the fire for her two older sisters, who succeeds. Contrast the details of Rafe Martin’s solemn retelling and David Shannon’s majestic paintings with John Steptoe’s 1987 African variant, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Lothrop).

Test your students’ knowledge of folk tales and nursery rhymes with Once upon a Golden Apple (Viking, $12.95; Gr. preK-3), an endearing tale by Jean Little and Maggie de Vries that employs many familiar characters. Although Princess Briar Rose, Prince Valiant, and their Rock-a-Bye Baby all end up living happily ever after, the tale Dad tells his two naysaying children is all mixed up. Children love to chime in on the “no, no, no” refrains each time Dad’s story goes awry, and “yes” each time he gets it straight. Phoebe Gilman’s apple-tree-bordered watercolors are a medieval riot.

If you’re still laughing over The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Viking, 1990), then dash out and get a copy of writer Jon Scieszka and illustrator Lane Smith’s brilliant new masterpiece, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Viking, $16; all ages). Innovative, outrageous, irreverent, hilarious, and really dumb are just a few of the adjectives that describe this compilation of 10 fractured fairy tales. The title story made me laugh so hard my neighbors wondered what was the matter. Sure, you can compare these fairy tales with the originals and all that normal stuff, but the main purpose of this paragon of silliness is to laugh till it hurts. If you have trouble, don’t worry; your students will show you how it’s done. Grandly illustrated with spectacular collage paintings, this book is hands down my favorite of the year.

Lane Smith is one of 14 personable children’s book illustrators profiled in Pat Cummings’ Talking with Artists (Bradbury Press, $18.95; Gr. 2-8), a handsome tribute to the creative spirit. Each six-page chapter is illustrated with one childhood and one adult photograph of the artist and reproductions of two of his or her illustrations; one recent and one from childhood. Among other things, the illustrators recall how they got started and describe where they get their ideas. Budding artists will be encouraged to keep drawing.

Reading aloud in school is not a frill. Go out of your way to make each book a special experience for your students. Allow them to live literature, to become so involved in a story that they become a part of it. It could change their lives.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1984 edition of Education Week as Read-Aloud Books: The Best Of The Bunch