In an effort to utilize my librarian background, I am embarking on a series of book reviews, to be published every Friday. These reviews will cover computer programming books aimed at children, as well as reality-based children’s books.
As I wind down my practical life book review series, I have reaffirmed my own belief that practical skills are not limited to the preschool years. As our children grow older, they need just as much guidance with self-care skills as they do with academic skills. It’s amazing that they can perform mathematical equations in their sleep, but they also need to know how much sleep to get and how to make themselves a healthy dinner (that doesn’t come from a box).
Unfortunately, too much homework does not allow for many children to be responsible for household chores. Chores build a path to success, something we all want for our children. But, who wants to force their children to clean the bathrooms when they are already forcing them to sit for an hour (or more) each night working on paperwork? A review of the literature showed that too much homework for elementary students was harmful, if it amounted to more than 10 minutes per grade.
But, I digress. This edition of “practical life skills” for the elementary child focuses on books that show empathy and thinking of others (something a child under the age of six – and a teenager – has a much harder time understanding).
Ages 5 and up
Albert, Richard E. Alejandro’s Gift. Illustrated by Sylvia Long. Chronicle Books: San Fransisco, 1994.
In this lengthy story, Alejandro – an older man who lives in the desert – plants a garden to stave off loneliness. He lives in an adobe house with his burro as his only company, except for those few visitors who travel the nearby road. As Alejandro’s garden grows, he begins to attract visitors, not from the road, but from the local wildlife. First, a squirrel visits and then wood rats, pocket gophers, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, pocket mice, and lots of different types of desert birds. He realizes that while he is no longer lonely, perhaps he should be gardening for others, not just himself. So, he creates a desert waterhole for the larger animals and realizes that by giving to the animals, he has received the greater gifts of happiness, contentment and peace.
Ages 6 and up
Van Allsburg, Chris. Just a Dream. HMH Publishers for Young Readers, 2015.
Van Allsburg is the author and illustrator of the famed Polar Express, but I think this is his best work. Sadly, this book was written 25 years ago and yet we still face the environmental troubles he has chronicles in this book. As his dedication from Pogo quotes, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” The story begins as Walter, an upper elementary-aged boy, walks home from school and throws his trash on the ground. When it’s his turn to take out the trash, he doesn’t separate the recycling rather just throws everything into the garbage can. That evening, he falls asleep and dreams that he is in the future. Unfortunately, it is not the future he imagines – there are no flying cars or cleaning robots. Instead, his neighborhood becomes a trash dump, the world’s trees are cut down to become toothpicks, the smog blocks the view of the grand canyon and people are trapped in traffic jams for hours. As soon as Walter awakes from his dream, he runs out to sort the recycling and picks up his trash from the day before. The book ends with Walter’s dream that night – of a new future – where trees are valued and we no longer focus on gas-powered tools. This is a lovely story to read anytime, but especially during Earth Week or when discussing the concept of how our own actions affect others.
Ages 9 and up
Scholes, Katherine. Peace Begins with You. Illustrated by Robert Ingpen. Sierra Club Books: San Fransisco, 1989.
Although the gentle illustrations help to make the point, this book is best shared in small groups as the resulting discussion will have more of an impact. The author presents a very abstract concept and it would be difficult for a young child to comprehend. Also, I don’t think this book could be a stand-alone story book. I think it is best read when children are feeling scared or anxious about the events around them or in the world.
Ages 5 and up
Brumbeau, Jeff. The Quiltmaker’s Gift. Illustrated by Gail de Marken. Orchard Books: New York, 2000.
de Marken’s gorgeously bright and detailed watercolor pictures are the perfect accompaniment to this equally beautiful story. The elderly quiltmaker sits atop her mountain home and makes beautiful quilts which she will not sell. Instead, when she finishes a quilt, she leaves her home during the night and wraps a quilt around a person sleeping outside in the cold. One day, the greedy and unhappy king demands a quilt from the quiltmaker. She does not comply and he tries to scare her into giving him one (leaves her in a cave with a bear, etc.). Her kindness saves her and she tells the king that she will give him a quilt when he gives away all of his possessions. He doesn’t want to at first, but then travels for years – giving away his things and becoming happier for it. In the end, the king brings his throne to the quiltmaker and she gives him a quilt and together they give quilts away to those in need.
Side Note: This is a rather lengthy story and may cause some wiggles at circle time. There are also some fantastical elements to this story – dancing blue cats, and a bear that does not speak, but becomes friendly with the quiltmaker due to her kindness. The creative license does not detract from the message, but you may want to introduce this book to an older audience who can understand the difference between fact and fiction.
For an even older audience, check out Brumbeau’s prequel, The Quiltmaker’s Journey. This book tells the story of how the quiltmaker came to be – she once was a rich as the king, but discovered that she could not be happy while others suffered and set about to devote her life to helping others.
Over the years, these books have made such a powerful impression on me that we own each one of the above titles (with the exception of The Quiltmaker’s Journey). They are nestled amongst the other books in our collection, but typically get pulled out a couple of times to be read and reflected upon and then returned to the shelves until they emerge the following year. For the same reason that I continue to read peaceful parenting books, educational research and home school books, I value the stories and lessons that these books impart. I need reminders of how we want to live and these books are an invaluable resource me and my family.