So You'd Like to Learn More about History, but Reading Isn't Your Thing
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I am Helen Keller
By Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
40 pp. Dial Books
In my first post, I said that reading is a privilege that too many of us take for granted. Reading is hard. Like exercise, and most other habits that are good for us, the urge to procrastinate too often prevails. Add to that our overwhelming schedules, and reading never happens. I get it. I do. And I'm not going to sit here and judge you for not reading. There have been points in my life where I've gotten out of the habit of reading for a while, but I always get back to it the same way: by reading children's books. This isn’t some great new idea that I came up with. Many people encourage would-be readers to pick up easy, fun books. Children’s books are entertaining because kids are harsh critics. Reading children's books, whether they are novels or picture books, fiction or nonfiction, is a good way to ease yourself into a reading habit. Give it a try.
Given that this is a history(ish) blog, I recommend reading historical nonfiction picture books. Brad Meltzer's Ordinary People Change the World books are my family’s favorite historical picture books. Brad Meltzer believes that anyone can change the world, and nowhere is that belief more evident than in his illustrated children’s series. His website says that he wrote the series “to give his children better heroes to look up to,” 1 a sentiment I can empathize with given that part of my motivation for writing this blog is my daughter. The series has 11 books, and it’s easy to find a “character” that resonates with you. The books are also short, so you can finish them while you drink a cup of coffee!
I started buying the Ordinary People Change the World books for my daughter who is too young to understand them but enjoys the books nonetheless. We started with I am Amelia Earhart and bought I am Rosa Parks, I am Abraham Lincoln, and I am George Washington about a year later at the request of my daughter. I then ordered the rest of the series for me.
Before reading I am Rosa Parks, I didn't know much about Rosa Parks, just that she didn't give up her seat on a bus and was a histroic figure from the Civil Rights Movement. But, did you know that the bus driver who had Rosa Parks arrested in 1955 actually kicked her off a bus years before her famous refusal to give up her seat to a white person? 2 When I read I am Martin Luther King, Jr., Meltzer reminded me that Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the Montgomery County Bus Boycott, and I enjoyed how the books illustrated (both literally and metaphorically) the connectedness of history.
My favorite Ordinary People Change the World book, however, is I am Helen Keller .If you don’t know Helen Keller’s story, here it is according to Encyclopedia Britannica and Brad Meltzer:
Helen Keller suffered from a life-threatening illness as a toddler. She survived but lost both her eyesight and her hearing. With the help of Anne Sullivan, she learned tactile sign language, and later, she learned Braille. 3 Later, she learned how to speak not only in English, but also in French and German and attended Radcliffe where Anne Sullivan spelled out Keller’s textbooks in tactile sign language when they weren’t available in Braille. 4 Keller went on to become an author and an activist.
Not only was Helen Keller an extraordinary individual, but Meltzer also showed me how dedicated Ann Sullivan was to Keller. I am Helen Keller is both heart wrenching and inspiring. According to Molly Blake Pearson, author of the 2005 Library Media Connection article "Speaking to Their Hearts: Using Picture Books in the History Classroom," historical picture books are often moving: "Picture books featuring historical vignettes can tell difficult stories about the human cost of war, heroic and horrific acts of humankind, and sad and moving personal tales that make history more real to the reader in a strikingly visual format. In 32 evocatively illustrated pages, an author can move us to tears and in the process spark an interest in finding out more." 5 Although I wasn’t quite moved to tears by I am Helen Keller , I was interested in finding out more eventhough Meltzer supplied me with plenty of new information about Helen Keller. Historical picture books can contain thorough accounts of history because they only focus on one topic, observes Linda Webb Billman, an associate profressor at Ashland University, writing in Educational Leadership. She also points out that although the books appear to be written for very young children, they are actually written for much older children. 6 Most adults are actually big kids anyway, so I see no reason why adults can't learn from historical nonfiction picture books too. Moreover, I want history to move you, and historical picture books can do that. So pick a book from Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World Series, read it, and tell me what you learned!