It’s Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday! Visit Kid Lit Frenzy to learn more about this reading challenge and find out what nonfiction picture books others are celebrating this week.
My older son and I read a lot of nonfiction picture books together. He’s my reading partner for several reading challenges, in fact. The nonfiction challenge is one I think is really important for him. He was adopted at the age of eight, and his early childhood experiences didn’t give him the opportunity to attend school regularly or the leisure to explore and learn about the world. There are many gaps in his knowledge, experience, and understanding, and nonfiction books provide one important way to fill some of those. But often, the experience of reading a book with him shows me just how big those gaps are and just how much he struggles with basic comprehension. This week, I had the experience of reading two different nonfiction picture books to him, and his responses–his frustration and seemingly irrelevant questions with one title and his engagement and interest in the other–taught me something important about how to help him become a stronger reader.
Written by Karen Leggett Abouraya and illustrated with Susan Roth’s stunning paper collages, Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books tells the true story of the citizens of Alexandria, Egypt, who physically surrounded their city library in a human chain to protect it during a series of protests and demonstrations when many buildings in the city were threatened. It’s a story about the love of libraries, the freedom libraries represent, and a group of people who recognize that freedom and work together to protect it. Abouraya does a wonderful job presenting a complex situation in simple language for younger readers, so I thought that with a little–a very little–extra scaffolding and explanation, my son would be able to follow this story and understand it.
Not so much. This book was really hard for him to understand.
My son often asks questions in the middle of a book that don’t seem to relate to the book at all. We’ll read a story about a mouse named Henry. Henry’s name will be mentioned on every page. My son will seem to be following along just fine. And then we get to the last page of the story and he’ll ask, “Who’s Henry?” Um, the mouse we’ve been reading about for 32 pages? Sometimes I feel like he’s just messing with me with a question. I try to be patient because he’s a struggling reader and the last thing I want to do is make him self-conscious about his struggles. But sometimes I do struggle to stay patient. And that did happen when I was reading this book. He asked several seemingly irrelevant questions as we reading, and I tried to give more background and information. Even though the story clearly identifies the librarian and I explained several times who he was, towards the end of the story my son pointed to the librarian and asked if he was the president of the country.
When I was talking with my husband about this, he suggested that my son was trying to find someplace in his brain to fit this story, some kind of connection he could make with knowledge he already had. That’s true–that’s something we know we do as readers. But this is a book designed for readers who don’t know anything about government protests or the situation in Egypt. The prior knowledge I assumed my son would be connecting to is his knowledge and experience of libraries and what readers find in libraries. He has a lot of experience with that. But that wasn’t the schema he activated. He connected this story with something he must know about protests and demonstrations against governments, something that turned out not to help him understand this story. In fact, the prior knowledge he tried to activate only served to distract and confuse him about the story we were reading. I could tell he found the reading experience extremely frustrating, and he was glad when it was over.
We had a very different experience sharing Rachel Rodriguez’s Through Georgia’s Eyes, an excellent picture book biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, illustrated by Julie Paschkis.
I have read many books about art and artists to my son, and we have also read several women’s history titles that explain how women didn’t have equal rights. He was immediately able to activate the appropriate schema for this story. When we finished, he had many pertinent, appropriate questions. I got out my iPad and we Googled Georgia O’Keeffe. We looked at many of the paintings that inspired Paschkis’s illustrations. We looked at many of Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits of O’Keeffe and then Googled Stieglitz to learn more about him. We looked at pictures of O’Keeffe’s house and museum in New Mexico and even talked about how someday we should visit. My son rarely shows curiosity about the world, and it’s always a joy to me when I find a story that he connects with for some reason, that inspires questions and wonderings in him.
In this case, he was able to understand the story because he had prior knowledge that helped him make sense of it. Because he was comfortable with the story world, he was able to engage and even come up with things he wondered about. I often like to use picture books to introduce a new topic to him, and then we do some extra research after we read the story to learn more. But I have realized I need to do much more to fill in those gaps BEFORE we start reading, so that reading is not a frustrating experience for him and he can actually focus on the story.
A couple of days later, he asked me to read Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer to him. This is not a nonfiction title, but I thought it still provided an interesting opportunity for extended learning. So with my new plan in mind, I grabbed my iPad and showed him a video of Lakota jingle dancers at a pow-wow. (Smith’s story focuses on people who belong to the Muscogee Creek and Ojibway tribes, but we live near a Lakota reservation, and he has several Lakota friends at school.) He then asked to see some of the men’s pow-wow dances, so we watched the Chicken Dance and then Grand Entry at a small pow-wow. He was fascinated by the drum groups and singing, so then we watched a few videos of Lakota singing. All in all, we watched about 35 minutes of videos before we even read the story.
And he was engaged and curious about this story and even wanted me to read the back matter to him.
I am also thinking about the importance of text sets and how I need to do a better job not just grabbing nonfiction titles that appeal to me to read but actually collecting groups of texts that can provide a broader perspective on a topic and help him gain more knowledge and experience about the world.