Books as Connectors by Susie Rolander
“You are a connector!” my friend Angela said to me many years ago. She had just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. “These people who link us up with the world…these people on whom we rely on more heavily than we realize – are Connectors, people with a very special gift of bringing people together.” I do love to connect people…”Oh, you should meet so-and-so because they love doing x just like you!” This was long before I became an avid reader. In fact, I didn’t become a reader really until I went on vacation in Mexico and pulled a calf muscle. Internet service was terrible and all I had was a stack of my children’s books. I found a new love.
I think the fact that I didn’t find a love of reading until well into adulthood has helped me connect children with reading. I remember in high school I started dating a guy who was so super smart. I thought, YES, I am so set! I will just study physics with him and I will have such an easier time with the class. Unfortunately, Steve knew physics well, but he just had a mind for physics. I didn’t. He had no idea how to help me understand. He had always understood physics. I hadn’t always understood books. Because I can remember a time when I wasn’t in love with reading I think I understand how to help kids learn to love reading.
What I recently started to understand is that sharing books is another way to extend the “connector” in me. Ask my students and my friends…every conversation usually contains the words, “Oh, have you read such-and-such a book? You will love it.” Lately I have realized that one of the reasons I love books so much is that I love connecting books to people in a similar way that I love to connect people to people. Ultimately, though, books are the Great Connectors. They connect us with our deeper self, they connect us with the world around us and they help us understand each other as one humankind.
As a teacher isn’t this our role? We have to provide students with books that they feel connected to…after all, they have to know what the endgame is. Why do all of this work to learn to read in the first place? As Stephen King says, we need “to be flattened by a book.” It is our job to help them gain that feeling.
Kids won’t love all the books we love, but if we start with books we love, our passion will rub off. The later work for us is to begin to delve into books we wouldn’t normally choose to be able to talk with students about books that push us, as teachers, out of our comfort zone….but that discussion is for another blog post. That being said, here is a list of 10 of my new favorite books I use to connect kids with books.
IF I WERE A BOOK by Jose Jorge Letria
“If I were a book, I’d help anchor you to your truest self.” I used this new favorite book today with a group of third graders during a Read Aloud Lunch. It talks about all the things a book wants from its reader from the book’s perspective. Jackson wanted to borrow it first!
ENCHANTED AIR by Margarita Engle
Margarita Engle uses poems to tell the gripping story of her childhood where she had to live between cultures of Los Angeles and Cuba. In our country of immigrants, this story rings true and helps kids see that they are not alone in feeling pulled between cultures. My friend Deki, who teaches 5th grade in the Bronx, has many children who are pulled between two cultures. In fact, she herself, is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.
THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.
I had pretty invasive foot surgery earlier this year which forced me to be bed-bound for weeks. You guessed it…I read. I was intrigued by this title. War, usually bad thing, saved her life? Turns out, I haven’t felt so connected to a book in a long time. The main character, Ada, turns out is crippled, born with a clubfoot. I won’t tell you more about it because I don’t want to spoil it, but how much closer to home can you get? Her strength and resilience inspired me on some pretty hard days.
PAX by Sara Pennypacker
“After a hundred years of scrubbing by a dozen different families, this house would probably still smell bitter.” I am speechless. This writing is breathtaking. Peter, the main character in the story, searches for his pet fox, Pax. Pennypacker researched the characteristics of foxes and creates an incredibly believable character in Pax. Also Peter is dealing with the recent loss of his mother. So many students connect to this book on many levels. I even started wondering what our pet rabbits were thinking!
GEORGE by Alex Gino
In my classes I teach at Bank Street College, we have many discussions about how important it is for kids to see themselves reflected in books. Finally, we have a book for kids who don’t feel comfortable with the gender they were born into. “Playing a girl part wouldn’t really be pretending, but George didn’t know how to tell Kelly that.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE by Kat Yeh
Family life is messy. Period. No family is perfect. Yeh exemplifies that imperfection in this new book. She normalizes the mess. The main character, Gigi, short for Galileo Galilei…ok, stop right there. If that doesn’t pique your interest…Anyway, the main character is searching and pining for her real mother. I won’t tell you what happens, but for me with my 3 adopted girls it struck a chord.
CRENSHAW by Katherine Applegate
I’ve seen kids and adults connect to this book immediately for different reasons. Tracy, a graduate student, revealed that she had been homeless last semester. Again, there is such power in seeing yourself in a book. Also, just yesterday, I met with a 2nd grader who continued to meow like a cat. She ended up naming her cat Turbo and we decided that Turbo could come out 3 times a day at school…the other parts of the day, strong girl Ashby needed to speak. Ashby is crazy about cats. She loved the idea of Crenshaw being a big friend for the main character, Jackson.
THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER by Phillip Hoose
My 14 year old daughter Liza had to do a biography study last year in school and chose Adolf Hitler. She was horrified by the destruction and anguish this man caused. So when I found this nonfiction book about boys who stood up to Hitler she was all in. The book is a combination of narration and first person accounting by Knud Pedersen, one of the original Churchill club, of how the resistance of a group of young boys eventually helped lead Denmark to fight back.
ROLLER GIRL by Victoria Jamieson
I love this graphic novel! In my family we have a mantra, “Strong girls rock!” My poor husband, he is surrounded by the E-Team as we call ourselves! Jamieson’s Astrid embodies that strength! Charlie, my 9 year old who struggles with reading LOVED this book. Additionally, what is fabulous about this book is that it is intriguing to boys too. My friend Kara’s son Solomon, a 5th grader, finished the book this week and thought it was “great and had a great message.”
CIRCUS MIRANDUS by Cassie Beasley
All I have to say about this book is magic. I have a former student who is now in 6th grade. Alessia doesn’t like sad books. She sent me a letter recently to connect. When I wrote her back yesterday, I sent her a picture of the cover of this magnificent book. Part of growing up is learning to hold sadness along with the joys of life. This book helps us do this brilliantly. “Michah” said the Lightbender. “What do you think magic is?” “I guess it’s what’s inside of people like you,” he replied. “The parts of you that are too big to keep just to yourself.” Brilliant.
“DEAR BASKETBALL” by Kobe Bryant
My 3rd grade boy writers adore basketball. When I brought this poem out as a mentor text, Dashiell and Banjo’s eyes lit up in a way I hadn’t seen all year. Many have thought of the great Kobe Bryant as an important sports model for kids, but now we can hail him as a literary model. What a striking way to announce your retirement. Inspired.
“I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other”
Click the link to read the whole poem: Kobe Bryant Dear Basketball
This is a call to us as parents and educators to help our children connect to wonderful literature. We just have to bring the right books to the table and the literature will take care of the rest.
Susie Rolander is a passionate observer of children. She is a reading specialist at PS234 in NYC, an adjunct professor at Bank Street College and a literacy consultant. She is an avid reader and writer and a mother of three girls.