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Kentucky by Heart: Remembering the read-aloud books that brought joy to many former students

Editor’s note: This is the first of two-parts discussing popular read-aloud books for children.

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

One of the sheer joys in my teaching career was reading to my elementary school classes, commonly called “read-aloud” time.

Generally, I read from a chapter book for ten to fifteen minutes, which meant that an ongoing story might take weeks to finish. If the story was especially compelling, it created a “what’s going to happen next expectancy,” and the reading ritual often became a big part of the class’s day.

It was fun for me, too. Generally, the children were captivated not only by the storyline but by the characters developing before their ears (and their eyes if the book had pictures.)

I enjoyed giving a particular voice to each of the characters, and a good learning by-product came when the students began to show more expression in their own oral reading. Read-aloud time also appeared to increase vocabulary, diction, and writing skills. But perhaps the biggest benefit was seeing kids gain a liking for reading in general, with studies around the educational community backing that up — I humbly hope it was confirmed in the case of my efforts.

Here are some of the more popular read-aloud books I presented in my classes: Owls in the Family, by Farley Mowat; Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing series; Paddle-to-the Sea, by Holling C. Holling; Hatchett, by Gary Paulson; and a profile of William “King” Solomon in the book, Traces: The Story of Lexington’s Past.

Mowat’s book is adventurous and often funny, and the setting is in Saskatoon, Canada. It tells of a boy (Mowat) who came across a couple of barely surviving owls after a fierce storm. The two became his pets and best friends, with one interesting moment after another in their lives spent together.

Blume’s books focus on young brothers Peter and “Fudge,” with Fudge being a brat and a constant source of frustration for the older sibling, who had the audacity to act in a mature fashion. Kids in my classes continually laughed at the episodes between the two and the rest of the family.

The librarian at Trapp Elementary School, in Clark County, the first of five places I taught in my 28-year career, introduced me to a fantastic book that combines good literature with geography — and an especially nice touch of humanity.

Paddle-to-the-Sea tells of a carved wooden canoe with a young Native American figurine onboard. It takes on a near-human likeness as the piece of beautiful craftwork travels around the Great Lakes region of America, meeting many people and often confronting danger, with an ultimate destination being the Atlantic Ocean. Along with the well-written narrative, colorful maps add to the interest and information. I won’t spoil it by telling you the ending… but it could well bring tears to your eyes.

For pure outdoors excitement, Hatchett, a Newbery Honor winner, proved to be a riveting read for my students.

A 13-year-old boy is navigating the emotional hurts of his parent’s broken marriage. It gets worse. When the pilot has a heart attack in-flight, the single-engine plane the boy is onboard crashes into the wilds of Canada while he travels to meet his father there. The heroic teenager must fend for himself in the wilderness, and the author craftily puts the reader smack dab in the middle of it. I especially relish the scene where the boy meets a nasty nest of fire ants, and I can almost feel the stings. It’s a dramatic read, one of Gary Paulson’s most popular books, and always popular with my fourth graders.

The Solomon story I presented was an important part of my Kentucky study unit. The students and I looked at the life of an 1830s Lexington vagabond — one who it was said “liked whiskey.” He became an unlikely hero when he sacrificially buried the deceased bodies of cholera victims all around town. Reading the story aloud always quietened the classroom, taught a little of our state’s history, and challenged thinking about who can be portrayed as a hero.

I have heard from several of my former students, some of them from three decades ago, who recalled those stories read in class and supplied me with details I’d forgotten. The stories mentioned here are only a sampling, however, and yes, there were a few clunker stories I read, too. In the cases they turned out that way, I simply dropped them.

In next week’s Kentucky by Heart column, I’ll share dozens more read-aloud books I collected from talking to others around the state. In the meantime, be thinking of your favorites.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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