Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reading to Inspire Family Stories

This year Emerson School is hoping to collect family stories to highlight our communities unique stories and our commonalities. The holidays are a perfect time to get the family talking about these stories. Perhaps grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins will be joining together at some point in the coming weeks. Get out recorders, cameras, pens and paper and start talking and listening.

National Public Radio sponsored a National Day of Listening for the day after Thanksgiving. Their website has lots of good ideas for interviewing family members.

I have compiled a lit of books that might also help to inspire conversations and memories filled with family stories. This list is rather arbitrary. Any book that is read together can stir memories of family stories. You need only take off from there. All that is needed is for you to think about what is being read through this lens. With each title I have given a few connections to stories to get you started. I am confident that you will find many more.


My Dog Is as Smelly as Dirty Socks by Hanokh Piven talks about family members and their unique qualities. The illustrations use everyday items to create a collage face of the person. Each item represents one of that person’s traits, talents or special interests. This would be fun to do on a day when the family is bored. Gather things like bottle caps, tiny toys, and whatever else you can find and create pictures of the extended family. This will surely create stories of all sorts. If you need more ideas Piven also has books about the presidents and athletes using the same kind of illustrations.

Chloe’s Birthday…And Me by Giselle Potter is a family story that will sound familiar to everyone with a sibling. It is little sister Chloe’s birthday, but Giselle feels left out as she watches the attention all fall on Chloe. Think back to your family birthday stories and build from there. Sometimes it is not the best birthday but the worst birthday that has the best stories to share.

The Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin is a popular book as are the other Diary books by Cronin. They maybe about a worm or a spider or a fly but the stories of kids of any species teasing their sisters, making friends, and more can get you started talking your own youthful adventures.

David Goes to School by David Shannon is based on the author’s own youth and from the sounds of this story and his more familiar No! David! he was one of those children that parents worry about while enjoying every mischievous act. Get grandfather to read this with your irrepressible boy and get them comparing school and life experiences. There are few words in this book--the illustrations say it all. Perhaps they will inspire some drawings to go with your stories.

Olivia by Ian Falconer is the story of a young pig with a wild imagination and a sense of style that will again remind folks of their own childhood adventures. Read any of this series and find ties to memories that may have been buried under years of being good.

One Green Apple by Eve Bunting is the story of a girl coming to a new school. In this case she speaks little English and dresses differently from all the other students. A trip to the apple orchard gives her not only new experiences but also a way to relate to the others in the class. Use this book to talk about coming to a new place—whether it is down the street or around the world. Also talk about what helped you find a place to fit in. This is also good for talking about immigration experiences and differences between and among people and places.

The Stray Dog by Marc Simont is about a family finding a stray dog and adding him to the family. Did your family ever find a stray animal? What did they do with it? This leads to more pet stories. From grandparents through aunts and uncles to the youngest cousins, you will find interest in family animals (pets or farm animals) and stories that seem commonplace become stories that tie the family together.

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson traces the strong women of an African American family. Trace the strengths of your family’s women and how they showed the way for the current generation to face new challenges with courage and ability.

NOVELS—Short enough to read over break, long enough to keep you all interested, these novels are great to read aloud to the whole gang and discuss as you go.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary is at its heart a collection of stories about growing up. They are clearly autobiographical. They will remind the older generation of stories of their childhood. Other good stories from this genre include most of Cleary’s work, the Fudge stories by Judy Blume, The Moffats by Eleanor Estes, the Junie B. Jones stories by Barbara Park, the Clementine stories by Sara Pennypacker, the Judy Moody and Stink books by Megan McDonald, and so very many more. All are great for reading aloud and full of things that will start stories of the “good old days”.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is written just a like a diary so it includes myriad asides, jokes, and worries about growing up as a boy. Compare family childhoods with that of protagonist Greg Hefley. There will be amazing similarities and your kids will gain respect for their elders when they learn that some of the same worries affect all generations.

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech is about a boy who comes from a family not at all like what you would like yours to be. This beautifully written book will get you talking about family experiences, pets, and favorite poetry. Poetry was such a part of my childhood that it is impossible to separate many of my family memories from the poems my parents and grandparents and recited. This book, or a book of favorite old poems, may stir some memories for you.

A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck are stories of two children who travel to spend time with their quirky grandmother. The setting in rural Illinois during the depression will stir family stories that may come from even before grandparents were born but that were told so many times that folks feel like they lived through them. A Long Way from Chicago is easy to read in bits and pieces as each chapter can stand alone as a story.


Of course, history books of a time or place that is important to your family history can get your family started on discussions of all sorts. Here are a couple of other suggestions that might not occur to you.

The Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman is a new book that sprang from the author’s lifelong interest in comic book heroes. With balloon dialogue and comic book style illustrations, this book will transport anyone who has loved reading comics back to those golden Saturdays spend with a new comic book. Talk about comic books can naturally lead to heroes, fictional and the real heroes in the family. Go to http://www.supermanhomepage.com/news.php to look at Superman covers and stir more memories.

Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas and The Aliens are Coming!: The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast by Meghan McCarthy will take older folks back to times and places and advertisements that the younger generation will find new and exciting. I know I am dating myself by admitting that I remember reading about Charles Atlas in the backs of magazines (or do I just think I did because it was such a part of family lore?) I wasn’t alive in 1938 but I know the radio broadcast much more than the H.G. Wells story. See what your family remembers about these or other culture shaping events and people.

There’s a Frog in My Throat: 440 Animal Sayings a Little Bird Told Me by Loreen Leedy and My Momma Likes to Say and My Teacher Likes to Say by Denise Brennan-Nelson are bound to get discussions started. They are full of similes and familiar sayings that may not be so familiar today. See if the kids can finish sayings like “sleeping like a _____”, “as snug as a ________”, or “like looking for a __________”. This can be a game to at the beginning and then a family story that springs from the discussions. Even if no stories emerge, you will have a great time testing each other.

A final option is to read a favorite story from your youth or that of a grandparent. It will bring back memories and start discussions.

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