by Becky Palmer-Scott, Special Ed Tech Editor
As a parent of a child who struggled with reading, I know it can be difficult to find high-interest material. So in honor of Reading Month, I am highlighting a book series so well-written and compelling that my child marks the date when the next issue comes out — this from someone who for years would only read under duress. An added advantage of the series is that it educates her about the world we live in, enabling her to understand cultural references and contribute intelligently to conversation.
These are the “Who Was” books published by Grosset & Dunlap, of the Penguin Group. With more than 100 books and counting, the series features notable people, historical events, and famous structures. Most are biographies, from history (Queen Elizabeth, George Washington), the arts (Mozart, Frida Kahlo), explorers (Marco Polo, Ernest Shackleton), science (Galileo, Rachel Carson), popular culture (Andy Warhol, Stan Lee), writers (Maurice Sandak, J.K.Rowling), sports (Jackie Robinson, Wayne Gretzky), civil and women’s rights (Frederick Douglas, Gloria Steinem), politics (Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt), and more.
Adorned with a large inviting cariacature, each book follows a successful formula. The first chapter provides the “salt,” that is, it explains why the subject of the book is interesting. For biographies, this is preferable to the typical begining of “So-and-so was born on such a date in such a place.” The books are written at a 4th grade level and are about 100 pages long. The font is large — about 14 point — with ample space between lines, adding to the readability. Illustrations decorate almost every page. Interspersed throughout the book are “sidebars” which give more context to the story and discuss related topics. The books are well-researched and contain many little-known details about the subject’s personal life. I even learned some new things about George Washington!
But what makes the series particularly appealing is its even-handed, compassionate embrace of controversy and the human condition. For example, it acknowledges that Mount Rushmore is an amazing accomplishment and a loved American landmark, and also notes that it was built on sacred Indian ground and some people think it shouldn’t have been made at all. It speaks of Steve Jobs’ genius and artistic vision, and adds that he sometimes verbally abused to his employees. It celebrates Sally Ride’s accomplishments and also notes that she felt it necessary to hide that she was gay. This presentation of the whole person promotes tolerance in the reader and a sense that we all have strengths and weaknesses.
Reasonably priced at about $5 each, the books are published at an average of two or three a a month. I can’t wait til the next issue comes out!
Do you have a favorite book or book series for your students? Please tell us about it in the article comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your comments will be published in Special Ed Tech.