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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Listeners: Remembering the Past by Celebrating the Present

The Listeners
by Gloria Whelan

Universal Themes:
Conflict Resolution, Courage, Heroism, Identity, Integrity, Problem Solving

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln declared the freedom of all slaves in any state of the Confederate States of America that did not return to Union control by January 1, 1863. Today we encourage students to celebrate Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation with Gloria Whelan's excellent new picture book The Listeners, published by Sleeping Bear Press.

In addition to their tasks of picking cotton, taking cows to pasture, and caring for the babies, Ella May and her friends are entrusted with the most most important job of all: that of crouching beneath Master's window each evening to collect information that the slaves on the plantation otherwise wouldn't hear. Which slaves are being sent away? Who's the new overseer that Master is hiring? What's that about a new president, and why are Master Thomas's words about him coming out "as mean as rattlesnakes"?

I loved this book, so I took a big chance. This year, after teaching third grade for nine years and fourth grade for thirteen, I moved up to sixth grade Reading and Language Arts. While I've always preached about the benefits of using picture books with the upper grades, I never before had to "put my money where my mouth is." So for my first picture book experience with my new sixth graders (three sections of 65 students total), I chose The Listeners.

In short, the book delivered. Students were turned on to the picture book experience.

The beautiful artwork and language of The Listeners complement each other perfectly (so much so that one student was convinced that the author was also the illustrator, so in tune were the paintings to the words on the page). My students especially enjoyed Whelan's use of metaphor, personification, and similes, such as "we make ourselves small as cotton seeds and quiet as shadows." This book helped my students realize that picture books can truly serve as "mentor texts," providing students with models for their own writing. Students discovered that what an author chooses to leave out becomes just as important as what she chooses to leave in.

Like every Sleeping Bear Press title from the Tales of Young Americans Series, this book is well researched and age-appropriate, while not being dumbed down in either language or content. (Another Young Americans title I previously recommended on this blog was Ann E. Burg's Rebekkah's Journey , a meticulously researched historical fiction picture book which describes President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan to shelter 1000 Jews in upstate New York).

Teachers and parents will be delighted to know that this title (like other Sleeping Bear titles I've mentioned in previous posts) is accompanied by a free, pdf format teaching guide. The book is recommended for ages 6-10, but many of the activities can be adapted for use with older audiences.

For more information on the author and illustrator, visit the Sleeping Bear site. While there, be sure to also check out Sleeping Bear's mind-boggling variations on the picture book. Something for everyone, at every level!