The older I get, the more I think picture book biographies are some of the most inspirational seeds that allow meaningful conversations in classrooms to happen. Maybe it’s because I clearly see that a life is a story and that anytime we hear a story told, we have the opportunity to learn. As we connect deeply to a person through their story, we reflect on ourselves and our communities. We have the chance to think about things in new ways. Kids get it too. A few years ago I asked some of my students why biographies needed to be shared. Their responses revealed a lot. Some highlights:
- “I like those books that tell the story of someone who can’t but then they did.”
- “It’s so we can know that one person can change things.”
- “These books teach us about community and dreams. We should think about that.”
- “They show me not to be scared.”
I have a new must read biography that I think is particularly timely for its messages about standing together for truth and justice:
Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Adam Gustavson Forward by Peter Yarrow (Bloomsbury 2017)
This detailed biography would make an incredible read aloud. It is a story to share over multiple read aloud sessions. There is much on every page for discussion and elaboration. The full page illustrations tell a beautiful story as well. Looking closely at these allows the reader to move through one life and decades of history.
I first read this book about three weeks ago. It was a humbling experience. I closed the book and felt a strange mix of fired up and sad and quiet. I began to do some of my own further reading about Pete Seeger, often realizing songs I have known all my life were songs he had written. This took me down further thinking paths.
The sadness came from a reaction to current day news and media coverage. There is so much in stories about people that is about self rather than other. Pete Seeger clearly lived a life where self and others were completely intertwined. His motivations were clear and strong. He respected the truth. He valued its importance. He valued social justice as our most important goal to attain. I think my sadness came from just acknowledging the loss of Pete Seeger who passed away in 2014. In many senses, my sadness has no place because Pete did his work through music and music has some of the most incredible lasting power of any medium. Power to wash over people. Become part of their motivation. Become part of their own story.
I picked up and reread this story a few times over the past few weeks. Over multiple readings, I have been inspired by Seeger’s commitment to use music as a vehicle to unite people over important issues. Pete Seeger was motivated early on in his life by folk music and the connection between audience and musician. He recognized that the content of songs could be transformative.
I was reminded of precious Thursday afternoons of recent years experiencing a room full of music. My class had the weekly opportunity to sing with the talented Jill Samycia from St. James Music Academy. Singing together brought a joy and a connection to our community. There is such power in singing together especially when the lyrics hold messages of hope.
Susanna Reich’s account of Seeger’s life brings particular questions to the surface numerous times:
What do we notice?
What speaks to us?
How do these things shape our work? Our actions? How do they form our truth?
Pete Seeger‘s life work was his music. Through music he conveyed his love of people, equity and justice. Reich explains that Pete “saw that music could fill a room with peace and harmony. . . ” A wish to make this happen is what motivated him to become a more accomplished musician.
Seeger‘s path was not an easy one. His end goal wasn’t fame and fortune. It was to lead people in song. He wanted to “sing for – and with – average working folks.”
His courage, his commitment to peace, the rights of everyone in a society and hope for our world live on in his music.
Such an incredible story of one man. Back matter includes an important author’s note, a list of quotes, detailed sources and a list of popular recordings.
Recommended for Grades 3 to 8.
Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2017. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!
I am participating in the Slice of Life challenge to write and publish a post every day in March.
Slice of Life is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. I thank them for the community they provide. Read more slices here.