Friday, September 25, 2009


Picture book biographies are one of the strongest genres in contemporary children's literature. They can be read aloud across the grade levels, and they don't take long to share. Many focus on peacemakers, visionaries and artists, and so positively supplement a social studies curriculum that often follows a timeline of war. Imagine if you read aloud just one picture book biography to a child every week. By the end of the year, how many new heroes would that child have? How many new mentors? How many figures from history and around the world would that child know? There's only one way to find out! Check out the Biography Break site to discover enough recommended titles to inspire you and your class through an entire school year, reading one life story a week.

In terms of first-year teaching, it's also important to find heroes in history, because their example can serve as a makeshift mentorship when you are on your own with the kids every day. My personal hero is John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. The anniversary of his birth (September 26) falls this weekend, and is considered a "high holiday" in my family and classroom traditions, but I talk about him all year long (just ask my patient friends). He was a remarkable person, a visionary and an inspiration. Though he was a spiritual man with very distinct beliefs founded in the Swedenborg Christian sect, through a focus on trying to manifest the love of a greater power he was able to share with and inspire the secular world (not unlike another hero, Mister Rogers). He is remembered as an extraordinary storyteller, and I think of him as a pioneer librarian, too; he would take the texts of books he liked, rip them (gasp!) into chapters, and circulate them among his pioneer neighbors. Though the details of his life are sometimes mixed with legend, there is one thing I feel in true: every day, he planted at least one seed, and by doing one small thing every day consistently, he changed the landscape of our nation. I believe that read-aloud is one small "seed" we can plant, and by sharing a book with a child every day, we, too, can change the landscape of our nation. I hope we can all pause for just a moment on this special date and think of what we can commit to doing consistently, in his memory and in the interest of our wonderful country. Each year, we make a "Johnny Appleseed" pledge, kind of like a new year's resolution, describing one small thing each of us can do every day that could strengthen our country, and we seal it with an "apple stamp" from an apple cut in half and dipped in tempera paint. Mine always has to do with sharing children's books, but the children have great ideas: "use less electricity." "Say thank you every day." "Be nice to my sister so my mom doesn't feel bad."

To celebrate a Johnny Appleseed Anniversary of your own, check out these links and resources:
  • A booklist and activities at;
  • Great links at;
  • A great apple story to tell children with a surprise at the end: The Little Red House;
  • Apple pie recipe in the back of How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman;
  • Expand a storytime with women planters celebrated in Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius, Janet Anderson's Sunflower Sal, and Jeanette Winter's Wangari's Trees of Peace;
  • Learn the "Johnny Appleseed" song a la Disney here (hey, that's a pretty clean cut look there, Johnny! I always imagined him more like a sweet, grungy hippie, myself) or a real world chorus here on YouTube. Atheists, agnostics or nervous public school teachers, you can sing "the world is good to me," though in the interest of cultural literacy, it's worth noting that the original lyrics are probably more in line with Chapman's beliefs.
Also, do you know about this amazing apple-peeling tool, often known as the "Apple Machine"? I just love this thing! It has allowed me to make apple pies on Johnny Appleseed days with groups of thirty children or more all participating; you just pop on the apple, turn the crank, and the peel comes away in a long, lovely ribbon. Though a grown-up still should supervise, there are no big, exposed blades. I have two of them, for maximum pie-making efficiency (and more crank-turning turns for everyone)!

Lastly, on a personal note: last year I was inducted as an honorary member of the Johnny Appleseed Society at Urbana University. I was very proud, because this organization does such a wonderful job of preserving the ideals and history of this singular man. I have written a new children's book celebrating what we can learn from Johnny Appleseed in our modern times...with a mystery illustrator! It should be out in a year or so from Greenwillow books, I'm very excited! Until then, hope you can have a little happy Appleseed every day!

And who is your American hero (besides your mom or dad ;-)? Please share in the comments below.

Biography break photo credit to Kent Kriegshauser.
Johnny Appleseed storytime photo credit to Stacy Buehler.


Emily said...

One of mine is Woody Guthrie- I think singing "This Land is Your Land" is almost required in elementary school now. I also love the illustrated biography, Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People by Bonnie Christensen. It's a beautiful book and got me interested in hearing more of Guthrie's music.

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