Life Stories in Children's Books

Jeanne McLain Harms and
Lucille J. Lettow

Time concepts are difficult for elementary school children, who only gradually develop an understanding of the chronology of past events and a sense of their own place in time.1 One effective way to help young children understand life span may be through life stories told in picture books. Life stories can help children learn more about the past, make connections with real stories in their own families, and discover worthy models to emulate in forming their own identities. Such stories often portray how a character acquires goals, who influences the character to adopt these goals, and how they come to affect others.

The Concept of Life Span
One sure fire way for an author to capture a child's interest is to tell a story from a child's perspective. When children can identify with the age of the protagonist, they may more readily identify with the life story being told. In both Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney and My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston, great nieces tell their aunts' life stories.
As a child, Miss Rumphius (then known as Alice) lives in a coastal city. When she hears her grandfather's stories of faraway places, she knows she wants to travel when she grows up and return to live by the sea in her old age. From her grandfather, Miss Rumphius also inherits a wish to make the world more beautiful, and so she plants lupine wherever she travels throughout the countryside. In contrast, Great-Aunt Arizona grows up in the Blue Ridge Mountains and remains there throughout her lifetime. As a young woman, she begins teaching in the one-room school she attended as a child. Throughout her life, she shares her love of reading and her dreams of faraway places with generations of schoolchildren.

In Sherry Garland's The Lotus Seed, a granddaughter relates her grandmother's experiences growing up in Vietnam and immigrating to the United States. She tells how her grandmother once plucked a seed from a lotus pod in the Imperial Garden as a way to remember the dethroned Emperor. After carrying the seed throughout her lifetime for good luck, a long life, and many children, the grandmother shares this tradition with her grandchildren.

In This Quiet Lady by Charlotte Zolotow, a young girl viewing a series of photographs of her mother over time tells her mother's life story up to the time of her own birth. In Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say, a boy reflects on his Japanese grandfather's memories about life between two cultures-those of Japan and America.

Following a character's actions in important events throughout his or her lifetime can help children to develop the concept of a life span. In Pages of Music, author Tony Johnston tells the story of Paolo, whose musical talent is awakened when, as a child, he encounters shepherds playing their pipes on a barren island. Paolo grows up to become a professional musician, composer, and orchestra leader. The story culminates when Paolo keeps his childhood promise to return to the island, one Christmas bringing his orchestra and performing the music he composed based on the shepherds' songs.

In The Old, Old Man and the Very Little Boy by Kristine L. Franklin, a young boy in an African village sits and listens to the stories of an elderly man. When the boy asks the old man if he was ever young, the elder replies, "Inside this old, old man lives a very little boy." When the boy himself becomes old, he remembers many things from his childhood. One of his most vivid memories is the elderly man's reply to his question about being ever young.

Goals in Life Stories
Many life stories focus on how a childhood goal becomes a driving force throughout the main character's lifetime. Qualities such as persistence, hard work, and imagination may help the central character in realizing this lifelong goal.
In A Peddler's Dream by Janice Shefelman, a young Lebanese man decides to seek his fortune in America. Solomon Joseph Azar overcomes many hardships as he travels the countryside on foot to sell his wares. He eventually becomes the owner of a large store and is able to provide a secure life for his family. In Matthew Wheelock's Wall by Frances Ward Weller, the protagonist works hard to clear his fields of stones. From the patterns that develop in his mind as he labors tirelessly, he creates a wall out of the stones without using mortar.

In The Art Lesson by Tomie de Paola, Tommy knows from early childhood that he wants to become an artist. Upon entering kindergarten, he finds his goal thwarted, since he must wait until first grade to have art lessons. In first grade, Tommy's classroom teacher adds to his frustration by requiring the students to use the school-supplied box of crayons, which is limited to eight colors. When Tommy appeals to his art teacher to let him use his box of 64 colors, she accommodates his request. As one may guess, Tommy does fulfill his goal to become the successful author-illustrator who tells this story.

Like Tommy, the main character in Barbara Cooney's Hattie and the Wild Waves dreams of becoming an artist. But her life in an upper middle class family in the late 19th century poses obstacles to achieving this goal. Hattie defies the social conventions of the day and instead pays heed to the voices she hears in ocean waves. They tell her that she will one day create beautiful pictures.

Some life stories stress the influence of others on the central character. In Tony Johnston's Amber On the Mountain, the subject of the title lives in a remote mountain area where educational opportunities are almost nonexistent. When Anna, the daughter of the engineer who is building a road through the mountains, becomes aware that Amber has not learned to read, she decides to teach her. As she tells Amber, "Daddy says you can do almost anything you fix your mind on. I've just fixed mine on teaching you to read."

In other life stories, the emphasis is on how the lifetime goals of one character affect others across the generations. In Tony Johnston's Yonder, a young man carves a farm out of the wilderness, at the end of his life bequeathing it to another young farmer who takes up the pursuit. In Island Boy by Barbara Cooney, great-grandfather Matthais Tibbet develops an island farm that becomes the treasured meeting place for four generations of his family.

The sharing of goals and attitudes across generations occurs in many life stories. The great-niece in Miss Rumphius assumes the same life goals as her great-aunt; she, too, will search for a way to make the world more beautiful. When the Vietnamese grandmother in The Lotus Seed gives her grandchildren seeds from the lotus plant, her granddaughter saves one to plant in the future so that she can carry on her grandmother's heritage. Allen Say tells two life stories in Grandfather's Journey-his grandfather's and his own. They share not only the cultural heritage of their native land, but also an appreciation of their adopted American culture.

Responding to Life Stories
Many expressive activities generated from life stories can foster children's sense of their place in time as well as their understanding of the past.
Children might survey their families to see how many generations are represented and who the members are. They could talk or write about a special relationship with an older family member. Or, they might conduct an interview and write about this person's life. (If a family member is not available, they could carry out this activity with an older neighbor.)

Students might think about their own life goals by examining a character such as Matthew Wheelock, whose "need became a dream and then a plan." What dreams do they have? What plans do they have to carry out their dreams? Has anyone given them advice about how to do this? Is there an older person in their lives who they think of as a model? Children might write about why they admire this person.

Children might develop more understanding of life span by charting the life of an older person, and asking what was happening in his or her life when important historical events occurred. What was the most important historic event during this person's life span? Did the person take part in it? What did the person think about it? Another possibility would be to consider important inventions, and ask how these technological changes affected the person's life.

Students might further their study of life span by reading biographies. Some biographies include a chart of important events in the subject's life span. Students could create such a chart for a biography that does not have one. While reading the biography, children might look for answers to questions about how this person formed goals, what personal resources helped him or her in trying to achieve these goals, and how this person's life has affected others.

Children should understand that people-both in life stories and in real life-do not always achieve their goals. For example, in Grandfather's Journey, the Japanese grandfather is unable to fulfill his goal of visiting America again because of the outbreak of war-an event beyond his control. In Chris Van Allsburg's The Wreck of the Zephyr, an elderly man explains that he failed to meet his goal because it was unattainable. The point that goals are sometimes not achieved can be brought home by searching for incidents-real and literary-in which goals are left unfulfilled. In discussing these examples, children might reflect not only on the reasons for failure, but on the kind of resourcefulness needed to cope with it.

1. James A. Banks, Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies: Inquiry, Valuing, and Decision-Making (New York: Longman, 1990); Charlotte S. Huck, Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman, Children's Literature in the Elementary School (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Professors, 1993).

Children's Literature
Cooney, Barbara. Hattie and the Wild Waves. New York: Viking, 1990.
Cooney, Barbara. Island Boy. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1988.
Cooney, Barbara. Miss Rumphius. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1982.
De Paola, Tomie. The Art Lesson. New York: Putnam, 1989.
Franklin, Kristine L. The Old, Old Man and the Very Little Boy. Illus. Terea D. Shaffer. New York: Atheneum, 1992.
Garland, Sherry. The Lotus Seed. Illus. Tatsuro Kiuchi. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.
Houston, Gloria. My Great-Aunt Arizona. Illus. Susan Condie Lamb. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
Johnston, Tony. Amber On the Mountain. Illus. Robert Duncan. New York: Dial, 1994.
Johnston, Tony. Pages of Music. Illus. Tomie de Paola. New York: Putnam, 1988.
Johnston, Tony. Yonder. Illus. Lloyd Bloom. New York: Dial, 1988.
Say, Allen. Grandfather's Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Schefelman, Janice Jordan. A Peddler's Dream. Illus. Tom Shefelman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
Van Allsburg, Chris. The Wreck of the Zephyr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Weller, Frances Ward. Matthew Wheelock's Wall. Illus. Ted Lewin. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Zolotow, Charlotte. This Quiet Lady. Illus. Anita Lobel. New York: Greenwillow, 1992.

Jeanne McLain Harms is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Rapids.
Lucille J. Lettow
is Youth Collection Librarian and Associate Professor, Donald O. Rod Library, University of Northern Iowa.