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Book series and character development: an unlikely but powerful duo in book choice for read-alouds.


Teachers and school librarians, charged with responsibility for nurturing the literacy lives of school-age youth, possess daily opportunities to inform and encourage students as they develop new reading tastes and interests. Instructional leaders wield enormous influence by the words they utter about books in addition to what they leave unsaid. They also provide support through the resources they select and highlight from the staggering supply of available text.

Mindful of state mandates and district-level directives, language arts specialists frequently author literacy curricula for public schools. However, the particular trade books chosen to amplify curricular themes and broaden student experiences are the result of the judicious choices that conscientious teacher-librarians and teachers make, typically after consulting reputable reviewers.

Long considered a popular educational adjunct at home and in primary schools across the United States, reading trade books aloud to children has become an important part of daily routine in many elementary schools. Teacher-librarians and classroom teachers have realized that children's listening vocabularies far exceed their decoding abilities. In short, read-alouds have become an essential tool to

* introduce a unit;

* offer diverse cultural perspective;

* provide context for a field trip;

* highlight the writing of one particular author;

* simply share favorite literature.

In addition to gaining factual knowledge informally, read-alouds offer students multiple opportunities to experience the aesthetic quality of language.

When authors employ specific elements of style, their prose can stir the imagination and affect the senses of listeners as well as readers. Such artistry can heighten both individual and collective awareness, which, when amplified afterward via shared oral discussion, "helps us realize our capacities to feel, to imagine, and to take risks" (Eisner as cited in Gangi, 2004, p. 16). Read-alouds, in this same way, give pleasure because they allow even the youngest listeners to observe and begin to understand the complexities in human nature that surround them.

This article briefly provides a conceptual framework for teacher-librarians to use when selecting read-alouds; it reviews the impact of book series on readers; it highlights the contributions of several well-known authors of children's literature, who invite readers "to consider values that guide human action in both the imaginary context of the story and the real context of their lives" (Estes & Vasquez-Levy, 2001, p. 507); and it offers suggestions for teacher-librarian collaboration with classroom teachers.


In casual conversations with a sampling of classroom teachers as a colleague, language arts supervisor, and teacher educator, I have noted that experienced teachers frequently read aloud what is familiar--that is, what they have always read--because they know through experience that students will react positively and predictably to certain novels or genre. Newer teachers typically introduce favorite titles recalled from their own elementary schooling or from university-level coursework in children's literature. They often seek the suggestions of mentors, proactive teacher-librarians, and grade-level teaching partners. Affinity for particular books should not be disregarded, because genuine enthusiasm from a teacher or teacher-librarian has an incalculable impact on students; however, applying consistent criteria to book choices for read-alouds can reassure readers and critics in this test-driven era that time spent listening to rich literature nourishes both mind and spirit.

Because publishers annually publish a phenomenal array of exquisitely illustrated books for children, the question becomes, How do educators determine which books to feature in their curricular program? The professional literature on the school library selection process is not clear. Paterson (2001), a Newbery award-winning author, claims that one should choose books with "plots to grip and satisfy, characters to deeply care about, and a world that you can believe in" (p. 26). Mitchell (2003) suggests that teacher-librarians and educators identify purpose (whether pure pleasure or instructional), audience ("needs, interests, and skill levels"), and balance (diversity, gender, genre, theme, tone) over the course of a school year (pp. 61-62). Focused on different stages of cognitive or linguistic development, several researchers (Beck & McKeown, 2001; Harste, 1998; Sipe, 2002) have recommended that texts with complex or unfamiliar themes present multiple opportunities to older students for extended conversation about meaning. For young children, plots with unfolding events in picture books provide enough opportunity for children to think about ideas and make text-to-self connections.

Teacher-librarians, as mature readers, bring personal educated tastes to the selection of books for children in their audiences. Many also faithfully read current reviews in the New York Times Review of Children's Books and the School Library Journal. Mindful of creating a balance between individual tastes and program needs, they tailor book talks to each grade level and read aloud animatedly to pique student interest, along with promoting an assortment of other children's literacy activities.


Some books and authors engage young readers more than others do. They consistently create intense pleasure and cause students to reflect on "connections between what they learn and how they live" (Estes & Vasquez-Levy, 2001, p. 509). When readers find resonance in connections, they often search for sequels to extend the pleasure and continue the sense of identification with the characters and themes.

For many young readers of all ages, book series fill this niche. In the early 20th century, children followed the adventures of the Bobbsey Twins, Honey Bunch, the Outdoor Girls, and the Rover Boys. Midcentury, they discovered Angus, Cherry Ames, Curious George, the Hardy Boys, Henry Huggins, and Nancy Drew, among others. Soon, Franklin and Nate the Great appeared for young readers, followed by the Boxcar Children, Cam Jansen, Encyclopedia Brown, the Baby-Sitters Club, and Sweet Valley High for older readers. More recently, Animorphs, Goosebumps, and Harry Potter consistently attract a segment of student readers. Nodelman and Reimer (2003) list five stock elements of plot and characterization common to successful book series, regardless of publication date:

1 a simple, straightforward writing style

2. central characters, who exhibit traits with which readers can identify

3. clear distinctions between "good" and "bad" characters

4. plots that focus on action with minimal attention to setting or character;

5. plots that fulfill readers' wishful thinking

They wonder whether "readers can't appreciate the divergencies of more unusual books until they first learn these underlying patterns" (p. 214).

On closer analysis of these elements linking popular series, one can see that action-filled adventures typically embrace winning and losing, power and its absence, and "good guys" and "bad guys" and provide vivid, concrete glimpses of episodes experienced by children and adults in modern life. Perhaps repeatedly visiting "safe" settings in book series, wherein the protagonists survive or outwit older or more powerful characters, provides young readers with hope and courage.

Although the main characters in series always triumph, they neither grow nor seem to change as a result of the impact of events in the plots; they are static. What appears to be missing then from many series is an exploration of character development: those traits and attitudes that help shape the emotional and behavioral patterns that we recognize and associate with human personality. Why is this evolution so important to include in books for young children?

Estes and Vasquez-Levy (2001) suggest that the literature that students read and study conveys messages about "how we should conduct ourselves in relation to one another" (p. 507). These interpersonal narratives often involve a grasp of the cultural values that schools promote. According to the Character Counts! Coalition (2003), although interest in values as they pertain to character education in schools appears to vary by social group and political climate, transcultural core values such as caring, citizenship, fairness, respect, responsibility, and trustworthiness seem to find broad sustained acceptance.

Children's serial fiction crammed with strings of action-filled episodes seems incongruous with genuine human experience and fails to broaden a young reader's understanding. Bluestein (2002) maintains that</p>

<pre> readers gain an intimate understanding of a character when they recognize that the character has the same personality

traits as [they] themselves and people in their own lives. [In this way] readers can then make personal connections with what they are reading. (p. 431) </pre> <p>Lukens (2003) adds that "believing in the reality of character makes us believe in the [reality of the] experience" (p. 93). When the complexities and subtleties of human personalities and values are absent from these texts, readers have little opportunity to refine and rethink their own core values.

If we admit that we like to read because we enjoy it, not because it is "good medicine," then the converse may also be true: we do not read what we do not enjoy. Thus, it makes sense for teacher-librarians and classroom teachers to capitalize on natural student interest in book series not only by thoughtfully selecting a representative sampling of books series to read aloud but also by pairing Fast-paced action with sensitively developed characters, especially during primary Formative schooling.


Several series blend captivating adventures with credible character growth. This personal development evolves from characters' responses to life's circumstances, as evidenced in each plot. In six books authored by Russell Hoban and Lillian Hoban, timeless Frances the badger copes with parents and friends as she slowly grows to accept a new sibling and understand daily Family routines.

Set on Nantucket Island, Brinton Turkle's Obadiah series of Four short picture books dramatizes sibling relationships and sexist roles in a Quaker Family or seven. The virtues or bravery, care for animals, friendship, helpfulness, and truthfulness permeate the daily choices that a young active boy in Colonial America makes.

The context or a loving African American Family appears in five of Ann Cameron's books that personalize through Julian the concepts or honesty, responsibility, and friendship while exploring childhood fears and sibling dynamics.

Tomie dePaola's medieval Italian Folk healer Strega Nona demonstrates that common sense, integrity, humor, love, and patience have neither age nor gender limits. Even stock characters such as Big Anthony eventually mature through an evolving process. In a series or eight books, dePaola sketches some engaging dimensions to ordinary, traditionally female tasks such as cooking, cleaning, caring for the disaffected, and entertaining. Although revered by her community and embodying the "wisdom of age," Strega Nona is not free from disappointment and unfaithful friends. DePaola's characters struggle with real moral conflicts that a young reader would identify with and understand.

Using authentic legends and art, Paul Goble has written and illustrated at least 17 books that detail the cultural lives of young Native Americans dwelling on the Great Plains. Although the same main characters do not reappear in each succeeding book, traditional gender roles and values--such as bravery, dignity, the importance of family bonds, personal responsibility, and respect for animals--prevail throughout the series. Characters mature in their gender roles and core values to a gradual understanding or the dominant "Indian feeling of mystical relationship with nature" (Goble, 1988, back flap).

Similar to those in Goble's work, William Steig's main characters possess varying degrees of bravery, cleverness, humor, kindness, and loyalty, portrayed through a variety of rapid action events and dialogue-laden plots. Although characters are interconnected in each story through Steig's underlying strong belief in the value or Friendship and the power of a devoted family, he allows his humanlike animal characters to resolve conflicts with predators by cultivating resourcefulness and persistence.


Recent research (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, as cited in Hoewisch, 2000) has begun to highlight the fact that "teachers ... who share books and [discuss] book authors with children during the school day, positively influence those children's reading [selections] outside of school" (p. 1). Such teacher- and teacher-librarian-led literary activities can whet student appetite for more reading, which in turn increases fluency and positively affects ever wider and deeper reading choices.

To maximize classroom-teacher interest and confidence in reading aloud, teacher-librarians can model expressive reading during teacher orientations or in-services for all faculty. By attending grade-level meetings, teacher-librarians can identify specific resources and encourage classroom teachers to supplement textbooks with authentic literature. Using closed-circuit television or audio clips on the school's web site, teacher-librarians can also regularly feature new books in the library collection, thereby increasing access to outstanding new literature for colleagues and the community at large. Teachers and teacher-librarians can routinely provide opportunities for voracious student readers to recommend their favorite books to their peers during class or morning announcements, on the school web site, or in the school newspaper and classroom newsletter.

Unlike neutral nonfiction texts, authentic, culturally grounded children's literature can illuminate real ethnic, class, and gender connections in the classroom setting. Because Estes and Vasquez-Levy (2001) remind us that "literature is always concerned with questions or value" (p. 508), teacher-librarians and classroom teachers have unique opportunities to choose "literature that ... empowers children to think critically and carefully about all their experiences" (Nodelman & Reimer, 2003, p. 148).

Gangi (2004) recognizes that "inspiring, knowledgeable, and caring teachers have the potential to help students in positive ways that last a lifetime" whereas the "uninspired, uncaring, and unknowledgeable ... have the capacity to bring lasting harm" (p. 53). Teacher-librarians are ideally poised to share stories that provide not only sheer delight and fast-action plots but also characters and contexts that climax in powerful moral conflicts.

Although our highly technological age floods the consciousness of adults and children alike with a steady stream of compelling, consumption-oriented characters that dramatically influence how they think about themselves and what they do, readers who discover familiar patterns in the real lives of human-scaled characters that transcend cultures and centuries can find a necessary counterbalance to less enduring, marketplace action figures. It is only this rich literary storehouse that equips children to "learn to participate with their hearts and moral sense in culture and civilization as a whole" (Estes & Vasquez-Levy, 2001, p. 510).


Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2001). Text talk: Capturing the benefits of reading aloud experiences for young children. Reading Teacher, 55(1), 10-20.

Bluestein, N. A. (2002). Comprehension through characterization: Enabling readers to make personal connections with literature. Reading Teacher, 55(5), 431-434.

Character Counts! Coalition. (2003). Character Counts! factsheet. Retrieved July 12, 2005, from

Estes, T. H., & Vasquez-Levy, D. (2001). Literature as a source of information and values. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(7), 507-512.

Gangi, J. M. (2004). Encountering children's literature: An arts approach. Boston: Pearson.

Goble, P. (1988). Her seven brothers. New York: Bradbury Press.

Harste, J. (1998). Supporting critical conversation in classrooms. Lansing: Michigan Council of Teachers of English.

Hoewisch, A. K. (2000, February). Children's literature in teacher-preparation programs: An invited contribution. Reading Online. Retrieved November 11, 2003, from www.reading

Lukens, R. J. (2003). A critical handbook of children's literature. Boston: Pearson.

Mitchell, D. (2003). Children's literature: An invitation to the world. Boston: Pearson.

Nodelman, P., & Reimer, M. (2003). The pleasures of children's literature. Boston: Pearson.

Paterson, K. (2001). How to choose great books for the classroom. NEA Today, 19(8), 26.

Sipe, L. R. (2002). Talking back and over: Young children's expressive engagement during storybook read-alouds. Reading Teacher, 55(5), 476-483.


Cameron, Ann. Julian, Dream Doctor, The Stories Julian Tells; More Stories Julian Tells; Julian, Secret Agent; Julian's Glorious Summer.

dePaola, Tomie. Strega Nona; Big Anthony and the Magic Ring; Strega Nona's Magic Lessons; Merry Christmas, Strega Nona; Strega Nona Meets Her Match; Strega Nona Takes a Vacation; Strega Nona: Her Story; Big Anthony: His Story.

Goble, Paul. The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses; Buffalo Woman; The Gift of the Sacred Dog; Crow Chief; Her Seven Brothers; Star Boy; Beyond the Ridge; Iktomi and the Berries; Iktomi and the Ducks; Iktomi and the Boulder; Iktomi and the Buffalo Skull

Hoban, Russell, & Lillian Hoban. Bedtime for Frances; A Baby Sister for Frances; A Birthday for Frances; Best Friends for Frances; A Bargain for Frances; Bread and Jam for Frances.

Steig, William. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble; Amos and Boris; Brave Irene; Gorky Rises; Caleb and Kate; Abel's Island; Doctor DeSoto; Doctor DeSoto Goes to Africa.

Turkle, Brinton. Obadiah, the Bold; Thy Friend, Obadiah; The Adventures of Obadiah; Rachel and Obadiah.

Alice J. Feret is assistant professor of reading in the College of Education at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC. A graduate of Syracuse University and Virginia Tech, she has served as an upper elementary classroom teacher in New Jersey and Wisconsin, as a reading specialist in Montgomery County, VA, and as a K-5 language arts coordinator and reading specialist in Falls Church, VA. She can be reached at
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Author:Feret, Alice J.
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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