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Early balloting: Making sense of elections for young readers

In 2004, during the last presidential election, I was teaching kindergarten in Philadelphia. When a boy walked into my classroom one morning in October wearing a giant, star-spangled pin bearing a candidate’s name, I immediately knew what we would be discussing during circle time.

The children shared their ideas about who should win. When asked to explain their choices, they offered, “Because that’s who my mom is voting for,” “Because he says he’ll stop the war,” “Because I went to Texas once.” As time went on, I thought a lot about children’s relationships to politics. How does a 5-year-old make sense of an election, an exclusively adult event? At such a distance from the voting age, how can a 5-year-old participate?

The young children who I know are keenly observant of the adult world and try hard to understand it. It’s the world they are growing into. It comes with privileges and rights, like voting, and big exciting events such as rallies and conventions. As a teacher, I wanted to know how to help them understand how elections work, why voting matters, and how a voter can make an informed decision. A number of new books can help adults explore such topics with children of all ages.

For audiences too young to vote but still interested in how elections work, two books stand out. In “Vote!”, for elementary school children, Eileen Christelow uses a conversation between two dogs, whose African-American female owner is running for mayor, to illustrate the ins and outs of campaigns and elections, introducing vocabulary and concepts such as debate, polling, registration and recounts. In the midst of all the action, we get to see how the candidate’s young daughter participates in the campaign, holding signs at rallies, attending fancy dinners and stuffing envelopes. Christelow successfully brings the child reader directly into the action.

For middle schoolers, the unbeatable “See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House,” by Susan E. Goodman, and gets my vote. With its persistent humor and goofy drawings, tons of trivia and a conversational tone, this is a book that kids can appreciate. Goodman illustrates every point she makes with amusing stories. For instance, it is important to know who your candidates are or you might end up electing a mule for mayor, as did the citizens of Milton, Wash., in 1938. I especially like how respectful Goodman is of her audience. She knows that middle school students can handle hearing that our country has had imperfect leaders who have worked, over time, with an imperfect Constitution. “Warning!”, says the bottom of one page. “Some of the history you are about to read may be hazardous to your health.” It’s a clever tactic for getting readers to turn the page. What they find there — and on every page — is appropriate, interesting and fairly presented.

For those old enough to cast a ballot or those who are getting close and are already curious, “Declare Yourself,” published by a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of the same name, is an excellent resource. In this collection of short essays, famous contemporary figures encourage teenagers to vote. Whether we’re hearing from Tyra Banks, Molly Ivins or the creators of MySpace, the writing is invariably smart, accessible and relevant to the new generation of voters. The book is thoughtfully designed, from the inclusion of a diverse group of athletes and artists, rock stars and reporters, to the layout of text on each page with large print and wide margins, and an extensive lists of resources in the back. I can imagine that even teenagers who feel intimidated by politics will want to peek inside this book.

Of the handful of fictional, election-related picture books available this fall, one in particular caught my attention. In “Grace for President,” by Kelly DiPucchio and LeYuen Pham, Grace looks at a poster of our country’s presidents and asks her teacher, “Where are the girls?” Grace wants to be president. This launches a school election in which the class becomes the electoral college, each student representing one state with a certain number of votes. During the campaign the class is evenly divided, the boys supporting Thomas and the girls supporting Grace. It is Wyoming, “The Equality State,” that casts the final tie-breaking vote, and you can guess who wins. The one shortcoming of this well-crafted, intelligent story is the stereotypical garb — a fur-lined hood for Alaska, a feathered headdress for Arizona — worn on the day when the students vote, an unfortunate slip in a book that so brilliantly makes no mention of Grace’s brown skin. In every other way, this book is a winner.

Biographies can be another way for children to explore elections. But they can also be hastily written. As I read the middle-grade, early reader and picture book biographies available, I asked myself, what will this book become after the election is over? Does this book have lasting power? The biography that best met this criterion turns out not to be about John McCain or Barack Obama at all, whose biographies I found well crafted but potentially inconsequential. “Hillary Rodham Clinton: Dreams Taking Flight,” by Kathleen Krull and Amy June Bates, shows readers a girl with big dreams during a time when girls were not encouraged to dream big. The story tells us how hard Sen. Clinton had to work to achieve her goals, how she made positive decisions based on her beliefs, and how she made mistakes along the way. “Sooner or later,” Krull writes, “we’ll have a woman president, and it will be because of every girl who wanted to fly.” If you don’t like Hillary, you may choose not to read this book. But if you like good literature, I hope you will.

Island native Galen Longstreth is an MFA student at Vermont College. She received a master’s in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught kindergarten for five years. She is a 1994 graduate of Mercer Island High School. She can be reached at glongstr@gmail.com.

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