This article by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in Teaching K-8 Magazine.
A River Ran WildLet's start with Lynn Cherry's wonderful book, A River Ran Wild (Gulliver, Harcourt, 1992 ISBN 0 15 200542 0). It's chuck full of information and inspiration. Subtitled "An Environmental History", the text and pictures center on the Nashua River of New Hampshire, but it could be almost any river anywhere. The end papers give us contrasting maps of New England: in the 1500s and in the 1900s. Accompanying text on the end papers gives us a time line which parallels the book's content.
The author's note at the beginning of the book outlines the work of Marion Stoddart who organized a committee to clean up the Nashua and ended up leading a successful campaign for the passage of the Massachusetts Clean Water Act of 1966. So we know the hero of the book, but the focus of our attention and the main character of the book is the river. Page by page we are shown and told the history of the river from untouched wilderness to the polluted mess it became and then, thank goodness, its cleanup. Each page of text is framed by tiny pictures showing the wildlife, the tools of the people who lived by the river and the products of the mills that caused the pollution. There are no villains here, except maybe ignorance and lack of foresight on all our parts.
It should be a short step from the Nashua River to a river in your area. Cherry's book starts with the past, but you may get more students involved by starting with the present for your research project. You'll need current and detailed maps. First of all, where does your river begin and end? What rivers and brooks feed it and what does it, in turn, feed? Get the students to list the towns and cities on the river. Can they find out what each place does to the river? Is the river cleaner or dirtier after leaving that area? What about their own city? What does it do to the river? Are there organizations working to clean it up? How successful have they been? Can your students get involved? What can they do?
Now we can look backwards. Send students searching through newspaper files in the library to see if they can do a similar history of their own river. A search of old maps at your town or city hall should show the development of towns and cities along the river. Who can tell you about local river wildlife? A field trip seems in order to make your own observations.
Katherine Paterson's novel Lyddie (Lodestar, 1991 ISBN 0-525-67338-5) would be a good book for your more able readers to tackle after A River Ran Wild. In 1843 Lyddie goes to work in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts which is on the Merrimac, the river into which the Nashua River flows. After reading Lyddie, these students might like to do further research on mills and factories and their present and past effects on their rivers.
Perhaps Ruth Brown's The World That Jack Built (Dutton, 1991 ISBN 0 525 66635 4) comes in here. This deceptively simple book is a powerful anti-pollution statement and involves a factory, a river, a cat and a butterfly. Even very young students can get the point.
While some students are working in that direction, others might like to look at a book about another river not far from the Nashua: Jane Yolen and Barbara Cooney's Letting Swift River Go (Little, Brown, 1992 ISBN 0 316 96899 4). In the nineteen thirties, dams were built on Swift River in central Massachusetts to create Quabbin Reservoir to serve as water supply for Boston, many miles away to the east. To accomplish this, four Massachusetts towns were drowned. The story is movingly told from the point of view of one little girl who lived in one of those towns. In this book, there are no heroes or villains, just a sad truth. More Information including activities, related books and links.
Students who are working with this book might like to go on to other similar river stories like that of the Colorado, dammed to form Lake Mead and the Columbia River similarly harnessed. Pete Seeger recorded a song called "Roll On, Columbia" which isn't hard to find and might provide a theme song for your river work.
An early novel by Betsy Byars Trouble River (Viking, 1969 ISBN 0 670 73257 5) comes to mind when I think of rivers. I have a wonderful picture in my head of that obstinate grandmother, sitting on rocking chair in the middle of a rickety raft, built by her grandson and their only hope for survival. She nags him all the way even though she doesn't know anything about rafting or rivers, but she can't help it: she's a nagger born and bred. Students who read this novel might like to talk about the image of Native Americans in this book, but that's another direction and we've got to get back to the rivers.
You can't talk about them long without talking about flooding. Newspapers and magazines are full of information and speculation about specific flooding and we need to remember that such reading is as vital to a reading program as books of fiction and non-fiction. We're trying to develop life-long readers here. There are stories of heroism and maybe even some villainy in these periodicals as well as factual accounts of events. Such reading should open up all sorts of topics for further research and debates. Did previous efforts at flood control: levees, dikes and dams help or hurt? What caused the freaky weather? Why do people live and work in such areas? What is the responsibility of the government to help those without insurance? What are the predictions of short term and long term effects?
Go from the newspapers to atlases and almanacs to answer questions about greatest floods and their damage and peak rainfalls.
Linda Stallone's The Flood That Came to Grandma's House, illustrated by Joan Schooley (Upshur, 1992 ISBN 0 912975 02 4) is a non-fictional picture book for young children that deals with the flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes and might be of use here. Dennis Fradin's book Disaster! Floods (Children's 1982 ISBN 0 516 008656 0) is more sensational but has good information for readers from third grade up.
You may need some flood relief of another kind at this point in the form of a lighter touch. How about George Ella Lyon and Stephen Gammell's wonderful picture book Come a Tide (Orchard, 1990 ISBN 0 531 07036 0)? Gammell's rain drenched pages are a perfect setting for this story of a flood in the hills, told with a rollicky humor and good neighborliness.
For contrast there's Shirley Murphy's Tattie's River Journey with illustrations by Tomie de Paola (Dial, 1983 ISBN 0 8037 8767 7). In this picture book, the flood is greeting with equanimity by Tattie as her house is born along by the flood.
You can go on to the Biblical Great Flood at this point, if your situation allows. There are countless picture book versions of the story and it's fun to contrast them as far as focus, mood and style is concerned.
To get back to rivers in their calmer states, it might be fun to find and sing as many river songs as possible. Artists have long been attracted to rivers for inspiration and there's the whole Hudson River period of art to investigate as well as the work of artists of other times and disciplines who painted rivers.
Don't forget the classics! We can' t leave rivers without at least mentioning Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and the Great Mississippi. Which river scene will you read aloud from Twain? How about a scene from Wind in the Willows? And the scene from Pooh where Baby Roo falls into the river.
We haven't even touched the poetry and there are many great river poems. The rivers and the ideas keep on flowing, don't they? Have fun "rolling, rolling on the river."
Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site
- Letting Swift River Go by Jane Yolen. Featured Book with activities, related books and links.
- Cities and Towns. Featured Subject with activities, related books, and links.
- Local History and Family Stories. Featured Subject with books, activities and links.
- Subjects in Children's Literature. Links to articles and related books by topic.