Thursday, January 30, 2014

Reading: Something Beautiful

"Tell me something that you consider beautiful," I instructed my eager class of first graders.

"A big, red purse!" one exclaimed.

"High heels!" offered another.

"Um, Miss Holt?" suggested a little one, eager to please.

When I taught first grade, I read the book Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth to my class.  I remember thinking that it would be quite relatable to them.  The city we lived in was touted for its beauty, but not everyone got to see that beauty when they looked out of their bedroom windows.   I hoped that by reading Something Beautiful, I could help my students to broaden their world view about what makes something truly beautiful.  As I re-read this book for the first time in two years, I found myself captivated once again by the story inside and by the inspiration that it offers to ALL readers.

The young narrator in the story recounts what she sees when looking out her window: trash in the courtyard, writing on the walls, and a broken bottle that looks like "fallen stars."  She longs to have something beautiful, something "that when you have it, it makes your heart happy."

So, she sets off on a pursuit for something beautiful!  She first stumbles upon a lady sleeping on the street and covered with a plastic sheet.  Then, she stops at Mrs. Delphine's Diner and learns that Mrs. Delphine's something beautiful is her delicious tasty fried fish.  She visits a fruit stand, where the owner prizes his beautiful red apples.  She asks her friends to describe their beautiful somethings: jump ropes, shoes, and beats. The narrator recalls that, "Mommy says everybody should have something beautiful in their lives.  Where is mine?"

After her quest for something beautiful, the narrator returns home and decides to make it beautiful by scrubbing the writing off the walls and clearing the trash away.  She dreams that one day, she will be able to give something beautiful to others, including the lady she saw sleeping on the street. When her mother arrives back at home, the narrators ask what is her something beautiful.  And to her delight, her mother says, "YOU!"

I admire how the author in this book shows how "something beautiful" can be defined differently from person to person, as long as it "makes your heart happy" when you have it.  The narrator looks beyond her immediate environment for something beautiful and makes her surroundings beautiful!   In the process of looking for something beautiful, she communicates with friends, neighbors, and family, and resolves that her something beautiful is to help others!  Especially for children living in urban environments, Something Beautiful shows that everyone can have something special of their own and instills pride for one's community.  And the illustrations in this book are something beautiful for certain!  They are bright and detailed with the appearance of shadows and lighting contrasts.  It almost looks like a book of photographs!  I felt like I was walking through the neighborhood with the narrator and visiting with her at Mrs. Delphine's Diner for a fish sandwich, the sounds of cooking grease snapping in a pan!  I felt like I was walking the colorful city blocks, the breeze in my face, and stopping at a pleasant fruit stand.  I felt like I was really seeing the writing on the wall and the broken glass and the trash and the ungrown garden behind the fence in the alley where she wasn't supposed to go.  The children in the book look authentic, and many of my first graders were pleased to read a book in which the main character had braids in her hair, just like they did!  I am eager to introduce this book to my third graders so that they can reflect on what makes their lives something beautiful, too!

Something Beautiful is an excellent book for building character.  It tells a thorough story with many characters and depicts a young girl being proactive to make a difference when she sees something wrong.  It shows a world where family and friends matter, and it is told in a poetic way that students may be inspired to emulate.  As I think about what standards teachers could intertwine within Something Beautiful, I am drawn to the idea of having students analyze the actions and citizenship of the narrator (who is never given a name).  Maybe they could even get a one-page list of names and their meanings, and then choose a name for the narrator by thinking about which meaning best embodies her character!

After reading this book with my first graders,  I asked them to tell me again something that they consider beautiful.

This time, they recalled, "My mom."

"The flowers outside!"

"My friends!"

"Miss Holt?"

The message of this book is something beautiful indeed.

"Something beautiful is something that when you have it, it makes your heart happy!"  What is your something beautiful?

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