As I’ve mentioned before, using a great picture book is one of my favorite activities for introducing a new reading unit. Short and sweet, with lots of engaging pictures, it’s a sure way to get kids interested in the theme and a quick way to introduce a reading skill or two that you plan to incorporate into the unit.
For a reading unit with a theme of immigration, I’ve chosen the picture book Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say. It’s the story of a young man who comes to love both his new country and his home country and to appreciate the experiences of his grandfather who made a similar journey years before.
Through a tale about the lifetime journey of his grandfather, the narrator, and the readers, learn an appreciation for many things in each country – Japan and the United States, and we see how the immigrant experience is really a lifetime experience, or even longer as in this four-generation story that begins with the narrator’s grandfather and ends after the narrator has a daughter of his own.
This tale of two cultures focuses on beautiful things and positive ideas about both Japan and the United States that students can expand on with research or more stories as the reading unit progresses. For example, the grandfather spent a long time exploring parts of North America where he was impressed by the great variety of landscapes that he saw – deserts, fields of wheat, mountains, and industrial cities. Students could follow-up with a mini-research project to find images, facts, and descriptive language about these different regions of the country.
Later in his life, on a return visit to Japan, grandfather enjoyed visiting the countryside and the small village that he remembered, but his daughter, a modern young woman, felt more at home in a big Japanese city. American students might have an image of Japan that is mainly one or the other, all simple and rural or all crowded cities. It might be interesting for them to learn more about the setting that they are less familiar with.
Grandfather’s Journey is also a good book for introducing the story element of setting: it is set in two very different locations, takes place in an interesting period in history that many students will be studying in history class, and has a duration of four generations, long enough for talking about the changes that might have happened over the years but short enough for kids to make sense of.
Interesting discussion questions might include:
- How would you compare the narrator to his grandfather? What are some similarities? Differences?
- How would you compare Grandfather’s journey to the journey of immigrants that you know or have heard of recently?
- Why might people from one culture at first mistrust people from another culture that they know very little about?
- How could learning about something as simple as the everyday life of someone in a village or a city in another part of the world contribute to better understanding between cultures?
- What else have you read with a theme of immigration?
- What other country would you most like to visit? What part of the United States?