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The Rhythm of Reading: Books inspired by the American Songbook

Patriotic songs about our country include lyrics telling of its founding, its people, and its terrain.

These songs -- evoking the essence of America -- offer more than patriotic tunes. They contribute to a culture of citizenry and unity. We are a big country of vast, diverse land and population. A sense of "one nation under God" and E Pluribus Unum can come from knowing that Americans from the East Coast to the West Coast and everywhere in between are singing the same song. We want our kids to know these songs and sing along, too... but we especially want them to understand and appreciate the meaning behind the melody. These books will help initiate conversations about country and patriotism in the context of song.


America The Beautiful

America The Beautiful (by Katharine Lee Bates)

More than 100 years ago, in 1893, a young poet named Katharine Lee Bates sat atop Colorado’s Pike’s Peak. She was overcome by the vast beauty and unlimited potential of a young nation. Inspiration turned to words, and “America the Beautiful” was born. Two years later, the poem would run in a Boston church publication, The Congregationalist, and then immediately spread in a pre-internet version of “going viral.” Composer Samuel Ward’s melody was eventually paired with the poem and a favorite American hymn was born. This book depicts the beloved song, “America the Beautiful,” with each lyric paired with a detailed illustration that touches on the beauty of the United States (from the pilgrims to 9/11 heroes) and our country’s best resources (from her national parks to her people). Bates’ words shine in this picture book.

Lesson: This poem endures as one of our national treasures because it is a reminder of all that we have, and all that we need to preserve.

Ideas for discussion:

  • Ask your child: What is your favorite thing about America?

  • Ask your child: Look at the lyrics from the fourth stanza “O beautiful for patriot dream, That sees beyond the years” -- the space program is the illustration on the page, but Americans have been known for innovation for generations -- from light bulbs, to cars, to cellular phones, to the internet -- when you think about what life will be like in 50 years, what will be different? What will you invent? What do you dream of? Draw that picture.

  • Ask your child: Let’s talk about the lyrics “O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife… who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life” -- so many men and women have prioritized their country over themselves What are some ways people are doing that today? How can we thank them?

  • Try to memorize all the lyrics to America the beautiful -- most people only know the first verse and chorus!


This Land Is Your Land

This Land Is Your Land (by Woody Guthrie)

A favorite folk song, originally written by Woody Guthrie in the 1940s, is brought to toe-tapping life in this richly illustrated book. Featuring the complete lyrics and musical notation, the song was originally written in the midst of the Dust Bowl, highlighting the beautiful (“endless skyway...golden valley”) and the challenging (“they stood there hungry”) realities of America during the Great Depression. The historical context at the end of the book helps frame the images of the soup kitchens and Oklahoma migrants making their way to California. The paradox of abundance and scarcity also creates an opportunity for discussion -- from the images of homeless camps under bridges to Iowa cornfields -- there are so many different perspectives from which to see America at any point in history. But the diverse landscapes of our nation and the many different types of experiences possible here is exactly why we love it. We inherited an imperfect country, but it’s also the one with the most opportunity for anyone, anywhere, to pursue the American dream.

Lesson: A reflection on folk music, the great depression, and the land of opportunity.

Ideas for discussion:

  • America is a big place with so many different types of people -- but we have all inherited this country and are responsible for her care (that’s what it means to be a citizen!). What do you love most about “this land”?

  • How can we take care of the “land that we love” and which pages in this book would you like to visit?

  • In the book some people have houses, some people live on boats, and other people have tents. Some people live in the mountains and others in the desert. America is a place where people have the freedom to make their own choices -- where would you choose to live? With whom would you choose to live?

  • Folk music (along with jazz and musical theater) is a uniquely American art. If you were going to write a song about something you have experienced or are experiencing (school, an activity, camp), what would you sing about? If your child still needs you for a scribe, why not write down a few of those words and put it to a tune they know, like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Twinkle, Twinkle.”


The National Anthem

The National Anthem (by Elaine Landau)

The story behind the National Anthem’s lyrics is perhaps as moving as the anthem itself. A young poet named Francis Scott Key was being held by the British in a small boat during the War of 1812. The morning after a British attack, he recounted the pride felt as he witnessed an American flag (hand-sewn by Mary Young Pickersgill) fly over Fort McHenry. This book from the “True Book” series helps early readers understand the context under which Key’s poem was written -- and how it eventually became our National Anthem.

Lesson: We usually don’t sing the National Anthem alone -- we sing it with other people. It’s one way to show we are united and proud to be Americans.

Ideas for discussion:

  • The American flag was an important symbol for Major George Armistead to boldly stake claim in the land at Fort McHenry. It was also an important symbol for Francis Scott Key and John Skinner -- Americans being held offshore -- to know that their homeland was defended. What does the flag mean to you when you see it?

  • In history and today, flags are used to communicate (such as a war victory, a rip tide, or a sign of peace). What are some more ways we communicate with flags?

  • Let’s make a flag to communicate something to our neighbors. What should it be?

  • Take a virtual tour of the original Fort McHenry flag on the Smithsonian's website in the American History Museum. You can also take a real tour of Fort McHenry -- where a flag flies 24 hours a day -- the next time you are in the Baltimore, MD area.


The Story of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

The Story of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (by Patricia A. Pingry)

Like the previously featured book, this book tells the story about how Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the poem which would be later adapted to become our National Anthem. While The National Anthem is ideal for early readers, this board book is a sweet and simple introduction for toddlers. It also illustrates how to respectfully sing along to our nation’s song.

Lesson: When we hear and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we "stand, remove our hats, and place our right hands over our hearts." It is one way to show respect for those who fought for and protected our freedoms.

Ideas for discussion:

  • What some other ways we show respect for something we value?

  • Based on other details from the page illustrations, what are some more words that Francis Scott Key might have included in his poem-turned-song?

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