Have you ever gone looking for a book and found a different book, one you haven’t thought about in a while, instead? That happened to me the other day when I came across Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship, by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu, with amazing photographs by Peter Greste (Scholastic, 2006).
This book tells the story of Owen, a baby hippo, who was left stranded on a coral reef off the coast of Kenya after the 2004 tsunami. Separated from his pod, Owen was too young to be released into the wild on his own, and wouldn’t be accepted by another pod. Arrangements were made for him to be taken to Haller Park, a wildlife sanctuary near Mombasa. Almost immediately after he arrived, Owen began to follow a 130-year old Aldabra tortoise named Mzee. Mzee had a reputation for being a loner, and everyone at the park was sure he’ll rebuff Owen. But, to the amazement of everyone, Mzee accepted Owen, and the two became inseparable. There are a number of other books that recount the story of Owen and Mzee, but this is my favorite.
This story of a most unlikely friendship made me think of another tale of two very different creatures becoming devoted friends. Amos & Boris, by William Steig (Farrar, Straus & Giroux,1971) was one of the first picture books I read as an adult that opened my eyes to the power and depth of children’s literature. Children enjoy listening to the mouse Amos’s efforts to build and supply his boat, the Rodent. But events soon get serious, and a happy adventure turns into a matter of life and death in an instant.
Rescued by Boris, a kind whale, Amos professes his thanks and pledges to help Boris anyway he can, whenever necessary. Boris laughs at the thought of a tiny mouse being able to help a huge whale, but he accepts the offer. Of course, years later, Amos’s help is needed, and is gratefully accepted.
Both of these books offer children a picture of pure generosity. There is never a “what’s in it for me” thought; never a hesitation to help a soul in need. This alone is a good reason to share these books with children. There are others though, including the fact that these books both address a number of CCSS objectives. (Amos & Boris is listed as an exemplar text in Appendix B, but that is not why I love it.) Anchor standards 1-3 in both Literature and Informational text are easily met, and pairing these books seems like an obvious choice for anchor standard 9, “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.” There are also plenty of opportunities to develop vocabulary (Literacy Anchor standard 4 and Language Anchor standards 4-6). Steig’s writing is filled with rich, descriptive language, as one of my favorite lines from the book shows:
“One night, in a phosphorescent sea, [Amos] marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water…”
Owen and Mzee have their own website, and video clips of them are available.
Sharing short informational video segments on any of the animals in these books before or after reading would help teachers meet Literacy Anchor standard 7, “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.”
Lucy Calkins recently stated that teachers have a responsibility to build our knowledge base and to be wary of packaged programs. Revisiting books already in our libraries, as well as staying abreast with all the wonderful books currently being published is one way to do this. Teachers working in the classroom have better ideas about how to use books with their students than textbook publishers do.
Be sure to visit Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts to find out what others are reading today.