This spring my fourth graders learned a little bit about energy sources used in the United States and started to think about the consequences, both positive and negative, of each. I was dissatisfied with the unit, feeling like the kids were not able to connect well enough with the information to gain a good understanding of those consequences.
My mistake in the unit was to neglect fiction. I wish I had read Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani before teaching that unit, but at least I’ll be ready next year.
Fiction introduces us to new friends and can help us to gain empathy and understanding in a way that nonfiction might not. (Though a good narrative nonfiction would do the same.) After reading The Tales of Despereaux as a class, the kids seemed to understand well why the little mouse who set up household in our classroom acted the way it did. Our Despereaux also stayed to the edges, ran when people approached, but crept out seemingly to better hear the stories during read aloud. Because of the valiant Despereaux of the story, they did not want to harm this little mouse but rather to find it a better place to live.
River’s experience with the coal industry in Same Sun Here might help kids better understand the consequences of this particular energy source. On the one hand, River’s family, like most of the families in his Kentucky home, depended on the coal industry for income. We see the disruption to family life when the coal jobs moved away and his dad had to go away to find work. The coal industry means jobs, means funded schools, means that people can afford to stay in their homes. Later, when mountaintop removal begins, the consequences become dire. The stream is polluted and can no longer be fished and then a rock slide puts kids in danger.
Stories like this can help kids see the consequences of such usually invisible decisions like where our electricity comes from.
Even without the connection to our energy unit, this book is a good read. It shows us long-distance friendship between two kids who on the surface are completely different. It reminds us that people are the same: we love our grandmothers, we want to fit in without losing ourselves, we want our families to be together, we want to know there is something we can do to fight injustice, we make mistakes, and we need a friend who lets us be our true selves.
Meena’s story reveals the struggles of many immigrant families to find their place in the United States, through the bureaucratic hoops and the economic realities. Her description of life in New York City would sound familiar to many of my students who also have had to lie or hide to keep their family safely housed, who have seen family and friends move away because they could not afford to stay, who find joy in a trusted community despite the difficulties.
And, in their friendship, River and Meena teach us that stereotypes and prejudices only serve to keep us apart when a good friend could found instead.
Same Sun Here is told through the letters these pen pals exchange. We get to eavesdrop on their friendship and see how it grows and this format helps readers connect to the characters. We see how they each draw strength from the relationship, we see their kindness for a person they never met face to face, and we learn something about how to find common ground.
Read the book. Read it out loud with your elementary school students. Read it with a small book club, as part of an energy unit, as part of an immigration unit, or to launch a pen pal writing project. Or just read it because it is a good story, well told by kids who are a lot like ours.