Title: My Great-Aunt Arizona
Written by Gloria Houston
Illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb
Published by Harper Collins, 1992
Themes: teaching, Appalachian region, biography, generations
My great-aunt Arizona was born in a log cabin her papa built in the meadow on Henson Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When she was born, the mailman rode across the bridge on his big bay horse with a letter.
Gloria Houston has written an enchanting picture book tribute to her great-aunt and teacher, Arizona. She grows up linked in every way to her Blue Ridge community, enjoying the creek, making maple syrup, square dances, but most of all she is a reader. When she outgrows the books of the one room school house (think Laura Ingalls Wilder) she takes her father’s mule through the snow to the slightly larger school in the next village. She dreams of faraway places transported through her books. She goes away to college but returns to Henson Creek to become a 4th grade teacher, where she passes these dreams and curiosity onto her students. There are many themes woven into this story, including Arizona’s love of flowers/plants. The entire school yard became filled with living Christmas trees planted each year by Arizona’s students. For fifty seven years she hugged her students whether their work was good or bad! She taught them, “words, and numbers, and about faraway places they would visit some day.” Gloria concludes the book with the death of Arizona on her 93rd birthday and her ongoing influence in the minds of her many students.
Why I like this book:
This biography is narrated with rhythm, repetition, joy and respect for her great-aunt, whom one ascertains has been a great life model to her, and many others, as a woman and teacher. Both Gloria and her aunt grew up in The Appalachian mountains of N Carolina and the rural mountain setting has a beautiful voice in this story. Gloria Houston has said that she had tried to write the story about her great-aunt as a biography and as a novel but was not pleased with the effect. When she read Miss Rumphius she realized that Arizona’s story would be better as a picture book and rewrote it in this format, which works superbly. There is a beautiful simplicity and tenacity of rural life in the rhythm of the text and the themes of learning, mentoring, location are woven beautifully into the story.
Lamb’s watercolor artwork, filled with light and color, is the perfect backdrop for the aging and yet ageless depiction of Arizona, reflecting the enduring impact of a good teacher. The continuity of her life seems to flow through the images, and her connection to the future is beautifully expressed in the painting of the road curving out of sight into the misty forest. This is a story brimming optimism and determination.
- Use this book in a classroom as part of a family tree lesson plan.
- A few different generations of children are mentioned so it would be relevant to talk about families and how each generation came from the one before them and what they did.
- What makes a good teacher discussion.
Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with teaching resources and activities, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.