At one Read Across America Day event, Dr. Seuss ditched for more current topics

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GREAT BARRINGTON — They came with their stories, toys, music, maps and their joys.

On Friday morning, 19 guest readers, all with immigrant heritage, were welcomed to Muddy Brook Elementary School for Read Across America Day.

The annual literary event falls on the birthday of children's author Dr. Seuss — Theodor Geisel — and is typically celebrated with "Cat in the Hat"-inspired decor, costumes and the reading of Dr. Seuss stories. But, as Muddy Brook librarian Patty Melville says, "Dr. Seuss gets old."

Instead, she tries to come up with a different annual theme related to current events and American traditions. Last year's was the Olympics. Previous years' themes included the Great American West, studies of Louisiana, complete with Mardi Gras-style parade, American elections, and a year that focused on Alaska and the Iditarod dog sled race, which also happens around March 2 each year.

"I try to focus on the America part of Read Across America and not repeat Dr. Seuss over and over and over again," Melville said.

This year in the library, Melville has highlighted stories and information regarding the U.S' immigrant heritage. With the support of a Berkshire Hills Fund for Excellence grant, she purchased books for each classroom on the topic.

For Read Across America Day, she invited immigrant community members, including eight students from Bard College at Simon's Rock, to read books and folk tales related to their native heritage, and asked them to also share their cultural experiences with students, from art to recipes. She selected age-appropriate titles that were distributed to the readers with the help of Laurie Harrison at Great Barrington's Mason Library.

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Collectively, the readers represented the nations of India, Mexico, France, Colombia, England, Australia, China, South Korea, Iran, Greece, Ecuador, Haiti, Cuba and Japan, as well as the U.S. Spanish-speaking territory of Puerto Rico.

For Simon's Rock student Matin Yazdi of Iran, who brought a Persian rug for the occasion, this was his first chance to interact with local schoolchildren.

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"I love this," he exclaimed, practically dancing around the school lobby. "I wish I could do this every Friday."

Paris native Christophe Pichard read "The Way to the Orsay Museum" to Kerry Manzolini's fourth-grade students, engaging them with a 19th-century reproduction map of French monuments to help orient the students with the French capital.

Melville described Pichard as "a collector and a museum lover" and said "he brought his passion with him for the students, and that's what I love."

In Jack Curletti's kindergarten class, his students and reader Juliana Oliver, a Simon's Rock student from Puerto Rico, were equally impressed with one another.

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"You guys are so funny, it's great," Oliver said as the students tested their pronunciations of "amarillo" — "yellow" in Spanish — and discussed how to make crispy fried tostones from plantains.

Simon's Rock student Binwei Yu of China got dozens of questions about her country after reading the story "Ming Lo Moves the Mountain" to Shannon Guerrero's third-graders. Yu discussed how it's more appropriate to refer to the recent holiday of Lunar New Year versus Chinese New Year, "because not just Chinese people celebrate it."

"What's your favorite part of Great Barrington so far?" third-grader Ben Moro asked of Yu.

She replied: "The people are really nice here, welcoming and very kind."

Melville beamed as she watched the interactions.

"This is exactly what I'd hoped for," she said.


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