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'D Is For Democracy' Presents the A-B-Cs of Citizenship


An American publisher has launched a new children's book with a call to civic action. Sleeping Bear Press is celebrating the publication of D is for Democracy. A Citizen's Alphabet with a nationwide competition for the best grassroots volunteer campaign.

Barbara McNally, a senior children's editor at the Chelsea, Michigan publishing house, says the project dates back to a conversation she had with her young son. He had read a magazine about American government and got excited by the notion that he could be a Democrat or a Republican. "He was just so enthusiastic about it, which took me by surprise," Ms. McNally recalls. "I would have thought most kids would have said, 'Oh, how boring.' So the book started from there, when I began thinking, this is a nine year old boy saying, 'I can be anything I want to be.'"

At Barbara McNally's suggestion, author Elissa Grodin wrote D is for Democracy, one of several alphabet books published by Sleeping Bear Press. Ms. Grodin says her book is aimed at using the ABCs to take young readers on a journey through American political history. A is for Amendment, for example, while B is for the Bill of Rights, C for Congress, D for Democracy and E for Elections. "They're big topics," Ms. Grodin says. "I wanted to choose ones that were not only integral to our system, but also find a way that I could make it interesting, because I remember civics and history can be really dry when you're a kid."

The text includes illustrations by Victor Juhasz and brief stories from history that bring abstract principles to life. On the A is for Amendment page, Elissa Grodin writes about an outspoken teenager named Edna Purtell. "In the early 1900s, she was very upset that women didn't have the vote," Ms. Grodin says. "So she became involved in that." The efforts of people like Edna Purtell ultimately led to the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave American women the right to vote.

Elissa Grodin sees such stories as a call to action for kids--something Sleeping Bear Press is also promoting with its grassroots volunteer campaign for schools. The publisher will award $1,000 grants to the five best projects. Editor Barbara McNally says that teachers and students across the United States have responded to the competition, which ends January 10. "We've had proposals from all over the country," she says, "some for projects directly within their communities--things like trash, literacy, and others that have taken a completely different tack. We've had a wonderful one from West Virginia. It was an environmental proposal to help their native black bears."

Barbara McNally believes it has become increasingly important to teach young people about the meaning of democracy in the United States. "I think they're hearing a lot about it and maybe not understanding what it means," she says. "None of these things we're doing today are brand new. It's all been based on a planned history of what our country set out to do when it was first formed. Even the word 'democracy'…some of the adults who have responded to the book have said, 'I didn't understand that's what that meant.'"

D is for Democracy also describes modern day young activists such as Annie Wignall of Iowa. She was 11 years old when she started the Care Bags Foundation. "My mom, who's a child abuse prevention educator, told me there were a lot of kids who had to leave their homes without any of their own belongings," she explains. "I thought about what it would be like to go to a house you didn't know without any of your own things. And I decided I wanted to make care bags, and they would be filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap...essential things that the kids would need and also things that would comfort them, stuffed animals and fun things they could have to do."

Since 2000, the foundation has filled care bags with donated items for more than 7,000 children around the world. The foundation has inspired other people to start similar efforts in countries from Ireland and Germany to Ghana and South Africa. Annie Wignall says her biggest reward is hearing back from the children she's helped. And she has some advice for other young people who want to start a volunteer project. "Just pick something you love and then volunteering will be easy and fun for you," she says. "I love kids, so that's why I'm doing something that will help kids."

Having fun is a theme of both the book D is for Democracy and the grassroots volunteer campaign it inspired. Author Elissa Grodin says one of her favorite parts of the book is the page for the final letter in the English alphabet. For the rather uncommon letter "z" she chose the German word zeitgeist. "Z is for the zeitgeist," she reads, "the excitement in the air. There was hard work ahead with freedom to declare." Why did Ms. Grodin make that choice? "I wanted to teach kids this word zeitgeist, which means spirit of the time," she explains. "It also worked well because in researching and writing the book I got very caught up in the zeitgeist of the early days of our democracy. We talk a lot about the Founding Fathers as social activists. It was a very exciting time."

The book, and the campaign it's inspired, are aimed at making the excitement contagious, and infecting a new generation of young activists.

For more information about the grassroots volunteer campaign sponsored by Sleeping Bear Press, visit the web site www.galeschools.com.

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