October 2001

Speak up, young readers!

By Suzanne McIntire
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How many of you remember the agony of having to memorize the Gettysburg Address in school? Or perhaps it was something by one of the founding fathers? Who needs this stuff? you would moan. What’s the point? The major problem with historic orations, students have always complained, is that they are dry. American Heritage, one of the foremost magazines about this nation’s culture, has collected an eclectic set of speeches given not only by politicians, but also by people in many walks of life, from sports figures to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The Book of Great American Speeches for Young People contains over 100 discourses on a myriad of topics. Some classics can be found within, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s address after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. On a lighter political note, there’s the Checker’s Speech, in which Richard Nixon swore that the only gift he received during the 1952 campaign was a little cocker spaniel and that "we’re gonna keep him."   Other orators in The Book of Great American Speeches for Young People include Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, John F. Kennedy, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mark Twain, just to name a few. Speeches are used to influence and encourage, so there are several declamations which consider the struggles for women’s suffrage, civil rights and the evils of slavery. And since the nation was founded on free speech, there are also numerous discourses of protest and dissent. The less earthshaking fare, though no less dramatic, is also here. Lou Gehrig paid an emotional farewell to baseball, in which, though stricken with the terminal illness that would one day bear his name, he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. One of the more poignant speeches, to which young readers will relate, was given by 10-year-old Samantha Smith in 1983 to the Children’s Symposium on the Year 2001, after her impassioned letter to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov made world news. The letter stated her fears of nuclear war between his country and America, proving that young people can make a difference.

In addition to its generous collection, The Book of Great American Speeches for Young People encourages readers to speak out for what they believe in. Its concluding chapter on how (and why) to make an effective speech will give the reader a boost of confidence and a skill which will prove useful long after school days are over.


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