Monday, March 10, 2014

American History Picture Books in 2012-2013 Post 1 of 5: Slavery and the Civil War

Last year, when First Son was in third grade, we studied American History from slavery through modern times. I used a hodge-podge of books with First Son (based around what I could find at our local library). Because I have an insatiable love of picture books, I selected about one a week to read to the girls that was set in the same time period. For much of the year, First Son read these books to the girls for me. It was necessary because I was working much more than I had planned and while I was a little sad to miss out on the time with them, I think it forced him to pay attention to books that were still good for him and interesting which he might otherwise have ignored.

I'm going to break the year into a series of five posts because otherwise I think the number of books would be overwhelming. These are the picture books we read covering the time of slavery in America and the Civil War. We spent twelve weeks on this era.

First Son was in third grade, First Daughter was in kindergarten, Second Daughter was four and Second Son wasn't paying attention.

Priscilla and the Hollyhocks by Anne Broyles, illustrated by Anne Alter, is the story of a young slave with a Cherokee owner who joins the family on the Trail of Tears. Despite being a difficult topic for young children, this story focuses on finding a way to remain a "person" in slavery, seeking out the loveliness of creation, and a few people who blessed those who were suffering. It's a wonderful book.

Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, is a tale of Harriet Tubman when she was just a child. It's a rich look at her life as a slave child, masterfully illustrated by Mr. Pinkney. The harsh treatment by her masters is contrasted with the love and comfort she receives from her family. This is a great way to begin or continue a discussion of slavery with young children.

Follow the Drinking Gourd written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter is a popular choice for this subject. For those who are interested, the music and lyrics for the folk song are included in the back of the book. If I were reading it now, we'd listen to a version of the song on Spotify.

Mr. Lincoln's Whiskers written and illustrated by Karen B. Winnick is a fun tale of a young girl who wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln, encouraging him to grow whiskers. It is based on a true story and is one of encouragement to all young girls. Most of all, it shows some of the generosity, warmth, and humor of President Lincoln.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James Ransome, is one of my favorite books, even if the idea of a quilt showing the way to freedom is a little unlikely. Clara is a slave taught to be a seamstress so she can work in the house rather than the fields. Working in the kitchen, she often hears stories of the fields and landmarks around and quilts together a map to freedom. James Ransome's illustrations are lovely as always. (Some nice member of sent me a copy signed by the illustrator.)

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, is a fantastic book. The lyrical text is perfectly combined with the glowing illustrations by Mr. Nelson. What I love most about this book is how the strength and courage of Harriet Tubman shine throughout the book.

Under the Quilt of Night by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James E. Ransome, is the work of one of my favorite authors and one of my favorite illustrators. The text briefly tells of a group's journey from slavery to freedom in Canada along the underground railroad. The note at the end is helpful. The illustrations, of course, are wonderful.

Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, was a favorite in our family. Though it does not shy away from the harsh realities of a slave's life (his wife and children are sold away from him), the idea of mailing yourself to freedom is ridiculous enough to startle and delight children. And it worked! Mr. Nelson's illustrations are as perfect as always.

A Place Called Freedom by Scott Russell Sanders, illustrated by Thomas B. Allen, is inspired by the true story of the founding of Lyles Station in Indiana. It's a sweet, simply story that emphasizes family, perseverance, and hard work. The families escape slavery but the focus is on how they create their own lives after they reach free soil. The illustrations are among my favorites.
The Silent Witness by Robin Friedman, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, is such an interesting book. The McLean family was coincidentally involved both in the battle in Manassas and the final surrender in Appomattox. Lula's rag doll was present at the surrender and carried off by Colonel Moore. Though the events in the book are frightening (as was the Civil War), this is a "safe" story of a family's experience of the war because they always seem to escape real harm. Other than the kidnapping of the rag doll, which you can now see on display in Appomattox.

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco tells the story of two men of the Union army during the Civil War, one separated from his unit, the other running from his unit. A young white enlisted man learns the true reason for the war. There is so much sadness in this book. I finally did when First Son was in third grade and First Daughter was in kindergarten because the ending is so powerful. First Daughter was a little sad, but the uplifting ending was enough to overcome her sorrow. I still recommend parents read it first to make sure it would be appropriate.

The Last Brother: A Civil War Tale by Trinka Hakes Noble, illustrated by Robert Papp, is a beautifully illustrated book of a young bugler who follows his 16-year-old brother into the Civil War after receiving news that their two older brothers had been killed in the war. Gabe faces his first battle at Gettysburg. The book is full of details about daily army life at that time, for a bugler, and touches on just about every important topic in war. Gabe happens to meet a Confederate bugler in the woods and becomes friendly. In the battle, then, he faces the harsh reality of someone he knows on both sides of the battlefield, something not uncommon in the Civil War. This was a hard book to read aloud to my young children, but they were all enthralled. It's one worth sharing, especially with older children.

The Cemetery Keepers of Gettysburg by Linda Oatman High, illustrations by Laura Francesca Filippucci, is the tale of the family that cared for the cemetery at Gettysburg. It's an illuminating look at the battle from the point of view of bystanders in danger. Parts of it are frightening and distressing, so it's important to read it before sharing with young or sensitive children. This is based on a true story and one of the things I love about this book is the bravery of average people and very young people in the face of responsibility.

Wagon Wheels by Barbara Brenner, pictures by Don Bolognese, is one of my favorite books. It's an early chapter book (An I Can Read Level 3 book) in which a black man and his three sons move to Kansas (hooray for Kansas) to the free town of Nicodemus. Their mother died on the journey. They endure harsh weather and hunger. They are saved by the Osage Indians. Their father moves on to seek a better homes, leaving the three young boys (with neighbors near-by). They care for each other, support each other, and help each other on a 150 mile journey to join their father. It's amazing how much wonder, strength, courage, and familial love is packed in this short book, all based on true stories. The pictures are enjoyable, too.

A Band of Angels by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Raul Colon, is inspired by the true story of the Jubilee Singers at Fish School, which served former slaves. This was a wonderful story for the end of our unit, touching on the courage of freed slaves, the desire for an education, and their dedication to each other. You can also read about the Fisk Jubilee Singers on their website.

Though I didn't read it with my children, a new book I found at our library called Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James Ransome would be a good one to include. It focuses on the great desire of some slaves to learn to read, risking capture and beatings to attend pit schools.

Posts in This Series - I'll update this list with links to all the others after they post.
#1: Slavery and the Civil War (this post)
#2: Progressive Era and Immigration
#3: World War I, Women's Suffrage, and the 1920s
#4: The Great Depression and World War II
#5: Civil Rights, Hawai'i, Alaska, and Space Exploration

You can find some more books on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln on this post from First Son's kindergarten year. Here are links to all the picture books we read through American history that year (2009-2010). These are some of my favorite books and I'm excited to be planning a return to reading through American history in picture books as part of our American history studies next year.


  1. We are studying the Civil War right now - I am excited to request from the library some new titles I learned about from you. Thank you!

  2. Glad I could help, Kelly! I hope you and your family enjoy them. Let me know if you've read any I didn't mention that you really liked, too.


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