Monday, April 1, 2013

Non-Fiction Monday: Four Must-have Picture Books for Middle School Social Studies

Well, there are many more than four picture books that can be used effectively in middle school social studies, but I read three of these this March and the fourth last fall. Technically two are fiction, so I will lead off with the two non-fiction books. There is no rule that the social studies teacher may use only informational books, especially when introducing a unit, especially when a story feels True.

The Price of Freedom: how one town stood up to slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin & Dennis Brindell Fradin. Illustrated by Eric Velasquez. 48 p. Walker Books for Young Readers/ Bloomsbury, January, 2013. 9780802721662. (Purchased)

This is the story of John Price and the town of Oberlin, Ohio. In 1856, Price and two friends, Frank and Dinah, escaped slavery and crossed the frozen Ohio River to Oberlin, where all three were hidden for the winter. Price and Frank were able to get work and were made to feel welcome by most folks. In fact, Oberlin was so welcoming that nearly 400 former slaves decided against continuing their journey to Canada and settled there despite the threat of The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Not all the folks of Oberlin felt welcoming though. When a band of slave hunters led by Anderson Jennings took lodgings in a flophouse, their presence was reported by a ten-year-old, but Jennings still found his way to the Boyntons who were one of the few families that supported the Act. Their thirteen-year-old son was hired to help. He told both John and Frank that he knew of someone looking to hire and offered to take them. Frank begged off, but John accompanied the boy right into an ambush. He was bound and thrown into the back of the wagon. Upon seeing a young college student walking toward Oberlin, John yelled that he was being kidnapped. Seeing no reaction from the student, John despaired. 

That solitary student set straight to work alerting the townsfolk, including former slaves, who armed themselves and set out to rescue John.

The illustrations are atmospheric. Inky night scenes cause the viewer to peer into the shadows to make out the subjects. John Price's kidnappers are menacing and the resolve  of the townsfolk is absolute. The final double-page illustration is a black and white photo of the rescuers, who were found guild of defying the Fugitive Slave Law and jailed for three months. Pages containing a note about the Underground Railroad and Oberlin; a bibliography, suggestions for further reading and websites conclude this compelling story. 

Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. 32 p. Amistad/ HarperCollins Publishers, December, 2012. 9780061920720. (Purchased)

Charles R. Smith Jr. pays homage to the many anonymous slaves whose labor was invaluable in the construction of the White House. In rhythmic verse, Smith depicts the long hours and sometimes dangerous work required to clear the mosquito and snake infested land, haul and cut the stone, and lay the bricks, while their owners earned the money.

Floyd Cooper's signature style shines here. His palette is sandy, muted and grainy save for the faces and hands of the workers. The eye is drawn to each careworn face in turn, and then are drawn to the hands - strong hands - hands that are busy for most of the day only to return home empty.

I am embarrassed to admit that I never thought about the construction of the White House. This is but one reason why one is never too old for picture books. There is always something new to learn in bite-sized manageable chunks. This moving story belongs in all school libraries from elementary through high school.

The author flap lists websites for both the author and illustrator, only the illustrator's site seems to have been removed. The link is dead. Interested readers may visit the author's site here.

Light in the Darkness: a story about how slaves learned in secret by Lesa Cline-Ransome. Illustrated by James E. Ransome. 40 p. Disney/ Jump at the Sun Books/ Hyperion Books for Children, January, 2013. 9781423134954. (Purchased)

Rosa, a young slave girl is awakened by her mother in the middle of the night with the words, "It's time." Soundlessly, they slip out of their cabin into the night, taking care to avoid the patrollers. It is time for Rosa to learn to read.

She knows the stakes are high. It is illegal for slaves to learn to read, but a man named Morris learned from his master's wife and he now teaches others in a "pit school." Any slave caught learning to read risks a whipping or worse. 

Morris is a patient and competent teacher. Young and old are gathered in the pit watching him make letters with sticks and imitating the sounds he says that each letter makes. 

"Touch it," Morris says. "So you remember with your eyes, your ears, and your hands."

So they learn through the night, return to the quarters just before dawn and try to stay awake to work during the day, all the while keeping the secret.

The author explains that she discovered the existence of these schools while researching her biography of Frederick Douglass.

Unspoken: a story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole. 40 p. Scholastic, Inc., November, 2012. 978-545399975. (Purchased)

Silence can be a very scary thing sometimes. When a farm child accidentally discovers a runaway slave in the barn at the same time slave hunters arrive, she know enough to keep silent. Once they leave, she silently offers food while her parents are none the wiser. She discovers that the fugitive has moved on when she finds a cornhusk doll left as thanks for her silent acceptance and aid.

The pencil (charcoal?) sketches are atmospheric and surprisingly detailed. This is one intense and moving book that asks, "What would you do?" at the end, and begs thoughtful reflection, discussion and answers.

I never did get around to reviewing this wordless wonder. I did share it with the ESL teacher at my school when we presented together at a workshop. We shared a wordless unit we developed with area ESL teachers in late October. The book released early and I was able to bring it to the workshop. My colleague fell instantly in love and folded it into her unit on the Underground Railroad for her eighth grade students. Its usage is not limited to ESL students nor is it limited to only the social studies classroom.

These are just four picture books recently added to my school library collection to support the curriculum and inspire.

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