I think the best way for students to make the connection from text to historical worlds is through understanding people and their stories. Picture book biographies make that link easily as they become more unique and intriguing in format and illustration each year. They’re probably the only consistently wonderful longer picture books produced these days. Publishers seek out primarily manuscripts that consist of only 600 words.
Two of my recent favorites are books about women. The first is Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. This picture book provides a horrifying picture of what young immigrants like Clara Lemlich faced when they worked in sweatshops. From dawn to dusk, she’s locked up in a “sunless room stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside.” She (and readers) quickly learn the unrelenting rules — a few minutes late and you lose half a day’s pay. Prick your finger and bleed on cloth? You’re fired. This paints a portrait of the situation and the courage it took young Clara and thousands of other brave girls who picketed and protested in 1909. There is much in this book to recommend it for the details of that stunning variety that hit hard and make you want to re-read them to understand how the author has created this poignant picture.
Today’s children’s care about the environment, but they might be surprised to discover history has many who, like them, want to make a difference. People like Kate Sessions. H. Joseph Hopkins, the author of The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever was similarly surprised. In fact that’s what motivated his creation of this book (note, I’m putting this on my Author’s Purpose list). Hopkins lives in “woodsy Portland, Oregon” and on visiting San Diego, California was struck by the contrast of lush gardens to the desert terrains. The book came into focus as he learned that one woman was largely responsible for this changed landscape. The book conveys both her passion for the trees and his for both his subject and words. Throughout his refrain “But not Kate” is poetically placed but also gives a strong sense of Sessions’ tendency to thin differently in an era that did not support women, nor people who thought about the importance of trees. His views and Sessions’ actions are equaled and well portrayed with a variety of visual perspectives offered by illustrator Jill McElmurry. So there you go…two women who fought status quo to change history. Their stories told strongly to enliven history, make these heroines real and, become two texts you can compare to each other examining time periods, similarities and differences of approaches, and more. And if you want to dig in, here are a few other books about females who dared make a difference.
- Ann Malaspina’s picture of the suffragette in Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President (2012)
- Meghan McCarty’s portrait of the 1930s aviator in Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton (2013)
- the 1930s explorer in Alicia Potter’s Mrs. Harkness and the Panda (2012)
- the WWII heroine in Susan Goldman Rubin’s Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto (2011) .