Three Great Novels for Making Connections

I’ve been on a fiction kick lately. I bought several Very Grown Up historical monographs at the most recent library book sale, and then realized that I might have been temporarily insane, because I am just not in a phase of life where that type of reading is even remotely attractive.

So, I settled in with a little collection of books written for middle schoolers, which is a more accurate reflection of my current state of mind. You should know that these just ended up on the shelf next to each other, and that I had no intention of putting them together in a little grouping until I started reading the third one and realized how beautifully they could work together.

All three of these are books set in time periods following the Civil War, but each deals with the ramifications of enslavement in some way. They are each also coming-of-age stories, with family relationships central to the plot. Back in the olden days, we used to put together text sets, and this would really make a great one if you’re still doing that sort of thing. Bare minimum, you could just ask your child to read all three and then sit down and discuss them together. There’s a lot to discuss!

books for science minded girls

I read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate first. (IndieBound/Amazon) Written by Jacqueline Kelly, this tells the story of Callie, only girl living amongst a sea of brothers on a Texas cotton plantation at the turn of the 20th century. Constantly told what she should be doing because of her gender, she finds comfort and security by following in the footsteps of her naturalist grandfather. The time span of the story is only a few months, but in that time we read about enormous growth and changes in Callie’s outlook on the world at large and on the society in which she finds herself.

Readers will identify with Callie’s struggle to please her parents, learn the skills required of her, and still assert her own ideas about what is interesting and worth her time. Callie finds an unlikely ally in her grandfather, but also cherishes relationships with school friends and siblings. While everything is not neatly tied up in a bow at the end of the book, I enjoyed the positivity of many of the family’s interactions, even when it was obvious that Callie and her parents were basically planets in separate orbits.

Overall, I think that the emphasis on natural history would be fascinating for many kids today whose idea of science is a textbook or a YouTube video, and could quite possibly be inspiring. This book, some field guides, and a blank notebook would make a great gift for an upper elementary school student.

My one complaint with this book was that it tended a bit much toward a sense of longing for the Good Old Days before the Civil War. I’m not sure if a 4th-6th grader would pick up on that or not, but the other two books in this post would certainly overcome that emotion in a hurry.

books about community

Since things had gone so well with Miss Callie, I decided to just grab the next book on the shelf. The Sittin’ Up (IndieBound/Amazon) was recommended to my husband at Little Shop of Stories, but, sadly, I had let it languish all summer.

Sheila Moses, whose work I had not read previously, writes with a really beautiful depth of language. This story is told in dialect, which might be off-putting to young readers, but the carefully developed story and characters would overcome that for most, I think. The Sittin’ Up begins with the death of Mr. Bro. Wiley, a formerly-enslaved man who had lived to be 100 years old. Set in 1940, it takes place over the week following the death, and culminates in Mr. Bro. Wiley’s “sittin’ up” the night before he’s scheduled to be buried.

The characters are many and varied, and both the African-American and White residents of the area are portrayed multi-dimensionally. The relationships between the country-dwelling and city-dwelling people are also shown to be multifaceted. From the outset of the book, a huge storm is predicted, and by the time it arrives, the reader is deeply invested in the characters’ and community’s response. Even the most stereotypical of the characters’ relationships are cast in a different light as the community works together to recover in the days following the disaster.

Sprinkled throughout the book are the narrator’s – Bean’s – memories of Mr. Bro. Wiley, and the bits of wisdom that he shared with seemingly everyone with whom he ever spoke. This common wisdom serves to be a great source of strength for the Low Meadows community, and it comforts them in their time of trial.

There’s enough action in this story to make it appealing to reluctant readers, and that action also makes for a great classroom read-aloud. With a little pre-reading, you could figure out exactly where to stop each day so that your students would be clamoring for more. While the setting and plot are entirely rural and agricultural, I think the overall story is timeless and would resonate with most kids in the upper-elementary and middle grades.

If you live somewhere that has been affected by flooding, you would want to be very cautious to share this, though, because the height of the flood is described in great detail, and I could easily see it being upsetting to a student who had lived through such a disaster.

middle grades book review

The Freedom Maze (IndieBound/Amazon) almost ended up being something I didn’t read. The basic plot of the story involves time travel, in manner similar to that in Jane Yolen’s classic The Devil’s Arithmetic (IndieBound/Amazon). Sophie, forced to spend the summer of 1960 on her grandmother’s mouldering Louisiana sugar plantation, inadvertently travels back a century to find that her own ancestors think she is enslaved by them.

Like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, there is a bit of Old South mystique to the initial pages of the novel. This fades quickly, as Sophie realizes that the ‘good treatment’ so vaunted by her family in their personal history of enslavement is untrue and ignorant of the real immorality of the institution.

Sophie spends what seems to be months in the slave quarters, and develops relationships with her ancestors (the plantation owners) and the people they enslaved. She witnesses up-close the difficulties of plantation agriculture, and the ever-present dangers of life in the 1860s. She also learns her own power to effect change, in a startling and audacious denouement.

Sophie’s return to her own time, concurrent with a surprise visit from her mother, results in a new awareness of not only the truth of her family’s history, but also a desire to assert herself in her relationship with her mother and the changing world around her. Sophie’s aunt realizes that ‘something’ has happened to her in the family’s overgrown garden maze, and seems to recognize that her niece is quite different than she had been hours earlier.

Aside from the obvious supernatural element of time travel, there are also some spirits in the story that speak to Sophie from their own world. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Sophie’s trip back in time has been allowed so that Sophie can achieve the spirits’ desired goal. For this reason, the book might not be ideal for all classes and families. However, as someone who decidedly dislikes science fiction and fantasy 99% of the time, I can attest that The Freedom Maze deserves a try even from those who dislike those genres.

Give one (or all!) of these a try, and tell me what you think. While they’re great for the intended age group, I think they are also a worthwhile escape for grown-ups, too.

{The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase using them, Read It, Make It! earns a small commission. Thank you!}

Hello there, Fall.

We made a terrible decision this summer. We are doing the miserable work of getting our house ready to sell, and in a fit of decisiveness, I put all of our holiday and seasonal books in storage. I don’t know why I did it, but I do know I regret it, because now those books are at the very back and very bottom of a storage unit, and it’s fall.


But, since we have to live with the consequences of our actions, I trotted the girls down to our local library to see if they had anything new and exciting that would make me less sad. There were not terribly many choices, so we might have to try another branch.

best books for fall, toddler fall book, preschool fall book, nonfiction fall book

However, one book they did have was pretty amazing, and I’m thrilled to have found it. It’s called Awesome Autumn, but don’t let the title fool you – it’s not cheesy or ridiculous. (IndieBound/Amazon) It’s actually a neat little compendium of non-fiction spreads about topics ranging from why leaves change color to different textures found on traditional fall objects. There’s a little history of Thanksgiving that is about as non-offensive as you can get in three paragraphs, and also a detailed guide of sorts to leaves and nuts from various trees.

My girls (almost three and almost five) love it. It’s varied enough that they can read the whole thing in one sitting, and it’s surprisingly multi-level. While Bethany is beyond the “find the round things” page, Clara loves it, and they both have enjoyed the photographs of things that they actually see in their everyday lives.

fall books for nature studyTrue story: We were at the park earlier this week, and Clara picked up a nut and told me that she had seen it in the “Autumn Book,” as she calls it. We brought it home, opened up the book, and sure enough, it was a sycamore nut (labeled as a plane tree nut, actually)! Then, we were able to go back to the park and find the sycamore tree that produced the nut.

Our found sycamore nut and the page that helped us identify it.

Our sycamore nut and the page that helped us identify it.

I am definitely moving this book to the top of my ‘best books for fall’ list, especially since it’s great for home or classroom. It has special appeal for non-fiction readers, and it’s so relate-able that you could use it as a springboard for nature study for almost any preschool or elementary age child, class, or group. This is the book that your child or student will carry to you over and over to read, and you won’t mind. It’s that good!

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Books about the American Revolution.

books about the american revolution

In my last post, I told you a sad tale of woe. I won’t repeat it – it’s just too depressing.

Instead, I’d prefer to help solve the problem. The American Revolution is the sort of time period where there’s something for everyone: intrigue, battles, fancy outfits, fascinating letters, outrageous characters, ordinary people whose lives became extraordinary in an instant, and stirring rhetoric. While I will grudgingly admit that not everyone on the planet is going to love studying history, there’s really no reason why this time period should ever be labeled as “boring.”

{Now – you want to discuss the politics behind American monetary policy in the 1880s? I’ll grant you, that does get boring.}

In no particular order, I present some books I really love about the time period. Some are old chestnuts, and require some editing or conversation to reflect a more modern and thoughtful point of view. I’ll indicate that clearly, so that you’ll know what you’ll find inside.

revolutionary war books

This is a book that I think belongs in every classroom and home library if you’re going to discuss the American Revolution. Everybody’s Revolution (IndieBound/Amazon) combines the perspectives of many different groups of people to tell a narrative version of the war, its causes, and its impacts. While I’m a big fan of many of the Dead White Men commonly listed as Revolutionary-era heroes, I do think it’s important for kids to know that there were other people involved. Equally, in a classroom setting, I think it’s great for kids to see people who look like them portrayed in an important and heroic way.

This is a great book to use if you have  kiddo who prefers to read in short snippets. You can pick a section or two and work through them together, then put this down and return to it later. You can also use it for some very basic research, because it turns out that there are research sources beyond Wikipedia. Who knew?

books for kids about revolutionary war

This was not a book I expected to like. However, the person who recommended it to me knew what she was saying, and now I think it’s great. George vs. George (IndieBound/Amazon) gives a two-sided view of the events of the Revolution. It humanizes King George III, and leaves the reader to decide whether or not the American colonists were entirely ‘right.’ For the record, I actually believe in old-school revolutionary mythology, but I think it’s always a good idea to share what the ‘other side’ was thinking.

This book is excellent for helping students learn to defend their position on an issue, and it also provides an opportunity for spirited debate, if you can find a person to take the Loyalist side, of course. For many years we taught students that every single person living in the American colonies sided with those who wanted to separate, and that just isn’t true. There were legitimate reasons why some people wanted to stay allied with, if not directly subject to, the British Crown, and it is worth explaining to kiddos that those reasons existed. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them! (<— a very important thing, in our modern era, ahem)

books for revolutionary war unit

Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?, by the inimitable Jean Fritz (IndieBound/Amazon), uses a touch of humor to discuss the Revolutionary Situation. Fritz’s style is unique, and the engaging narrative makes students wake up and pay attention. It also, like George vs. George, helps humanize King George III, while managing to paint him as misguided and confused when it comes to the colonists’ grievances. As you might guess, this aligns quite nicely with my personal perspective.

This is a quick read for a fluently-reading fourth or fifth grader, so it’s an easy book to hand a child who has expressed an interest in delving more deeply into the Revolutionary War. It doesn’t get bogged down in details of statesmanship (or lack thereof), nor is it a military history. Young readers don’t get bogged down in historical details for which they have no prior knowledge, but it does expect students to have some prior exposure to the events of the time.

Note that because this is an older book, there may be situations or language that you have to explain a bit more than usual, but on the whole, I think it’s still home and classroom appropriate. Jean Fritz wrote extensively about this time period, and any of her books would provide a curious upper elementary student with good reading material.

colonial america books

Leonard Everett Fisher’s Colonial American Craftsmen series is worth finding if you have a child who’s more interested in people than events. The image above is from Tanners (IndieBound/Amazon), but there are books on professions that run the gamut from Limner to Homemaker. While sadly out of print, these are very easy to find used, and even just one or two of the selections would be a great case study for ‘ordinary life’ during Revolutionary times. We tend to forget that many of these jobs had to continue, regardless of what was happening militarily.

And finally, for those who will have nothing but the most authentic sources, the Library of Congress has curated a set of links to their holdings related to events and people of the Revolutionary period. You can find that here: The Smithsonian has has a few sets of source-linked lesson plans, complete with images of artifacts:

If you find something that works particularly well for you and the little readers in your life, please let me know! As you know, I adore finding a new book. Happy reading!




Oh, dear. (Subtitle: History is not boring.)

Tonight, on Facebook, a friend posted that her daughter had made a terrible assertion over dinner. When asked about school, the daughter responded with, “history’s boring.”

Naturally, I had a small stroke.

After removing myself from the floor, I continued reading what she had written. It turns out that not just any history was boring – the beginning of the American Revolution was boring.

What? What? WHAT???

I immediately sent this video, just to stave off any more rash comments for the evening, and then promised a book list ASAP.

What this means for you is that you’re not getting a real blog post tonight, because I’m going to be busy compiling a great book list for a fourth grader, instead. It’s all about the kids, y’all. Seriously, we’ve got to do better.


Learning about birds.

To be honest, I’ve never been much of a bird girl. I’m not totally ignorant, and I can identify the birds we normally see in the yard, but it takes something really unusual for me to pay particular attention. By unusual, I mean the bird has to be huge or brightly colored, and that just doesn’t happen very often.

My girls, on the other hand, have become bird-obsessed. I’m not sure if it’s just a phase, or if they’re wired completely differently from me, but they love to sit and watch birds in the yard. Clara (at two) can already identify several different types of the birds, which is entirely due to her interest, because I have certainly not created any sort of Montessori bird identification cards or anything.

bird books for kids

When I saw Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? (IndieBound/Amazon) last night at Little Shop of Stories, I knew it was worth a look to see if it should join our stack of bird books. (Apparently, this book was released just this week, so it should be fairly easy to find.) The colors in Kenard Pak’s illustration are muted, and almost autumnal, but it’s absolutely a book for springtime reading. Rita Gray’s text begins simply, with a brother and sister noticing the songs and calls of different birds.

bird books for preschoolers

As they walk along, the boy and girl keep asking, “[b]ut have you heard the nesting bird?” They observe that the nesting robins are not making any noises, quite different from the noisy chatter of all the other birds they see. Each bird’s sound is transcribed so that you can attempt to make the sound yourself, and my girls have loved trying to copy these calls today.

bird book

Finally, we learn that the robin is not singing simply because it is nesting. Then, different sorts of sounds start to emerge from the robin’s nest – and her eggs hatch! In the end, we see the baby robin hatchlings tucked safely into their nest, and joined by both of their parents.

Each spread is detailed, and the watercolor illustrations perfectly convey the spirit of spring. The text’s simplicity allows you to talk about each bird without getting bogged down and ruining the story’s thread. Also, I particularly liked the set of questions and answers at the end of the book. Written from the nesting robin’s perspective, this little FAQ gives basic and accurate information about birds, nests, and nesting behavior.

If you’re a geek like me, you also might notice that the endpapers are a gorgeous robin’s egg blue.

Once you’ve got your children all keyed up to learn more, you absolutely must try out Cornell University’s Merlin tool for bird identification. There is a website with more information than you will probably ever need, but what I really love is the app. If you’re in North America, you’ll find this useful.

The app is free, and very intuitive. You can either search an alphabetical listing of birds, search by bird family, or use the identifier tool to narrow down the possibilities for a bird in the wild you’re trying to identify.

photo 2

Once you locate the bird’s information, you can also listen to recorded examples of songs and calls for that particular species. This is handy if the bird in question is high in a tree above you. It’s also a great diversion for little girls who are in a bad mood. Ask me how I know.

photo 3

The information provided for each bird is straightforward and basic, but it’s usually been enough for us to be confident about our identification for any unknown birds. Here is Georgia’s state bird, which is prevalent in our area. As you can see, Merlin basically tells us what we’d want to know about the Brown Thrasher.

Merlin bird app review

As we move through spring, I’ll be sure to share some more birdwatching and learning resources, since it looks like our interest won’t be waning any time soon.

{The book link in this post is an affiliate link, and Read It, Make It! earns a small commission on any purchases made using it. Thank you!}

Women’s History Month: Books About Science and Conservation

books about science

In putting together a few books about women in science, I noticed that a conservation theme was emerging. That makes today’s post all about conservation – and the conservation scientists whose contributions we remember today.

Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers

You might be a little surprised to see this book on a science list, since Lady Bird Johnson is obviously best known for her role as First Lady during her husband’s presidency. Nonethless, Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America (IndieBound/Amazon) is as much about science as it is beauty and the impact of a determined woman.

Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein’s depiction of Lady Bird Johnson’s life is a mixture of sadness and discovery. Because of the comfort she found in the woods and ponds of her east Texas home, she ultimately became a naturalist. When she felt an obligation to help the nation through its grief following President Kennedy’s assassination, she turned to the natural environment that helped her overcome the sadness she felt at her own mother’s premature death.

Johnson dedicated herself to preserving natural spaces, increasing the diversity of plant life, and guaranteeing that all children – even those growing up in the concrete expanses of urban centers – would experience the out-of-doors. She was truly ahead of her time in her opinion that native plants should be preserved and propagated, insuring that future generations would know the wildflowers that she had loved as a young girl.

Hein’s paintings have a bit of a folk-art quality, which perfectly suits the down-home personality that made Johnson beloved by many Americans. Appelt’s text provides ample opportunities for students to make connections between Johnson’s life and their own. She also breaks down the need for highway beautification, conservation, and plant preservation into terminology and description that even young readers can grasp.

Planting the Trees of Kenya

Keeping with the theme of conservation and restoration is one of my very favorite books, Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. (IndieBound/Amazon) Based on the work of Nobel Laureate Maathai, Claire Nivola’s book richly describes the way in which one determined individual can impact the life of an entire nation.

Maathai grew up in Kenya, but left to attend college in the United States. The landscape she found when she returned was very different than the one she’d left behind. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt movement, which encouraged ordinary people to engage in conservation-minded behavior that helped provided economic benefits to local communities.

Planting the Trees of Kenya describes re-forestation efforts and their impact on local communities and individuals. Written with a voice respectful of the Kenyan people, it’s a very inspirational book. It also provides a gentle introduction to the democratic ideal that governments are responsible to protect the interests of the governed. You can sneak in a little civics lesson to go along with the discussion of conservation and the essential role of green plants in healthy ecosystems.

Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World

Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World (IndieBound/Amazon) tells the story of conservation activist Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring ushered in the modern environmental movement. The book begins with the natural adventures Carson enjoyed as a child, and shows how those early memories impacted Carson’s later work to preserve the environment she so loved.

With young readers, this book serves as a great way to show the reasons that scientists must consider all the ramifications of a discovery. Silent Spring helped the general public understand the hidden, but deadly, consequences of DDT. In Rachel Carson, Laurie Lawlor and Laura Beingessner explain these consequences while also explaining why many people had thought DDT both harmless and necessary.

women's history children's books

While students will certainly notice that all three scientists were deeply impacted by their childhood experiences in nature, parents and teachers will also want to note the value of these experiences for today’s children. For that reason, these are not just books about science, but hopefully they are also books that inspire children to get outside, dig in the dirt, and pay attention to the creatures they see around them.

Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.

-Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods (IndieBound/Amazon)

{The book links in this post are compensated affiliate links. When you make a purchase using them, Read It, Make It! earns a small commission.}

More books for Women’s History Month.

women's history children's books

I’ve read more than once recently that the “golden age of picture books” has passed. While that’s certainly a dreadful thing to contemplate, I don’t think I entirely agree with it. Surely, there are some stylistic choices that are becoming more common that I don’t love, but there’s also an increasing emphasis on telling really great stories about non-fiction topics, which I do love.

Most of these books fit in that category, in my personal estimation. Their subjects are either women who have been ignored in previous children’s literature, or they take Very Important Historical Figures and make those women’s lives and contributions relevant and meaningful to modern children. You know those mind-numbing biographies that live on library shelves? These are not those books. (I assume you know where to find those if you need them – but I’m going to have to ask you why you think you need them.)

books for women's history month, eleanor roosevelt children's book

I’ll go ahead and state my bias outright: I really love Eleanor Roosevelt. Her dedication to children’s issues and peaceful conflict resolution were amazing, and her tenacity remains unmatched. Barbara Cooney’s Eleanor, however, doesn’t address any of those adult accomplishments that we all admire. (IndieBound/Amazon)

Instead, Eleanor focuses on the eventual First Lady’s rather sad and lonely childhood. Without delving too deeply into the soap opera that formed Eleanor Roosevelt’s early life, Cooney manages to convey the idea that Eleanor Roosevelt’s life was not a charmed one, despite her outrageous wealth and family connections. In using this book with students, I’ve found that they all too often find a connection with some portion of the story: an absent father, a time when they felt that no one would listen to them, or a desire for a life different than the one they’re living.

Additionally, you see the seeds of Eleanor Roosevelt’s later interest in the lives of “ordinary” people. She does the sort of charity work expected of someone in her social position, but even as a child, she starts to question the systems that have put other people in the precarious situations that eventually necessitate her charitable aid. If you read this, and then have students read the letters Eleanor wrote to children during the Great Depression, you’ll have made a powerful connection between childhood observations and adult activism and action.

marian anderson children's book, women's history month children's books

Eleanor Roosevelt also features briefly in Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick’s When Marian Sang. (IndieBound/Amazon) Far more encyclopedic in scope than many books I recommend, When Marian Sang takes readers through the life of singer Marian Anderson. From her first music lessons to her triumphant performance at the Lincoln Memorial and beyond, the text conveys both Marian Anderson’s passion for music and her desire to fight for her rights as an American.

This book – one I read to almost every student I ever taught – has some sort of transcendent magic that lets students fall in love with it. It’s longer than the average picture book, and might be best read in more than one sitting, but Anderson’s life is explained in a way that students feel like they know her. Read it, share some footage, make the clear-cut connection between her 1939 concert and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech almost 25 years later, and you’ve got one heck of a history lesson.

elizabeth blackwell children's book, women's history month books

I almost passed Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? (IndieBound/Amazon) without a second glance, because the font on the cover nearly obscured the essential (to me) subtitle: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell. Blackwell, whom I knew mostly as the answer to a Quiz Bowl question (“Name this woman, the first woman awarded an M.D. in the United States…”), was even more amazing than her medical degree might make her seem.

She not only became a doctor in an era when that achievement was forbidden for women, but she actually opened her own clinic to serve poor women. She was also a strident abolitionist (her parents had immigrated to the United States in order to aid the abolitionist cause), and helped establish a medical college for women in her native England.

I’ll just go ahead and say it: in the era of STEM emphasis, it is unbelievable that we are not teaching children about this woman and her work. Fortunately – very fortunately – there is an amazing children’s book to rectify this situation. Who Says Women Can’t be Doctors? is feisty in just the right way. Rather than identifying facts and reciting them, author Tonya Lee Stone’s tone is almost poetic. Marjorie Priceman’s illustrations are fresh and modern and draw readers into the story.

My girls are at a stage where they love the idea of doctors and hospitals, so they love this book. While it’s obviously perfect for a women’s history month sort of use, it’s also great with younger readers, as it gives them a real person to admire while they’re taking a stuffed animal’s temperature and blood pressure.

books about women's rights, books about african-american history

I recommend Catherine Clinton and Shane W. Evans’  When Harriet Met Sojourner (IndieBound/Amazon) with one enormous caveat – there’s a likely historical error. However, it’s the sort of error that makes for great teaching, so I think you’re well served to add this book to your library.

First, the good stuff: the illustrations in this book are a great amalgamation of modern art and classic rendering. While there’s some Cubist inspiration in the shapes and angles of the quilt-like pictures, you can also tell what you’re seeing, which is fairly essential in sharing new historical knowledge with young readers. The text tells the story of how Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth met one another in 1864, because while we tend to lump them together as Abolitionists, they were actually not from the same generation. It describes each of their lives as individuals, as well as their encounter with each other.

More good stuff: I love to show the lives of people from the past intersecting. I love to help students see that Dr. King and Jimmy Carter were born only two years apart. It’s sort of mind-boggling to kids who are only seven and eight years old, but it’s so important in helping them build a real chronology for their growing brains. Thus, even though this one meeting might not have been earth-shattering, it’s still incredible to think that these two women came together and had a conversation.

Now, the problem: the book cites Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. While Sojourner Truth most certainly did give a speech in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, modern historian and Truth biographer Nell Painter asserts that the text we associate with Truth today was probably actually written and published by a White activist. I think this is a great teaching moment: historians are always uncovering new information that forces us to reconsider the past! And sometimes this new information is from the recent past, or a time period when we think there’s no way that something ‘new’ could appear.

After all, 1851 is hardly the era of cuneiform tablets! How could we not be sure of the content of a speech delivered to a crowded hall? Nonetheless, a great deal of accuracy is now lost to history, and it’s important to teach our children that these sorts of misperceptions do happen. It’s also a moment where we can show older readers that the veracity of primary source documents is not always to be inherently trusted!

Now, if you’ve made your way through all these reviews, and you’re thinking something along the lines of, “Heavens to Betsy, how in the world would I actually get all that done?” let me encourage you to start small. Pick one book. Read it aloud. Answer your readers’ questions, or better yet, help them find the answers to their questions. Remember the book, and the woman in it, and make connections as they appear. It’s worth the effort. I promise.

{As always, the book links in this post are compensated affiliate links. Your purchases keep Read It, Make It! chugging along, and we thank you!}

Books for Women’s History Month

women's history children's books

March is Women’s History Month, by official government proclamation, but it’s worth identifying great books about women’s history to use all year long. Today and tomorrow, I’m sharing some more recent favorites, as well as some books that I’ve loved for years and I want everyone to know about. You’ll see that these books are about all sorts of women – famous women whose names you’d recognize instantly, but also the sorts of women that sometimes get ignored when we’re studying History-with-a-capital-H.

By no means is this list all-inclusive; the minute I hit ‘publish’ on this post, I’ll think of eight more books I wish I’d shared. The list is already so long that I’m splitting it up over the next several days. If, however, you’re looking for something about a particular woman, event, etc., feel free to leave a comment or use that cute little ‘contact me’ button, and I’ll be happy to help you find the perfect book.

Clara with Clara

Here is our Clara on her second birthday last fall. Do you see what she’s clutching? It’s a book about another Clara – one you probably don’t know – named Clara Lemlich. The book is Brave Girl (IndieBound/Amazon) by Michelle Markel, with illustrations by Melissa Sweet, and it tells the story of Clara Lemlich’s work as an organizer for garment workers at the turn of the 20th century.

books for women's history month

In text appropriate for elementary-aged children, Brave Girl describes how garment workers worked long hours in unhealthy conditions for low pay. The illustrations support the text when necessary, and also help move the story along. One page shows an overhead view of girls sewing at long tables, and it particularly impressed the children with whom I shared it. One boy remarked, “I can’t imagine having to sit and sew all day in a crowded room.”

When Clara gets fed up with her situation, she galvanizes (in Yiddish!) other immigrant workers into joining strikes and picket lines. Despite physical injuries, financial consequences, and constant intimidation, she calls for the strikes to get bigger. In fact, she leads the call for a 1909 general strike that eventually did lead to significant improvement in conditions for garment workers.

With older children, there are obvious parallels to draw with working conditions for folks in other countries who sew so many of the clothes we buy today. In addition, older students might be interested in learning about the Triangle Factory Fire, and other events of the 1910s that led to radical improvements in workplace safety regulations in this country.

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Moving forward a little bit in history, One Thousand Tracings (IndieBound/Amazon), by Lita Judge, describes a grassroots relief project undertaken in the months following World War II. The author’s grandparents learned from their scientist colleagues in Germany that many ordinary Germans were going without basic food and clothing in the aftermath of the war. In a time when anti-Germany sentiment was (understandably) prevalent, these brave souls – along with their daughter, the author’s mother – set out to provide their former enemies’ most essential needs.

The book’s title comes from the foot tracings sent by the Germans so that appropriately-sized donated American shoes and boots could be found. America’s wartime rationing was ending, so there were not necessarily abundant supplies of things like shoes in America, either. Nonetheless, the scientific community (ornithologists in particular) pulled together to pack boxes full of food, clothing, and shoes to send to families who were worried about how they would survive through winter.

This particular book is notable not only for its unique subject, but also for the gentle way it depicts one small group of ordinary citizens’ decision to follow their own moral compass. Rather than writing off the needs of former friends and colleagues due to their national identity, they instead chose to take the path of love and compassion. I think it’s an amazing story to use in our current era, when we have a tendency to feel helpless, and thus relieved of any responsibility, when we hear of people who are lacking in things that we take for granted.

For history teachers and lovers, there are numerous primary source documents included in the book and its illustrations. The author found both the tracings and letters sent from Germany, with their translations, in her grandparents’ attic. Some of these are heart-rending, others matter-of-fact. Taken altogether, they help paint a beautiful picture of what it means to live as part of a community, even when that community is fractured by warfare and distance.

My Great-Aunt Arizona

My Great-Aunt Arizona, by Gloria Houston and Susan Condie Lamb, is the sort of book that makes teachers cry when they try to read it. (IndieBound/Amazon) It tells the story of Arizona, a girl who loved to read and learn, and who grew up to become a teacher.

This is an excellent story to show young children how life changes over time. Arizona starts teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, and ends her career in a very modern building. It also shows the impact of her life’s work – though she never travels the world to all the places she’s discovered in her books, she sees them through the eyes of her students who do travel.

The text is lovely, the illustrations are beautiful and filled with detail, and you can’t help but fall in love with a book about falling in love with books and learning. Arizona was a real person, but she’s also an archetype that we tend to honor in private far more than we do in public: the devoted and loving teacher. In the era before any sort of “teacher of the year” nonsense, people like Arizona were the real deal, and the value of their gifts lives on in the lives they touched.

While I absolutely believe we should be encouraging our girls to consider careers in science and technology, and I am equally grateful that we live in a time when very few doors are closed to girls because of their gender, I don’t want us to disparage the work done by women in a time when choices were fewer. Reading books like this one helps us keep a healthy historical perspective.

Coming tomorrow: books about some American women whose names you’ve probably heard before.

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Books for Women’s History Month: Finding Them

Today, I’m beginning a little series on finding, reading, and using excellent books for women’s history month. Today, we’ll focus on the finding. Later this week, I’ll share some of my favorites, and give you some ideas for how to use them at home, at school, and maybe even in more random situations.

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Here’s a little secret: I don’t like the non-fiction history books that you’re ‘supposed’ to like. That David Adler A Picture Book of… series? I think it’s dry, completely unengaging, and historically questionable. Of course, that series is a far sight better than the If You Were There When… series, which seems like a cartoon gone wrong. (These are just my personal opinions, of course. I’m sure there are kids out there who love these two series, and probably some kid somewhere won’t read anything else.)

My preference, particularly when it comes to books about Very Famous Historical People, is to identify one or two really great books about that person. I think it is well worth an investment of your time to find and pre-read a whole stack of books, and then select the very best to actually use. Sure, situations arise where you have to grab the book closest to your hand, but 95% of the time, you probably can use just a bit of prior planning and find some hidden gems.

What does this look like in reality? It means you can’t just google the name of a Very Important Historical Person, and then buy the first children’s listing that pops up on Amazon. It means you can’t just head over to the local big box bookstore and snatch the first thing you see. Listen to me carefully: you might luck out and grab something fantastic. You also might waste $8.95, unintentionally impart historically inaccurate information to the next generation, and make history a lot more boring or irrelevant than it needs to be.

Jefferson Meme

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The truth is that most of the time, you don’t need your children (or students) to memorize every detail of a Very Important Historical Person’s biography. There are probably some ‘big ideas’ about that person, his/her contributions to society, and his/her background that you want to stick with your children. Thus, you don’t want a book that reads more like an encyclopedia entry than quality children’s literature. As kids get older, this changes a little bit, but on the whole, I’ve found that quality children’s books can be the best introduction to a person or event.

It’s also essential to remember that perceptions of people and events change over time – as they should! Our world never stands still, and I, for one, am grateful not to be living in 1776. (If you’re wondering why, that would have me disenfranchised, probably impoverished, and close to blind – mama loves her corrected vision.) This means that the historical books you loved as a child – I’m looking at you, d’Aulaire biographies and Little House on the Prairie – might not be appropriate for modern children without a healthy dose of explanation.

Here’s my point: take the time to find the very best books for whatever or whomever you’re trying to study. Emphasize depth and great ideas over breadth and trivial knowledge. Then, if you discover you have a mini-historian in your house or classroom, you’ll know that you’ve provided a firm foundation on which s/he can build additional knowledge. There is precious little that will stand between a mini-historian and his/her acquisition of better and greater knowledge about an interesting subject, so don’t fret.

Proust Book quote

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Poetry Books for African-American History Month

Well, we lost February somewhere in the fog of crazy weather and illness, so I’m woefully behind in sharing resources with you for African-American history month. We work hard as a family to tell the fullest version of America’s story possible, so that means we purposely go beyond the Great White Men version of events when we talk about things from the past.

Nonetheless, I still see the value in Carter G. Woodson’s effort to recognize the contributions of African-Americans (and Africans in America), so February continues to matter around these parts. There’s an amazing collection of online exhibits here, at the official African-American History month site, hosted by a consortium of libraries, museums, and institutions you’ve heard of.

Today, I’m sharing some poetry resources. These are works by African-American authors and poets, and most are illustrated by African-American artists.

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Ashley Bryan’s magnificent ABC of African-American Poetry (IndieBound/Amazon) shares snippets of poems from a variety of authors. Some names are familiar, and some are not. The subject matter varies widely, as well, with some poems being more appropriate for older elementary students, and others perfectly fine for preschoolers. At home, I don’t read this book straight through. Instead, we talk about the illustrations, and then select four or five poem excerpts to read together.

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Some of the poems also showcase great African-Americans, or the African-American experience, so they make for a double-whammy of excellence. I think these lines from Eloise Greenfield perfectly summarize Harriet Tubman, and could make a wonderful introduction to a study of her life and work.

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And how can you not love Ashley Bryan’s illustrations? I saw him read and speak once, and his work matches his personality. He exudes light and happiness, and he works that spirit into his books, even when the subject matter is darker and more serious. Children are drawn to his work, with good reason.

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Langston Hughes’ The Dreamkeeper and Other Poems (IndieBound/Amazon) contains a selection of Hughes’ poems appropriate for elementary-aged children. Inside, you’ll find some favorites, like Dream Variation, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and Stars. You’ll also see some poems you probably haven’t read before, and find yourself having a hard time deciding which selections to share.

This edition contains beautiful black and white illustrations by Brian Pinkney, which manage to complement Hughes’ work without overshadowing it. They echo the stillness found in many of the poems, I think. That stillness sort of inspires you to select a few poems, read them, and revel in them for a minute, rather than racing through the entire anthology in one sitting.

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If, like me, you have a soft spot for The Negro Speaks of Rivers, then you’ll want to locate this book-length rendering, with illustrations by E. B. Lewis. (IndieBound/Amazon) This poem, which Hughes wrote at age 17 (!), tells the story of African-Americans by linking it to the rivers of Africa and the Americas. Lewis’ illustrations sweep the reader through history along with the poem, including some of our country’s lowest and highest points.

{A little note: if you’re using this with younger children or in a classroom setting, make sure you take the time to explain that ‘Negro’ was once the respectful term for people of African ancestry, so that’s why Langston Hughes used it in his poem. Today, it is not a word that we consider respectful, but we still use it in historical context as appropriate.}

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Finally, one of my favorites from my classroom days: Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love. (IndieBound/Amazon) My students adored this book. Most of them had it memorized because we read it so often. The little girl in whose voice the poem is written – perfectly illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist – does an amazing job of telling us all about the things she loves. These are everyday sorts of things, and the sorts of things like foods and voices that allow all children to make some meaningful connections.

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The poem is excerpted from this longer collection, Honey I Love and Other Love Poems, which is also worth adding to your library. The illustrations are by Leo and Dianne Dillon, if you need any further convincing. (IndieBound/Amazon)

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