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A lovely picture book can take us back to special childhood memories, but it is also a carefully crafted work of art with drama in every page turn. And when a picture book melds history and poetry, something unique emerges—a visual glimpse of people and times of the past, shared in powerful images and spare or lyrical language. Here we examine picture books that feature stories or people from history in poems and poetic language. These books offer a dual opportunity: introducing young children to touchstone moments of our human story, as well as invigorating that study of history for older students by using the visuals of the accessible picture book alongside the distilled language of poetry to heighten interest and understanding. The best historical and biographical picture books tend to be focused on one person or specific event; a story that can be told in the span of a few pages with illustrations that provide a visual window into history, portrayed authentically and accurately.
Carole Boston Weatherford is a noted creator of many historical and biographical picture books presented in poetry form. In an interview for Reading Rockets, she noted,
I see teachers using my books in the classroom to introduce historical figures or historical events to their students. . . . They want to know, first of all, did this really happen, because today’s kids can’t fathom things like segregation. They can’t believe that America allowed such a system to exist, and rightly so.
Once they read my books, they can then begin to read maybe longer works, novels, for example, chapter books set during the same time, or they might do research projects . . . about the civil rights movement or about segregation or the slavery era.
Historical and biographical picture books can supplement a history or a social studies curriculum with human stories that bring events to life. They can help develop an appreciation of our historical heritage and provide the reader with a vicarious or virtual experience of the past through literature, giving them a sense of participation in the past. Ultimately, historical works also show us that while change is inevitable, some things are unchanging through time, such as the human need for love and connection. Of course, it’s important to focus on the story, character, and language of each book and not on nostalgia. Historical stories can help provide young readers with a context for beginning to learn more about human history, as well as a source of reading that involves exciting adventures and engaging characters—just set in a different time.
Picture books are often poetic by nature, since the text is distilled, focused, concise, and vivid. A big trend in recent years is to tell the true story of real people in history through the vehicle of poetry and poetic picture books. The following list of picture books features historical or biographical subjects that are presented through poems, free verse, or a combination of poetic language and styles.
Alphabetabum: An Album of Rare Photographs and Medium Verses. By Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky. 2014. New York Review, $19.95 (9781590178171). K–Gr. 2.
This book incorporates antique black-and-white photographs of children from days gone by alongside short poems that name (from A to Z) and describe each child’s peculiar personality in playful rhymes. The whole design suggests an old-fashioned photo album or school primer that children may want to imitate by gathering or creating their own images and silly rhymes.
Cowboys. By David L. Harrison. Illus. by Dan Burr. 2012. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $17.95 (9781590788776). Gr. 3–5.
This picture-book anthology features the life of the cowboy in 22 poems that capture activities such as herding cattle, facing storms, eating grub, and sharing stories, accompanied by realistic portraits that add a contemporary context. Challenge students to discuss how this way of life has evolved over the years (consider the cowgirl poem perspective, for example).
The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects. Ed. by Paul B. Janeczko. Illus. by Chris Raschka. 2015. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763669638). Gr. 3–7.
Once again Janeczko and Raschka collaborate to create a picture-book collection of poems that is visually playful and poetically fascinating—all about things across the ages. This history of poetry, in which a variety of classic and contemporary poets write about 50 objects such as a moth, ship, candle, star, tree, cat, and many more, spans from the Middle Ages to present day.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music. By Margarita Engle. Illus. by Rafael Lopez. 2015. HMH, $16.99 (9780544102293). PreS–Gr. 2.
Young readers will savor the true story of the childhood of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese African Cuban girl who followed her love of drumming (bongos and timbales), despite her country’s long-standing taboo. Engle’s rhythmic language is perfect for this glimpse into Millo’s childhood, and López’s vibrant illustrations provide an energetic backdrop.
Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings. By Matthew Burgess. Illus. by Kris Di Giacomo. 2015. Enchanted Lion, $17.95 (9781592701711). Gr. 1–4.
Here readers meet the poet E. E. Cummings through biographical information about his life, presented in verse, as well as through samples of his innovative poems. How does someone grow up to be a poet? Poet Burgess offers many possible answers in this beautiful book for poring over privately or reading aloud together.
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America. By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Jamey Christoph. 2015. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807530177). Gr. 1–3.
Weatherford reveals the surprising journey of Gordon Parks from an African American boy growing up in poverty, to a government photographer who gives racism a personal face, to the first black director in Hollywood. Also see Weatherford’s Leontyne Price (2014); I, Matthew Henson (2007); and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2006).
Harlem Hellfighters. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illus. by Gary Kelley. 2014. Creative Company, $18.99 (9781568462462). Gr. 5–8.
Free verse poetry “inspires and unsettles” as Lewis features the African American regiment that fought bravely in World War I, while sharing their musical talents along the way. The sights and sounds of war are powerfully conveyed in multiple panels of illustrations and text.
Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. By G. Neri. Illus. by A. G. Ford. 2014. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763662455). Gr. 3–6.
In informative and expressive free verse, Neri’s picture-book biography of music legend Johnny Cash conveys the struggles, determination, and talent that shaped the Man in Black. Working in perfect concert with the words, Ford’s soulful mural-like paintings, combined with extensive back matter, make this a rich resource for fans and novices alike.
A Home for Mr. Emerson. By Barbara Kerley. Illus. by Edwin Fotheringham. 2014. Scholastic, $18.99 (9780545350884). Gr. 2–4.
Kerley creates another engaging and approachable picture-book biography, this time incorporating poetic excerpts and quotes from the subject, nineteenth-century essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, within the factual narrative. Also see Kerley’s Those Rebels, John and Tom (2012); The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) (2010); What to Do about Alice? (2008); and Walt Whitman: Words for America (2004).
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker. By Patricia Hruby Powell. Illus. by Christian Robinson. 2014. Chronicle, $17.99 (9781452103143). Gr. 2–4.
This exuberant picture-book biography of the performer and civil-rights advocate Josephine Baker hits all the right notes with both charming illustrations and rhythmic free verse text (including quotes from Baker herself).
Nelson Mandela. By Kadir Nelson. Illus. by the author. 2013. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen, $17.99 (9780061783746). PreS–Gr. 3.
Artist Nelson fills each page with large, handsome paintings of Nelson Mandela, grabbing the reader’s eye from the very beginning. Add to that the free verse narrative that sketches Mandela’s life in broad strokes, and this becomes an inspiring work to share with audiences of all ages. Also see Kadir Nelson’s I Have a Dream (2012).
Poems in the Attic. By Nikki Grimes. Illus. by Elizabeth Zunon. 2015. Lee & Low, $19.95 (9781620140277). Gr. 2–5.
Poem by poem, Grimes creates an engaging story about a young girl growing up in a military family that moves often, making it hard to develop roots. Then the girl discovers her own mother’s childhood poems in the attic. Using free verse for the girl’s poems and tanka for her mother’s, this intergenerational story may inspire children to imagine their parents’ childhoods and to try to experiment with writing poems in various forms.
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. By Don Tate. Illus. by the author. 2015. Peachtree, $16.95 (9781561458257). Gr. 1–4.
The first African American to be published in the South, the enslaved poet Horton taught himself to read and write in nineteenth-century North Carolina. Tate’s picture-book biography features quotes and excerpts from Horton’s speeches and poetry in glowing illustrations and simple, lyrical prose.
Presidential Misadventures: Poems That Poke Fun at the Man in Charge. By Bob Raczka. Illus. by Dan E. Burr. 2015. Roaring Brook, $17.99 (9781596439801). Gr. 3–6.
Both “historical and hysterical,” this poetry anthology skewers each and every U.S. president in clever clerihews that are fun to read aloud. Based on sound research with reference sources cited, these short poems are both informative and irreverent.
Rutherford B., Who Was He? Poems about Our Presidents. By Marilyn Singer. Illus. by John Hendrix. 2013. Disney/Hyperion, $17.99 (9781423171003). Gr. 5–7.
Each of the 43 men who has served as president of the United States is profiled in clever rhyming verse that uses various poetic styles. Playful cartoon illustrations support the poems. Helpful back matter includes additional biographical information and quotes.
Sail Away. By Langston Hughes. Illus. by Ashley Bryan. 2015. Atheneum, $17.99 (9781481430852). PreS–Gr. 3.
With his distinctive collage art, Bryan showcases the sea-themed poems of Hughes in this visual and verbal feast, which evokes the timeless qualities of the lyrical verse. The book offers older students an opportunity to dig deep into this classic poet’s use of language, phrasing, and themes.
The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist. By Margarita Engle. Illus. by Aliona Bereghici. 2015. Amazon/Two Lions, $17.99 (9781477826331). Gr. 1–4.
How do you paint birds when they are constantly flying and moving? Fuertes managed that difficult feat superbly (his predecessors in avian art killed and mounted their subjects first). Fuertes also became a champion of protecting birds’ natural habitats. Told from the artist’s point of view, these strong poems work together to create an engaging biography.
Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood. By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. 2014. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807576502). K–Gr. 3.
Upbeat rhyming text celebrates the famous Harlem neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s alongside inviting, minimalist illustrations. Also see Weatherford’s The Sound That Jazz Makes (2001); Dear Mr. Rosenwald (2006); and Birmingham, 1963 (2007).
Summoning the Phoenix: Poems and Prose about Chinese Musical Instruments. By Emily Jiang. Illus. by April Chu. 2014. Lee & Low, $18.95 (9781885008503). K–Gr. 3.
Twelve children of varying backgrounds are learning to play traditional Chinese musical instruments in a Chinese orchestra—and practicing, practicing, practicing. The poet writes from the children’s perspectives in 12 lively poems and includes prose sidebars about the history and sound of each instrument.
To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt. By Doreen Rappaport. Illus. by C. F. Payne. 2013. Disney/Hyperion, $17.99 (9781423124887). Gr. 3–5.
Rappaport uses her trademark approach of well-chosen personal quotes integrated with vivid, straightforward prose and strategic line breaks to weave together a biography that humanizes U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt. Also see Rappaport’s Martin’s Big Words (2001); Helen’s Big World (2012); Eleanor: Quiet No More (2009); and Abe’s Honest Words (2008).
Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue. By Robert Burleigh. Illus. by Wendell Minor. 2015. Charlesbridge, $17.95 (9781580895583). PreS–Gr. 3.
This true story about the rescue of a humpback whale from a fisherman’s tangled net in 2005 is told in spare, poetic text. Aspiring writers of poetry or nonfiction will see how a “report” can be presented in lyrical language along with extensive resource material.
28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World. By Charles R. Smith. Illus. by Shane W. Evans. 2015. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $18.99 (9781596438200). Gr. 2–4.
Crucial individuals and events in African American history (since 1770) are highlighted in poems, quotations, eulogies, and more, including concrete poems and wordplay and songs. Evans’ expressive collages expand the power and impact of each entry even further. Also see Smith’s Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali (2007); Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson (2010); and Stars in the Shadows: The Negro League All-Star Game of 1934 (2012).
Under the Freedom Tree. By Susan VanHecke. Illus. by London Ladd. 2014. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9781580895507). K–Gr. 3.
This Civil War–era true story focuses on the first “contraband camp,” from which three slaves made their way to a Union fort where they were granted protection. Many more slaves followed seeking their freedom and eventually establishing the first African American community in the U.S. The moving story is told in taut free verse with evocative illustrations.
When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illus. by Jim Burke and others. 2013. Chronicle, $16.99 (9781452101194). Gr. 4–7.
These 17 poems feature civil rights heroes from around the world, including Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Mendez, and many more. Lewis employs a variety of poem forms, and five different illustrators add drama and diversity with their artistic interpretations.
Reading history can help children understand how events and issues of different eras affected people over time. These poetic picture books lend themselves particularly well to reading aloud and to encouraging student responses with creative follow-up activities. Here are a few ideas for implementing the Common Core Standards within those activities. You can find out more about the Common Core State Standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: Read the poems or story aloud first without illustrations to savor the language. Then, on the second reading, show the illustrations and discuss the differences in the experiences, such as how the poem looks, how it makes readers feel, and how the illustrator visualized each line, stanza, or the entire verse. Invite students to create a homemade book of original illustrations to accompany a favorite poem (one line per page) or the lyrics of a favorite song, or alongside found poems they create based on researching facts and details. This can help introduce young readers to longer, narrative poems or classic works available in picture-book format, such as Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”; “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear; “Casey at the Bat,” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer; and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (or “’Twas the Night before Christmas”), by Clement Clarke Moore; and others in the Visions in Poetry series.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.5. Explain how a series of chapters, scenes, or stanzas fits together to provide the overall structure of a particular story, drama, or poem.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.7. Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text (e.g., graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem).
In the Classroom: Work with students to understand the setting of the book by looking up images for each locale in an atlas, via Google Maps, or other resources. Then challenge young readers to research what was happening in the world during this time, linking with relevant nonfiction picture books, reference works, and online resources. Using museum resources can add so much to children’s learning of historical content and reading of historical literature. Check to see what local history museums or children’s museums might have available where you live. Do they have personnel who can visit the classroom or library? Exhibits or materials they will loan out?
It is also possible to access online resources, such as Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibits, featuring topics such as civil rights and Latino life, and “Today’s Document,” available at the National Archives online, which includes a visual image of an actual historical document. Also useful are the American Memory and Today in History projects, which have links at the Library of Congress online, which offers a wealth of information and visuals to supplement historical study.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.1. Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.9. Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.
In the Classroom: Sharing primary source documents, maps, time lines, and artifacts helps children visualize and conceptualize historical times through hands-on materials. Even audio resources can provide a connection with the voices of the past. For example, the American Rhetoric website offers an online speech bank with audio recordings, transcripts, and visuals for more than 5,000 important speeches. When children can hear, see, or touch the “stuff” of history, it becomes so much more real and memorable for them. Check out Jackdaws Publications, for primary-source materials that support the study of many historical eras. For a model of how to use primary sources and “do history” with kids, check out DoHistory, a website that “shows you how to piece together the past from the fragments that have survived.”
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.9. Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources; assess the credibility of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and providing basic bibliographic information for sources.
In the Classroom: Bring the historical period of a picture book to life through readers’ theater by inviting children to read bits of dialogue or narration aloud, by having them dress up and speak as the historical subject of the book, or by staging more elaborate dramatic skits. Connecting drama with history makes the people and places real to children through first-hand experience, almost like participating in a living history museum. In fact, Carol Otis Hurst provides helpful guidelines for involving children in creating and participating in their own informal living history museums (follow the links at http://carolhurst.com for more information). Another idea is to look for local reenactors who might want to share their experiences. Even local actors who perform in community or professional theater can be recruited as guests to share their insights on costuming, dialect coaching, and character research for historical dramas. Through one of these several avenues, children will be able to find some spark of personal connection with history and poetry.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.7. Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.2. Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study.
Sylvia M. Vardell, a professor of children’s and young-adult literature at Texas Woman’s University, is the author of the Poetry for Children blog and coeditor (with Janet Wong) of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations: Holiday Poems for the Whole Year in English and Spanish (2015).
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