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The brutal conflict of the American Civil War has brought forth some of the best writing in children's literature. Since the theme is most often studied in the upper elementary grades, let's restrict our book choices to books appropriate for that level for the most part.
I will start off the theme with a picture book as usual but, before I do so, let me recommend some reading for teachers. The books by Albert Marrin on the subject of the Civil War make fascinating reading and will give you a background that most history textbooks do not achieve. Some of your students will be capable of reading Marrin's work and you will surely want to read some selections aloud.
Marrin's Civil War related books are: Commander in Chief: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War (Dutton, 1997 ISBN 0525458220. Hardcover.), Unconditional Surrender: U. S. Grant and the Civil War (Atheneum, 1994 ISBN 0689318375. Library Binding.), and Virginia's General: Robert E. Lee & the Civil War (Atheneum, 1994 ISBN 0689318383. Library Binding.) The first of those books, Abraham Lincoln & the Civil War, is more accessible to younger students than the others and has more visual material.
Marrin's strength lies in being able to give chronological accounts which, while stating the facts, paint the people involved as full personalities and we understand their motivations as well as their deeds. A teacher who avails his or herself of Marrin's work will be able to lead students to a better understanding of the time, politics, events and people in the Civil War.
Now let's move on to the picture book starter for this theme. George Ella Lyon and Peter Catalanotto have created a masterpiece in Cecil's Story (Orchard, 1991 ISBN 0531070638. Paperback. Hardcover.). Although the Civil War itself is not named, the illustrations make it obvious. The book starts on the cover as we see a man chopping wood, his wife churning butter while a boy plays with toy soldiers. A closer examination will reveal that one of the toys is missing an arm. This is visual foreshadowing and should be pointed out to students who don't pick it out themselves. The title page shows the same man and boy returning from a successful fishing trip and the dedication page shows men on horseback at the top of the page while gray paint drips blood-like down the page.
Then the second-person text starts., "If your papa went away to war...". A young boy tells how his father has been wounded and his mother has gone to fetch him while he stays with the neighbors trying to be brave. He imagines what will happen if his papa should not come back. Time passes and Catalanotto shows that passage of time by a blurred series of pictures in which a chicken egg is hatched. We see, in the distance a woman leading a man who is seated on the horse and the boy says that if your father came back with a missing arm you wouldn't be afraid of him because you'd know he was still your father.
This is a book that must be shared with the students able to see the illustrations as they hear the text and time must be given to allow them to pick out the meaningful details. The story, of course, is universal and could apply to any war as the young and innocent wait to see if their lives will be changed forever by the battles waged by adults.
A time line is always a good idea when studying any era of history and I'd put up a big one with plenty of space around it for the information the kids will uncover during this theme. The study of the Civil War will quickly branch off in the direction of slavery and you & the kids will have to decide how far to go in that direction. Nevertheless I'd start the time line way before the guns are fired at Fort Sumter, maybe going back as far as the arrival of the first slave ship on mainland America in 1618 on a Dutch ship landing in Jamestown. Encourage students to place both written and graphic information on the time line as soon and as often as possible.
It might be a good time to set up a question for the theme. Since many historians feel that the Civil War was less about slavery than about states rights and others feel slavery became the focus even if it didn't start out that way, why not pose that as the overlying question of the theme? Suggest that students assemble arguments for any side of that issue as they conduct their research.
A study of the Civil War is a wonderful opportunity to use maps. Use them to differentiate between the North and the South, to trace the movement of the armies on both sides, to locate the sites of various battles and to see why those battles occurred when and where they did. World maps showing the molasses/rum/slave trade should also be constructed.
Suggest that students form small groups to tackle the part of the theme that most appeals to them, offering as much choice as possible. They should also have choices about how they are going to convey the information they discover to the rest of the class.
Put up a Help Board where students post notes telling what they're working on and asking for help finding information or sources. They should also post information that might be helpful to other students pursuing different topics. Of course the literature is the focus of this theme as far as this newsletter is concerned so let's get to it.
An excellent read-aloud for kids in fifth grade up is Gary Paulsen's Soldier's Heart (Bantam, 1998 ISBN 0385324987. Hardcover.). The violence in the book is hard to take but Paulsen handles it well and has constructed a compelling story of a fifteen year old boy who enlists in the Minnesota Volunteers not as a flag bearer or drummer, as many young boys did; Charley lied about his age and took on the combat role that he coveted after hearing the songs and the rhetoric. Charley wasn't a bit concerned with freeing the slaves; he was going to teach those Rebs a lesson for daring to break up the Union. Neither Charley nor the reader are spared as the battle is joined. The book is short and shouldn't take more than three of four days to read aloud.
While you're doing that, of course, students should be reading their own choices from the available books. Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco (Philomel, 1994 ISBN 0399226710. Library Binding. Spanish.) is a picture book that packs a wallop. Based on a true story, it will wring your heart as two young men, one white and one black, meet after a bloody battle. Their different allegiances soon cease to matter as Pink carries Say to his own home nearby where Pink's mother is surviving in the ruins of a plantation. While the boys hide in the cellar, Pink's mother is murdered by marauders and that's just part of the tragedy. The boys are captured as they attempt to rejoin their units. Say is taken to Andersonville prison and Pink is hung. Say was Polacco's own great-great-grandfather, a fact that brings the story home.
An informational picture book is Paul Erickson's Daily Life on a Southern Plantation, 1853 (Lodestar, 1998 ISBN 0525675477. Hardcover.). Starting with a brief history of slavery in the American South, the book than allows us to follow several inhabitants of one plantation throughout a typical day. The lives, of course, go from luxury to unbearable hardship.
The numbers of excellent books about slavery are such that we can't do justice to them here. We'll save them for another time and concentrate instead on the books which deal more directly with the war itself.
Jim Murphy's The Boys' War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk about the Civil War (Clarion, 1990 ISBN 0395664128. Paperback.) uses letters, diaries and oral histories to tell the stories that some of the youngest soldiers experienced. Author's website.
Norman and Angel Bolotin's book For Home and Country: A Civil War Scrapbook (Lodestar, 1994 ISBN 0525674950. Hardcover.) offers largely visual information, making it ideal for browsing or for less capable readers. It concentrates on the social effects of the war.
Sticking with the nonfiction for a bit, there are two excellent biographies that belong in any such theme. Russell Freedman's Lincoln: a Photobiography (Clarion, 1987 ISBN 0899193803. Hardcover. Paperback) received a Newbery Medal, an award seldom given to a work of nonfiction. That gives you some sense of the masterful job Freedman did in assembling the pieces of history to tell the story of the witty storyteller, an astute politician who rose to the level of greatness as he bore the nation's tragedy.
Jean Fritz's Stonewall (Putnam, 1979 ISBN 069811552X. Paperback. Hardcover) reveals to us the bizarre habits and routines of the man who stood like a stone wall at the battle of Manassas and became a great leader in spite of, or maybe because of, his peculiarity.
Fritz also did a very brief, easy-to-read book called Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln (Grosset & Dunlap, 1993 ISBN 0448401703. Paperback.) about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Although the second grade vocabulary makes it so accessible, the information is accurate and interesting.
Now, on to the novels! Start with Paul Fleischman's masterful Bull Run (HarperTrophy, 1993 ISBN 0064405885. Paperback.). These short (often only two page) chapters of alternating points of view make the book ideal for Reader's Theater. Sixteen different people head for the battle of Bull Run. Each has a different purpose for being there and, before the battle, Fleischman lets each of them address us. After the battle, some of them talk again. The accessibility of this book and the range of characters make this a real treasure.
One of the most comprehensive but also one that moves very slowly is Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt (Berkeley, 1991 ISBN 0425102416. Paperback.). Too slow moving for many, it offers the patient readers an insightful story of Jethro Creighton. Only nine when the story and the war begin, his farm and the small nearby town are quickly overtaken by national events. One of Jethro's brothers quickly signs up for the Rebel army, incurring the wrath of many in town. The other four brothers join the Union army and the family is torn apart. As the only able-bodied male left on the farm, Jethro assumes the role of an adult much too soon.
Charley Skedaddle by Patricia Beatty (Morrow, 1987 ISBN 0816713170. Paperback.) moves more quickly. Like the Charley in Soldier's Heart, Charley longs to experience the glory of battle and joins up to avenge his brother's death and to escape from the grim Bowery of New York City. The first battle is the last for Charley and he "skedaddles" or deserts to the mountains of Virginia. There his courage is tested again when an old woman needs his help.
Carolyn Reeder's Across the Lines (Atheneum, 1997 ISBN 0689811330. Library Binding. Paperback.) brings us two friends: Edward and Simon. Simon is a slave and, when the Yankees march through Virginia, Simon runs to freedom. From that point on, we follow the separate lives of the two former friends.
Douglas Rees portrays John Brown and his followers in Lightning Time (DK Publishing, 1997 ISBN 0789424584. Hardcover.). Theodore Worth is a fourteen year old boy living his his Quaker parents in Boston when John Brown comes to give a speech. So inspired by that speech is Theodore that he leaves his parents and their pacifism behind and goes to join Brown at his home in upstate New York before his raid at Harper's Ferry.
Janet Lunn's The Root Cellar (Puffin, 1985 ISBN 0140318356. Paperback, Hardcover.) is an excellent time travel book. Rose has been dumped with relatives living near the U.S. border in contemporary Canada. Isolated even in that large and boisterous family, Rose soon discovers a way to step into the past through the family's root cellar. There she makes friends with a brother and sister, Will and Susan. Time moves more quickly through the root cellar door and Will soon reaches young adulthood and enlists in the Civil War. When he fails to return, Susan and Rose set off to find him. The trip to Washington in 1864 is one that Rose, with her knowledge of more modern times, is better equipped for than Susan. Once in Washington, both young women become aware of the terrible cost of war.
This is far from an exhaustive list. Novels set in that time and place are numerous and many are very good. Be sure that students are allowed to choose nonfictional materials for their extended reading if they prefer them for many of those are quite wonderful.
Gather the students together often as they read and do research to discuss what they have learned and to dig deeper into its meaning. Those discussions may well be the most important thing to come out of such historical study as children sift through facts to come up with understanding.
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