Enter author/researcher Selene Castrovilla and her two incredible American Revolution picture books: By the Sword and Upon Secrecy.
By the Sword: A Young Man Meets War tells the true tale of Benjamin Tallmadge's first wartime experiences during the battle of Long Island, where Washington's troops were just barely able to escape their ruthless British and Hessian adversaries. Upon Secrecy relates Tallmadge's later involvement with Washington's Culper Spy Ring. It was Tallmadge and a "Loyalist" Quaker spy named Robert Townsend who were able to trick the British into defending New York City against an attack that never came; this ruse, in turn, kept the British from attacking landing French troops who had come to General Washington's much needed aid.
I love both books for a number of reasons. First, they provide just enough information to set the scene for the reader. Each then tells one really good story, within the context of the larger conflict. The language of the stories is well-crafted, full of literary devices, and with an eye for accuracy. We can feel the urgency of the situations. But what's best of all, in my opinion, is that both stories, while complete in themselves, are followed up with a number of historical notes, time lines, and related resources. Therefore when students ask questions about details in the story, the teacher is armed with some answers. Questions such as What happened to him after the war? and If the spy ring was a secret, then how did the author write about it? and Is this story totally true? are easily answered. At the same time, however, the author provides some pointers on where to go next if the reader wants to discover more on each book's topics.
I've always used a number of picture books in my introduction to the American Revolution to help students visualize the clothing, setting, and lifestyle of the period. In this area these books don't disappoint. Illustrators Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson (Upon Secrecy) and Bill Farnsworth (By the Sword) visited libraries, historical sites, and costume shops. Period portraits were consulted for illustrations depicting actual people. Paintings for both books were then reviewed for accuracy by scholars specializing in this era.
You might find that some guiding questions and activities from earlier posts about Molly Pitcher and Paul Revere would fit these books as well.
One terrific follow-up site for these books would be a visit to Spy Letters of the American Revolution, a site with a number of activities which allow students to "play Revolutionary spy" by creating invisible inks, secret codes, and mask letters. This site also encourages students to use critical thinking as they examine propaganda used in the early engravings of the war.
Loyalty or Liberty? requires students to role play the part of a slave asked to gather intelligence about both Patriots and Loyalists. But, as a slave, you wonder if either side really deserves your help, since both sides support slavery. With which side will you ultimately share your information?
America's Library presents a short biography on patriot Nathan Hale, hanged as a spy. Can you recall his famous last line? This might lead to a discussion among students of the risks associated with both spies and soldiers. Which was the more dangerous undertaking?