New Jersey teachers, especially, have a keen interest in this topic, and not just because it's required in the Core Content Curriculum standards. New Jersey is known as the Garden State, but ask any 4th grader in the state for a second claim to fame, and they'll tell you that New Jersey is also called The Crossroads of the Revolution. Situated between the strategic colonial cities of New York and Philadelphia, New Jersey witnessed over 100 battles during the War for Independence, as many battles as all other colonies combined.
Lynne Cheney's When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots tells how an event in Trenton, New Jersey would later be called a turning point in the War for Independence. Readers are provided just enough historical context to set the scene for Washington’s bold attack on Trenton. With his army depleted to just ten percent of its original strength and half his troops’ enlistments about to expire, General George Washington is desperate for a victory. The hope of the new nation rests upon an impossible winter attack on an intimidating foe who has already crushed the Americans in New York and chased them across New Jersey and the Delaware River itself. The rich text and saturated illustrations recount the battles of Trenton as well as Princeton, and accurately depict the resounding effect that these two victories had upon the morale of the Continental Army. Cheney's book is filled not only with beautiful illustrations, but also with numerous quotations from those who lived the events described within the book's covers.
A great extension for this book? Let students pretend that they're colonial soldiers under Washington's command and have them write letters "home" explaining why they're continuing to fight. (An interesting note: following the Battle of Trenton, the majority of enlistments in Washington's army were up. When the soldiers were promised additional pay, not one stepped forward. Washington then appealed to their loyalty to a noble cause, and then, and only then, because of their trust in and respect for their general, did the men step forward).
The Scarlet Stockings Spy, written by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Robert Papp, is perhaps one of the least known but most impressive picture books on the American Revolution. The story and vibrant paintings of this wonderful book will give students an excellent overall picture of life in the colonies during the rebellion. This story, as stated on the book's inner flap, is "a suspenseful tale of devotion, sacrifice, and patriotism" melded with "the stark realities of our country's birth."
The Scarlet Stockings Spy doesn't shrink from history telling. From the book's first page, we're offered plenty of context to set the scene:
In the fall of 1777, Philadelphia sat twitching like a nervous mouse. The British were going to attack, but no one knew where or when. Congress had fled inland to York. The Liberty Bell was secreted to Allentown. Folks thought the year resembled a hangman's gallows and took it as a bad sign. Now, all the church bells were being removed to keep the British from melting them down into firearms.And what is best of all, this book succeeds in the area of excellent writing. In the next paragraph we hear:
Uncertainty settled over the city like soot. Suspicions sulked through the cobblestone streets like hungry alley cats. Rumors multiplied like horseflies. Spies were everywhere.The text details, along with the meticulously researched paintings by Robert Papp, transport students to the colonial era through what Jane Yolen has termed "the time machine of historical fiction." While this book can be used for any number of extensions, it certainly fits well with the Revolutionary spy books I described in an earlier post, and students might be interested in some of the activities I recommended there.
John, Paul, George and Ben is Lane Smith's light-hearted and somewhat irreverent look at the childhoods of some of our founding fathers. We see John Hancock, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson as somewhat mischievous young misfits, whose character traits foretell their future feats and fame. I love the fact that the author includes an epilogue titled "Taking Liberties," wherein he sets the record straight regarding some misconceptions (most from his book!) about these famous five.
A fun extension activity for John, Paul, George and Ben would have students write similar fictional childhoods of other famous Patriots. This would, of course, include a bit of research into those famous folks, but the clever assignment provides students with a genuine purpose for that research. Their stories should likewise include a "Taking Liberties" section to separate fact from fiction. A great picture book with which to start? Heroes of the Revolution by David A. Adler, which provides brief, one page biographies of some great patriots.
Abecedaries (aka ABC books) are an excellent way to give students an overall view of people, places, and ideas from the Revolutionary period. Yankee Doodle America: The Spirit of 1776 from A to Z, written and illustrated by Wendell Minor, features paintings inspired by historic inn and tavern signs. The American Revolution from A to Z, written by Laura Crawford and illustrated by Judith Hierstein, is a perfect introduction for lower grade students, although older elementary students will enjoy reading it on their own. Between the covers is a complete introduction to the ideas and people your students are likely to come across in their study of this time period. The Declaration of Independence from A to Z, written by Catherine Osornio with paintings by Layne Johnson, is an excellent look at the political intrigues behind the Revolution. While students (especially boys) will want to jump to the battles, the truth is that most of the Founding Fathers made their mark on history off the battlefield. This terrific book celebrates those who worked tirelessly to create one of the world's most important documents.
Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson (author of Speak, my daughter's favorite book ever) brings us an eye-opening look at the surprising number of contributions by women to the Cause. Anderson's conversational tone begins this way:
Look, another school play about the heroes of the American Revolution. How sweet. We've got George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Paine. Famous guys who did important things. Wonderful. Just wonderful. Of course, you're missing part of the story. In fact, you're missing about half of it.And from there, we're taken on a guided tour of the whole Revolution. While Anderson provides narration, Matt Faulkner's clever, cartoon-style illustrations provide the reader with an equal amount of humor. Text inserts tell about the famous lasses while a timeline at the bottom of the page provides a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the war. The awesome pictures and snarky writing style will make this book a big hit with all your students (yes, even the boys!).
Let It Begin Here: Lexington and Concord, written by Dennis Brindell Fradin and illustrated by Larry Day, chronicles the fateful hours of these first two battles. For students studying the Revolution, textbooks offer a pitiful two or three sentences about the events surrounding these first conflicts, and yet they were the percussive results of a fuse that had been burning for years in the city of Boston. In addition to the excellent narrative, Fradin provides short biographies of the "players" on both sides of the conflict, thereby answering the oft-asked question: "So what ever happened to these guys?" Day's illustrations are both iconic and detailed, and he provides numerous vantage points from which the reader can view the story. (Be sure to also check out another Dennis Brindell Fradin and Larry Day collaboration on Duel! Burr and Hamilton's Deadly War of Words, which describes the events which led to the fatal shooting of one of Washington's most beloved and loyal friends).
Other Recommended Titles
George Vs. George: The Revolutionary War as Seen by Both Sides by Rosalyn Schanzer, provides a look at the issues and conflict from both sides. A terrific, must-have reference for those students who just need to know more!
George Washington: A Picture Book Biography, written by James Cross Giblin and illustrated by Michael Dooling, provides a well rounded look at the man who wouldn't be king.
Valley Forge, written by Richard Ammon and illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, allows readers a more complete understanding of this crucial turning point than what is typically allotted in the single paragraph of most history books.
Samuel's Choice, written by Richard Berleth and illustrated by James Watling, provides a look at the Revolution from a slave's perspective.
Katie's Trunk, written by Ann Turner and illustrated by Ron Himler, provides a look at the Revolution from a Loyalist's perspective.
When Mr. Jefferson Came to Philadelphia, also by Ann Turner and illustrated by Mark Hess, is a very simple introduction to one of America's greatest Patriots.
Recommended Sites for Further Exploration
Frontier Forts is a site which provides beautiful photographs of colonial reenactors demonstrating life on America's frontier in the 1770s. Be sure to first read the teacher's page to see how this site might be incorporated into your classroom teaching.
From the National Museum of American History comes You be the Historian. In this interactive learning module, students explore the lifestyle of a colonial family through artifacts.