Category Archives: social studies

Digging Deep into History: Sources for Historical Research

I love getting random notifications from our county library system. Yesterday’s was an invitation to a free lecture on the local impact of the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic. My writer’s wheels started turning right away and I added the event to the calendar. Though I have no plans to start drafting a flu epidemic middle grade novel anytime soon, I think it’s safe to say that the more your writer-head knows about a historical time period–and history in general–the more inclined (read: less terrified) you become toward actually drafting a historical.

Historical research can be daunting, even for lovers of history, even for lovers of research and research paper writing. We have so much info available to us now…and yet, sometimes a seemingly easy answer eludes us. And then there’s the very real trust issues we writers have with the online world, and justifiably so; though the internet has certainly made it easier to quickly access reading material, it has also made it crucially necessary to question, check and double check, confirm and re-confirm sources. Random Googling can be appropriate for a brief overview of a historical event, person, or time period in MG historical writing; for example, clicking around for short, valid articles is great when you are still in the throes of a new crazy idea and are exploring the topic to gauge your own interest in it. The question “Is this something I want to learn more about?” is just as important as “Is this idea any ‘good’ for an MG novel?” at this stage of the game, and quick search engine results can help you start to answer these basic questions.

But once you’ve decided to dig in and try your hand at a new historical middle grade, to what types of resources do you turn?

I thought I’d share here some of the more interesting and trusted sources of historical info I’ve used in recent years. This is, of course, just to get your own wheels turning, the way that library notification did mine, and to hopefully start some comments from you all with other source ideas to inspire our whole community here at The Mixed-Up Files.

Go local:

Your local library might surprise you, and have a great resource on hand all about the preparations for a medieval feast, or The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, or the first-ever passenger rail car (England, 1825). If your own library doesn’t, search your county or statewide library system, and enjoy the benefits of interlibrary loan (free, real books, delivered to your local library, just for you!).

Local museums, local historical societies, local college and university libraries. Librarians, docents, and historical society volunteers share your passion for info and history, and chances are, they will be eager to help a writer towards historical accuracy.

Go online:

Don’t forget to try your public, state, or university library’s online aggregated content databases of articles and reference books. As a card-holding library patron, you should have access to these databases, often a mix of academic and popular culture resources. For example, my town library is part of Pennsylvania’s electronic library system (called PowerLibrary), which I can access from my home computer by inputting the patron number on my library card. This morning I found a recent Smithsonian article through PowerLibrary perfect for my WIP.

Primary source documents, like digitized newspapers, magazines, and periodicals—some from centuries ago–are amazing pieces of actual history that convey the aesthetics, attitudes, and atmosphere of the time period as well as info.

Online digital libraries. Digitized libraries can be huge aggregates of centuries’ worth of books and serials, many of them full-text… or they can be an individual’s personal web site of images of the local ferry service’s crossing schedules from 1955. And depending on your book idea, either of these or any in between might be equally helpful.  Try your luck with Hathi Trust Digital Library for out-of-print books and resources, Project Gutenberg for works in the public domain, or this site…when you have a few hours free:   http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/250-plus-killer-digital-libraries-and-archives/ I liked how these were organized by state (alphabetically) with multi-state resources listed at the end.

Photographs, of course. I like the search results I get (and the amount of info for citations) from the Photo Archive at the Getty Institute: http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/photo/

Here, for inspiration, are Life magazine historical photos by decade hosted by Google: http://images.google.com/hosted/life

Don’t forget the daily details in all your hard-core historical info. Food, footwear, furniture…depending on your setting, a sales resource like a digitized Sears and Roebuck catalog might be helpful (not to mention fascinating). Today I looked at this  one on Hathi from 1918. Middle-grade-aged girls’ clothes start on the third page, with prices and descriptions.

Grocery store ads with prices, movie posters, war propaganda literature…all telling signs of the times. From a special collections library at Emory University, here’s a 1947  ad for women’s high heels for $5.99 (!!).  How interesting that the ad utilizes the fun, adventurous lifestyle of circus performers to catch the consumer’s attention.

Specific to American history research, try the National Archives (great educator section here, by the way!): https://www.archives.gov/  and the site of the American Antiquarian Society: http://www.americanantiquarian.org/  (for info and primary sources through 1876).

The Library of Congress has an abundance of free reference materials, including an International Collections section as well an American Folklife Center: http://www.loc.gov/rr/ .

Books on historical topics that are especially cool for writers:

The Writer’s Guide to… Series. The Wild West, Prohibition through WWII, the 1800’s, Colonial America, Renaissance England, and more.

If you have kids, you probably know the DK Eyewitness series of books. Written for elementary through middle graders as visual encyclopedias, these books present great overviews on a wealth of topics and time periods. They contain the perfect amount of info if you are just getting started on a research topic—enough to catch your interest and start notetaking, but not so much as to overwhelm.

An illustrated costume history text. You can page through possibilities at bookstores on university campuses with theatre departments, or try a book like What People Wore: 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century by Douglas Gorsline.

I hope you found this to be a fun and possibilities-ripe list!  Please chime in with comments on what creative and helpful sources you’ve used in the past. Thanks for reading and good luck with your future research!

“Fall” into Nonfiction with some great new Titles

Looking for some AWESOME Middle Grade and YA nonfiction to add to your shelves this fall?  Check out some of the Amazing titles listed below– from a playful book about cats, to a history thriller about the famous Booth Brothers, two books about women and girls who changed the world, an incredible story of bionic animals, a creepy book about the way poison was used throughout history,  a series on discovering animal secrets, and the first in a series of facts that are too crazy to be true, yet they are… These books showcase Nonfiction as the very exciting, highly intriguing topic it is. #NonfictionROCKS

 

True Stories of Kindness and Companionship with Kitties

By Aline Alexander Newman (Nat Geo Kids)


We humans love our cats and these surprising true stories will prove our cats love us back This collection of tales of playfulness, friendship, heroism, and inspiration is sure to touch the soul, tickle the funny bone, and inspire animal lovers everywhere to be the best kitty caretakers and companions they can be. There’s Bambi, whose owners taught her to respond to commands in American Sign Language; Millie, who loves exploring the outdoors and goes rock climbing with her owner; Leo, a rescued lion who changed the life of one South African family forever, and more.

 

The Booth Brothers: Drama, Fame and the Death of President Lincoln by Rebecca Langston-George (Capstone Press)


Today everyone knows the name of John Wilkes Booth, the notorious zealot who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. But in his lifetime, the killer was an actor who was well-known among fans of the theater, well-known but less famous and less admired than his brother Edwin. In the 1860s, Edwin Booth ranked among the greatest and most-respected stars of the stage. He lived in New York and sympathized with the Union cause, while his younger brother stomped the streets of Washington, D.C., and raged as the Civil War turned in favor of the North. John fantasized about kidnapping the president, but after the defeat of the Confederacy, he sought deadly vengeance. The night Lincoln attended a performance at Ford’s Theatre, Edwin was far away, knowing nothing of the plot unfolding in the nation’s capital.

 

 

Bold Women of Medicine
21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs By Susan M. Latta (Chicago Review Press)

Meet 21 determined women who have dedicated their lives to healing others. In the 19th century, Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton–the “Lady with the Lamp” and the “Angel of the Battlefield”–earned their nicknames by daring to enter battlefields to aid wounded soldiers, forever changing the standards of medicine. Modern-day medical heroines such as Bonnie Simpson Mason, who harnessed the challenges of her chronic illness and founded an organization to introduce women and minorities to orthopedic surgery, and Kathy Magliato, who jumped the hurdles to become a talented surgeon in the male-dominated arena of heart transplants, will inspire any young reader interested in the art, science, and lifechanging applications of medicine. Lovers of adventure will follow Mary Carson Breckinridge, the “nurse on horseback” who delivered babies in the Appalachian Mountains and believed that everyone, including our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, deserve good health care, and Jerri Nielsen, the doctor stationed in Antarctica who, cut off from help, had to bravely treat her own breast cancer. These and 15 other daring women inspire with their courage, persistence, and belief in the power of both science and compassion.
Packed with photos and informative sidebars and including source notes and a bibliography, Bold Women of Medicine is an invaluable addition to any student’s or aspiring doctor or nurse’s bookshelf.

Lotta Crabtree: Gold Rush Fairy Star By Lois Harris (Pelican Publishing Company)

With the California Gold Rush reaching a feverish peak, it was up to child performers called “Fairy Stars” to keep the miners entertained. As adventurers from all over the world spent hours scouring the land for gold, the children would dance, sing, and act to raise spirits and money–and the most successful among them was Lotta Crabtree. At just eight years old, Lotta won hearts on the West and East Coasts with her extraordinary talent for performing. Thus began a career that lasted decades, launching Lotta to stardom and making her one of the most beloved actresses of the nineteenth century. In this unique biography for young readers, follow Lotta’s first years, her struggle to support her family, and her spectacular journey to fame by age twenty.

 

Unstoppable:True Stories of Amazing Bionic Animals By Nancy Furstinger (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt)


Chris P. Bacon was born with malformed legs, but with the help of a wheelchair made of construction toys, he’s become a hero to people with similar challenges. Nancy Furstinger profiles Chris P. Bacon and many other animals in Unstoppable–all of whom are making their way around with the help of prosthetics, braces, orthotics and wheelchairs Readers will meet the caretakers, prosthetists, vets, and loving families that help to make recovery possible. Furstinger offers a glimpse into the cutting-edge technologies, such as 3D printing and brain-controlled prosthetics, that are helping to improve the lives of animals and humans alike.

 

Poison:Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines By Sarah Albee (Crown BFYR)

Science geeks and armchair detectives will soak up this non-lethal, humorous account of the role poisons have played in human history. Perfect for STEM enthusiasts
For centuries, people have been poisoning one another–changing personal lives and the course of empires alike.
From spurned spouses and rivals, to condemned prisoners like Socrates, to endangered emperors like Alexander the Great, to modern-day leaders like Joseph Stalin and Yasser Arafat, poison has played a starring role in the demise of countless individuals. And those are just the deliberate poisonings. Medical mishaps, greedy “snake oil” salesmen and food contaminants, poisonous Prohibition, and industrial toxins also impacted millions.
Part history, part chemistry, part whodunit, Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines traces the role poisons have played in history from antiquity to the present and shines a ghoulish light on the deadly intersection of human nature . . . and Mother Nature.

 

The Secret of the Scuba Diving Spider… and More!
By Ana Maria Rodriguez (Enslow Publishing)


Readers will dive along with an underwater spider and also discover why caterpillars need an emergency whistle, how moths talk back to bats, that zombie beetles really exist, and what makes cockroaches so hard to catch. Primary sources include interviews with the scientists and original photos. Simple yet detailed language makes complicated scientific ideas easy to understand. A hands-on activity allows students to take on the role of scientist and examine these basic biological principles themselves.

 

Fault Lines in the Constitution:The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today By Cynthia Levinson; Sanford Levinson (Peachtree Publishers)

Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution.

Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced–then they offer possible solutions. Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. Many of us take these features in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications.  From the award-winning team, Cynthia Levinson, children’s book author, and Sanford Levinson, constitutional law scholar, Fault Lines in the Constitution will encourage exploration and discussion from young and old readers alike.

 

Two Truths and a Lie: It’s Alive!  By Ammi-Joan Paquette; Laurie Ann Thompson (Walden Pond Press)

Two Truths and a Lie is the first book in a fascinating new series that presents some of the most crazy-but-true stories about the living world as well as a handful of stories that are too crazy to be true–and asks readers to separate facts from the fakes

Every story in this book is strange and astounding. But not all of them are real. Just like the old game in this book’s title, two out of every three stories are completely true and one is an outright lie. Can you guess which? It’s not going to be easy. Some false stories are based on truth, and some of the true stories are just plain unbelievable. And they’re all accompanied by dozens of photos, maps, and illustrations. Amaze yourself and trick your friends as you sort out the fakes from the facts

 

Geoengineering Earth’s Climate: Resetting the Thermostat By Jennifer Swanson (21st Century Books/Lerner)

“Most scientists agree that Earth is warming rapidly. Glaciers are melting and rising seawaters are submerging islands and coastal cities. In the coming decades, millions will likely have to escape extreme weather caused by climate change. Some scientists say we need to act faster and with radical new technologies—now—to save our planet. They propose geoengineering, or “”engineering Earth,”” to reset our global thermostat. Ideas include thickening clouds with chemicals to reduce the amount of sunlight and pulling carbon dioxide from the air with machines. However, critics say that geoengineering could backfire and create even worse weather. Is geoengineering too risky? Or is it our best hope of survival?”

Transporting Students Into the Past With Historical Fiction

What teaches you the perspective of others… the struggles a society may have suffered, the demands of distant cultures, or about an era so far removed from our own, that you are forced to wrap your brain around a different logic?

HISTORICAL FICTION is such a beast. It transports you into the past where life and a culture previously existed. You become part of a world where you walk-the-walk alongside characters dealing with the trials and tribulations of an era long gone.

Creative Commons Read Aloud

When I was in college, we were introduced to Jim Trelease, an educator who stressed that reading aloud builds students’ imaginations and improves listening skills. It also gives them a love of books.

I have read many books aloud to my classes ranging from 4th to 8th grade since my first year of teaching. (In case you aren’t aware, read-alouds are in addition to students’ regular reading and work that is associated with it, not a replacement for it.)

Last school year as a teacher, I used historical fiction to bring life to the social studies curriculum. I correlated our read-alouds to what was going on in their social studies lessons.

I read the section first with my best dramatic voice, and  asked comprehension questions along the way. We stopped, occasionally, for someone to look up a more challenging vocabulary word in the dictionary.  They identified locations on maps; they researched details to know more about a related topic; they ate foods that we read about.

A good portion of the class asked if they could take notes. Before long, everyone was recording in their journals, which supported their required writing and reflection afterwards. As a teacher, I know that annotating their thoughts helps them to develop a stronger understanding of the material and organize the details.

The best part were the discussions sparked by the stories themselves. They were meaningful and thought provoking. Mini-lessons to further understanding were also part of the process.

I collected their journals every week to do a quick check for comprehension and to assign an effort grade. If a student was absent, they picked-up the book and read the pages they had missed. At the end of the book, they took an assessment test. Many reported that our read-alouds with social studies was their favorite subject.

In Blood on the River: Jamestown 1607 by Elisa Carbone, we traced the journey from England to the coast of America on our map. We focused on how the colonists grappled with the hardships of the Jamestown colony as it struggled to survive, discussed their governing laws, and debated how business sponsored the settlement.

We also learned about the introduction of slave labor. When we got to the 13 colonies in social studies, there wasn’t a student in the class who didn’t understand what was involved in starting a new world.

In Under Siege! by (me) Robyn Gioia, we continued our discussion of how European nations were expanding into the New World for resources and the conflict between early colonial groups maneuvering for control.

In the story, my class learned about one of U.S. history’s best kept secrets: the 1702 English attack on the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida (a city later recognized as America’s oldest). Students deal with the angst and hardship of being under siege inside a fort surrounded by a superior enemy. At the heart of the story is survival and loss, war, friendship and adventure.

In Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, we see the colonies through the eyes of a slave girl. There were many discussions on the ownership of peoples and the burdens they bore, the dependence of society on slave labor, the laws governing the colonies, the discourse between factions, and the devastating hardships of war.We continued our read into the next book in the series, Forge, which deals with being a slave and a soldier coupled with the realities of war.

Johnny Tremain, by Ester Forbes, was not used as a read-aloud for the entire class. It was read by one of my literature circles. Those students were quick to jump in with further details about the Revolutionary War during open discussions. Insight into the Sons of Liberty was a favorite topic.

There are many wonderful historical fiction books out there. The problem is narrowing it down to just a few. Interacting with history through read-alouds is an excellent way to build conceptual knowledge and for students to internalize the intricacies of that era long ago.