Civil War in Children's Literature

Featured Subject: The Civil War

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.

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.

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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 (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.

Pink and Say Cover

While you're doing that, of course, students should be reading their own choices from the available books. Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco (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.

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. (See our article on Slavery in the US: Featured Subject with picture books, novels, nonfiction as well as discussion starters and classroom activities.)

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Jim Murphy's The Boys' War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk about the Civil War (Paperback.) uses letters, diaries and oral histories to tell the stories that some of the youngest soldiers experienced. Author's Website.

Cover Art

Anita Silvey's I'll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (Order Info.) explores the unknown number of women who fought in the US Civil War disguised as men. This well documented book is a great way to bring this often neglected strand into your Civil War or women's studies.

Lincoln, Cover Art

Sticking with the nonfiction for a bit, there are two excellent biographies that belong in any such theme. Russell Freedman's Lincoln: a Photobiography (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 (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 (Paperback.) about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Although the second grade vocabulary makes it so accessible, the information is accurate and interesting.

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Bull Run, Cover Art

Now, on to the novels! Start with Paul Fleischman's masterful Bull Run (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 (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.

cover art Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder (Grades 5 - 8) moves more quickly. Twelve-year-old Will's family in Winchester, Virginia has been wiped out in the Civil War. His father fought bravely in the Confederate Army, his sisters died of a disease that Will is convinced was carried by the Yankees and his mother died soon afterward. Now he's come to live with Uncle Jed who refused to take sides in the war and whom Will's family considered a traitor and a coward, a feeling shared by most of Jed's neighbors. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

Carolyn Reeder's Across the Lines (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.

Janet Lunn's The Root Cellar (Hardcover, Paperback.) 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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