Social Education 58(3), 1994, pp. 152-154
National Council for the Social Studies

Criteria for Selecting Picture Books with Historical Settings

Jeanne McLain Harms and
Lucille J. Lettow

Fine picture books with historical settings can extend children's understanding of life in the past and can greatly enrich the social studies program in the elementary school. Not only can a fictional text make the reading experience more interesting for children, but the illustrations can provide visual representations of a time beyond their experience.
Literature used in the social studies must be carefully selected (Banks 1990). When teachers select picture books with a historical setting, their first consideration, as with all books, should be that the text and illustrations are of interest to children and are developmentally appropriate for them (Huck, Hepler, and Hickman 1993).

Other important criteria for assessing the quality of historical picture books are: authenticity, complementarity of text and illustration, freedom from bias, and three-dimensional portrayal of central characters. In this article, we use recently published picture books as examples in discussing these criteria because those books are more easily obtained, research done by authors and illustrators is more frequently noted, and people's experiences from other cultures are presented with more sensitivity and accuracy than in older books.

Both the content of text and the content of illustrations need to demonstrate careful scholarly research on the part of the author. Authentic description can help children gain concrete and extended understanding of life in the past. The best authors and illustrators are painstaking in their efforts to ensure that their work accurately describes a period in history.

For example, James Stevenson's Don't You Know There's a War On? (1992) vividly describes life in the United States during World War II. The title refers to the shortage of commodities during that time. In response to customers' frustrations over the lack of items for sale, it was not uncommon to hear a sales clerk reply with this emotional question: "Don't you know there's a war going on?" Fathers and brothers went off to war, leaving their relatives behind to worry about their safety. On the homefront, children as well as adults were actively engaged in the war effort: collecting materials needed for military equipment such as tinfoil and tin cans, planting victory gardens, and participating in blackouts during air raid practices. Being a true patriot was extremely important. As in the story, people, especially those of German heritage, were sometimes suspected of being spies.

The volume An Ellis Island Christmas by Maxinne Rhea Leighton (1992) tells her father's story of leaving Poland as a child with his mother, brother, and sister to be reunited with his father in the United States. The book also reßects the author's af&Mac222;liation with the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration restoration project. The illustrator, Dennis Nolan, toured the facility, not only to be able to depict the setting accurately but to try to understand the emotional responses of the immigrants. For Gloria Houston's (1988) retelling of her Appalachian Christmas as a child during World War I (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree), illustrator Barbara Cooney traveled to the area in search of accurate details to include in her illustrations of child and adult activity in homes, schools, and churches.

Visual images across time need to reßect transition. In Patricia Polacco's The Keeping Quilt (1988), the Russian immigrant family uses swatches from clothes brought from the Old County to construct a quilt that is cherished for generations. In the illustrations, the colors in the quilt remain vivid as the generations pass, rather than fading with time. In contrast, Tomie de Paola's illustrations of The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston (1985) depict the transition of time more realistically by showing a falling star quilt becoming worn as it passes through generations. At the end of the book, the once brightly colored quilt is faded and mended.

The values and viewpoints of people in a particular time period need to be presented with insight. As in the volumes The Rag Coat by Lauren Mills (1991), In Coal Country by Judith Hendershot (1987), and The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston (1988), the characters' behavior reflects the wholesome values representative of rural Appalachia in the first part of the twentieth century. The focus is on the solidarity of family and community, even though individuals may be experiencing hardships. The children in these stories experience poverty but are rich in terms of nurturing family and neighborhood relationships.

Viewpoints of the past, even though dated and unacceptable today, add to the validity of a historical work. For example, Bigmama's by Donald Crews (1991) is the story of the author's childhood visit to his grandmother's farm. One illustration of the family's trip by train shows a restroom sign for "colored," depicting the separation of whites and African Americans in the South at that time.

The terms and language used by characters should be representative of a time period and should be explained in the context of the text or illustration. In Tony Johnston's Yonder (1988), the story of a young man establishing a farm in the nineteenth century, the term "yonder" is expanded as the story progresses. At first, "yonder" means at a distance in space, but as the man's life moves through the cycle of seasons and generations of his offspring, the word comes to mean a time in the distant past.

Complementarity of Text and Illustration
Illustrations and text in picture books should not only complement each other, but illustrations should ideally amplify the text's meaning (Nodelman 1988). Some illustrators amplify the text by including relevant supporting details. In The Potato Man by Megan McDonald (1991), Ted Lewin's illustrations of street vendors and their horse-drawn carts convey the flavor of city life in the early twentieth century. Adding to this effect is the inclusion of such details as the icebox in the kitchen, the type of telephone common to the era, the children's clothing, and a wonderful roadster, the equivalent of a sports car today.

Through style and medium, illustrators can expand on authors' meanings. Floyd Cooper, in Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard's Chita's Christmas Tree (1989), uses muted colors to convey a memory of a family Christmas in the early twentieth century. Allen Say (1990) in El Chino uses color to convey the fulfillment of a young Chinese American's dream of becoming a matador in Spain. Say's paintings portraying the young man's aspirations are done in black and white; those depicting his life as a bullfighter are done in vivid color.

Artists can enhance the action in a story by a series of illustrations on a page or page spread denoting the continuous progress of the plot. Several of Robert Casilla's illustrations for Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard's The Train to Lulu's (1988), show the evolving action of the plot. The book tells the story of two young sisters taking a train trip in the 1930s from Boston to Baltimore. As the train starts from the station and moves through the countryside, the older sister falls asleep.

Barbara Cooney has used what artists call a "naive style" (conservative use of line and clearly outlined images) to convey visually the simple subsistence life of an early nineteenth-century New England family in Donald Hall's Ox-Cart Man (1979). Roberto Innocenti (1985) executes his illustrations for Rose Blanche with photographic realism (close representation of reality as in a photograph) to portray the harsh experiences of a young girl whose community the Nazis invaded during World War II.

Junko Morimoto (1990) has used many styles in her illustrations for My Hiroshima, a young girl's experience at the time of the atomic bombing of that city. Early in the book, members of her family are introduced as images of the past through illustrations in muted tones done in a style of photographic realism. As the account progresses, small figures are drawn in a naive style at the bottom of some pages to represent civilians' lack of power in the war. When the bomber enters the scene, Morimoto places it high on the page, representing power.

After the bombing, Morimoto shows people huddled together, appearing to be in a dream-like state (a surrealistic style). The illustration is placed in a lower corner of the page, conveying a sense of the chaos in the event. On another page spread, a surrealistic illustration of the explosion of the atomic bomb and displaced human limbs symbolizes the extreme disruption in people's lives. On a blank leaf at the end of the book, a colored photograph of the restored city is presented in two segments, signifying that even today many severing aspects of this traumatic experience have not been completely resolved by the victims, including the author.

Through pastels and charcoal on textured paper, Thomas B. Allen for Judith Hendershot's In Coal Country (1987) portrays the memories of the past and the grittiness of a coal-mining village. The charcoal image of the miner's face covered with coal dust is so vivid that a reader can imagine rubbing off the dust by touching the illustration.

Three-Dimensional Central Characters
The human element in picture books with historical settings can help children to identify with the conflicts of an era. They can experience vicariously others' responses to experiences and can come to understand the influence of events on humans. In her imagination, the African-American girl in Faith Ringgold's Tar Beach (1991) flies, believing that she can overcome the racial suppression that affects her life. In Randolph's Dream by Judith Mellecker (1991), a British boy, sorely missing his soldier father in World War II, imagines that he flies to the front in North Africa to join him.

Rounded characters, those with well-developed traits, come alive and allow the audience to understand the characters' actions. Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard in The Train to Lulu's (1988) creates real children in the throes of an exciting experience by using the voice of an older sister to describe emotions associated with a train trip alone with her younger sister.

The well-developed child characters in Megan McDonald's The Great Pumpkin Switch (1992) and The Potato Man (1991), set in the early 1900s, are given credibility by being grounded in the present. The stories are a ßashback of a grandfather telling his grandchildren of his childhood experiences. Ted Lewin's representational illustrations further extend the stories by focusing on the emotional responses of the characters as well as details of life in that era. The characters in these stories are dynamic because they initiate actions that lead to the story's resolution. In The Great Pumpkin Switch, a boy uses his ingenuity to replace his sister's giant pumpkin, which he accidentally broke. In The Potato Man, a boy gains insight when he discovers the reward of doing the right thing.

The girl in Gloria Houston's But No Candy (1992) is another example of a well-developed character. Set during World War II, when shortages were common, the story focuses on a young girl who has been yearning for a chocolate candy bar. When her uncle, a soldier returning from the war, brings her one, she discovers that she has changed. Candy bars are no longer as signi&Mac222;cant as they once were.

Freedom from Bias
Historically, opportunities for women and people of color have been limited. In Hall's Ox-Cart Man (1979), for example, the adult male was portrayed as the central figure of the family. Such books need to be balanced with stories that depict women in the past as capable of initiating action and eventually achieving their goals. Barbara Cooney's Hattie and the Wild Waves (1990), for instance, tells the story of a young girl in the nineteenth century who pursues an unconventional career as an artist.

The perspectives and motives of characters in books about women and minorities need to be developed. In an unsuccessful example, Jean Van Leeuwen's Going West (1992), the Indians visiting the white settlers appear as intruders. Their behavior is portrayed as simple, and the reason for their visit is left unexplained.

Teachers should avoid selecting books with ideas that represent only one point of view and cast people in a negative light because of who they are. In Jean Fritz's The Great Adventure of Christopher Columbus (1992), for example, the text ignores not only the serious effects of Columbus's conquest on the lives of the native people, but implies that they are uncultured and witless. The author describes them as being unable to understand the explorer's language, accepting simple trinkets for valuable information, and being naked ("Stark naked-that's what they were" and "the natives, naked as ever"). This treatment, reinforced by Tomie de Paola's three-dimensional scenes, presents an unfair judgment in an era when nudity was culturally acceptable among Caribbean people.

These criteria for selecting picture books with historical settings were designed to assist teachers and librarians in acquiring quality works. We also hope to encourage the collaborative efforts of authors and illustrators to present authentic details of the past that vividly portray the human element and thereby enrich social studies for the elementary grades.

Banks, James A. Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1990.
Huck, Charlotte S., Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. Children's Literature in the Elementary School. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.
Nodelman, Perry. Words About Pictures. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

Picture Books Cited
With the exception of two titles (Innocenti's Rose Blanche and Morimoto's My Hiroshima, which may not be considered developmentally appropriate for very young children), the books in this bibliography will be of interest to children of all ages.

Cooney, Barbara. Hattie and the Wild Waves. New York: Viking, 1990.
Crews, Donald. Bigmama's. New York: Greenwillow, 1991.
Fritz, Jean. The Great Adventure of Christopher Columbus. Illus. Tomie de Paola. New York: Putnam & Grosset, 1992.
Hall, Donald. Ox-Cart Man. Illus. Barbara Cooney. New York: Viking, 1979.
Hendershot, Judith. In Coal Country. Illus. Thomas B. Allen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
Houston, Gloria. But No Candy. Illus. Lloyd Bloom. New York: Philomel, 1992.
-----. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree. Illus. Barbara Cooney. New York: Dial, 1988.
Howard, Elizabeth Fitzgerald. Chita's Christmas Tree. Illus. Floyd Cooper. New York: Bradbury, 1989.
-----. The Train to Lulu's. Illus. Robert Casilla. New York: Bradbury, 1988.
Innocenti, Roberto. Rose Blanche. Mankato: Creative Education, 1985.
Johnston, Tony. The Quilt Story. Illus. Tomie de Paola. New York: Putnam, 1985.
-----. Yonder. Illus. Lloyd Bloom. New York: Dial, 1988.
Leighton, Maxinne Rhea. An Ellis Island Christmas. Illus. Dennis Nolan. New York: Viking, 1992.
McDonald, Megan. The Potato Man. Illus. Ted Lewin. New York: Orchard, 1991.
Mellecker, Judith. Randolph's Dream. Illus. Robert Andrew Parker. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
Mills, Lauren A. The Rag Coat. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.
Morimoto, Junko. My Hiroshima. New York: Viking, 1990.
Polacco, Patricia. The Keeping Quilt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Ringgold, Faith. Tar Beach. New York: Crown, 1991.
Say, Allen. El Chino. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Stevenson, James. Don't You Know There's a War On? New York: Greenwillow, 1992.
Van Leeuwen, Jean. Going West. Illus. Thomas B. Allen. New York: Dial, 1992.

Jeanne McLain Harms is professor of curriculum and instruction and Lucille J. Lettow is youth collection librarian and associate professor, Donald O. Rod Library, both at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa.