A Good Read: Finding a Niche for Notable Books


Nancy P. Gallavan

Maybe you, as a social studies teacher, are required to include the lives of women in your history lessons, even though your textbook is weak in this area. Such a requirement is made a little easier with a book like Eleanor, which tells of Eleanor Roosevelt’s growing up in a “cheerless household,” under the care of her imposing grandmother.1 A mandate to instruct sixth graders on “economic concepts” seems a little less daunting when one can peruse Neale S. Godfrey’s Ultimate Kids’ Money Book, with its clear and colorful examples, before drawing up a lesson plan.2

One does not have to comb the entire library to find such gems. Every year since 1972, a book review committee appointed by National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), in cooperation with members of the Children’s Book Council (CBC), has evaluated and selected children’s literature related to the field of social studies. In creating “Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People,” the committee seeks books that emphasize human relations, represent a diversity of groups, express sensitivity to a broad range of cultural experiences, and present an original theme or a fresh slant on a traditional topic. The books must be easily read, be of high literary quality, and when appropriate, include illustrations that enrich the text. This annotated book list now appears annually in a special supplement to Social Education.3 In 1996, reviewers also began indicating specific NCSS themes for social studies that relate most closely with each book, making it even easier for teachers to locate books that might complement a given unit of study.4

Unfortunately, I have found that many teachers are not aware of this resource. They teach in school districts where social studies education is not emphasized, or their elementary or middle school librarians are unfamiliar with the list. Likewise, many new teachers have not learned about the ten NCSS thematic strands, as this resource was not used in college courses or at hand during teaching internships. And many elementary school teachers would still say that they “do not teach social studies,” even though social studies might be understood as the context for all other subjects that they do teach.


Goals for Our Project with Teachers

Integrating literature and social studies allows teachers to maximize interest and learning. Students and teachers can explore almost any social studies discipline or curriculum through an outstanding work of children’s literature. This was the rationale for a project at the University of Nevada in 1998 during which forty elementary and middle school teachers strove to achieve four goals:

> To become acquainted with the NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, particularly books published within the last five years;

> To explore the ten NCSS thematic strands of social studies: their definitions, their related performance expectations, and their application in daily life;

> To identify creative teaching strategies for using the notable books within social studies classes; and

> To create a useful resource for teachers and preservice students.


Discovering the Notable Books

Teachers were provided with a brief overview of the notable books effort and were given the lists of notable books from the previous five years. Most of the books were made available for browsing and checking out. Many of the teachers pleasantly discovered that they owned copies of these books in their personal, classroom, or school libraries. Many of these books were also found on other award-winning book lists.

Teachers read some books silently and then discussed the texts; they read others aloud; some books had sections that could be play acted. Teachers shared brief book reports (written individually or with a partner) to small groups and to the entire group. One teacher even played soft, tape-recorded music in the background to enrich the audience’s listening experience.


Exploring the Ten Social Studies Thematic Strands

Teachers were divided into ten groups and given the task of exploring one of the ten NCSS thematic strands. Each small group wrote a brief definition of one theme, described some exemplary performance expectations related to a specified theme, and made a list of symbols and signs from daily life that reflect the general theme. For example, elementary students can learn about Theme 2 Time, Continuity, and Change by hearing stories about the recent past, as well as of long ago. They can then demonstrate their knowledge by placing pictures of events in a correct sequence, or by drawing a picture that is historically coherent (in which the people, clothing, setting, and action are appropriate to a specific time). They can help make a list of things in modern life that represent time or the passage of time, such as clocks (of all kinds), the hour glass (of which some board games include a variation), calendars, and timelines—or things that are marked with a date, such as birth and death certificates, letters, diaries, maps, newspapers, photographs, and other documents. There are also more fanciful images and fictional concepts such as “Baby New Year,” “Father Time,” and time machines.


Strategies for the Classroom

Next, teachers dived into the professional literature (journals, textbooks, teachers’ guides, and other teaching resources), searching for descriptions of successful teaching strategies that could be used in conjunction with a good children’s book. The aim was to integrate children’s literature and the social studies themes into a coherent lesson (Table 1). Patterns began to emerge as teachers progressed in this work. They found it helpful to tell which grade they taught and to place books and themes in a logical sequence— a curriculum. Connections were made to other disciplines as well. Some of the teaching strategies that emerged from the project are listed here.5

> Make available many notable books for students to read and enjoy independently or with one another at a reading center or library corner;

> Select a notable book and have students read and discuss it as part of a social studies unit, using one or more social studies themes to guide the discussion;

> Read a notable book (or an excerpt) aloud and lead discussions about the elements of the book as they apply to specific social studies themes. For example, the setting of the story involves history and geography, time and place; the conflicts in a story often involve economic issues, needs and wants, and so on;

> Use social studies-related words, found in the book, in the lesson and in vocabulary lists for that unit;

> Have students identify places mentioned in the book and locate these on large wall maps of the United States, various countries, or the world;

> Construct an active lesson (one that is less teacher-directed and more student-centered) based on a book. Such a lesson might involve panel discussions, debates, role playing, charades, mock trials, simulations, readers’ theater, mock television commercials, and so on. Use performance standards to evaluate students’ work;6

> Use small groups for peer reading and cooperative learning (or “jigsaw”) approaches. This is one way to have many students become generally acquainted with a wide selection of books quickly (as was modeled with teachers in this project);

> Ask higher-order questions that involve inferential and critical analyses. For example, Do the details in the story match what you have learned from other sources about this time and these situations? What skills and resources do the characters in the story apply to events in their lives? What were the causes of major events in the story? Were the characters aware of these causes?

> Have students read a novel at the beginning of a unit of study, then draw up questions about real history that grow out of having read the fictional work, and finally search various primary sources of information for answers;

> Invite a guest speaker who has lived through an experience similar to that in the book;

> Go on a field trip to a site in your local community that is related to the time or events described in the book;

> When only half the book has been read, have students “take on the role of author” by predicting possible outcomes. Or students can state viewpoints representative of various characters. Or they can revise the end of a story, or create a sequel. These activities can be oral or written;

> Coordinate with a language arts teacher, so that the book is used in both classes;

> Integrate math and science skills to analyze the story. For example, students could calculate the number of years or generations (one every twenty years) that have passed since an event occurred, research the demographics pertinent to an event, map the course of a journey, study the relevant science or technology of the times, and so on;

> Compare the situation in the story with a current event unfolding at the school, locally, nationally, or globally, then explore that event in detail;

> Offer students an opportunity to write or speak about a public or personal event or an activity that relates somehow to the book. (For example, students may be volunteering for a political campaign, helping neighbors after a flood, getting their family settled in a new community, preparing for an ethnic or religious celebration, and so on);

> Use music, dance, and fine arts that are related to the story. One might seek assistance from the appropriate teacher in the school, a museum staff person, or other community resource;

> Form book clubs or reading contests featuring the notable books. Challenge other classrooms or schools to book-reading contests.


A Professional Resource

Throughout the project, teachers kept journals, many of which included annotated bibliographies and charts that correlated each notable book with one or more of the social studies themes (Table 1). To conclude the project, teachers shared their journals. We looked back at our four original goals in light of the resources that we had collectively created. In the true sense of social studies education, these teachers had empowered themselves through an exploration that was meaningful, relevant, and authentic.



1. Barbara Cooney, Eleanor (New York: Viking, 1996).

2. Neale S. Godfrey, Neale S. Godfrey’s Ultimate Kids’ Money Book (New York: Viking, 1998).

3. See, for example, the May/June 1999 issue of Social Education. In earlier years, this list was given a slightly different title, “Notable Children’s Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies,” and appeared in the April/May issue.

4. Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1994).

5. For further examples and applications, see articles in the Children’s Literature section in past issues of Social Studies and the Young Learner as well as the book Children’s Literature in Social Studies: Teaching to the Standards by DeAn M. Krey (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1998).

6. Reference 4 contains a chapter on performance expectations, “Standards into Practice: Examples for the Early Grades,” on pages 47-75.

About the Author

Nancy P. Gallavan is an assistant professor of elementary school social studies and K-12 multicultural education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.