Kansas Books in the classroom

February 2006


In 1994 Carolyn S. Brodie edited a book entitled Exploring the Plains States Through Literature. Many new books have been published since then and we thought it might be a good idea to feature a variety of these more recent books in this issue of Tales Out of School. We have attempted to include a broad range of books, both in age appropriateness and subject matter. This is obviously not an exhaustive listing of Kansas/Great Plains books for young readers.

If you have books that are set in Kansas or the Great Plains that you find useful in the classroom, we invite you to send us those titles, along with the classroom activities that you find valuable. Depending on the response, we may incorporate your contributions into another issue of Tales.

The Children’s Blizzard: January 12, 1888 by David Laskin (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).

[Suitable ages 14-18].

David Laskin has also written Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals and Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Preservation, and Smithsonian. He lives in Seattle.

Combining the personal stories of five families with historically accurate meteorological information, author David Laskin tells the frightening story of a prairie snowstorm that barreled through the Great Plains, leaving death and destruction in its wake. One moment the air was calm; the next the sky exploded in a raging chaos of horizontal snow and hurricane-force winds. By Friday morning, January 13, some five hundred people lay dead on the drifted prairie, many of them children who had perished on their way home from country schools. Characters in the book include Lena Woebbecke, a German immigrant girl; Etta Shattuck, a schoolteacher; Lieutenant Thomas M. Woodruff, the West Point Graduate who detected the first signs of the blizzard; and his boss, General Adolphus Greely, the head of the War Department’s Signal Corps.

Possible activities could include researching blizzards and wind chill, comparing the blizzard with other meteorological disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and learning about the etymology of the word “blizzard.” This site affords students a role-playing opportunity to learn the skills necessary to cope with a blizzard today: http://weathereye.kgan.com/expert/blizzard/index.html. Another site to visit is http://wintercenter.homestead.com/photoscblizzard.html.

Pioneer Summer (book one of the Prairie Skies series) by Deborah Hopkinson; illustrated by Patrick Faricy (New York: Aladdin Books/Simon & Schuster, 2002). [Suitable ages 6-9].

Deborah Hopkinson was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Massachusetts and a master's in Asian Studies from the University of Hawaii. She has been an award-winning author since her first picture book, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, won the 1994 International Reading Association Award. Her stories and articles have appeared in Scholastic's Storyworks Magazine, as well as in Cricket and Ladybug. She lives in Oregon.

Set against the backdrop of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Pioneer Summer brings the early Kansas territory to life. In so doing it also deals with emotional issues, such as moving, that almost all children, regardless of the historical era, must deal with. In 1855, Charlie Keller and his family leave Massachusetts to join other New Englanders who want to create a “free” Kansas. Eight-year-old Charlie doesn’t want to leave his home, his grandfather, and his dog, and is unsure what all the antislavery talk means. The novel tells the story of the Keller’s rigorous travels by train, steamboat, and wagon and the difficulties of establishing a farm once they reach Kansas. It presents a clear explanation of slavery and abolitionists. This is an excellent book because it brings to life a time in Kansas history that rarely receives much attention in history books.

Possible activities could include using the book as a tie-in to unit on this era in Kansas history; studying terms such as slavery, abolition, and cholera; learning about Eli Thayer and the New England Emigrant Aid Company; using a map of the United States to trace the family’s route from Massachusetts to Kansas; having students write about moves that their families have made; using a map to trace students’ moves.

Rain is not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (New York: HarperCollins, 2001). [Suitable ages 9-12].

Award-winning author Cynthia Leitich Smith is a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who incorporates cultural diversity into her writing. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri, graduated with degrees in news/editorial and public relations from the White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas in 1990 and from the University of Michigan Law School in 1994. She is a member of the Association of Booksellers for Children, the Authors Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Writers' League of Texas, the Western Writers of America, Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, and the Horror Writers Association. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her four cats and her husband.

This is a coming-of-age book about a young Native American girl. Cassidy Rain Berghoff narrates the story from the point of view of a teenager growing up in a small Kansas town as one of the few people with some Native American heritage. That scenario alone might provide enough material for the book, but Smith adds to the drama by introducing other conflicts into Rain’s life. Rain’s mother is dead and early in the book her best friend is killed in a car accident. During the course of the book Rain becomes involved in the controversy in the city council caused by a public funding commitment to her great-aunt's Indian Camp. At the beginning of each chapter Smith includes an entry from Rain's journal. This addition not only helps the reader follow Rain as she gains a better understanding of herself, her family, and her community but also clarifies the action in the book.

Possible activities could include having students keep a journal for a specific period of time; creating a time line for the story (putting the major events of the book in chronological order) to show students that stories are not necessarily written that way; providing students with disposable cameras to take pictures and create a “scrapbook” about themselves; dividing students into groups to create “pasta bridges.”

The Victory Garden by Lee Kochenderfer (New York: Delacorte Press, 2002). [Suitable ages 8-12].

Lee Kochenderfer grew up as Lee Anne McIntosh in Lincoln, a small town in Kansas not unlike the fictional town in her book. She has always loved to write, either with a pen in her hand or on a keyboard. She has taught both at both the elementary and college level. Until she retired from teaching at Riverside Community College in California, most of her writing was academic, appearing in newspapers and professional journals. The Victory Garden is her first novel.

Capturing all the uncertainty and fear on the home front during World War II, The Victory Garden tells the story of twelve-year-old Teresa Marks, who tries to maintain a normal life, even while her brother Jeff is off fighting in the war as a fighter pilot. She misses and worries about him, but at the same time discovers a strength within herself that also aids the war effort. Teresa and her father are engaged in a friendly "tomato war" with their neighbor, Mr. Burt. But when Mr. Burt is hospitalized, Teresa has the idea that she and her classmates could assume the responsibility for his huge garden as their own personal war effort. From victory gardens, ration books, and fat and scrap metal collections to V-mail letters and news headlines, author Kochenderfer has done excellent research to bring the reality of war to young readers. The world map included with the book is a bonus.

Other activities could include comparing a current map of the world with the one in the book and noting the differences; interviewing family members who might have been part of the World War II home front or military; comparing Teresa’s life with today’s situation; figuring out what happened to mercurochrome and why it’s not used today; planning a “victory garden.”

Aunt Minnie and the Twister by Mary Skillings Prigger. (New York: Clarion Books, 2002). [Suitable ages 4-8].

Mary Skillings Prigger was a public school teacher for ten years and is currently a professor in the College of Education at California State University, San Bernardino where she teaches courses in reading methods and children's literature. She began writing stories as an elementary school teacher when she modeled the writing process for her sixth grade students. Following the advice of one of her students, she always tries to "include something funny" in her stories. Her Aunt Minnie character is based on a real member of her family.

In this book Aunt Minnie survives a Kansas tornado using her sense of humor, determination, and organizational skills. Enhanced by Betsy Lewin’s illustrations, the story provides an interesting look at 1920s Midwestern farm life. Prigger enhances the story with details about the chores that farm children of the era would have been expected to perform. Lewin’s tornado illustrations that show the children, trying to hold on to each other and struggling toward the root cellar, give readers a true sense of the power of the storm. Once the storm has passed, the family discovers that their home has survived but is turned around. With their positive attitude, Minnie and the children simply decide “to make a new front to the house and add another room onto the back...."

Other activities could include making apple butter and enjoying it with homemade bread; practicing what to do in case of a tornado alert, both at home and at school; listing chores that must be done at home or in the classroom and assigning them to different students; learning more about tornadoes; studying the way laundry was done then and how it is done now.

Material for this issue of Tales Out of School comes from the text of the books discussed and from the following websites.

http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/rainthenovel2.html http://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm?author_number=1080



http://www.ilfonline.org/Programs/YHBA/Resource%20books%2004-05/intermediate%20book%20part%202.pdf http://www.mjwrites4kids.com/about.html