As the school year begins, young American history students will find themselves drawn to the times, places, and people that shaped our nation. The following titles — a picture book biography for intermediate-level readers, two engaging nonfiction narratives, and a biography in cartoon-panel format — will be appreciated by middle graders looking for American heroes.
Russell Freedman examines two of the greatest figures of the nineteenth century in Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship. Although the men met just three times, they formed a lasting bond based on mutual admiration and respect. Freedman effectively surveys the time period by including biographical information about the men’s early years before describing their encounters during the Civil War. Primary and secondary sources allow Lincoln and Douglass’s own words to speak for themselves, and period illustrations further enhance the presentation. (Clarion, 9–12 years)
In Paiute Princess: The Story of Sarah Winnemucca, Deborah Kogan Ray recounts key events in the life of nineteenth-century Native rights advocate Winnemucca. Self-named “Princess Sarah” struggled to get people to pay attention to the plight of the Northern Paiute and to the dishonesty of the Bureau of Indian Affairs agents entrusted with their welfare. She used her formal education and her fluency in English (both unusual for Native women of her time) to make speeches, write letters, circulate petitions, and travel to Washington, DC, to appeal to government officials. Dramatic full-color illustrations, quotations from Winnemucca’s autobiography and letters, and extensive back matter round out this worthy picture-book biography. (Farrar/Foster, 9–12 years)
Cartoonist Joseph Lambert turns his pen to the inspirational story of Helen Keller. Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller shifts back and forth in history to depict episodes from Sullivan’s hardscrabble early life and her time working with Keller. Annie’s own words convey her determination to teach Helen despite the many obstacles. Lambert uses silhouettes against a black background to give a sense of how Helen’s world might have felt from the inside — dim, bewildering, rageful, and eventually, enlightened by language. (Disney-Hyperion, 9–12 years)
Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March looks at the civil rights movement in “dismally segregated” Birmingham, Alabama, focusing on the struggles of four young African Americans. Levinson also does a superb job of taking readers inside the movement, led by Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Martin Luther King Jr., demonstrating just how difficult it was for the leaders to create and maintain its non-violent ethic. Clear and lively writing, well-chosen photographs, and thorough documentation make this a fine chronicle of the era and an example of how young people can change the world. (Peachtree, 11–14 years)