Picture Books and Primary Sources: Exploring Voting and Elections

Every four years there is a rush to the library shelves for books about elections, presidents, and democracy. These can be wonderful gateways into how our government works and our country’s history. Even with students as young as kindergartners, pairing the analysis of primary sources with reading picture books can make the reading more engaging, the learning richer, and the lessons more meaningful.

Mara Rockliff’s Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles, is a true story about suffragists Nell Richardson and Alice Burke who traveled across the country in 1916 to promote women’s suffrage. Set just over four years before the 19th amendment was ratified, the story gives insights into the suffragist movement and can easily be paired with primary sources since this was a newsworthy event of the day!

A Photograph

I begin with the photograph "Golden Flyer" leaving N.Y., 4/6/16, found online at loc.gov and ask students to make observations using guiding questions such as:

  • What do you see in this photograph?
  • What seems important or unusual?
  • What do you notice?
    (For emergent readers you may want to read the text aloud).

While students observe the photo, they can begin to make sense of it through reflection. For example, a student may say, “This was taken a long time ago,” or, “I think this is a parade.” Ask them what they see in the photo that makes them say that. They may point out the clothing people are wearing or that there are many people around the car, like in a parade. Promote more reflection by asking:

  • What do you think is happening in this photo?
  • Why do you think the photo was taken?

Accept all student responses, even if they are not a correct interpretation of the event.

Spur students to ask their own questions by asking:

  • What would you want to ask someone in the photograph?
  • What do you wonder about what is happening in this photo?
  • What question might you ask the person who took this photo?

As students offer their observations, reflections, and questions, document what they say. Circle parts of the photo or encourage them to do so on copies you've given them. Write short phrases and questions to capture their thoughts.

After analyzing the photo, read the story. What questions are answered? What student observations are also present in the picture book? Does reading the story help students make new observations about the photo?

The Newspapers

Students as young as second or third grade can also begin to interact with text-based primary sources. There are many newspaper accounts of Alice Burke and Nell Richardson’s trip, some of which are written by Burke herself as part of a series that ran in the New-York Tribune. Reading the picture book first gives context. Exploring these short articles can encourage students to look more closely at the event and begin to understand the suffragists’ point of view.

Many Tribune articles are broken up into several daily diary entries making them more accessible to younger readers or students who struggle with longer pieces of text. I look for portions that are interesting to the reader, tell a short story, and give clues about why the women took the journey, who they met along the way, and the struggles and successes they encountered.

In one article, Burke writes about how men were impressed with her ability to work on her automobile; another article mentions speeches given to women’s groups. Many articles have stories of broken car parts, impassable roads, and other travel troubles.

While you might explore the first short excerpts as a class, allow students to explore other excerpts in pairs. This encourages them to work independently with support from a partner and allows them to become an expert on one moment of these women’s journey. New vocabulary can be gathered in a class list and defined by you or through additional classwork.

As students share their individual findings with the class, ask questions that guide students to make deeper meaning of the trip:

  • Who do the women encounter along the trip? How are they treated by the people they meet?
  • What challenges do they face? How do they meet their challenges?
  • Do Alice and Nell seem focused on their goal? What evidence do we find in the articles?
  • Why do you think Alice allowed her writing to be published in the newspaper? Who might read it? How might they react?

Ask students to support their responses with evidence from the texts. When students offer opinions, others may offer additional support or disagree. Students’ collected opinions and evidence can provide insight into the women’s suffrage movement through the story of these two women.

Return to the story. Were there aspects of Burke’s newspaper articles that appear in the book? Are there stories that she told that students think should be in the picture book to help tell the story? Why?

The Suffragists

Older elementary students can further explore the creator of a primary source. As in the last example, start by reading the picture book to give context. Share one or more of Burke’s newspaper articles to show how she reported the event. Then encourage students to search for other articles on the women’s journey using databases such as Chronicling America, a collection of over 10 million pages of searchable newspapers from across the United States dating from 1836 through 1922. The 1916 suffragists’ journey is well-represented with over sixty articles and photos from many newspapers. The site has an advanced search feature that students can use to narrow the search dates and specify terms. For example, the name of the vehicle Burke and Richardson traveled in was spelled as both “Golden Flyer” and “Golden Flier.”

Ask students to search for evidence of how these suffragists were portrayed. For example, were they portrayed as adventurers, fighters, foolish, or unimportant? What words or phrases can be found to support that opinion? Students should be aware that the phrases or words in a news article may suggest a character trait while not outright stating it. Student findings can be organized in a variety of ways: by geographic location, date the article was published, or positive and negative portrayals. Be open to student suggestions on other ways to organize their findings. Once their findings are organized, can students find patterns or trends in how the women were portrayed in the news of the time? Searching for evidence of how Alice Burke and Nell Richardson were depicted also gives insight into how the suffrage movement was viewed and reported. Ask your students how these portrayals compare to those in the picture book.

With a picture book and primary sources, elementary students of all ages can explore an event, think critically about it, discover how it was documented, and construct knowledge in a way that is engaging to the student.



"Golden Flyer" leaving N.Y., 4/6/16 https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2005021388/

Chronicling America http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

Alice Burke’s news articles in the New-York Tribune

"Only One Anti Blocks Path of Suffrage 'Golden Flier'" (April 17, 1916) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1916-04-17/ed-1/seq-9/

"‘Flier’ Converts Southern Antis" (April 23, 1916) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1916-04-23/ed-1/seq-8/

“'Golden Flier' Startles South" (May 2, 1916) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1916-05-02/ed-1/seq-8/

"Flier Survives Dixie Highways" (May 14, 1916) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1916-05-14/ed-1/seq-15/

"'Golden Flyer' in Texas Sun, Carries Message of Suffrage" (May 29, 1916) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1916-05-29/ed-1/seq-7/

“'Golden Flyer' in Border Towns Bravely Faces Raid Alarms" (June 4, 1916) http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1916-06-04/ed-1/seq-7/

Other Picture Books and Primary Sources about Elections, Voting, and Presidents

Two picture books, Lillian's Right to Vote and Granddaddy's Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box, both reference the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Students can begin exploring voting struggles of African Americans prior to its passage by analyzing a photo of a protest against Jim Crow laws (http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/file/5076) and a film that shows a voting registration literacy test (http://crdl.usg.edu/cgi/crdl?query=id:ugabma_wsbn_41648).

Both The President's Stuck in the Bathtub: Poems about the Presidents and So You Want to Be President offer a sampling of fun presidential trivia that can pique the interest of many elementary students. Primary sources can help answer the question, "Is that true?" For example, while stories of President Taft actually being stuck in a bathtub aren't confirmed, reports of orders for a large bathtub (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059228/1909-02-18/ed-1/seq-7/) may help students discover a source of the rumors.

See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White House is full of history and procedure for presidential elections. Choose one election or an element of an election to explore further by searching for primary sources at www.loc.gov. Presidential elections prior to 1924 will yield the most results because copyright has expired. Topics from the book may lead you to search for anything from "national convention" to "campaign button" to compare presidential elections over many years.


About the Author

Tom Bober is a school librarian, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the book Elementary Educator's Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He is a Digital Public Library of America Community Rep, a member of the Teachers Advisory Board for the National Portrait Gallery, and a co-chair of the Education Advisory Committee of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Tom writes about student learning on AASL's Knowledge Quest blog and publications such as School Library Connection and American Libraries and has given workshops and spoken across the country. His foundation is built on over twenty years in public education, with six years as an elementary classroom teacher, seven years as a building and district instructional technology specialist, and over eight years in school libraries. Find him at https://tombober.com/ and on Twitter @CaptainLibrary.

MLA Citation Bober, Tom. "Picture Books and Primary Sources: Exploring Voting and Elections." School Library Connection, August 2016, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2029158.

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