Trade Books' Historical Representation of the Black Freedom Movement, Slavery through Civil Rights

By Bickford, John H.,, III; Schuette, Lieren N. | Journal of Children's Literature, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Trade Books' Historical Representation of the Black Freedom Movement, Slavery through Civil Rights


Bickford, John H.,, III, Schuette, Lieren N., Journal of Children's Literature


CONTEMPORARY EDUCATION initiatives have enacted rigorous changes for all curricula in all grades in public schools (National Council for the Social Studies [NCSS], 2013; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA Center & CCSSO], 2010). Specifically, students of all ages will read more nonfiction in English language arts, a curricular area where fiction has dominated, and scrutinize primary documents and secondary books in social studies/history, a discipline synonymous with textbooks (McMurrer, 2008; O'Connor, Heafner, & Groce, 2007; Wilton & Bickford, 2012). Students, beginning in elementary school, will be assessed on their ability to scrutinize and evaluate in writing various primary and secondary accounts of the same historical event, era, or figure (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers [PARCC], 2012). The educational initiatives, thus, compel students to skillfully use discipline-specific literacies to grapple with diverse texts (NCSS, 2013; NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010; PARCC, 2012). The educational initiatives do not, however, provide curricular resources (Sapers, 2015). It is important for teachers of nonfiction topics to understand the historical accuracy and representation of their selected resources. We report findings about the historical representation of African Americans' experiences from slavery beyond the Civil Rights Movement within an oft-used curricular resource.

Theoretical Frame

Textbooks, primary sources, and trade books are common curricular resources. Each resource, however, raises concerns for teachers. Textbooks are popular yet costly, comprehensive in coverage, shallow in content, and cumbersome in language; historical misrepresentations and, at times, self-censorship abound within textbooks (Chick, 2006; Clark, Allard, & Mahoney, 2004; Eraqi, 2015; Lindquist, 2009, 2012; Loewen, 2007; Matusevich, 2006; Miller, 2015; Roberts, 2014). Furthermore, a textbook's narrative does not enable juxtaposition of multiple, divergent perspectives of the same historical topic, which is a key principle of the educational initiatives (NCSS, 2013; NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010). Teachers, however, can locate primary sources to position students to evaluate competing interpretations. Countless newspapers, photographs, and letters within the National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, and other digital warehouses are accessible and free for classroom teachers. To make decades- and centuriesold informational texts digestible for 21st-century students, teachers can shorten and amend the cumbersome language when appropriate (Wineburg & Martin, 2009; Wineburg, Smith, & Breakstone, 2012). The complexities and intricacies of historical documents, however, can easily exhaust the cognitive resources of students, especially young ones (Bickford, 2013b; Nokes, 2011). Whereas analyzing primary sources is a developed and unnatural skill (Wineburg, 2001), reading trade books is both common and easy for students. Unlike textbooks, trade books are engaging, relatively inexpensive, and a logical, interdisciplinary link between English language arts and social studies/history. Almost every historical figure, event, and era is distilled and recorded within dozens, if not hundreds, of trade books. Trade book distributors provide various objective measures to assist teachers in determining an appropriate level of challenge for students. Case study research indicates that trade books are ubiquitous, especially before high school (McMurrer, 2008; Wilton & Bickford, 2012).

Trade books' potential and popularity give a false impression of their curricular soundness. Limited research exists on trade books' historicity, or historical accuracy and representation. Historical accuracy and representation are similar yet distinct. To claim that Germans were brainwashed by Nazi propaganda is historically inaccurate; to state that many Jews were killed by Germans but Germans also saved many Jews is historically misrepresentative because it connotes a false equivalency between the millions killed and the few hundred (or perhaps thousands) saved. …

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