Saturday, February 1, 2014

Reading: Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln (Picture Book)

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My students and I have always admired Patricia Polacco’s stories about her family traditions and childhood.  Thundercake, My Rotten Red-Headed Older Brother, and For the Love of Autumn are some of our favorite books!  When browsing through the Patricia Polacco books in the Young Adult section at the library, I decided to challenge myself and choose the one that looked the least interesting, the one that I as a child would have been least inclined to pick up.  While I do enjoy history now, I didn’t really appreciate it so much back in the 90’s when I was more concerned about which Lisa Frank pencil to use while answering the questions in my history text book than I was about actually learning the content inside.  (I've learned the errs of my ways, believe me.)  So, I decided to select the book Just In Time, Abraham Lincoln, a book whose cover features a mournful-looking Abraham and two young boys dressed as soldiers.  After reading it, I know that my students would love this book for the story inside and would always remember what they gleaned from its pages. 

First, Just In Time, Abraham Lincoln is certainly relatable to middle-class American children today.  The main characters, Derek and Michael, are taking a trip to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia with their grandmother, who instructs that there will be no I-pods, cell phones, or video games accompanying them.  At first, Derek and Michael are bored with the trip, but when they get to observe authentic uniforms worn by soldiers during the Civil War and housed in a museum, they express that it’s “cool.”

‘“You think the Civil War was cool, do you?”’ Mr. Portufoy, the museum curator, asks.  With that imposition, he sends the boys out the door with an old stopwatch and tells them that they have to be back before sunset.  With that, the two boys leave the shop and go on a real journey that they’ll never forget.

Assuming that they’ve stepped into an environment of role play, the boys are impressed with the Abe Lincoln impersonator.  They are simply shocked by the sights on the battlefield.  For four pages, Patricia illustrated battlefields after the battles were fought, leaving little to the imagination.  No words are needed to describe the scene; the images do all of the talking.  Against harsh landscapes lie fallen soldiers and their horses, defeated cannons, grounds buried in a sea of red.  It is here that the boys realize they are not in an environment of role-play but have actually time-travelled and are part of the Civil War!

At the ghastly battlefields, President Lincoln questions the sacrifice soldiers are making for his dream of Emancipation.  That’s when Derek and Michael comfort him and tell him about the future, that his dream will be reality.   They even tell Mr. Lincoln that in the future, there will be a black president! Later, Derek questions, “Should we have told Mr. Lincoln about the theatre?”  Strangely, that question stuck out to me like a sore thumb.  The history throughout the book focuses on the Civil War and is not a biographical sketch of Abraham Lincoln.  I felt like some parts of this text, including that one question, were somewhat choppy and discombobulated, not essential to the story.   Still, I appreciate how facts about the Civil War were woven nonchalantly into the text in a way that was educational without seeming like a text-book.  For example, the boys recall information that they studied in class while trying on the war uniforms, and key people in the Civil War are introduced to the boys as they prepare for battle. 

As one can always expect from Patricia Polacco, the story Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln is seamlessly woven from beginning to end, packaged nicely with a cherry on top.  (The cherry on top of this book is so sweet, I’m not even going to spoil it for ya!) This book serves lessons for students and their teachers!  I know that my students would love the history that they can learn from this book, and Just In Time, Abraham Lincoln is a great supplement to a Civil War curriculum in social studies.  I wonder if Patricia will write more historically-based books that align with the third grade social studies content I teach!  Meanwhile, this book also reminds me how important hands-on experiences are for my eager learners.  No, I cannot send my students through time so that they can meet, say, Mansa Musa, but I can be creative to formulate engaging lessons that make them feel as if they could!  There are also abundant opportunities for journaling about Just In Time, Abraham Lincoln!  If you went to a Civil War battlefield, what would you see?  

Although I do feel like Just In Time, Abraham Lincoln is an excellent historically based picture book, I still prefer to read the stories that Patricia weaves about her own life.  There’s something more intimate and sweet reading about a lucky rock that changed her father’s life (see My Ol’ Man) or reading about how she and her friends raised money to buy Grandma Eula a hat (see Chicken Sunday).  If you would like to read some of Patricia Polacco’s masterpieces yourself or learn more about her colorful life, you can by reading her online biography.  And if you are thinking about implementing Just In Time, Abraham Lincoln into your Civil War unit, you may also find this resource helpful for more information! 

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