Pairing Picture Books and Primary Sources: Mailing May by Michael O. Tunnell

Mailing May

Mailing May

As I’m home over the summer, I often see the mail carrier delivering the mail. The daily visits reminded me of the book Mailing May by Michael O. Tunnell. Based on a true story that took place in 1914, May wants to visit her grandmother. With train tickets being expensive, the parents instead entrust May to her uncle, a mail carrier, as they mail May to her grandmother.

While not widespread, the practice of mailing children, like in Mailing May, wasn’t entirely uncommon during a brief period in the 1910s. Introducing primary sources along with the picture book can give an idea of the scope of the event as well as reveal why the mail service was used in this way.

Exploring the Picture Book

When beginning with a historically based picture book, tell students that what they are reading is based on a real event. Observing the text and illustrations, what can students tell about the setting and when the event took place?

It can be beneficial for students to also recognize what they do not see to help place a story in a time period. Obviously, the more familiar students are with aspects of history the better they will be at identifying the time and place. Students will find out the approximate years when the event could have taken place. While there is no need to correct student ideas at this point, you may want to revisit their ideas later to connect what they saw and read with the decade of the event.

Introduce Primary Sources 

The Harlowton News, January 31, 1913

The Harlowton News, January 31, 1913

Share with students that May being mailed was not an isolated event and other children were mailed as well. Share articles about the events. My search of Chronicling America for “baby” or “child” and “parcel post” led me to several results. I have created a curated album of news stories that can be used as well.

Sharing multiple articles allows students to view the scope of children being mailed. They can explore:

  • When children were mailed
  • Where children were mailed
  • How far children were mailed

Exploring Deeper Questions with Primary Sources

The book explains that May was sent by mail because her parents did not have money for a train ticket. As students explore the primary sources, they may wonder how a parent could send a young child, even a baby, off in the mail.

Encourage students to revisit the news articles. Their attention was likely initially focused on the child. This time, have them do a close reading of the stories looking for details about the postal workers. How are they portrayed?

Hopkinsville Kentuckian, September 04, 1915

Hopkinsville Kentuckian, September 04, 1915

Students will find evidence like one article that tells of a postal worker that kept an 18-month old from crying by amusing it with items from the car. Another story describes the postal worker as safely delivering the child. A third story has a child eating candy, presumably given by the postal worker, during delivery.

A close reading of the news stories can show students that postal workers are overall painted in a very positive and trusted light. This may lead to other differences to today. For the postal workers to be trusted, they also had to be known. This may not be the case for most students. Revealing the differences between today and a past event through picture books and primary sources can help that moment in history make more sense for students.


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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2 replies

  1. What a fascinating piece of history! I had no idea! Thank you for sharing your lessons ideas. I especially liked your suggestion of asking learners what is not in the picture to help them consider when it took place.

  2. Thank you for highlighting one of my favorite books! I love the introduction of the history that helps students recognize how different life was not so long ago. We take so much for granted when we are young! Another book that conveys marvelous history is Radio Rescue by Lynne Barasch.

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