Pairing Picture Books and Primary Sources: Thanks to Frances Perkins: Fighter for Workers’ Rights by Deborah Hopkinson and Kristy Caldwell

Thanks to Frances PerkinsMany historically based picture books give insight into the life of an individual. Some also highlight how one person can influence the thinking of a nation. Such is the case with the book Thanks to Frances Perkins: Fighter for Workers’ Rights by Deborah Hopkinson and Kristy Caldwell. 

Hopkinson and Caldwell’s book tells the story of Frances Perkins, a workers-rights advocate and long-running U.S. Secretary of Labor under FDR. While the picture book gives an overview of Perkins’s life, the story is anchored by the formation of Social Security. Perkins’s role and reasoning for the formation of the program grounds the backstory.

Selecting Primary Sources to Accompany the Picture Book

Frances PerkinsThere are thousands of historical documents freely available that are related to this book. Options range from photos to writings to legislation to newspaper articles. They give many opportunities to teach different lessons with this book as a counterpart. Selecting a direction is one of the happy challenges of pairing primary sources with picture books.

Using the anchor of the inception of Social Security, one search through Chronicling America, the free historic newspaper database, revealed one aspect that can be explored. Articles over multiple newspapers revealed questions and answers for people participating in the program. A decade later, as farmers were incorporated into Social Security, another round of questions and answers can be found.

Exploring an Idea through a Picture Book and Primary Sources

Roanoke Rapids Herald, July 08, 1937

Social Security is a program that has been in place for more than eighty years. This picture book and primary source pairing allows students to explore what the inception of that program looked like for everyday people. It also introduces them to aspects of the program they are likely unaware of.

Begin the lesson with the picture book. The book specifically directs students to consider what year it will be when they turn 62, the year they will be able to receive Social Security benefits. It is the perfect segue to invite students to ask questions about the Social Security program. Taking on the perspective of someone in 1935 who has just heard about this program can make a stronger connection to upcoming primary sources. 

After collecting students’ questions, share primary sources that explore common questions from people at the time and answers from the Social Security office. I have collected several in a curated set of primary sources. Others can be found with simple searches of Chronicling America for “Social Security” and “Question.” Limiting the search years between 1935 and 1940 can further target results.

Ask students to identify questions within the sources that were also asked by students. 

  • What were answers to the questions in the newspaper articles? 
  • Do these questions make students wonder about other aspects of Social Security? 
  • What other questions were asked in the sources that are interesting to students?

Extending the Learning Experience

Connecting students with older adults that receive Social Security benefits or are preparing to receive benefits can be a connection to today. Students may ask:

  • Did you wonder about any of these same questions when preparing to receive Social Security benefits?
  • Has Social Security changed in any ways from articles we read from the 1930s and 1940s?
  • What other questions did you have when thinking about your Social Security benefits?

Interactions with people today that receive Social Security benefits can reveal changes in the program compared to what students learned in the picture book and primary sources. It can also make a connection between a moment in history eighty-five years ago and today.


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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