Picture Books and Primary Sources: A Place to Land by Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney

Earlier this school year, I interviewed Barry Wittenstein about his newest book, A Place to Land. In the interview, he shared stories about his use of primary sources in the research for his book and the role that they played in the development of the story. The story explores the creation of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington in 1963.

Exploring A Place to Land’s Place in the Classroom

A Place to Land

There are numerous ways to approach this book and utilize it with students. Wittenstein’s interview hints at one. The writing of history through research to tell a story with a unique perspective is a skill many students work toward, and Wittenstein’s text makes a powerful mentor text.

Others may look at the preparation of the speech as an introduction to the speech itself or the larger event where it took place. If students do a close reading of the speech, coming back to the story in the book would give another approach to go deeper into King’s work.

A different approach may be through visuals, both from the moment and within the book. How can students come to understand the March on Washington through the photographs of the day? Why might looking at the moment be equally as informative as reading about it? And how might Pinkney’s illustrations push students’ thinking even further when it comes to visually understanding a moment?

Exploring Jerry Pinkney’s Illustrations

Pinkney’s illustrations were made using graphite, color pencil, watercolor, and collage. When we think about connecting directly with history, Pinkney’s collage might give us a unique window into his thoughts about illustrating this story. His first illustration using collage on the frontispiece has three different pieces of photographs of the Willard Hotel. That, along with the labels throughout the book, connect his illustrations to real times and places. 

Other scenes from the Willard show what appear to be scraps of wallpaper, portions of coffee pots, or parts of telephones. Through the book are crowd scenes, maps, and sheet music. Ask students, “Where do you think the illustrator got these pieces? Why might he have included them?” Continue to explore the illustrations looking for other examples of collage. Encourage students to identify elements within the photos used and think about why they were used.

Exploring Photos That May Have Inspired Pinkney

A photo that may have inspired Pinkney’s work.

With illustrations in historically based biographies, there are often real-life inspirations. Depending on the time period, those may come from photographs. You can help students bridge the gap between picture book illustration and the photo that may have provided its inspiration. Making these connections can provide insight into the illustrator’s process. Interacting with historic photos can also help students envision history in ways that text alone may not allow them to.

Maya Bary incorporates historical photos and picture books in her Mock Sibert, an activity to build excitement for the Sibert Award for the most distinguished informational books given at the Youth Media Awards. Bary, a pre-K-8 librarian in Boston, shared photos that Pinkney likely used for inspiration. “The kids were astonished to see how faithfully he stuck to reality…” Seeing the connection between photo and illustration can make a story even more real. 

Students could also take on the role of illustrator. Give them Wittenstein’s text with several photos from the March on Washington. Help students identify areas of the book that could use these illustrations. What would they choose? How would the chosen image help to tell the story visually? Are there photos that they wish Pinkney would have incorporated into his illustrations?

Finding Historical Photos That May Have Inspired Illustrations

Washington Afro American August 27, 1963

Finding these photos can be challenging, especially when there are so many photos available. I’ve collected several photos that may have inspired Pinkney in a curated set of primary sources. In the set are also photos of the March on Washington that do not have direct connections with the picture book illustrations but may compliment it in other ways. Many other photos from the march can be found at the Library of Congress and other sites of historic images.

We can assume that many illustrators use methods that we would employ to find photos. Begin with knowing the picture book illustrations well. Are there certain scenes or moments that you think may come from a photo? 

An illustration of a boy selling newspapers entranced me. The headline reads, “They’re Pouring In From All Over.”. The newspaper’s name can be read, the Washington Afro American. Searching for photos of specific people or text can be easier with good search techniques. A search for “Washington Afro American newspaper archive” brought me within a few clicks of the digitized newspaper.

A visual cue within an image will make other searches easier. In one of Pinkney’s illustrations, marchers are standing with arms crossed. This visual could be easily scanned for among dozens of thumbnails. However the images are found, bringing historic photos together with a historically based picture book like A Place to Land can yield engaging conversation and learning.


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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