Picture Books and Primary Sources: Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring by Nancy Churnin and Felicia Marshall

Earlier this month I co-hosted a webinar on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) for librarians. In addition to highlighting the amazing collection that the NPG had to offer, we focused on how students could analyze and learn from portraits as part of a unit of study. Given my background, I also wanted to focus on portraits as primary sources. And given our audience, literature was another obvious connection. That led me to Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring

Exploring the Book

Beautiful Shades of BrownBeautiful Shades of Brown, written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Felicaia Marshall, is the story of artist Laura Wheeler Waring. The story follows Waring from a child through the completion of her portraits for the Harmon Foundation. The final page shows those portraits on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Students reading the book can gain an understanding of the artist’s life and purpose. Consider posing questions to students to help them articulate their understanding of Waring:

  • What made Waring want to be an artist?
  • How do you think Warren would compare herself or her work to other artists?
  • Why might the author of this book have wanted to tell this story about Waring?

Exploring Laura Wheeler Waring’s Work

Portrait of Marian Anderson

Portrait of Marian Anderson

Students’ understanding of Laura Wheeler Waring can be taken into their viewing of her work. Some of Waring’s portraits can be seen in the back of the picture book. These paintings can also be seen digitally in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. The Smithsonian Learning Lab is one way to access that digital collection. The portraits can also be found directly from the National Portrait Gallery’s digital database

As students explore one or more of these portraits, students can use a Jump In strategy. Invite students to imagine themselves jumping into the portrait. Encourage them to imagine that they can see not only the person in the portrait but everything around them including Laura Wheeler Waring herself. Students can tap into all of the senses to imagine what they hear, see, or even feel of elements in the portrait such as fabrics. 

As students describe their sensory experiences, they can also wonder. Ask students what they would ask the person in the portrait as well as Waring. Having students read the picture book ahead of this activity gives them a contextual understanding of Waring. That can help shape their questions and make them more nuanced and pointed to the artist.

Expanding into Other Portraits

Label Text for Mary McLeod Bethune Portrait

Label Text for Mary McLeod Bethune Portrait

Waring’s portraits held by the National Portrait Gallery are part of the Harmon Foundation Collection. Students exploring Waring’s and others’ works ultimately accomplish something that was important to Waring, highlighting these Black Americans. Students can pay special attention to the museum label text associated with each portrait. Like the picture book, the label text gives some background to the individual. Along with an analysis of the portrait, students can deepen their understanding of both artists, art, and those who are in these portraits.


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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