Picture Books and Primary Sources: Kate’s Light: Kate Walker at Robbins Reef Lighthouse by Elizabeth Spires and Emily Arnold McCully

Maybe I’m a sucker for a good lighthouse story after sitting on the 2019 Caldecott Committee where Sophie Blackall won for Hello Lighthouse. But more likely, I’m drawn to an intriguing story. That was what I found when I opened Spires and McCully’s book Kate’s Light. 

From the moment I opened to the endpapers I was struck by the idea that someone could be so isolated while so close to one of the largest cities in the world. And when I realized those endpapers were an image from the Library of Congress, I wanted to see where my search for primary sources would lead.

Beginning with Primary Sources

Original Source of Endpapers

Original Source of Endpapers

I often do initial searches for primary sources related to a picture book before I even read the full story. If there is already an interest in the topic, this can allow me to explore the text of the story with primary sources already in hand.

In this case, the title and cover photo give me enough information for my initial searches. Using the title Kate’s Light: Kate Walker at Robbins Reef Lighthouse, I have my search terms: Kate Walker, lighthouse, and Robbins Reef. A quick glance inside the picture book tells me that Kate Walker was at Robbins Reef from 1885 to 1919. These dates became additional search parameters.

Searching for Primary Sources

With the endpapers being from the Library of Congress, my search started at their website. There I found several images, both outside and in, of the lighthouse. I also found a short actuality film that listed the lighthouse in the description. Created during Kate Walker’s time at the lighthouse, it showed two ships in the harbor. There was what could be the lighthouse in the background. The quality was not excellent but I did imagine Kate there when this film was made. This began to give me a sense of the place, both in the lighthouse and around it.

Moving on to Chronicling America, I searched newspaper articles. I kept my search to the years that Kate Walker was in the lighthouse and to New York state publications. While the lighthouse and Robbins Reef were mentioned regularly, I wanted to keep my focus on Kate’s experience. I found two articles separated by many years, that gave an account of her at the lighthouse.

Next, a search on DPLA brought me to a result from the National Archives. I moved my search there and found even more results. Architectural drawings of a cutout of the lighthouse and exterior angles were found. A document for the lighthouse to be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places was my last find. It gave text-based descriptions of the lighthouse.

Finding Connections to the Primary Sources within the Picture Book

Kate's Light

Kate’s Light

Kate’s Light is the story of Kate Walker’s years as one of the first lighthouse operators in the nation. She began a family at the lighthouse at Robbins Reef and when her husband died she stayed to care for the lighthouse and the people that relied on it. The story shows resilience through struggles, isolation, and determination.

Those journeys rely heavily on the setting. Descriptions and visuals within the book share that setting with the reader. The cramped quarters are shown as Kate and her husband are climbing to the top of the lighthouse. The proximity to the city is on display as they watch the celebration of the opening of the Statue of Liberty through binoculars and when Kate’s son, who grew up at the lighthouse, visits regularly as a man arriving by rowboat.

Both of these aspects from the book are places to make connections with the available primary sources. All of the sources are available through the curated primary source set.

Helping Students Connect Picture Books and Primary Sources

The Sun, December 21, 1902

The Sun, December 21, 1902

Students can benefit from analysis structures when looking at primary sources and bridging that new understanding to the text and illustrations within a picture book.

Introduce students to Kate Walker by sharing the picture book. Ask students what character traits Kate showed in the story. Then bring in the two articles about Walker as caretaker of the lighthouse. Pose the same challenge, to look for character traits. As students share their findings, ask them to identify passages, words, or descriptions that lead them to label Walker with a specific character trait. Then ask students to look for patterns across the three texts. Are there character traits or even specific words or phrases that are common or similar across the documents? Finally, ask students what they understand about Walker and her story from reading the three texts that they would not have known from reading just one of them. Maybe ideas are reinforced. Possibly there is a unique idea or story that is shared in just one of the three sources that can lead to questions and searches for more sources.

This close reading strategy helps students explore Walker, but similar approaches can be used to explore the space using photos, picture book illustrations, and architectural drawings from the curated primary source set.


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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