Picture Books and Primary Sources: Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island by Jennifer Thermes

Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island

Occasionally there is a picture book that I know will work well with a certain format of primary sources before I even open it. That was the case with Jennifer Thermes book Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island. There are certainly other connections to be made with moments in history. I could search for news stories, photos, or engravings that connect to the many topics in this book. What ties them all together though is geography, specifically, the island of Manhattan.

Thermes’s book looks at Manhattan, which is constantly on the map but is changing nonetheless. To many students, especially younger ones, maps seem unchanging, a picture of how something is and always was. We know that maps change constantly, not only from changes in the place being mapped but from changes in where the mapmaker wants to focus the map user’s attention. It seemed appropriate for this post to focus on one format of primary sources, maps, to connect to this book.

Primary Sources across Centuries

Some students may see new maps of Manhattan and not see them as a primary source. In the case of our studies here, they certainly are. A primary source is an item connected to a topic and time period under study. 

If we are looking for sources connected to Thermes’s book, the topic is Manhattan, but the time period crosses the entire existence of the island. Thermes starts her book by placing us “millions of years ago.” Of course, we may not have traditional maps from that time period, but as the book continues “through centuries of constant change” we’re given the opportunity to look at sources over those centuries, widening the scope of time primary sources were created for this topic.

Focusing on a  Picture Book’s Discrete Events

1775 Map of Manhattan

1775 Map of Manhattan

Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island focuses on many small moments from history. Some of these moments may have connections to the content curriculum that students already learn. For example, Thermes has a two-page spread on the American Revolution and British occupation of New York City. Students could focus in on these two pages in their larger study of the event. 

The picture book provides context, both for the wider event of the American Revolution and the more geographically focused British occupation. Students can connect their own background knowledge to text and illustration in the book as well as ask questions that they would like to know more about. The same process can be done with a map of Manhattan from 1775. In addition, students can connect the map to the picture book, including Thermes’s illustrations of the island. This encourages a close look at the map to find Broadway, the shipyards, or Bowery Lane.

Students can also use Thermes’s book along with maps of Central Park to explore the park’s origins. The 1811 planning of the city expansions could be explored with a map as well.

Pairing the Picture Book and Primary Source to Explore Change Over Time and Creator’s Purpose

1875 Map of Central Park

1875 Map of Central Park

Manhatten: Mapping the Story of an Island does just what its title suggests. It shows the change of a single place over time. Students could do a deep dive into that idea using Thermes’s book as a jumping-off point and diving deeper with maps from different periods over time. 

Students can look through lenses to focus their attention on different aspects of the island. Landscape, city growth, transportation, or city infrastructure could all be focal areas. Students could also investigate one small area of Manhattan highlighted in the picture book and see how it changes over time or is depicted differently in maps of the area. I’ve created a curated set of maps that can be used, but there are many others available digitally.

Do not limit students to just these maps. In fact, I would bring in Google Maps or other current online digital maps to pair with these maps of Manhattan. I may ask students: 

  • How have areas changed? 
  • Where have they not? 
  • How does the book highlight areas for me to search on a current map of the island? 
  • What are the different ways that I can view maps today?

As students view the historical maps, looking at them digitally may be their best option. Viewing on a laptop, Chromebook, or tablet will allow them to zoom in and see details that they wouldn’t in a printed map. For the maps in my curated set, pointing students to the highest resolution map available will give them the most viewing options. 

Pairing Jennifer Thermes’s book and related maps of the area, or other connected primary sources, can provide an engaging experience for students to explore a space that has changed drastically over time.


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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