Picture Books and Primary Sources: Oscar’s American Dream by Barry Wittenstein and Kristen & Kevin Howdeshell

Usually, I write about historically based narrative nonfiction picture books. There was a book that didn’t fit into that category that I saw recently. However, I knew it would fit perfectly into a primary source-focused learning experience with some of my youngest students. 

Oscar's American DreamOscar’s American Dream written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell is not so much the story of a person but of a place. The story is a fictional account of a city building in New York. The reader sees how the building changes and the times and culture changes around it through the 20th century. Notable points in history from the last years of the women’s’ suffrage movement to the summer of 1963 during the civil rights movement are anchor points. Older readers will be familiar with the history. They can use it to connect the changing building to the changing moments in history. 

This idea that buildings that have been around for decades are witnesses and parts of history is an element in a unit we explore with students toward the end of their first-grade year. Oscar’s American Dream gives students an opportunity to enrich that experience.

Picture Books as an Introduction to a Primary Source Activity

In some other picture book and primary source pairings, the picture book provides contextual understanding of an event or a person. In this instance, there is not a single event that Wittenstein and Howdeshell’s book focuses on. Instead, the passage of time is a driving factor in the story.

That passage of time is not just depicted by the major events in the book. Changes are also seen in clothing, technology, and other small details. Ask students:

  • What changes do you notice in the building and the people throughout the story?
  • Are there any clues in the story that help us know the year or something else happening at that time?
  • What else might you want to know about the people or the building during that time?

The prompt to encourage students to ask their own questions about a moment in time connected to the story is a bridge to the next step in the activity.

Exploring Primary Sources and Story through the Eyes of an Author

In previous versions of this lesson, students looked at local artifacts from a moment in time in an effort to create a story around it. We have done this in different ways using different artifacts and time periods. 

Students Writing Historical Fiction

Students write historical fiction using primary sources.

Our last group of students looked at 1920 census records for a small apartment building located across the street from our school. They found the names and ages of the people living in one of the apartments. Students collected other information like the father’s job and languages spoken in the home. Another group explored shops on the neighboring street using telephone directory records and maps. All of these experiences encouraged students to wonder what that place, person, and moment in time was like. 

That idea of creating a fictional story based not only on the artifacts that are initially examined but also the questions that are derived from it is the culminating task for our young learners. These questions lead to the purposeful examination of more primary sources along with secondary sources that can help answer those questions. 

Wittenstein’s writing gives students an authentic look at that process. While we don’t know if the author began his work with an actual building in mind, the first paragraph in his author’s note focuses the reader on one building to see change over time. For our young writers and researchers, this process is similar as they take a place in a moment in time and react to it through their understanding of the world today. This analysis and reaction drive the questions where they express what they want to know about the past.

Questions differ widely depending on the student. When we looked at our 1920 census, many students focused on a child who lived in the apartment. They wondered what his day was like, which brought about questions around school life, kitchen appliances, and popular snacks. Seeing how details show themselves in the writing and illustrating of the completed story in Oscar’s American Dream may impact students. The picture book may effect the types of questions students ask, the focus of their stories, and the research that bridges the gap between.

Locating Primary Sources for This Experience

Unlike other posts, this one does not come with a curated set of primary sources. Instead, you may reach out to a local library or historical society. These can be great sources of local primary sources, especially when you’re looking for specific locations. 

Depending on your location, resources held at national institutions like the Sanborn Map Collection and the U.S. Telephone Directory Collection held at the Library of Congress. In the telephone directory collection, you or students may have to browse for yellow pages for local business information.

Regardless of where you locate your information, students will be able to look at local history through picture books and primary sources in a new way.


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

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.