Often I suggest we bring historically based picture books into student learning to explore history. So many titles are rich entry points for moments and individuals from the past. Another approach though is to use these narratives to explore the author as a researcher. How do authors gather background about individuals and events? How does that process help define the story?
These were questions that I was asking myself after speaking with Kirsten Larson, author of the biographical picture book Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane. The story, illustrated by Tracy Subisak, explores the problem solver, Lilian Todd, who designed and built her own airplane through foresight, some failures, planning, and persistence.
Authors Searching for Primary Sources
Without an authoritative secondary source on Lilian Todd, newspapers and other primary sources became critical to Larson’s research. In our talk, which you can listen to here, Larson mentions the challenge in finding articles about Lilian Todd because of the many ways she was named and even misnamed in newspapers at the time.
While you can find many of Larson’s resources in the back matter of the book, students can also be challenged to step into the shoes of Larson. If your school or district subscribes to a newspaper database, students can use it to search for articles about Lilian Todd. For our purposes, I’ll share results from Chronicling America, the free newspaper database with over 17.7 million digitized pages of newspapers published between 1777 and 1963.
Beginning to Search for Primary Sources in a Newspaper Database
After reading the picture book with students, spend some time on the back matter. Ask students what type of sources it appears the author used the most. Many may reply with primary sources because of the headings. Ask them to look deeper. If unable to identify many of the sources as newspapers, have one of the URLs ready to share. Use this as your invitation to students to search a newspaper database much like the author.
Ask students what search terms they would use. I often have to explain that searching a database like Chronicling America is different than using a search engine. Instead of typing in a question, the search is looking for the specific words that are in the newspaper article. Using the picture book can give students terms that they hope to find in newspaper pages. My students would likely agree that searching the terms “Emma Lilian Todd” and “airplane” would be a place to start searching.
I also encourage students to narrow the years of publication if looking for a specific time period. While Larson doesn’t give specific years in the story, the back matter and quotes interspersed in the story could lead me to narrow the years between 1903, the date of the Wright brothers’ first flight, and 1910, the date of Lilian Todd’s first flight.
These initial searches on Chronicling America yield no results.
Modifying Searches Based on Picture Book Content
This is a perfect time to take the advice that Kirsten Larson gave in our talk, that when using a database search terms can be removed to yield different results. Ask students to try eliminating one or more words to yield different results. Encourage them to do their own searches on Chronicling America or whatever newspaper database they are using at this point. Students may even choose to substitute other words that they believe may help in finding news articles.
On my own searching, when I used the restricted years and search “Emma Todd fly” I found one article from the May 9, 1909 issue of The Newark Star. Finds like these can lead students to their next valuable tip to expand their search in a historical newspaper database.
Ask students to read the article through two lenses. When reading through the first lens, students would target their attention on the information about Lilian Todd. Students may compare the information they find to Larson’s story in the picture book. Students may find events that took place outside of the picture book story and, when searching for newspaper articles broadly by years, may find events and references that took place before or after the events in the picture book.
Expanding the Search Based on Initial Findings
Students can read through a second lens as well. In that lens, they are looking for new keywords to use for a search. These may replace words in earlier searches or create entirely new searches. Students may not initially understand that adding new words to the original database search will actually narrow the results.
In this particular news story, the word aeroplane, an earlier spelling of airplane, may stand out to students. Searching that term along with the name Todd expands the search results from the original one to thirty-one results.
Not all of these results may be about Lilian Todd. The results only assure that the search terms were near each other in the newspaper. Students can continue to work collaboratively through these articles to find the articles directly related to Lilian Todd, compare them with the picture book, and identify different search terms based on the newly found news reports.
This is just one small aspect of Larson and other historical nonfiction writers’ experiences with researching using these types of databases. Wood, Wire, Wings and its companion primary sources lend themselves to exposing students to this skill and others in the research process as they step into the author’s shoes.
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.