Our second grade classes recently spent some time learning about regions of Georgia in social studies.

One major theme that students discuss is the idea that people’s lives and experiences are influenced heavily by the places and times in which they live.

The perfect tie-in? Sharing engaging historical photos, fiction, and biographies to give students an up-close view of times and places far removed from the here and now.

I immediately thought of one of my favorite picture books about life in Appalachia, That Book Woman by Heather Henson

This historical fiction book is actually set in Kentucky, not in Georgia, but since the kids had been learning about the Appalachian Mountains in their classrooms, I thought they would be able to make a lot of connections to the setting of the story.

Before we read or even looked at the cover of this book, though, I opened the lesson by showing students a 1930s photograph of a real-life pack horse librarian:

image from The New Deal Network (newdeal.feri.org)

Students shared their predictions about who the people in the photo were and what they were doing.

The kids could easily tell that the photograph was old, that it was taken “out in the country,” and that the person on the horse (most of them guessed it was a man) was delivering something (they guessed mail) to the woman on the porch.

We spent some time talking about details in the photo that gave us clues to where and when it was taken–the log cabin, the thick underbrush and rough terrain, the horse, the old-fashioned clothing.

Finally, I revealed the back-story: the photo was taken in 1930s in the Appalachian mountains, and the woman on the porch is receiving books from the (female) librarian on the horse.

I asked why the librarian would be delivering books on horseback–why didn’t the lady at the house just go to the library herself? This gave students an opportunity to think about just how rugged and isolated mountain life could be–both now and especially many decades ago.

At this point, I showed them the cover of the book:

image from indiebound.org

The kids immediately saw the connection between the photograph and the book’s illustrations, and we were ready to read.

That Book Woman is narrated by an illiterate boy named Cal whose younger sister, Lark, is “the readinest child you ever did see.” Cal resists Lark’s attempts to play school, though, and is both bewildered and resentful when a pack horse librarian begins delivering books to his home.

But when the librarian continues to brave rough mountains and dangerous weather to share books with Cal’s family, riding even during through the darkest and coldest nights of winter, Cal begins to suspect she is bringing them something important after all.

My second graders really liked this book. It probably helped that Cal narrates the story with a clear Southern drawl, which I accentuated just a bit as I read–but I think many of them could relate to the characters of Cal and Lark, and after our discussion of the photo, they were also fascinated by the challenges of the story’s Appalachian setting.

We spent the last part of this lesson discussing how the setting of the story–the Appalachian Mountains in the 1930s–differs from the place and time in which we live now–the Piedmont region in the 2010s.

Students’ observations ranged from explicit noticings of details from the story (there was no school or library nearby) to well thought-out inferences (the family probably didn’t have a bathroom, and they probably had to hunt for or grow their own food).

The following week, we were set up perfectly to make text-to-text connections between That Book Woman and one of my favorite biographical picture books, My Great Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston:

image from indiebound.org

This book is also set in Appalachia, and it tells the story of Houston’s real great-aunt Arizona, who is born in a log cabin and dreams all her life of the faraway places she will one day visit.

Arizona never makes it to these distant destinations, but she grows up to be a teacher in the same one-room schoolhouse she had attended as a girl–and, through this, inspires generations of students to dream, too.

The ending of the story is bittersweet–Arizona dies at 93 after a long and fulfilling life, despite never traveling as she had always dreamed.

Students responded thoughtfully to it, though, and I think they understood that her legacy lived on through the lives of the students she’d touched.

When we had finished the story, students had an opportunity to share the text-to-text connections they made between That Book Woman and My Great Aunt Arizona, and I recorded their responses on the SMARTBoard:

As you can see, students were especially fascinated by the old-fashioned way of life depicted in the two stories–probably because it was so different from their own!

Pairing these two stories gave us great opportunities to discuss history and geography, and to tie into their study of narrative texts by examining connections between the books and their settings in Appalachia.

If I teach this series of lessons next year, I am thinking of adding some or all of Rosemary Wells’ short chapter book biography Mary on Horseback, which narrates three stories of Mary Breckenridge’s travels through Appalachia as part of the Frontier Nursing Service:

image from indiebound.org

Next year, I think I’d also like to close this series of lessons with a writing activity to tie it together–maybe by having students write their own stories set in the Appalachian region. After being immersed in this setting for several weeks, I can only imagine how richly they’ll describe it.