About the Author

Kim O’Neil

Kim O’Neil is an elementary teacher and certified librarian in Liverpool, NY. She sits on the Board of Directors for the National Council for the Social Studies and the editorial board for Social Studies and the Young Learner.

Picturing the American Revolution


Photography, Yorktown Cannon, 23 April 2003, DanRhett, Flickr CC

If you had to choose five picture books for early U.S. History what would these books be? Also, this would be for urban 5th graders who have not had Social Studies and tend to score very low on standardized reading tests.


My answer to your question will be based on the following assumptions:

  1. By “early U.S. history” you are referring to the American Revolution.
  2. You will use the picture books as read aloud and possibly incorporate an ELA writing activity after the read aloud.
  3. Both fiction and nonfiction books may be used.
  4. The order of the list does not give precedence to one book over another.
  5. It’s impossible to choose only five books!


Here are some suggestions for the American Revolution:

  1. Boston Tea Party by Pamela Duncan Edwards: This book sets the stage for the Revolution. Students will gain an understanding as to why the colonists were upset with the British king and took such action. The book offers a clear and concise explanation of the causes and effects of the Boston Tea Party while providing a humorous touch with mice conversing at the bottom of each page. Their chattering provides a simplified version of the events reaching students who might find too many details overwhelming.
  2. ELA writing piece: Have students write a friendly letter to a family member in England explaining why they are upset.

  3. Let It Begin Here- Lexington & Concord—First Battles of the American Revolution by Dennis Brindell Fradin: A timeline of events is depicted for the first 24 hours of the American Revolution. Students will gain an overview of that fateful day. As the date and time that appears at the top of each page is read aloud, students will sense how quickly the events unraveled. It would be fun to give each student a paper clock and have them move the hands as the time is reported. They could use their math skills to determine how much time has passed between events.

    ELA writing piece: Have students rewrite history. Students will change one event and write how it could have changed our history.

  4. Sybil’s Night Ride by Karen B. Winnick: Not only Paul Revere rode to announce the British were coming, so did Sybil Ludington. Students will relate to the heroism of a peer and enjoy hearing about someone their age performing a heroic deed similar to that of Paul Revere. After the reading the class could discuss the characteristics of a hero.
  5. ELA writing piece: Have students write a paragraph about a contemporary hero.

  6. When Washington Crossed the Delaware by Lynne Cheney: A detailed depiction of Washington’s attack on Trenton. Students should take notes on the hardships faced by the colonial army. After reading and discussing these, the teacher could show students the famous 1851 painting of Washington crossing the Delaware and ask them how the artist’s depiction is not historically accurate. Students will enjoy finding the “mistakes.” They should be ready to answer this question, “If a photograph had been taken what would we see?” Students could even draw their interpretation.
  7. ELA writing piece: Have students write a character sketch of Washington. What made him such a great leader? Use details from the story.

  8. The Scarlet Stockings Spy by Trinka Hakes Noble: A young girl in Philadelphia, 1777, helps Washington’s army by spying on the British. The order in which she hangs laundry is a code and secretly read by her brother who is a spy for the Patriots. Students will like the suspense of the story and notice that even though women may not be on the battlefield, they served in meaningful ways on the home front.
  9. ELA writing piece: Have students retell the story in modern time using current technology that mirrors the actions taken by Maddy Rose in 1777.

  10. The Declaration of Independence—The Words that Made America by Sam Fink: The words of the Declaration are written phrase by phrase. Instead of reading aloud, the teacher could give pairs of students a phrase to rewrite in their own words and then explain to the class. The teacher should first model one phrase for the class. Students will gain a true understanding of what this document is saying. For students who have only seen small mock versions of the document, they will find that the larger than life font size brings the words to life. The cartoon-like illustrations with bubble captions will also appeal to this age group.