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“Go to” author for historically-based stories–Barb Rosenstock

I discovered Rosenstock when I read The Noisy Paintbox which is a Caldecott Honor book for 2015. Beautiful with sophisticated language and strong main ideas. I immediately checked out her other biographically-based stories–stories “based on” her interpretation of primary sources. These books could be read aloud to younger students, but the language and ideas are so rich, I would use them in 3rd-5th grade as well as part of units of study in social studies or for ELA units of study on informational “historically based” narratives. She creates vivid pictures of historical figures, inspiring portraits of people defeating the odds or initiating significant change in their world. Her author’s notes are very strong and reveal how she used her interpretation of primary sources to “imagine” these stories. Frequently she includes quotes from the historical figure portrayed; these make for richer discussion about the ideas in the text. Author’s purpose and construction of ideas could easily be explored with these texts. You could also pair reading each text with an informational text on the same period or topic or person.

Below are reviews and instructional suggestions for her books that I’ve also published on Goodreads. (Are we friends on Goodreads?) I have not read her newest title The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero yet, but it too has received accolades like Orbis Pictus Recommended Book for 2015.

the streak

The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America’s Hero (2014) – TO BE REVIEWED ON GOODREADS as soon as my library gets a copy! 🙂

noisy pain box

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (2014)

This would be a GREAT read aloud as part of a unit of study on abstract art–in grades 2 through 4. During the first read, I didn’t understand the idea of Kadinsky, the artist, hearing the sounds of the colors he was working with or having sounds trigger colors and shapes – but the author’s note cleared this up. It seems that Kadinsky may have had a “harmless genetic condition called synesthesia–“one sense triggers another.” This said – I’d read aloud the book, then read aloud the author’s note and then read aloud the book again (perhaps in a later lesson) thinking about how the author reveals Kadinsky’s synesthesia and why this was important to his work.

There’s so much to discuss as part of rereading sections of this book – the rich vocabulary (“snapping cerulean points,” “crunching crimson squares”) and the main ideas like “What does it mean to be “proper”?” and “And then to resist being proper or conforming?”

The writing is strong and has a good flow, lending itself to reading aloud. It’s listed as appropriate for ages 4-8 (on Amazon); this might be a bit ambitious for the youngest of this group – they may not be able to grapple with main ideas about Kadinsky trying to conform and then breaking out of the mold and they may not understand the idea that certain sounds triggered shapes and colors in Kadinsky’s mind. I’d go for 2nd-4th grade.

ben franklin's big splash

Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention (2014)

Great read aloud in the primary and even intermediate grades or a book for partner reading and discussion of main ideas like “How does this book reveal Franklin’s curiosity about the world?” and “How does Franklin’s method for perfecting an invention relate to scientific processes we’ve studied in class?”

Also, Rosenstock’s author’s note reveals how she used a specific primary source–a letter Franklin wrote to a fellow scientist in 1773 and other information available about Franklin-to imagine this story. This could serve as a launch pad for students’ interpretation of primary sources and writing of their own biographically-based narrative about a historical figure.

the camping trip

The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and our National Parks (2012)

You can read this aloud to younger students, but it also fits nicely into the intermediate grades with curriculum focused on the regions of the U.S., U.S. history, national parks and so forth. Some background knowledge on “national parks” and this time period would be helpful to readers. I might even share primary sources–photos of President Roosevelt and John Muir and Yosemite–before reading this aloud. Main ideas like experiencing nature first hand can change your life and how we can influence others to initiate change are tightly threaded into this book and would make for good discussion. If you can get a set of these, they could be used for a literature circle as well–with text dependent questions like, “Why was this camping trip important?” and “What happened on this trip that made it monumental or of outstanding significance?”

The author’s note is STRONG. There are two quotes – one from Roosevelt and one from Muir– that can serve as conversation points before and after listening to this book read aloud (in 4th grade and up). Rosenstock’s explanation of how she “imagined” this story based on primary sources could serve as framework for thinking about students’ own interpretation of historical records and narrative writing based on these interpretations.

This could be read aloud to 2nd grade students–who have strong background knowledge and with some additional support like sharing the photographs I mentioned earlier.


Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith (2010)

Rosenstock is a “go-to” author for biographical stories about inspiring people. Be sure to read the intro (just before the first page of text) where Rosenstock defines “legacy” and includes a quote from Louise Smith about giving racing her all despite setbacks. Reading the intro and the quote (even projecting the quote) would make for a strong intro to one of the main ideas in this text. In addition, the author’s note at the back of the book about Louise Smith could make for additional conversation–ask students to read with a partner or independently (4th grade and up) and discuss and write in response. There’s also an author’s note “thanks to” about her research which included numerous interviews. This note can launch research writing–which includes not just reading texts, but also interviewing experts and so forth. Rosenstock’s book is “based on” her understanding of primary sources. Students could write historical stories “based on” their interpretation of primary sources.

Lots of potential with this one. Rosenstock has written several other biographical stories “based on” her interpretation of primary sources. Her work is worthy of an author study.

thomas jefferson library

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library (2013)

For students studying American history –even intermediate grade 4th and 5th grade students–Rosenstock’s story about Jefferson’s fascination with books provides a different, closer-to-home, real person view of Jefferson. There’s a great quote from Jefferson in the author’s notes that reveals his wish to be at home with family and books versus working in politics. This would be worthy of posting and discussing the tensions our “Founding Fathers” felt between the call of a new nation and their personal passions. The same could be said for Ben Franklin and George Washington, I’m sure.

This could also be read to much younger students, too, to get across the ideas that books have evolved, how they were valued in this time period because of their expense and so forth, and that throughout history there have been passionate readers.

Very interesting note by the author at the end — “Thomas Jefferson, Slaveholder” as if we want to glorify Jefferson for his book reading, but we want to keep in mind he was a man of his time and there were clear contradictions between his beliefs and actions.

I think Rosenstock’s work is worthy of an author study. There’s so much potential for rich conversations around author’s craft and important main ideas, critical thinking and writing–in response and as part of writing workshop. Check out her web page. Students will find like her “about me” page which is clearly written with them in mind. She does author visits including Skype visits.

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If you know me, I do not review biographical texts or historically-based stories very often. Usually my focus is on non-narrative informational text or factually based well-written narratives because there is already a strong focus in the field on narratives and fiction. Rosenstock’s body of work inspired me, though. I had to write about these books!

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