Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday - North America by Sarah Albee 9.18.19

Wednesdays I join Alyson Beecher from kidlitfrenzy and other
#kidlit bloggers to share wonderful nonfiction picture books.
The intention of today's blog post is to give professionals that work in the
education field new nonfiction reading material and ideas to use 
with students to promote a love of reading nonfiction materials.

My daughter is a high school freshman.  She's in a Western Thought class and is learning about ancient civilizations.  When you think about the history of the United States, it seems like most of my history lessons began when North American was being colonized by Europeans.  Of course, we're just starting to learn about the myths and falsehoods that surround this thinking.  One only needs to look at the new book North America: a Fold-Out Graphic History by author Sarah Albee and illustrator William Exley to see how wrong our history lessons were.

North America by Sarah Albee
North America: A Fold-Out Graphic History
written by Sarah Albee
illustrated by William Exley
published by What On Earth Books
Oct. 1st, 2019

This is a fascinating piece of work.... piece of artwork... that really should be in every classroom.  Told entirely through captions and graphic art, the book delves into a huge amount of history of our continent.  Organized in a fold-out format, it can read like a book where you turn the continuous pages, or can be open into one long layout - one on each side.  The top to bottom organization and color focus is very cool - historical references about Canada are in a green color, the United States in orange tones, and Mexico in purple.  Dates are noted at the bottom of the pages in a continuous timeline and are also included in each historical caption.  What I find absolutely amazing is almost the entire first layout is all the history of North America before the American Revolution.  In fact, only the very last page of the first layout has information about the history of the United States in regards to The Mayflower and the Pilgrims, which is where most students begin learning about the history of the United States.  

The information is shared through captions and illustrations.  I thought it was fascinating that Albee shares in the backmatter that there are less than 200 captions - but the information that is put into the captions are amazing.  They absolutely left me with wanting to know more information about that part of history, which is exactly what Albee wanted.  She left us with a variety of sources, that she explains are more intended for adult readers, but certainly a starting point to find more information!

After my first read I had many questions floating in my mind for Sarah.  She generously agreed to answer some.  I hope some of this information helps you as you read through this book and they are great to share with your readers!

Thank you, Sarah, for talking with us!

1.    How did you decide to use the fold out format for this book?

The format itself is a specialty of my (British) publisher, What On Earth Books. They’ve done some amazing titles in this accordion-style fold out, and I’d long admired their books. So I was delighted when they contacted me about writing North America.

Once I got started, I found the format to be both a thrill and a challenge. Of course, the timeline part required me to think in a linear way. But once I’d plotted out the approximate timespan represented on each “panel” (as we ended up calling them), I had to rather dramatically reframe my thinking as I zeroed in to write each one. Suddenly I had to think “vertically.” What was happening in this area at the same time that was happening in that area? Writing each panel felt more like weaving a spider web. And with sixteen panels, I had sixteen webs to weave. 

The project also required me to assess my own perspective taking. My default thought process was to “center” all the big events of American history that most of us Americans are taught in school. I had to fight that impulse constantly. The Amero-European part of North American history is just that—a part. And generally not a very nice part. Luckily my editor was in complete agreement. We devoted a sizable portion of the book to the pre-European-invasion era, to show kids the vast array of rich cultures and civilizations that spanned the continent. This is history many kids haven’t learned enough about, although happily I think that’s starting to change.

2.    How did you and the illustrator collaborate?

I bow down before William Exley. The visual acrobatics Will managed to pull off are pretty remarkable.

And this project was unusual because we did get to collaborate. As many bookish people know, fiction writers generally don't collaborate at all with their illustrators. For “ordinary” nonfiction books, we authors might be allowed to see sketches for historical or scientific accuracy, but that’s pretty minimal input. But for this book, collaboration between the author (me) and the artist (Will) was essential. As I worked on early drafts, I kept a running table of images that I came across in my research for Will to access later, for reference. And Will did tons of research himself. 

I saw his sketches at every stage, and Will was extremely open to my feedback and suggestions. And then he tweaked everything again after the Smithsonian curators weighed in. (See first line of this section about bowing down before Will.)

3.    I liked reading about the research process in the backmatter - can you tell us more about how you worked with Smithsonian to put this together?

The Smithsonian curators were fantastic. How I wish I had such a Varsity Fact-Checking Squad backing me up on every project! They queried and questioned and combed through every entry, finding lots of errors (shudder) and clarifying places I realized I was murky about. They reviewed the book multiple times. 

4.    Talk more about the organization for this book.  There are so many ways to read it - linear, going from top to bottom…

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how kids are going to read this book. That’s why I’m super-duper eager to hear reports from actual classroom teachers and librarians.

I wrote most of my past books with the idea that kids could either read cover to cover, or dip in at any point that looked interesting to them. This book can be read cover to cover, but of course the fun is the fold-out. I really can’t wait to see how kids interact with it.

Thank you, Sarah, for your time and this amazing book!

A book like this with its unique fold-out format may leave teachers and librarians wondering how it will be used with readers.  Here are a few ideas from some amazing educators:

Terry Goth, 4th grade teacher:
In 4th grade, the most obvious use would be as an example of a chronological text structure when we are teaching informational text structures. I can also see this being used during a discussion of research, and what parameters students should consider when deciding on information to include. It would be fun for students to ask questions of Sarah Albee about how she undertook this monumental process! I think some of the most important lessons actually come out of the author's notes when she discusses the perspective from which history is taught. I can see some rich discussions surrounding how and why this happens, and this would also work well with the single story lessons from Jess Lifshitz as well.

Jason Lewis, 5th grade teacher:
There are several ways I plan on using Sarah Albee's "North America" with my fifth graders. Not only can we follow along with the almost two hundred years of history that we will learn throughout the year, this timeline will show my students how young the United States is compared to the recorded history of North America. The back matter is full of great additional resources including an index that will help my students find events quickly and specific websites to continue our learning. 

Kristen Picone, 5th grade teacher:
Sarah Albee's and William Exley's North America: A Fold-Out Graphic History is a welcome addition to MG social studies and ELA classrooms.  The unique format provides much to explore and discover with students.  During our nonfiction unit of study in my 5th grade classroom, we spend a lot of time discussing text features, types of nonfiction, and text structures and how each is impacted by author's purpose (thanks to Melissa Stewart for all the resources for this work).  This book will be added to my "Discovery Day" lesson plan, where students peruse through various nonfiction texts to notice and wonder.  Students will undoubtedly notice the timeline format, the fold-out pages, the captions, and the backmatter.  Students will work in teams to analyze the backmatter and the various features of the text to determine why each was included and how it helps us as readers. This work will help readers as they continue to explore and read more complex nonfiction. This text can also be used as a mentor text for students as they write their own nonfiction, particularly when researching within the content areas.

Linda Mitchell, Middle School Teacher Librarian:
6th graders at Stonewall Middle School learn American History from early indigenous cultures to 1865. Today, we laid North America out on a table to build student interest in this topic during library time. Students looked at the pictures and the caption (text features) and wrote a sentence about what they wanted to learn more about this year.


This is a book you definitely want in your libraries.  The information is rich and invaluable and as you can see, there are many ways to use it!  After using it with students return to this post and share Sarah's answers - I bet they will be thinking about these things as they read through the book.  Be sure to find it at your local bookstore and libraries on Oct. 1st!


  1. Great blog post! Shared @librarymiddle Can't wait to see everyone learning about the whole North America. I love it when the readers are trusted with complex and fun content.
    Great job Sarah Albee, William Exley, What on Earth Books and Michelle!

  2. Wonderful to read about, Michele, your review, Sarah's answers & the teachers' ideas for using it. I hope to get it soon for my granddaughters. My oldest is studying U.S. history this year & I expect she'll love it. The way it is presented is entrancing, love that spread with the class surrounding it! Thanks for a great post!

  3. I love hearing about how teachers are using/planning to use this!

  4. This looks fantastic! Excited to read it. What time it must have taken to figure out how best to present this material.