By Mary Ann Cappiello and Jenn Sanders, on behalf of The Biography Clearinghouse
“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear.” This quote greets readers of Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham’s latest collaboration, Eleanor Makes Her Mark: How Eleanor Roosevelt Reached Out, Spoke Up, and Changed the World. Kerley drops her readers right into the busy preparations for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inauguration, grounding readers in Eleanor’s public identity as the forthcoming First Lady. But then Kerley brings the readers back in time to Eleanor’s unhappy childhood and early adolescent years. Kerley’s characterization of Eleanor builds across the text: shy and quiet girl, engaged intellectual, socialite seeking purpose by teaching calisthenics in settlement houses and researching working conditions in garment factories, and, ultimately First Lady of the United States. As First Lady, Eleanor’s travels continued around the United States and across the Globe as she investigated working conditions, discrimination, and the effects of the devastation of The Great Depression and World War II. Kerley concludes the biography with Eleanor’s position as delegate to the newly formed United States General Assembly, working on the committee that authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Throughout the book, illustrator Edwin Fotheringam works with visual metaphors to emphasize Eleanor’s unflagging energy and her ability to bring people together. In the cover illustration, Eleanor jumps off of a globe, streaming a banner of paper dolls holding hands that trails in her wake. Fotheringham peppers the book with swirling lines of motion, highlighting Eleanor’s boundless verve, vivacity, and constant travel. Fotheringham also continues the hand-holding motif throughout the book to reinforce the ways in which Eleanor Roosevelt brought people together and made them feel seen, heard, and respected. Paper dolls thread through the backgrounds, and Eleanor is often depicted holding hands or connected to the people with whom she is interacting, like one long, human, paper chain.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s life work supporting families in under-resourced communities, creating safe working conditions, and promoting world peace has never been more relevant. While we have not lived through the same long-term economic devastation of The Great Depression, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an economic crisis for millions of Americans and billions across the globe. Congress and the White House are engaged in complex conversations and negotiations about the role of government, debating what social programs, safety nets, and infrastructure investments are appropriate in the 21st century; the same kinds of conversations Eleanor Roosevelt engaged in with her husband and their White House staff. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how very interconnected our world is, a theme exemplified in the life and work of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Using the Investigate, Explore, and Create Model of The Biography Clearinghouse, we offer a range of critical teaching and learning experiences to use with Eleanor Makes Her Mark: How Eleanor Roosevelt Reached Out, Spoke Up, and Changed the World on our site. In our interview with Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham, you can learn about their research and creating processes. Highlighted here are two ideas inspired by the book.
First Ladies and Social Media
During our interview, Barb Kerley shared that she found a treasure trove of information about Eleanor Roosevelt’s daily life in archives of Eleanor’s (almost) daily column, “My Day,” which ran in papers across the country from 1935 to 1962. Laughing, Barb suggested that the column was Eleanor Roosevelt’s version of social media. After reading Eleanor Makes Her Mark, leverage Eleanor’s “My Day” column as an opportunity for your middle school students to explore how First Ladies have used the tools at their disposal to communicate directly with the public.
To learn more about the column, you can explore the resources of The George Washington University’s Digital Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. Read her column by year or search for specific content across the years. After students have had an opportunity to read some columns, have them compare and contrast them with one another. What do they learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, and the circumstances of the world she lived in? How do the columns extend the understanding of Eleanor’s public life they received from Eleanor Makes Her Mark? How do they challenge their understanding?
Next, provide students with the opportunity to compare and contrast how the current and most recent First Ladies have used social media to speak with the public. Because some comments on social media are not appropriate for tweens to read, we recommend that you select some tweets from each First Lady and share them with your students. You can choose from First Lady Jill Biden’s (@FLOTUS) Twitter account, former First Lady Melania Trump’s (@MELANIATRUMP) Twitter account or her archived @FLOTUS Twitter account, former First Lady Michele Obama’s current (@MichelleObama) Twitter account or her archived @FLOTUS Twitter account, and former First Lady Laura Bush’s current (@laurawbush) Twitter account.
Synthesize the exploration by asking students to compare and contrast what they see as most valuable in the communications they explored. Why is it important for First Ladies--or First Gentlemen, or First Spouses--to communicate directly with the public? What kind of information is valuable for them to share, and why?
Creating Diagrams to Add Information
Writers and artists often choose to represent information visually with a diagram. Ed Fotheringham talked about his process of researching the floorplans of the White House and deciding how to show the inside of the White House. He ultimately settled on a cut-away diagram that is similar to a cross-section diagram. Diana Aston and Sylvia Long also use diagrams masterfully in their informational books An Egg is Quiet (2006) and A Seed is Sleepy (2007). Explore the power of diagrams to carry information with your students.
Visit The Biography Clearinghouse for several more teaching ideas for Eleanor Makes Her Mark and the other biography units we have on the website!
Mary Ann Cappiello teaches courses in children’s literature and literacy methods at Lesley University, blogs about teaching with children’s literature at The Classroom Bookshelf, a School Library Journal blog, and is a former chair of NCTE’s Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction K-8.
Jennifer Sanders is an Associate Professor of Literacy Education at Oklahoma State University, specializing in representations of diversity in children’s and young adult literature and writing pedagogy. She is co-founder and co-chair of The Whippoorwill Book Award for Rural YA Literature and long-time member of CLA.