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1. Helen Keller and the Big Storm by Patricia Lakin, illustrated by Diana Magnuson
2. Ben Franklin and His First Kite by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Bert Dodson
3. Abe Lincoln and the Muddy Pig by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Gershom Griffith
4. Betsy Ross and the Silver Thimble by Stephanie Greene, illustrated by Diana Magnuson
About the Books
A beloved series, now adapted for beginning readers!
First introduced in 1932, the Childhood of Famous Americans series has grown to include biographies of more than fifty subjects. Generations of children look to the familiar blue COFA covers for entertaining, accessible stories about important figures in our country's history. Books in the series feature men and women of achievement, drawn from many races and a variety of backgrounds, who personify the rich diversity of our nation's cultural and historical heritage. Now, Ready-to-Read Childhood of Famous Americans present single episodes from the lives of the most popular COFA subjects for the enjoyment of beginning readers. Lively and inspirational, these books sweep today’s young readers right into the past.
1. Confidence and believing in yourself are key themes for all of the stories in the series. As you read the stories, think about how the famous Americans had to believe in themselves in order to accomplish what they did in their lives. Is believing in yourself easier said than done?
2. Ben Franklin’s friends are initially doubtful about his experiment of swimming with a kite. But Ben’s confidence shines through. How are the other famous Americans in these books confident?
3. Betsy Ross tries to make a table for her doll, yet she is unable to finish the job. But because she fails, she ends up learning an important lesson about herself. Have your students ever tried to do something and failed at doing it? What did that experience teach them? Did that experience lead them to do something else that they eventually excelled in?
4. “You can’t make furniture… you’re a girl!” says George, Betsy Ross’s brother, in Betsy Ross and the Silver Thimble. His comments upset Betsy. Do they make you mad as well? Would George’s comments be acceptable in today’s world? Why or why not?
5. After reading each biography and timeline of the famous Americans in the series, talk about the role of education in each of their lives. Does the length of time each person spends in a “typical” school have an impact on how smart they eventually become? Did their schooling have an impact on their ultimate success?
6. Many of the famous Americans profiled in the series worked full-time as children or teenagers instead of attending school full-time, like we do now. Do you think they got an “education” by working? Do children work instead of attend school anywhere in the world today? How do your students feel about that?
7. Abe Lincoln said, “My best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I haven’t read.” What do you think he means by this comment?
8. Helen Keller bravely waited out a storm while sitting in the branches of a tree. But Helen was also brave every day of her life since she was not able to hear, speak or see. How are the other famous Americans in the series brave? Do you have to be in a dangerous situation in order to show signs of bravery? What is your definition of bravery?
9. Ben Franklin became an inventor because he was curious about how things work. Give examples about how all of the famous Americans in the series are curious in one way or another. Does their curiosity sometimes get them into trouble? Do you think being curious makes you a smarter person?
10. Oftentimes, we need to be reminded of what is truly important in our lives. Do you think Abe Lincoln made the right decision when he rescued the pig instead of “rescuing” his only suit? Was it more important for Abe to help the pig or stay clean for his speech? Why do you think the people who listened to Abe’s speech didn’t mind that he was dirty from his encounter with the pig?
11. In each book, we get glimpses of the relationship each famous American has with his or her family. What is the role of family in each book? Is it important that families are encouraging and supportive?
Research and Activities
1. Are your students inspired to learn even more about these famous Americans after reading these stories of their early lives? In their opinion, which famous American in this series made the most significant contributions – to society, to history? Have your students further research their favorite famous American and present brief biographies to the class.
2. What would have happened if Ben Franklin never discovered electricity? If Betsy Ross never designed and sewed the American flag? Brainstorm and discuss what our lives would be like if these famous Americans never made their contributions to our past.
3. Have your students select a current famous American to be the subject of a COFA book of the future. They should consider candidates in politics, arts, sports, or education based upon this person’s contributions to society and the world. Ask each student to write a short and persuasive paragraph detailing exactly why their choice should be profiled in a COFA book. Share the letters with the class by displaying them on a bulletin board. Have your students select one idea and consider writing the book together for a class project.
4. In Betsy Ross and the Silver Thimble, Betsy’s mother gives her a thimble that was handed down through the generations of her family. Do your students own anything special that once belonged to their parents or grandparents? Encourage your students to bring the item to class. Discuss the item’s importance and significance.
5. All of the famous Americans in the series had experiences early in their lives that helped determine their future careers. Have your students talk to their parents, aunts and uncles, or grandparents about their careers. Did they have any childhood experiences that helped guide them to their career? What would each student like to do when they grow up?
6. Encourage your class to discover more about famous Americans who have made significant contributions in your town. Perhaps your school, street or local playground is named after someone who played a key role in the development of your community. Suggest to your students to visit their local library or historical society to conduct research. Then, have each student write an article about the person of their choice and publish each article in a special classroom newspaper.
7. Devise a play based on one of the COFA stories. Would you expand the story beyond where it ends in the book?
8. If your students had the opportunity to choose a member of their family as a subject for a COFA book, who would they choose and why?
9. Try to imagine what life was like for Helen Keller. For a short period of time and with an adult’s supervision, have each student use a blindfold, earplugs and instruct them not to speak. Ask them to pay close attention to their senses of smell, taste and touch while they are conducting this experiment. How do your students feel after recreating Helen’s world?
10. Ben Franklin had lots of ideas and inventions. Ask each student if they have any ideas for an invention and have them share their ideas with the class.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Stephen Krensky is the author of more than a hundred books for children, including How Santa Got His Job (an ALA Notable Book) and Big Bad Wolves at School. He and his wife, Joan, live in Lexington, Massachusetts. You can visit him at StephenKrensky.com.