DSSEP Home Page Social Studies through Literature

Carole J. Wilkinson, Teacher-in-Residence
Delaware Social Studies Education Project
University of Delaware
Brandywine School District


Elementary school teachers have been charged with preparing students to meet the Delaware curriculum standards in English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. If one looks at the requirements in any one of those subject areas, it can be overwhelming.  Because student promotion is linked to adequate success on the state reading assessments, elementary teachers feel bound to put reading at the forefront of their instruction. Soon success on the state mathematics assessment will also be tied to promotion.  Where does that leave social studies? 

            For years, time in the classroom for reading and mathematics has been inviolable.  Interruptions are allowed only at other times in the school day.  Those other times are often during social studies lessons.  On a good day, there are about three and one half hours of academic instructional time in which teachers are to teach reading, writing, math, science and social studies.   Two and one half-hours are to be dedicated to reading and writing, while math takes at least one forty-five minute period per day.  How, then, is a teacher to teach the four strands of social studies - civics, economics, geography, and history – as required in the Delaware State Social Studies Standards with such limited time left in an average school day?

            Social studies have often been the subjects children denounce as “boring.”  In the past social studies textbooks have not always been stimulating enough to captivate children.  History textbooks did not always have extensive civics, economics, and geography lessons.  Those individual subject areas seemed isolated in texts and in presentations.   While many publishers have made great strides in producing child-friendly texts and in integrating the social studies strands, how can we bring life to the social studies? 

            What are the answers?    Everyone enjoys a good story, generally, so the logical approach seems to be to teach the social studies through reading whenever possible.  With careful selection, one can find children’s trade books through which two or more strands of the social studies can be taught while the children revel in an absorbing story.  

One of my favorite children’s trade book is Foster’s War by Carolyn Reeder (1998) because there are lessons derived from this book that address nearly all of the sixteen benchmarks for the grade 4-5 cluster in social studies. I find the children’s curiosity about social studies topics ignited by this engrossing story. They care about the history, geography, economics, and civics that are associated with the story.  Life is infused into their study of social studies.   

Story Summary

            Foster’s War is a story about life on the home front during World War II.         It takes place in San Diego, California in the early years of the war and revolves around a ten-year-old boy named Foster Simmons.

  Foster’s closest friend is a Japanese-American boy, Jimmy Osaki.  Following Pearl Harbor, Foster watches the Osakis suffer because of hateful prejudices against the “Japs”. He later corresponds with Jimmy and his family who are sent to a Japanese Internment camp.

The Simmons family becomes very involved in helping the war effort.  They buy saving stamps and bonds, build a victory garden, participate in metal and rubber scrap drives, volunteer in U.S.O. canteens, serve as neighborhood civil defense wardens, scrimp on foods and materials that are rationed, and volunteer for the Red Cross Nurses’ Aide Corps.  There are numerous other wartime activities and life-style changes mentioned throughout the book.   

Mel, Foster’s older brother, is killed in the Battle of Midway in 1942, and the family suffers through the loss, each in his/her own way. Foster and his friends no longer think it’s fun to play war.   

The story is, at varying times, funny, poignant, and riveting.  The reader is alternately filled with rage at injustices, empathy during sad or tender moments, and hilarity at childish pranks.  It is a book that children thoroughly enjoy reading. 

Lesson Suggestions 

            Some topics in the book which lend themselves to economics lessons are:          1) wartime shortages and rationing; 2) defense stamps and bonds; 3) the black market; 4) sacrificing candy or the movies to buy defense stamps (opportunity cost); and 5) the entrance of women into the work force.  For example, rationing is a case where the government interfered with the economy by setting a ceiling price for such items as sugar and limiting how much a person could buy. One can illustrate with graphs the ordinary supply and demand curves and the market-clearing price.  With rationing and price fixing, however, those curves are significantly altered.   Further, international trade was interrupted by the war.  Most of our rubber came from the East Indies, so we could not readily get that vital commodity.  Rubber was demanded for defense vehicles, so the average drivers on the home front could not buy tires.  In addition, gasoline was rationed. These two factors caused a significant reduction in the use of cars, resulting in a domino effect on the rest of the economy. 

            The Japanese internment is a hot box for civics lessons.  In my classroom the children were enraged by the injustice of that government action, and eagerly sought more information.  They explored the Internet to find out how this could have happened.  What justification did the government have for denying Constitutional rights to United States citizens?  In the process of searching for those answers, they studied the Bill of Rights, the Fourteenth Amendment, due process of law, and primary source documents such as Executive Order 9066 and Civilian Exclusion Order No. 33.  They wanted to read stories written by internees telling about their ordeals. They wanted to see how much was written in their social studies textbooks about this travesty. They were reading – BIG TIME!  They were analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating.

The children wanted to know where the Japanese internment camps were, what they were like, and how long the people were imprisoned.  All of a sudden, there were geography lessons, ready made, with little effort on my part.  They were learning about places – the climate, the topography, the flora and fauna.  They were exploring maps.  When they found that two of the internment camps in Arkansas had no barbed wire fences or guards around them because they were surrounded by swamps filled with four of the most poisonous snakes in the world, they delightedly searched for information about Arkansas’ geography!  On the Internet they found pictures of many of the camps which lay in isolated, desolate places with extremes of temperature, dust storms, and other such disagreeable living conditions.  They yearned to know more about these places and searched geography books for the answers.

Foster’s War takes place in San Diego, California.  Throughout the story, mention is made of the port, shipbuilding, the naval base, the warm weather, and the berry farms and orchards.  The children put a sticky dot on San Diego on the wall map.  They were gaining a sense of “place.”  They expressed in journals why the people of San Diego feared a Japanese attack.  They wrote about the Japanese Americans’ loss of their fine berry farms and orchards when they were hastily removed to internment camps and about the greedy Caucasian farmers who snatched up that land.  They included in their journals the characteristics of an ethnic neighborhood, such as the Japanese Americans had in San Diego and in the internment camps.  Everyday they wrote in their journals some new or interesting information they gained about social studies topics in Foster’s War.

Throughout Foster’s War the main character reads in Life Magazine about Pacific War battles and about numerous land and water sites in the Pacific.  The natural extension of that was to place a sticky dot on those locations on a wall map, along with the date of a battle.  Happily, the students sought to learn more about those battles from their social studies books, other books, and/or the Internet.  Because Foster’s brother was killed at the Battle of Midway, they were especially curious about that one.  Here were geography lessons about location and regions, as well as an activity in chronologically looking at history and studying historic events. Through it all, lots of reading was going on.

The children in the book find playing “war” a favorite past time.   The girls in the neighborhood pretend to be nurses attending to the wounded.  They continually remind one another of the Geneva Convention.  The obvious question that emerged was: “What is the Geneva Convention?”  Another trip to the Internet was called for, and we found out that the Geneva Convention was a series of conventions held over many years.  Part of the agreement reached by the participating nations was the humane treatment to be afforded prisoners of war.  That new knowledge, most assuredly, was added to their journals.

History Standard Three asks students to interpret historical data.  In searching the Internet for information about Japanese internment, a wealth of information was found that condemned the internment.  Books written by internees further supported the claim that the whole historical episode was a mockery of justice.  It took considerable searching to find anything current that supported the government actions.  However, that was found; along with the official government documents and newspaper and magazine articles written in the early years of World War II, students analyzed and interpreted the very diverse viewpoints about Japanese internment.  Needless to say, lively debate ensued.

Another expectation for Delaware students is that they write well.  One of the concluding activities for the literature unit was the following writing prompt:

 Foster’s War Text-Based Writing Prompt

You have read  Foster’s War.  Write the text for a speech that Foster would present at a Town Meeting explaining how children and adults can help the war effort.  Use information from both the book and other sources.

Think About

            Answering the following questions can help you plan your writing.     

·        What activities did Foster and other members of his family participate in that supported the war effort?

·        From your contact with people you have interviewed, what other activities supported the war effort?

·        From the primary sources you have explored, what additional activities supported the war effort?

·        Have you explained why each activity is important?

·        What order will best present your ideas logically and clearly?

·        Is your sentence structure clear?

·        Have you corrected errors in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, etc.?

            In the Delaware Civics Standards, students are expected to understand that citizens have rights, as well as civic responsibilities and that participation in the democratic system is essential.  Throughout Foster’s War the family members and others in the community show their sense of civic responsibilities by volunteering in the Red Cross, the Jr. Red Cross, the U.S.O., and as Civil Defense Wardens.  They organize civic groups to advertise, sell, and distribute defense stamps, and bonds. They help organize and implement scrap drives.  Victory Gardens proliferate in the community.  There is intense patriotic fervor and eagerness to support the war effort.  One of the assignments my students especially enjoyed during the reading of Foster’s War was interviewing people who lived during World War II.  They wrote up their interviews and shared them with the class.  Often, interviewers discovered ways, other than those mentioned in the book, in which people at home supported the war effort.  In responses to the writing prompt, they included information gained from the book, as well as from interviews and Internet explorations.  Following the writing activity, students met in small groups and decided what essential information had to be included in the paper to earn a “4” in “development” as defined in The Delaware Holistic Scoring Criteria for writing.  The children critiqued each other’s written responses.  Time was given for each child to rewrite his/her paper before submitting it for final grading, using the Delaware Holistic Scoring Criteria.


            While this essay suggests how to use one children’s trade book to teach social studies through reading, the message is applicable to many pieces of children’s literature.  Historical fiction centers around historical events and people (content), and the chronology of events is generally present in such a story, as well. For instance, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (1943) takes place in the early stages of the American Revolution, and such people as Paul Revere and Sam Adams play strategic roles in the story.  The Boston Tea Party, the plans and meetings prior to it, and the battles of Lexington and Concord are chronologically arranged. Frequently, diverse viewpoints are presented in a story, as in My Brother Sam is Dead by James Collier (1974), so analysis and interpretation of conflicting data is possible.

 Historical fiction has a place (s) in which it occurs.  Geography lessons associated with location and place naturally arise from the setting.  Often geography standard two is also addressed- i.e., humans modify or respond to the natural environment, as in Prairie Songs by Pam Conrad (1985).  Sometimes students gain an understanding of the character of regions and the connections between them (geography standard four) in books such as Henner’s Lydia (1936) or Thee Hannah (1940) by Marguerite De Angeli.

An historical period or event is often filled with major economic upheaval.  For instance, in the book Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000), the economic activity of Philadelphia is severely affected by the yellow fever epidemic when hordes of people flee the city and farmers refuse to enter the city with foodstuffs.  Stores and businesses are closed, and some critical human needs cannot be met. Abandoned homes are broken into in the desperate search for food, money, and other necessities of life.  Bread is made with sawdust.  Prices for the few products that are available are outrageously high. Paper is not available for printing newspapers.  Ships with international products refuse to dock in the Philadelphia port.  Such a book as Fever 1793 serves as a fine springboard for economic lessons.

Civics lessons abound in Mildred D.Taylor’s books, The Gold Cadillac (1987), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), and The Road to Memphis (1990).  These books detail the experiences of people who have been denied their basic rights. 

In summary, then, the elementary teacher need not always squeeze social studies into a separate spot in a schedule already bursting at the seams.  Teach social studies through literature and infuse life into subjects that children, heretofore, may have thought they didn’t like.  A good story stimulates interest in the history, geography, economics, and civics that contribute to its dynamic character.  Take it from there.   


Anderson, L. H. (2000). Fever 1793. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young


Collier, J. and Collier, C. (1974).  My Brother Sam is Dead. New York: Four Winds


Conrad, P. (1985). Prairie Songs. New York: Harper & Row. 

De Angeli, M. (1936). Henner’s Lydia. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.  

De Angeli, M. (1940). Thee Hannah. New York: Doubleday. 

Forbes,E. (1943). Johnny Tremain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 

Reeder, C. (1998). Foster’s War. New York: Scholastic Inc. 

Taylor, M. D. (1987).The Gold Cadillac. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. 

Taylor, M. D. (1990). The Road to Memphis. New York: Dial Books. 

Taylor, M. D. (1976). Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. New York: Dial Press.

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