Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg Book Review

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Thanks to innovative hands-on activities, simulations, and technology, teachers have more tools than ever to help overcome the challenge of engaging students in history. However, trade books--especially nonfiction--are still a powerful way to connect students to the events of the past.

Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg by Tanya Anderson is one such nonfiction account that takes students to the front lines of the Civil War's bloodiest battle through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl who was there. In today's world, where students are thousands of miles removed from full-scale wars, Anderson invites students to step through a door to America's past and come face-to-face with the extraordinary sights, sounds, and smells that Tillie encountered. Using Tillie's own words from her 1889 book At Gettysburg: Or, What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle, A True Narrative Story as well as interesting, informative graphics and historical images, Anderson presents a well-researched account of Tillie's experiences as well as important background information about Gettysburg itself prior to, during, and after the battle.

One of the aspects of this book I enjoyed most is the narrative style that Anderson uses to tell the story of Tillie. This is definitely not a dry, nonfiction account of the events at Gettysburg. It reads like a story, which will draw in students. While primary sources like Tillie's account are amazing windows to the past, I have found that language and writing styles from the past can be a barrier to students' comprehension of what the witness is describing. In this case, yes, Tillie was a teenager, but her language isn't necessarily that of today's teenager, and I thought that Anderson did an excellent job of conveying Tillie's story in contemporary, easy-to-understand prose. The excerpts from Tillie's book that Anderson did use in the book effectively describe not only Tillie's wartime experiences but also the range of emotions that this 15-year-old had witnessing such an extraordinary event.

I also was fascinated by the graphics and images used to tell the story of Tillie. When I traveled to Gettysburg in 2009, I was impressed by the remnants of history left among the landscape of the town and battlefield. However, even though monuments and placards denoting significant sites dotted the area, envisioning the Gettysburg of 1863 still required some imagination. Thanks to the emerging use of photography in the Civil War-era, readers of Tillie Pierce are able to view images of the actual people and places of wartime Gettysburg, including those connected to Tillie Pierce's story. I had never seen many of these images before, but they were extremely helpful to me as I read the book. Along these lines, the book also includes standard nonfiction features, such as interesting sidebars, charts, and maps, to support the text.

The Confederate dead (courtesy of the Library of Congress)
View from Little Roundtop (courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Evergreen Cemetery gatehouse (courtesy of the Library of Congress)
The structure of the book is well-organized by chapters and subheadings within. Each subtopic within the chapter is a short read, which lends itself to being able to stop and reflect on the information presented. Most, if not all, subsections of the chapters include images or visual aids that tie into the topic being discussed. The book is not simply page after page of nonfiction prose.

The book begins with an introduction to Gettysburg with a short history of the town up until the Gettysburg that Tillie grew up in.  From there, Anderson introduces individuals and families associated with Tillie. Several chapters describe the build-up to the battle then the battle itself, including Tillie's movements, activities, and thoughts during it. As the book closes, readers learn about the aftermath in Gettysburg as well as what happened to Tillie, her family, and the other individuals connected to her story.

The book is 96 pages, with eight chapters, an epilogue, and a detailed resource section in which Anderson provides source notes, bibliography, resources for further information, and an index. She also includes an interesting feature called "Taking Tillie's Path" that provides the blueprint for a virtual tour of modern Gettysburg using Google Earth. Through this activity, students can see the the places that Tillie saw as they are today.

A view from a modern-day Roundtop
Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg is published by Quindaro Press of Kansas City. It was a 2014 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Nominee, a Junior Library Guild Selection, a 2014 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award (Teen Nonfiction) winner, and a 2014 NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book. You can order a signed copy with FREE shipping here. You can also visit Tanya Anderson's online home here.

P.S. Tanya Anderson has another book coming out in October 2016 entitled Gunpowder Girls, which tells the stories of the three worst arsenal explosions during the Civil War, the victims of which were primarily poor, immigrant women and girls who worked in the arsenals. It looks intriguing!

Have you read Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg? How would you use this book in your classroom? Leave a comment!

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