For Spacious Skies: Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for “America the Beautiful”
Nancy Churnin, Author
Olga Baumert, Illustrator
Albert Whitman & Company, Biography, Apr. 1, 2020
Suitable for ages: 5-8
Themes: Katharine Lees Bates, Biography, Musical history, Poet, Writer, Scholar, Suffragist, “America the Beautiful”
Opening: “When Katharine Lee Bates was very young, the Civil War raged. Some of her earliest memories were of men trudging home in tattered blue. When Abraham Lincoln was shot, Katharine’s mother wept. A hush suffocated the streets of her village. The country’s heart was ripped in two.”
Katharine Lee Bates first wrote the lines to “America the Beautiful” in 1893, on a summer evening after a stirring visit to Pikes Peak. But the story behind the song begins with Katherine herself, who grew up with memories of the country divided by the Civil War and who pushed beyond conventional expectations of women to become an acclaimed writer, scholar, suffragist, and reformer.
She became the extraordinary woman who penned one of our country’s favorite songs. She believed in the power of words to make a difference, and in “America the Beautiful,” her vision of the nation as a great family, united from sea to shining sea, continues to uplift and inspire us all.
Why I like this book:
Nancy Churnin’s For Spacious Skies, is an inspiring and beautifully written biography about a young Katharine Lee Bates who defies the social norms for young women to sew, cook and marry in the 1880s. She wants to be a writer, studies hard and graduates from Wellesley. It is heartwarming how her widowed mother believes in her daughter’s dreams. She takes in washing and sewing, and sells vegetables to help pay Katherine’s college tuition.
As Bates travels across the country in 1893, she sees its magnificent beauty, but she also sees great division and despair among its people. When she reaches the top of Pikes Peak she is moved by the “most glorious scenery I ever beheld.” A poem forms in her mind and she’s moved to write it down. Two years later it is published in a national magazine. In 1910, Samuel A. Ward composes a melody and her poem is sung and loved across the country. She never accepts money for what she writes. It is her gift to America — a country she believes in her heart is more connected than divided.
Bates is someone children can look up to because she shows them that they too can make a difference when they see injustices in their local communities and world. Bates becomes a professor and an activist for the poor, believes in equality and the right for women to vote. Her passionate journey to bring the country together will certainly inspire elementary students.
The book is visually engaging for young readers, thanks to Olga Baumert’s the stunning illustrations.
Resources: This book is a resource. Make sure you check out the Author’s Note at the end of the book, and a Timeline of Bates’ life. There is also a revised version of “America the Beautiful,” which I encourage you to teach your children, if they don’t know it.
Nancy Churnin is the author of several picture book biographies, including South Asia Book Award winner Manjhi Moves a Mountain and Sydney Taylor Notable Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, both Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. She is also the author of a Beautiful Shades of Brown: The art of Laura Wheeler Waring, The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game, and The Queen and the First Christmas Tree: Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England. Visit Churnin at her website.
Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.
*Reviewed from a library copy.