Almost Famous: Three People Who Aren't in the History Books

Enrich your history lessons with books about three little-known American figures.

By Erin Bailey


Blank Hollywood Walk of Fame star

Many books focus on famous people throughout history. Sometimes, it is nice to shift our gaze to those who do not get their share of the limelight. The following books, geared toward elementary learners, delve into the lives of people we do not often hear about, but probably should. 

The Hallelujah Flight by Phil Bildner

Reading Level: 1st - 5th Grade

Genre: Historical fiction based on actual events

If you are looking for an African American who left a big mark on history - one not named King, Parks, or Carver -James Banning is a rousing figure. In 1932, Banning and his trusty mechanic, Thomas Allen, made a coast-to-coast flight that inspired thousands.

Their flying jalopy required new parts at every stop and earned them the nickname “The Flying Hoboes.” Children will marvel at the everyday ingenuity required to keep the plane in the air. In exchange for money to buy parts and fuel, Banning let the public sign their names on the plane’s body, allowing them to become part of the historic flight.

Rich illustrations capture the danger and excitement that Banning and his co-pilot faced in tackling mechanical failures, sudden storms, and prejudice from hostile communities. Young students will love to holler “Hallelujah!” each time the duo succeeds in thwarting another obstacle.

Bildner offers excellent examples of alliteration and metaphorical imagery. After reading The Hallelujah Flight, have your students retell a historical event as concisely and as colorfully as possibleThey can turn an overlooked occasion into a key event by using action words and adjectives that flavor it with importance. Although the story is a work of fiction that is based on actual events, students will want to learn more about J. Herman Banning, the first African American to earn an aviator’s license and to complete a transcontinental flight.

Queen of the Falls by Chris Van Allsburg

Reading Level: 3rd - 5th Grade

Genre: Nonfiction

At the turn of the twentieth century, widows and women without children were often driven to extreme measures to support themselves in their later years. How extreme? Consider Annie Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. She was a sixty-two-year-old, retired charm-school teacher facing the poorhouse when she fell upon her strike-it-rich idea. She designed her own barrel and then convinced a few baffled men to help her carry out her plan.

Chris Van Allsburg effortlessly melds the fantastical he’s famous for with a real-life tale of the insane. Annie Taylor’s story is a small but fascinating slice of Americana.

While she did survive her journey over the raging falls, her plan for fortune and fame didn’t turn out quite so happily. Van Allsburg doesn’t sugarcoat the thievery and swindling to which Annie Taylor fell prey, which is why I don’t recommend it for younger students.

Before sharing the book, ask your students to describe a “daredevil.” Afterward, encourage them to think about other get-rich-quick schemes they may have heard about or seen on television. Ask them to what lengths they might go to become famous. They can even write about their own over-the-top adventure; just be sure to watch the playground for re-enactments.

Balloons over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Grade Level: Pre K - 5th Grade

Genre: Nonfiction

Children love puppet shows, which makes this book about Tony Sarg the perfect choice. In 1924, Macy’s department store put on a Christmas parade to drum up business at its flagship store in New York City. The parade was so successful that Macy’s turned it into a yearly event. By 1928, the pressure for a bigger and better parade demanded fresh thinking to take over the design of the parade floats.

Tony Sarg was a well-known children’s book illustrator but had also achieved fame for his marionette theatre. After accepting the job from Macy’s, Tony envisioned raising the floats into the air so that more people could see them. This led to the creation of gigantic balloons attached to strings--upside down marionettes.

Extending the idea of this book, students can create puppets. This is a great activity to talk about symmetry and work on fine motor skills. Have students work cooperatively to perform a puppet show. Children will have a ball designing their own marionettes from craft sticks, pipe cleaners, and string. Another option is to turn a small stuffed animal into a marionette-style puppet. Students might also enjoy showing off their creations in a school-wide parade.

Here are additional lessons you can use with the books above:

The Hills Are Alive

Explore the various different forms puppets take, and then let students create their own puppet. Young writers then create a story starring their puppet that must include a beginning, middle, and end.

Recalling History by Pulling Strings

Storytelling can be used to preserve history, as students discover in this hands on lesson. They then put the idea to action, afterward discussing the effectiveness of using puppets to retell a historical event.

Focus on Biography

How are biographies different from fictional stories? Students seek to answer this question, and they then select a biography to read, creating a paper model of their book.

Famous African Americans Mini-book

In this lesson on overcoming prejudice, students create a mini-book about famous African Americans, including Shirley Chisholm, Benjamin Banneker, and Louis Armstrong.

Celebrating 100 Years of Flight

Read several articles about three periods in the history of flight—the invention of planes, women in flight, and the space race. The class identifies personal qualities that early aviators shared and finally write newspaper articles about a historic flight.