The Volunteer State: Exploring Tennessee through Literature

Book Links: August/September 2002 (v.12, no.1)

by Edward T. Sullivan

Though born and raised a Yankee, my heart belongs to Tennessee. I liked Memphis when I lived there for her superb blues clubs on Beale Street, her incomparable view of the mighty Mississippi, her world-class barbecue, and her obsessive devotion to the memory of Elvis Presley, but I fell in love with Tennessee when I moved east to the Great Smoky Mountains. I have not traveled everywhere in the United States, but I am convinced that there’s not much that could beat the beauty of the Great Smokies. You may have read recently about the terrible pollution problems the national park is experiencing because so many millions of people visit it each year. That’s the problem with being one of the most beautiful places on earth—everyone wants to see it.

Tennessee is a state full of fascinating history. Why is Tennessee called the Volunteer State? What do the three stars in the Tennessee state flag symbolize? Can you name the three U.S. presidents who came from Tennessee? A secret city in Tennessee produced the fuel for the first of the only two atomic bombs ever used in warfare. Do you know where it is? Do you know the lady now known as the mother of the civil rights movement who started her crusade in Memphis? Tennesseans made up the largest contingent of defenders at the Alamo in the war between Mexico and the Republic of Texas. Do you know the name of the famous frontiersman who led that contingent? Who were the Jubilee Singers and how did they save Fisk University in Nashville from going out of business? How did African American author Richard Wright manage to beat the Memphis Public Library’s policy of “no blacks allowed” and get to read the books he craved? Who was that sickly girl in Clarksville who overcame polio and grew up to be an Olympic champion?

Curious? Those are just a few of the things you will learn about Tennessee when you read the biographies, informational books, picture books, and novels listed below. Exploring the Volunteer State through children’s and young adult literature will give readers insight into not only the unique culture, history, people, and traditions of Tennessee but also the contributions the state has made to the American experience as a whole.

Books about Tennessee

Feeney, Kathy.
Tennessee Facts and Symbols. 2000. 24p. Capstone, $13.95 (0-7368-0525-7).

Gr. 1–4. A good, basic introduction to general facts about the state, this title contains information about the source of its nickname, emblems, motto, and symbols. It also includes a glossary, suggestions for further reading, Internet sites to visit, and an index.

Kummer, Patricia K.
Tennessee. 1998. 48p. Capstone, $16.95 (1-56065-682-4).

Gr. 1–3. This basic introduction to essential cultural, demographic, geographic, and historical facts about the state includes a chronology, a glossary, suggestions for further reading, Internet sites to visit, and an index.

Lacey, T. Jensen.
Amazing Tennessee: Fascinating Facts, Entertaining Tales, Bizarre Happenings, and Historical Oddities about the Volunteer State. 2000. 224p. Rutledge Hill, paper, $12.99 (1-55853-790-2).

Gr. 4–up. Lacey provides an entertaining compilation of obscure but often amusing and enlightening Tennessee cultural and historical facts. Did you know that country singer Vince Gill once opened for KISS, or that Tennessee was once home to the largest hippie commune in North America?

Shoulders, Michael. V Is for Volunteer: A Tennessee Alphabet. Illus. by Bruce Langton. 2001. 40p. Sleeping Bear, $16.95 (1-5853-6033-3).

K–Gr. 2. This attractively illustrated alphabet book introduces young readers to the history and natural wonders of Tennessee.

Famous Tennesseans

Adler, David A.
A Picture Book of Davy Crockett. Illus. by John and Alexandra Wallner. 1996. 32p. Holiday, $16.95 (0-8234-1212-1); paper, $6.95 (0-8234-1343-8).

K–Gr. 2. Given its brevity, this is a remarkably informative biography for young readers of the legendary Tennessee frontiersman, now immortalized as one of the doomed defenders of the Alamo and in hundreds of outrageous tall tales, many spun by Crockett himself. This attractively designed book from Adler’s Picture Book Biography series is marked by engaging illustrations.

Denenberg, Barry.
All Shook Up: The Life and Death of Elvis Presley. 2001. 208p. Scholastic, $16.95 (0-439-09504-2).

Gr. 5–up. Denenberg’s compact but informative and insightful biography of the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” concentrates on Presley’s early career, when he recorded what he himself admitted was his best and most influential music. Although clearly an Elvis fan, Denenberg does not shy away from frankly discussing Presley’s tragic flaws, such as his drug abuse and other self-destructive impulses. Archival photographs and other historical artifacts support the text, which consistently quotes primary sources.

Dykeman, Wilma.
Tennessee Woman: An Infinite Variety. 1993. 112p. Wakestone, $14.95 (1-884450-00-8).

Gr. 6–up. Included in this collection of brief, interesting portraits of notable Tennessee women are Mary “Mother” Jones, Dolly Parton, Wilma Rudolph, Nancy Ward, and Ida B. Wells.

Fradin, Dennis Brindell, and Judith Bloom Fradin.
Ida B. Wells: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. 2000. 192p. Clarion, $18 (0-395-89898-6).

Gr. 5–up. This is a well-researched, compelling biography of an important early leader of the civil rights movement who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and who campaigned against lynching at great risk to her own life. Poignant comparisons are made between the work of Wells and that of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Included are many period black-and-white photographs and other historical artifacts, as well as a bibliography and subject index.

Fritz, Jean.
Make Way for Sam Houston. Illus. by Elise Primavera. 1986. 112p. Putnam, $15.99 (0-399-21303-1); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-698-11646-1).

Gr. 4–8. Before becoming a founding father of Texas, Sam Houston was a son of Tennessee, serving the Volunteer State as both a governor and a representative in Congress. Fritz’s engaging, informative biography is an excellent introduction to this fascinating individual. It includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

Klausner, Janet.
Sequoyah’s Gift: A Portrait of the Cherokee Leader. 1993. 128p. HarperCollins, $15.89 (0-06-021236-5).

Gr. 4–8. This is one of the best biographies for young people of the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, whose birthplace is in what is now Loudon County in east Tennessee. Klausner offers a good overview of Sequoyah’s life and an excellent discussion of the alphabet he created for his people. The volume includes well-chosen black-and-white photographs, a bibliography, and an index.

Krull, Kathleen.
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman. Illus. by David Diaz. 1996. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (0-15-201267-2); Voyager, paper, $6 (0-15-202098-5).

Gr. 2–5. This is the incredible story of how Wilma Rudolph, once called the sickliest child in Clarksville, Tennessee, overcame polio and paralysis to become the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics: an inspiring story of a driven and determined individual.

Meltzer, Milton.
Andrew Jackson and His America. 1993. 208p. Watts, $18.95 (0-531-11157-1).

Gr. 6–up. Meltzer pulls no punches in this thorough and tough—and often scathing—study of our fascinatingly complex seventh president. He includes source notes, an index, and occasional maps and pictures that help elaborate on the text. An outstanding biography for young people, as only Meltzer can write.

Schanzer, Rosalyn.
Davy Crockett Saves the World. 2001. 32p. HarperCollins, $16.95 (0-688-16991-0).

K–Gr. 3. In this wildly exaggerated story that captures the spirit of the tall-tale tradition, the famous frontiersman Davy Crockett single-handedly stops Halley’s Comet from destroying the earth and in the process wins the heart of Sally Sugartree. A fun, outrageous tale Crockett himself would be proud of, complemented by exciting, larger-than-life illustrations.

Stories Set in Tennessee

Coleman, Evelyn.
Circle of Fire. 2001. 150p. Pleasant, $9.95 (1-58485-340-9); paper, $5.95 (1-58485-339-5).

Gr. 3–6. In east Tennessee in 1958, Mendy finds herself in danger when she discovers that the Ku Klux Klan is planning to bomb the Highlander Folk School in order to disrupt a visit by Mendy’s hero, Eleanor Roosevelt. Based on actual historical events, this title is from the American Girls History Mysteries series.

Drummond, Allan.
Casey Jones. 2001. 32p. Farrar, $16 (0-374-31175-7).

K–Gr. 3. “Now this is the story of Casey Jones’s fate as he rolled into Memphis on his 638 . . .” Drummond’s engaging, rhyming text breathes new life into the familiar story of the railroad engineer who became a folk hero for saving his passengers in the famous train wreck at the turn of the twentieth century.

Eady, Ellen.
Pardon Me . . . Is That the Chattanooga Choo-Choo? Illus. by Kelly Guhne. 2000. 28p. Majestic, $15.95 (0-9679065-0-4); paper, $9.95 (0-9679065-1-2).

K–Gr. 2. While traveling to Chattanooga, Harry the hopping mouse gets separated from his family and sees the local sights of the city before finding his way to the historic train where they will be staying during their visit. Also see Eady’s
Pardon Me . . . Is That the Grand Ole Opry? (Majestic, 2001) about Harry’s adventures at the Grand Ole Opry.

Freeman, Suzanne.
The Cuckoo’s Child. 1996. 224p. HarperCollins/Greenwillow, $15 (0-688-14290-7); Hyperion, paper, $5.95 (0-7868-1243-5).

Gr. 6–9. Mia Veery’s adventuring parents send her to Tennessee to spend the summer with an aunt she has never met. Freeman’s characterizations are superb, full of depth and sensitivity.

Hearne, Betsy.
Listening for Leroy. 1998. 224p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $16 (0-689-82218-9).

Gr. 4–7. Growing up in rural Alabama in the 1950s, 11-year-old Alice has no one to talk to but Leroy, the black farmhand. Alice has to cope with losing her good friend when her doctor father moves the family to Tennessee, where she has difficulty fitting in.

Howard, Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 2000. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $16 (0-689-80076-2).

K–Gr. 2. In post–Civil War east Tennessee, a young African American girl named Virgie is determined to prove that she too can go to the Quaker school her older brothers attend. This book, based upon a family tale, is set in Jonesborough, the oldest incorporated town in Tennessee. This charming story of a determined young girl is accompanied by Lewis’ sumptuous watercolors.

Isaacs, Anne.
Swamp Angel. Illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. 1994. 40p. Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-45271-0); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (0-14-055908-6).

K–Gr. 3. Setting her story in the Great Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee in early frontier days, Isaacs captures the Appalachian tall-tale tradition in this wonderful yarn about the giant woman Angelica “Swamp Angel” Longrider, who saves the settlers from the troublesome, gigantic bear Thundering Tarnation. Zelinsky’s stunning illustrations won this title a 1995 Caldecott Honor Book designation.

Ketteman, Helen.
Luck with Potatoes. Illus. by Brian Floca. 1995. 32p. Orchard, $14.95 (0-531-09473-1).

K–Gr. 3. Hardscrabble, hard-luck Tennessee farmer Clemmon Hardigree is facing some tough times, until the potato seeds he plants in Cow Hollow bring him some amazing good fortune. A fun, zany story told in the tall-tale tradition. Floca’s watercolor, cartoonlike illustrations sparkle with humor.

Matas, Carol.
The War Within: A Novel of the Civil War. 2001. 160p. Simon & Schuster, $16 (0-689-82935-3).

Gr. 5–9. In 1862, Hannah Green and her family are forced to leave their home in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and move to Memphis when General Grant issues General Order #11, a directive commanding the expulsion of all Jews from territory occupied by Union forces. A fascinating story that sheds light on a little-known incident in Civil War history.

McKissack, Patricia C.
Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, The Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919. 2000. 224p. Scholastic, $10.95 (0-590-51159-9).

Gr. 4–8. Eleven-year-old Nellie Lee Love records in her diary the events of 1919, when she and her family move from Tennessee to Chicago, hoping to leave behind the racism and hatred they have known in the South. This title from the Dear America series includes an informative afterword by the author that puts the story in historical context. Black-and-white period photographs with detailed captions are also included.

McKissack, Patricia C.
Flossie and the Fox. Illus. by Rachel Isadora. 1986. 32p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-0250-7).

Gr. 1–3. On a “hotter than usual Tennessee August day,” a clever little girl outwits a sly fox trying to steal her eggs, in this witty retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Isadora’s striking watercolor-and-ink illustrations are a perfect complement.

McKissack, Patricia C.
Goin’ Someplace Special. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. 2000. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Anne Schwartz, $16 (0-689-81885-8).

Gr. 2–5. In segregated 1950s Nashville, a young African American girl named Tricia Ann braves the indignities of a racist society to get someplace special—the public library where “all are welcome.” While the rest of Nashville was segregated, the public library’s board of directors quietly voted to integrate all its facilities. This poignant story based upon the author’s own childhood experiences is beautifully illustrated with Pinkney’s pencil-and-watercolor drawings.

Miller, William.
Richard Wright and the Library Card. Illus. by Gregory Christie. 1997. 32p. Lee & Low, $16.95 (1-880000-57-1); paper, $6.95 (1-880000-88-1).

Gr. 1–4. Basing his book on an incident in Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, Miller tells how, as a young man in Memphis, Wright has to seek out the help of a sympathetic white man in order to use the whites-only public library. Christie’s impressionistic illustrations rendered in acrylic and colored pencil accompany the story.

Myers, Anna.
Graveyard Girl. 1995. 128p. Walker, $16.95 (0-8027-8260-4); paper, $7.95 (0-8027-7607-8).

Gr. 4–8. During the catastrophic yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1878, 12-year-old Eli and Addie, a young girl he befriends, struggle to survive with the help of Addie’s ghost mother and a girl who works at the busy graveyard. A wonderful mix of history and the supernatural.

Porte, Barbara Ann.
Something Terrible Happened. 1994. 224p. Orchard, $16.95 (0-531-06869-2).

Gr. 5–8. Eleven-year-old Gillian is sent away from her mother, who is dying of AIDS, to live with relatives in Tennessee. Gillian’s mother’s stories become a source of strength as Gillian adjusts to her new situation.

Taylor, Mildred D.
The Road to Memphis. 1990. 288p. Dial, $16.99 (0-8037-0340-6); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (0-14-036077-8).

Gr. 6–up. Taylor continues the Logan family saga, begun in
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, in this story set in 1941. Cassie Logan, now 17, leaves her protective parents to attend high school in Jackson, Mississippi, and prepare for college, while her brother Stacy and his friends work in a factory. They find themselves confronting discrimination and racism from the white community. Although too episodic at times, this is a powerful, painful book populated with superbly drawn characters.

Wisler, G. Clifton.
Thunder on the Tennessee. 1983. 160p. Puffin, paper, $4.99 (0-14-037612-7).

Gr. 5–8. Sixteen-year-old Willie Delamer follows his father’s example and enlists in the Second Texas Regiment to help defend the Confederacy, only to find himself experiencing the horrors of war when his unit is sent to defend the banks of the Tennessee River at the bloody battle of Shiloh.

Tennessee History

Bruchac, Joseph.
The Trail of Tears. Illus. by Diana Magnuson. 1999. 48p. Random, $11.99 (0-679-99052-6); paper, $3.99 (0-679-89052-1).

Gr. 2–4. This title from the Step into Reading series recounts how the Cherokees, after fighting to keep their ancestral lands in the nineteenth century, were forced to leave their homes and travel 1,200 miles to a new settlement in Oklahoma. Thousands of Cherokees died of disease, exposure, and starvation on this terrible journey known as the Trail of Tears. For older readers, see Bruchac’s
The Journal of Jesse Smoke, a Cherokee Boy (Scholastic, 2001) from the My Name Is America series.

Caudill, Edward, and Edward Larson.
The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History. 2000. 88p. University of Tennessee, paper, $18.95 (1-57233-081-3).

Gr. 7–up. In 1925 a young teacher named John Thomas Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, was arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a public school. This account of one of the most controversial trials in American history offers an overview of the events that transpired and also examines the trial’s continuing legacy in Tennessee education, history, politics, and religion. The candid collection of photographs—-some never before published and all with detailed captions—offers fascinating insight into the event.

Duncan, Alice Faye.
The National Civil Rights Museum Celebrates Everyday People. Photos by J. Gerard Smith. 1995. 64p. BridgeWater, paper, $6.95 (0-8167-3503-4).

Gr. 3–6. The National Civil Rights Museum, located on the site of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, commissioned this book that pays homage to those who participated in the civil rights movement. The color photographs throughout feature children interacting with various museum exhibits.

Dykeman, Wilma.
Tennessee: A History. 1976; reissued 1994. 208p. Wakestone, paper, $10.95 (0-9613859-9-5).

Gr. 8–up. Dykeman, a highly regarded and well-known regional author of fiction and nonfiction, offers a brief but informative historical portrait of Tennessee.

Haskins, Jim.
The Day Martin Luther King Jr. Was Shot: A Photo History of the Civil Rights Movement. 1992. 96p. Scholastic, paper, $5.99 (0-590-43661-9).

Gr. 4–8. Haskins uses the assassination of King in Memphis on April 4, 1968, as a starting point for an illustrated overview of the civil rights movement, tracing it from its roots in early slave resistance through the 1960s. The book includes a chronology and subject index.

Roop, Peter, and Connie Roop.
If You Lived with the Cherokees. Illus. by Kevin Smith. 1998. 80p. Scholastic, paper, $5.99 (0-590-95606-X).

Gr. 2–5. Before being forcibly removed from its homeland by the United States government in 1830, the Cherokee Nation included most of east and middle Tennessee. Although the illustrations do not match the quality of the text, this title from the If You Lived series is an informative introduction to Cherokee culture, history, and details about daily living. The volume includes a copy of the Cherokee Syllabary invented by Sequoyah, but no index.

Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk.
The Cherokees. Illus. by Ronald Himler. 1996. 32p. Holiday, $17.95 (0-8234-1214-8).

Gr. 2–5. From the First Americans series, this excellent introduction to Cherokee history and culture covers traditional life, colonial battles, loss of land, the Trail of Tears, and the circumstances that led to the establishment of the Oklahoma and North Carolina bands of the tribe. Sneve’s text is wonderfully enhanced by Himler’s warm, serene watercolors.

Yellin, Carol Lynn, and Janann Sherman.
The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage. 1998. 160p. Iris, $24.95 (1-882595-14-9).

Gr. 5–up. Tennessee’s was the deciding vote in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. This informative book chronicles the actions of the many determined Tennessee women in the suffrage movement and their efforts to get their state to cast the deciding vote.

Tennessee’s Musical Heritage

Cooper, Michael L.
Slave Spirituals and the Jubilee Singers. 2001. 96p. Clarion, $16 (0-395-97829-7).

Gr. 5–9. Cooper begins this story of the group of young people who helped save the struggling Fisk University in Nashville in its earliest days with a discussion of slave spirituals or “sorrow songs” and how the Jubilee Singers rescued these nearly forgotten songs from obscurity. This inspiring account is illustrated with archival prints and photographs and includes the words and music to seven of the best-known spirituals, source notes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

Hopkinson, Deborah.
A Band of Angels: A Story Inspired by the Jubilee Singers. Illus. by Raúl Colón. 1998. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Anne Schwartz, $16 (0-689-81062-8); Aladdin, paper, $6.99 (0-689-84887-0).

Gr. 1–4. At the end of the Civil War, former slave Ella Shepard helps form a band of singers to tour and raise money for the financially strapped Fisk School. Inspired by the true story of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, this uplifting tale is harmoniously complemented by Colón’s soulful illustrations.

Littlesugar, Amy.
Shake Rag: From the Life of Elvis Presley. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 1998. 36p. Philomel, $16.99 (0-399-23005-X); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (0-698-11896-0).

Gr. 1–3. This speculative story about the profound influence African American musical traditions may have had upon Elvis Presley during his impoverished childhood is illustrated with Cooper’s lush oil-wash paintings.

Edward T. Sullivan is the library media specialist for White Pine School in Jefferson County, Tennessee, and an adjunct instructor with the University of Tennessee School of Information Sciences.