This book is part of the 31 Days of Literature Unit Ideas series. You can find links to all of the books in the series here. And if you'd like to use this literature unit, you can find a printable list of the ideas at the bottom of this post.
The book I'm featuring today is one I've recently been reading aloud and one I'm really growing to love. Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt is rich in the history of the Civil War. It's also a wonderful coming of age story, following the life of Jethro Creighton as he experiences life in Illinois during the war. It's a book that's not an easy read for younger kids. Even with my 5th and 6th grader, I'm glad we're reading it aloud, so we can discuss things that come up. But there are so many good themes to talk about, and there is so much that can be learned from history when experiencing it through historical fiction rather than a dry textbook.
Jethro Creighton is the youngest of five children in an Illinois farming family in the 1800s. His family lives a hand to mouth existence and has had many troubles throughout the years- poverty, sickness, and death of family members isn't unusual to the life that the Creighton's have or of others in the simple farming communities close by. But the family has joy too- the enjoyment of spending time together and the enjoyment of successfully farming the land to support the family and to trade in town. When the book opens, Jethro is a boy in a country on the cusp of Civil War.
The family members, like many others in the country at the time, had some very definite ideas and opinions about the changes happening and policies being made in the country. Two of Jethro's older brothers and cousin and even the schoolteacher that has lived with the family are in support of the Union and the laws they're making. But Jethro's older brother Bill has sympathies for the people of the South and can definitely see things more that way. The war that truly divided the country divides even Jethro's own family when some go to war to fight with the North, but Bill heads South.
Throughout the course of the war, Jethro truly grows up, often in painful ways. His family suffers hardships and difficulties like many during the war. They also face the wrath of the community members who believe them to be Southern sympathizers because of Bill's decision. As the war continues and finally draws to a close, the family will experience many tragedies and some victories, and Jethro will truly pass from a boy to a man.
Things to talk about:
Across Five Aprils is a book that is so rich in thematic content. There are so many great things that come up for discussion. It's a hard book to read at times. Irene Hunt doesn't shield readers from the tragedies of war and even the everyday hardships of life. Some younger children won't be ready to read it or hear it. I think it's good, however, when we can introduce hard topics to children through literature. When we discuss these hard things in the context of a good book, we arm our kids to deal with the real difficulties they'll encounter in life.
- Talk about the book's title. It will become more obvious as you read, so discuss why the book is called Across Five Aprils.
- How do you think Jethro would have described his life before the war- easy or hard, happy or sad?
- What are some ways in which Jethro changed throughout the story?
- Why do you think Jethro had a special relationship with his brother Bill?
- How do you think Jethro felt when there was such a divide in the beliefs his family members felt about the war?
- Talk about all the things Jethro had to face during the war. What do you think would have been the most difficult?
- After you've found where Jethro lives on a US map, talk about why Jethro's family may have had their divided stance on the war issues.
- Discuss the topic of tone in a novel. Across Five Aprils has a pretty dark tone. Ask students what they think the tone of the book is and why. Have them find specific sentences in the novel that indicate that tone.
- Irene Hunt makes use of dialect in the conversation of the book. This can make it difficult to read. Talk about dialect and why authors use it. Have students write down a few sentences of dialogue from the book and then write down the sentences without the dialect. Then have them write a few sentences of their own using the dialect of Jethro's community.
- Keep a character timeline to watch how Jethro changes over the course of the novel. At the beginning of your reading, begin a blank timeline. Instead of dates, record chapter numbers on the lines. For each chapter, record a few things about Jethro's thoughts, emotions or actions. At the end of the book, you'll be able to see how Jethro has changed.
- There is vocabulary throughout the book that may be difficult. Keep a vocabulary journal as you read. Record 3-5 words from each chapter and their definitions.
- Although Jethro is the main character in the story, there are other characters who are very well-developed. Use this character map to further study one of them.
- Irene Hunt uses many descriptive words to create a tone or mood in the situations that arise in the book. Have your student choose one of the main events in the story. Thinking about each of the five senses- taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell- tell about the event and the words the author uses for each of the senses. (For example, when Jethro visits Shadrach Yale, he sees the cozy cabin; he smells the supper Shad is cooking; he feels warm from the fire; etc.)
Civil War extension ideas:
- The Creighton family live in Jasper county, Illinois. Find and label that on this Map of the US at the beginning of the Civil War. This county map of Illinois will help you.
- This video from Brain Pop will give students a good overview of the Civil War.
- Jethro and his family were often called Copperheads because his brother Bill was sympathetic to the South. Read to find out where the term "Copperheads" came from.
- Learn about the ironclads that fought during the Civil War and how they changed the navies and naval battles.
- Use this information to create your own timeline of the Civil War, including major events and some battles.
- Read this short biography to learn more about Abraham Lincoln.
- There were several famous speeches from President Lincoln during the Civil War. You can read his Gettysburg Address here and the Emancipation Proclamation here.
- Learn more about the Emancipation Proclamation with this short video and about the Gettysburg Address with this video.
- I've mentioned Schmoop before. It's a website that provides many free learning tools, but I especially love their literature unit studies. The tongue in cheek writing style is appealing to kids, but the depth of the information here and the attention to detail is very well done. They have a very comprehensive guide for Across Five Aprils that includes chapter summaries, comprehension questions, discussion ideas, exploration of themes and more.
- Listen to Across Five Aprils on Audible.
- This site has all kinds of maps from the Civil War era, showing secession, territories, and battle maps.
- This is a very comprehensive literature guide for Across Five Aprils that you can print for free.
- This site is an awesome resource to learn more about the Civil War. It includes images, videos, primary source material, lesson plans for teachers, and more.
Other books to read:
- Abraham Lincoln by Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire
- The Gettysburg Address (Cornerstones of Freedom) by Josh Gregory
- Gettysburg (Cornerstones of Freedom) by Josh Gregory
- Jefferson Davis by Patricia Miles Martin (A See and Read Biography)
- Gettysburg by MacKinley Kantor (Landmark Books)
- Civil War in Pictures by Fletcher Pratt
If you want to use these literature unit ideas for Across Five Aprils, you can click here to find a FREE printable plan for this book and for the others in the series.