Titanic: Voices from the Disaster
by Deborah Hopkinson
Scholastic Press, 2012
Rhoda Abbott. Olaus Jorgensen Abelseth. Lawrence Beesley. Frank Goldsmith. Charles Lightoller. Mother of two. Swedish immigrant turned South Dakota farmer. Science teacher. Nine year-old. Second officer on the RMS Titanic. All survivors of the disaster, and some of the voices we hear in Hopkinson’s beautifully written narrative of the sinking of the unsinkable. Hopkinson expertly fuses the images and text of this middle grade nonfiction chapter book into a single voyage for her readers. Open the book, and you immediately sail through a series of punctuated photographs and paintings that serve as both invitation and warning. Hopkinson captures, through the selected stories she tells, an almost moment-by-moment snapshot of Titanic’s maiden voyage, from the passengers to the crew, first class to third, the top of the ship to the very bottom. Turn the pages, and the voices of Rhoda, Olaus, Lawrence, Frank, and Charles tumble together in a chorus of the thousands who shared their journey. Without focusing on blame or judgment, Hopkinson situates her readers with a full range of details regarding the events of April 15, 1912, the decisions made and the opportunities missed, that lead to the tragedy. As such, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster would serve as a wonderful nonfiction read aloud for the middle grades. The extensive backmatter is a model for future middle grade nonfiction, with an incredible breadth of material, sources, and notes made available, a lesson for middle grade readers on the breadth and depth of the research authors conduct in order to write books for them.
Written by Melissa Stewart
Published by National Geographic Kids, 2012
ISBN # 978-1426310591
Ever wonder how much it would cost today to book passage if the Titanic still sailed? What about wanting to know who first spotted the wreckage underwater? Or who the youngest survivor of the shipwreck was? Or even what the newspaper headlines said about the tragedy just after it happened? In her new book, Titanic, Melissa Stewart offers readers the answers to this diverse set of questions and more. As part of the popular National Geographic Kids series, Titanic is brimming with stunning photographs, detailed diagrams and illustrations, and primary source material. Everything in the book, from the fascinating “Weird but True” factoids scattered throughout the pages to the double-page spread discussing “10 Real Reasons Why the Titanic sank”, whets readers’ curiosity. Furthermore, Stewart’s lucid prose and focused details help young readers apply their developing reading skills to pursue authentic inquiries. In all, this early reader book tailors an impressive array of information for students across the grades and reading levels to partake in deeper explorations and share in commemorative classroom activities about the famous ship.
Interviews with the Authors
This week, The Classroom Bookshelf is doing something a little different! In addition to reviewing two books on the Titanic, to help teachers take advantage of the “teachable moment” the 100th anniversary provides this month, we are providing author interviews. Deborah Hopkinson and Melissa Stewart both graciously agreed to answer our questions about the research and writing of their Titanic books. We hope that these interviews, one in print and one on video, will help you to consider the many roles these two books can play in your classroom. If you scroll down further, you will find our usual selection of Teaching Invitations and Further Explorations.
A Video Interview with Melissa Stewart, Author of Titanic
An Interview with Deborah Hopkinson, Author of Titanic: Voices from the Disaster
Why Titanic? What drew you to the topic?
The fascination with the Titanic isn’t limited to adults. Over the years as I ask students during author visits what books they enjoy reading there is usually someone who mentions the topic. Adults, of course, are drawn to this as well.
Also, I am passionate about history, which a lot of people — young and old, think of as boring. But, of course, it’s not. And it seems to me that young readers may not even realize that when they are reading about Titanic they are studying history and doing research. So it’s a fantastic topic to help students discover historical thinking.
What did you uncover in your research that was most surprising and/or most interesting to you personally? How did that shape the book?
There were two aspects that surprised me. First, when I began researching Titanic: Voices from the Disaster I had no idea there was such an active group of amateur historians from around the world involved in the Titanic. I was able to call on this community for invaluable assistance. I also was surprised to learn how many controversies about the ship’s sinking are still being discussed and I tried to hint at some of these in the book.
The second surprise was just how hard a topic this was to research. My last nonfiction book, Up Before Daybreak, Cotton and People in America was challenging because it covered such a long time period. I (naively) thought that limiting my topic would make writing Titanic easier. Nothing could have been further from the truth. There are so many stories contained in this event, and I found myself going back again and again to primary sources but also needing to ask questions about the motivations and point of view of each person whose words and story I included.
How did the structure of your book evolve?
Early in my research, after I gathered many of my resources, I spent one weekend on photo research. It’s a great way to begin to “see” the people in the story. That’s when I discovered the photographs of Father Frank Browne, who was on board ship for the first 24 hours before departing with many rare pictures. As it turned out, I decided to begin the book with Father Browne.
I also ended up starting the story earlier and carrying it through longer in time than I had originally intended, which we hoped would give young readers as much historical context as possible.
How did you go about selecting the primary source documents, artifacts, and photographs to include?
I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Lisa Sandell, my editor at Scholastic, with whom I have worked on two other nonfiction projects. For each book, we become a bit more organized about the way we gather, vet, and determine primary photographs to use. I put together a binder of potential photos, and then she and the photo researchers at Scholastic added to that. Since we weren’t able to meet in person, we actually did a Skype meeting to review the final selections together.
As for the other primary documents and the back matter we included, Lisa was very indulgent as this section kept growing and growing! Right at the end of the project I discovered George Behe’s recent book of survivor letters and we added some of these written from the rescue ship. That turns out to be one of my favorite sections of the book.
The sinking of the Titanic is a difficult topic. How did you adjust what you learned in your research to the audience you were writing for?
I had made the decision early on to tell the story through the words and voices of survivors, so this helped a little. But, of course, even the survivors did not emerge unscathed. Jack Thayer lost his father, Charlotte Collyer her husband, Rhoda Abbott her sons. Archibald Gracie died not many months after the disaster.
I wrote much of this book on weekends during the summer of 2010 at my kitchen table. There were many times when I had to get up and walk outside to take breaks and feel the sun. I kept wanting it to turn out differently, especially as I got to know the people better. It was harder than I thought to face the knowledge that, no matter how opulent the ship, and how safe she seemed, I was eventually going to get to that moment that even now, 100 years later, is hard to imagine.
Grades 4 and Up
- National Geographic Kids Early Readers as Mentor Text. In her video about writing Titanic (made for The Classroom Bookshelf and linked above), Melissa Stewart discusses the different access features she knew from the start she would use because she had written others in the National Geographic Kids series of Early Reader books. She also discusses some of her decisions as a nonfiction writer, such as having the book start with Robert Ballard’s search for the Titanic on the ocean floor. Have your students read several of Melissa’s books from this series. Next, have them conduct individual research on a own topic of their choice, using a variety of print and digital texts. Finally, have them write their own National Geographic Kids books. Make sure to have students select photographs from their research to include in their books. Share these original Early Reader books with primary grade students at your school.
- Visual Narratives in Nonfiction. In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, Deborah Hopkinson takes us on a fascinating visual narrative of Titanic before the first chapter even begins.First, the reader/viewer sees Titanic, sailing confidently, a postcard painting from the White Star Line. Next, we see a photograph of the sea, the horizon lined with icebergs.Then, as we read the title page, we are actually on a White Star ship. Another page turn, and we dive into a full two-page reproduction of the last telegraph sent from the sinking ship on the night of April 15, 1911. Next, a second image of icebergs on the horizon, then a dockside view of Titanic, another image of Titanic, sailing triumphantly, and then we are plunged into the icy depths of the North Atlantic, staring at the ship’s rusting hulk and reading the book’s Foreword. Another turn of the page, and we have a diagram of Titanic, so that we can situate ourselves during our stay on the ship. And then, we have the final invitation: the gangplank is out, a two-page spread, taking us on board the Titanic. Have your students explore how this visual narrative operates throughout the rest of the book, and have them discuss the role of photographs and artifacts within a nonfiction text. Students can then apply what they have learned by creating their own visual narratives as a part of their next nonfiction writing project.
- Historical Fiction Vignettes. After your students have read one or more of the Titanic books included in this entry, have them explore some of the artifacts that have been brought up from the ship’s floor using the websites listed below in Further Explorations. Have each student select a single object from the collection, such as a shoe, hat, necklace, or tea cup. Who might have last used it? Touched it? Why was it brought on board the ship? Use the objects and the brainstorming students do around them as a catalyst for writing historical fiction vignettes. Individually, in pairs, or in small groups as a shared writing assignment, students can craft vignettes from the point-of-view someone on the ship who used the object in some imagined way. Use the photographs and vignettes to create your own Titanic exhibition in your classroom.
- Comprehensive Timeline of Events. Using the books reviewed above as well as the new and previously published books and actual newspaper accounts from April of 1912 (see Further Explorations below), have your students reconstruct a timeline of the voyage of the Titanic. What consistencies do they find across texts, both in the past and now? What inconsistencies do they find?
- What’s Happening to the Titanic? The Titanic will not remain on the ocean floor forever. It is deteriorating rather rapidly in the harsh underwater conditions of the North Atlantic. Why? Have your students explore some of the online resources below to examine the Titanic for themselves and research the science behind the decomposition of the ship.
- What Sank the World’s Biggest Ship? as Mentor Text – In her nonfiction picture book, Mary Kay Carson employs a text structure that allows readers to locate information specifically related to a question they may have about the ship or event. In this informational picture book, Mary Kay Carson answers the real questions about the famous tragedy that are on our minds. Each page begins with a question that goes right to the heart of the matter: “Did cheap parts help the ship sink?”, “What did the people left behind do?”, and “After 100 years, why do people still care?”” Carson focuses directly on answering each question, using with clear prose full of illustrative information and explanations. Invite students to select a nonfiction topic of their own choice, and have students brainstorm and list questions about their topic they would like answered. Then, have them research the answers and use the question-answer structure of What Sank the World’s Biggest Ship? as a mentor for their writing. Encourage students to create their own nonfiction picture books in this way, or to publish their work on a class wiki.
- History of Global Travel. The Titanic was powered by three steam engines, fueled by coal, that required 200 men to keep them operating at cruising speed. Engage your students in an investigation of the technologies that have been used for global travel across history. You might choose to assign students in small groups to research different time periods Students can compile a Voice Thread or Power Point timeline of major innovations in travel.
- Travel and Socioeconomic Class Inequities Then and Now. The socioeconomic status of passengers not only decided the type of living quarters and amenities they could enjoy aboard the ship; it ultimately determined who survived the disaster and who didn’t. Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic: Voices from the Disaster includes a chart in the back matter that reveals the percentage of those onboard who lived or died according to the cost of their ticket, and Melissa Stewart’s Titanic, though written for a much younger audience, also offers those statistics, in column format. To what extent does class continue to impact one’s safety when traveling today? Are the safest cars according to Consumer Report and other sources the more expensive ones? Where is the safest spot on an airplane, and how much do seats in that area cost compared to others? What about bus travel? It is usually a less expensive way to travel. Is it more or less safe than air or train travel, which typically, but not always, cost more?
- Who Were They? Reading across several Titanic texts, ask your students to identify the key figures in this narrative, including Captain Smith, shipbuilder Andrews, radio operators Phillips and Bride, prominent passengers, and others whose stories stand out. Invite students to collect information about these figures from the texts you have read. Be sure to note any contradictory information. Then, conduct an internet to search to see what else you can learn about these figures. Students can demonstrate their expanded understanding of who these people were by writing a monologue (first person narrative) about his/her life experiences. Some of the individuals’ voices were captured by the BBC, and your students can hear them at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/titanic/. Students could perform their monologues in costume for one another or for your school community.
- Genres and the Story of the Titanic. The story of the Titanic is emotionally gripping and deeply tragic. Review the range of books that you have gathered and engage students in a discussion of the different genres that they represent. Chart the texts, identifying the genre, the types of information they contain, and the affective qualities of the text (how does the text make us feel?). You might want to contrast the narrative of Don Brown’s All Stations! Distress! with the survey text format of Martin Jenkins’s Titanic: Disaster at Sea. Discuss the choices made by the authors to use different genres and invite the students to consider which genre they might select were they to be writing about the Titanic. Or, use the Titanic books as mentor texts and the catalyst for the students’ own multi-genre research project. Students can all research a topic and decide which genre best works to show what they have learned.
- Who Owns the Titanic? The hull of the Titanic rests on the bottom of the sea, its physical presence continuing to degrade by the properties of the sea water. A controversy exists over the material remains of the ship and her content. Robert Ballard, who discovered the ship’s resting place, feels strongly that the wreckage should all be left with the ship. Others have journeyed to the depths and brought up items from the sea floor for public display and for person gain. Nothing has been taken from the ship itself, which is considered a sacred burial site. In April of 2012, thousands of items from the Titanic will be auctioned off as a single collection. Use the resources below (see Further Exploration), particularly the various news accounts of the auction, to investigate this controversy and have your students consider what they believe to be the appropriate course of action. Where do Titanic artifacts belong? On the sea floor? In a museum? In several museums? Which country? Why?
- Memorializing Titanic and Other Disasters. What is the best way to memorialize the Titanic? How best do we honor those lost? How do students see the variety of books written on it as a means of tribute? What about other ways that the ship and its victims have been memorialized in popular culture, such as movies, books, and websites? Have students make connections to the ways that the people who were victims of other mass tragedies have been memorialized. For instance, students might want to compare and contrast how the victims of the Columbine shooting of 1999 or the Oklahoma Federal Building explosion of 1995, events that also occurred in April, have been commemorated, or how the victims of September 11th have been memorialized in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC; how the two flight crews from the space shuttle missions that exploded in 1986 and 2003 have been memorialized; or how tornado victims from 2011’s historic season are being commemorated in their communities.
- Framing the Tragedy. The tragic story of the Titanic has fascinated authors and readers throughout the century, with each person perceiving and understanding the pieces surrounding the event in different ways. Given the plethora of texts about the Titanic, have students compare and contrast a variety of them to examine how each author frames the story. That is, have them consider from whose perspective the story is told, who is attributed blame for the disaster, and how the discovery of the ship’s remains is treated. Support students by doing close textual analysis, such as looking closely at the author’s word choice and tone, and by analyzing the illustrations to determine what sort of mood they convey. See the list of books in Further Explorations for more titles to explore.
- Comparing Voices. Have students compare and contrast the quotes from survivors of the Titanic used in Deborah Hopkinson’s Titanic: Voices from the Disaster and Melissa Stewart’s Titanic. Obviously, Stewart’s book is written for a very different audience. But, by reading her text, particularly the “In his/her own words” feature, students will be introduced to some people that Hopkinson also writes about. Whose voices appear in both books? How are their words used similarly and differently by the authors? Whose voices appear only one book? And, of course, whose voices are not heard at all? Students can explore some of the voices of the Titanic in the BBC interviews conducted with survivors. You can find the interviews at http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/titanic/ .
- Writing About History. How do writers make decisions about what to include and exclude when writing about historical events? In her interview for The Classroom Bookshelf, Deborah Hopkinson says that while writing Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, she went “back again and again to primary sources” recognizing that she had to “ask questions about the motivations and point of view of each person whose words and story” made it into the book. This may be somewhat difficult for students to see from a writerly standpoint. To make this writing lesson more concrete, provide students with a variety of newspaper articles about a recent current event in your community or the national landscape. Have the students compare and contrast what people have been quoted as saying, and how those quotes are used differently in different news accounts (different papers, television news, radio clips). To what extent are the same quotes framed in different ways? In turn, from what student know about the events, what are the motivations for all participants that any writer should be aware of?
Deborah Hopkinson’s Website
Melissa Stewart’s Website
BBC Interviews with Survivors of the Titanic
National Museums of Northern Ireland: Titanic
Smithsonian Museum Ocean Portal : Titanic Wreck Video
Smithsonian Magazine: Titanic Near Misses
Nova Scotia Museum: Titanic
Titanic Inquiry Project
Father Brown’s Titanic Photographs
New York Times Archival Stories of Titanic
Titanic: 100 Years – National Geographic
The History Channel: Titanic
Official Site for Titanic Salvage Operations
Titanic Historical Society
Extra! Extra! Titanic Sinks – Scholastic Unit Plan
NPR Story on April 2012 Auction of Titanic Collection
Associated Press (AP) Story on Auction of Titanic Collection, Courtesy of The Boston Globe
The Telegraph’s Story on Auction of Titanic Collection (A British Newspaper)
CNN’s Story of Auction of Titanic Collection
Children’s and Young Adult Books
Ballard, R.D. (1998). Ghost liners: Exploring the world’s greatest lost ships. Ill. by K. Marschall. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company.
- The oceanographer who, in 1985, discovered the wreckage of the Titanic describes this exploration and other explorations to find lost ships at sea. The text includes both illustrations and amazing underwater photographs.
Brewster, H. & Coulter, L. (1998). 882 ½ Amazing answers to your questions about the Titanic. Ill. by K. Marschall. Ontario, CA: Madison Press Books.
- This nonfiction survey text incorporates question and answer format. The 882 ½ questions are organized in subtopics. Includes illustrations and photographs.
Brown, D. (2008). All stations! Distress! New York: Roaring Brook Press.
- This riveting and emotional narrative begins with the launch of the Titanic and concludes with a reflection on the significance of the tragedy. Quotes from key figures are incorporated throughout this illustrated nonfiction picture books.
Carson, M.K. (2012). What sank the world’s biggest ship? And other questions about the Titanic. New York: Sterling Children’s Books.
- This nonfiction texts in question and answer text includes primary source photographs, drawings, and diagrams, as well as vibrant paintings to support the text. The last page organizes the details and explanations of the various inquiries into a timeline of events, summarizing the information into a chronological sequence. Perfect for independent readers and small groups, this book is sure to extend students’ curiosity and knowledge of the event and lead them to form more questions to pursue.
Claybourne, A., & Daynes, K. (2006) Titanic. UK: Usbourne Young Readers.
- Another fact-filled beginning reader book, including maps, photos, and useful Internet links related to the ship.
Denenberg, B. (2011). Titanic sinks! New York: Viking.
- Information about the Titanic’s construction and voyage is conveyed in the guise of a fictional magazine structure within this oversized book.
Jenkins, M. (2008/2012). Titanic: Disaster at sea. Ill. by B. Sanders. Somerville, MA; Candlewick Press.
- This nonfiction survey text narrates the construction, launch, and journey of the Titanic. The compelling text is enhanced by informative diagrams, charts, and timelines.
Korman, G. (2011). Titanic trilogy. New York: Scholastic.
- A series of gripping action-adventure chapter books about the experiences of four very different youth aboard the ship just days before the tragedy.
Landau, E. (2001). Heroine on the Titanic: The real unsinkable Molly Brown. New York: Clarion.
- A comprehensive biography of the legendary Molly Brown, also known as Margaret Tobin Brown. Explores her role in assisting Titanic survivors as well as her activism and politics.
McPherson, S.S. (2012). Iceberg, right ahead! The tragedy of the Titanic. Minneapolis: MN.: Twenty-first Century Books.
- This survey text intended for a young adult audience includes a discussion of the tragedy, the inquiries, that followed and the lasting impacts of the tragedy.
Weyn, S. (2009). Distant waves: A novel of the Titanic. New York: Scholastic.
- Part historical fiction, part fantasy, this novel begins years before the ship’s voyage and joins science and spirituality to explain events surrounding the disaster.
Wishinsky, F. (2012). Remembering the Titanic. New York: Scholastic.
- Part of the Scholastic Reader series, this title for the youngest readers narrates the voyage and Ballard’s discovery of the wreckage. The title ends with a reflection on why the story of the Titanic is so fascinating to people.
Wolf, A. (2011). The watch that ends the night. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
- This young adult novel in verse features the voices of a diverse set of characters on board the Titanic. Poetic forms vary throughout the novel.
Filed under: Classroom & Curricular Ideas, Nonfiction Chapter Books, Nonfiction Picture Books, Picture Books
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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