For Spacious Skies, by Nancy Churnin, is a book about how making America more just, equal, and compassionate makes our country more beautiful. It is now available in braille through the National Braille Press. This book is the National Braille Press’ (NBP) June 2022 Book of the Month Club Selection. Available Now for Purchase!
Nancy Churnin writes the biographies that “show the heart and soul of the individual, stories that inspire readers to be their best self and stretch for their dreams.” Her stories are available in braille including her latest, “For Spacious Skies” through NBP. Nancy makes history come alive in inspiring way to young readers and has also created FREE teacher lessons and activites to go with each of her books.
Many people think of “America the Beautiful” as a song about “spacious skies” and “purple mountain majesties” – the physical beauty of America. But what I hope kids will see in For Spacious Skies, Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for “America the Beautiful” is that for Katharine, nothing was more beautiful than justice, equality, and compassion.
And that is why I’m so proud that “For Spacious Skies” was chosen as the June Book of the Month from the National Braille Press.
Because one of the greatest ways to advance justice, equality, and compassion is to make books, ideas, and learning available to everyone.
Katharine knew what it was like to be left out of the American dream. She was born on August 12, 1859 in the seaside village of Falmouth, Massachusetts, where most boys grew up to become fishermen and most girls learned to sew and cook. As a child during the Civil War, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865, she saw her country torn apart and families divided, with one part of the country fighting the other. Even after the war, America struggled with racial inequality and gender inequality. Women couldn’t vote or own business and were discouraged from seeking an education.
Economic inequality was a problem, too. Katharine loved learning, but how could she go to college where women were not welcome, and her funds were limited as a girl being raised by a widowed mother washing and mending clothes and growing vegetables to keep her family afloat? Luckily, Katharine’s mother was determined to help her daughter’s dreams come true. When a brand new college opened for women in her state, her mother encouraged her to apply and her siblings helped support her. Katharine not only graduated in the second class of that brand new college for women, Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, she was honored as class president and class poet.
Katharine continued studying and ultimately became a professor at Wellesley as well as a social activist who helped the poor, a suffragette standing up for a woman’s right to vote, and an advocate for peace who tried to think of ways she could use her skill with words to help knit her still divided country together. When Katharine wrote about “amber waves of grain,” she wasn’t just describing a pretty sight she saw on a train on her way to Pikes Peak in Colorado, the place where she came up with the first lines of what would become her most famous poem. She was also talking about how much the fishermen that she knew growing up, who sailed waves to earn their living, were like the farmers of the landlocked states, who grew grain to support their loved ones.
When she wrote “crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea,” she was urging Americans to put aside their quarrels and differences and see each other as one American family from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts and everywhere in between.
“America the Beautiful” did help knit America together, making all who read it proud to be fellow Americans. Katharine, despite being a single woman supporting herself, never charged a penny for it. It was her gift to America. It was not uncommon for her to hand-write what she jokingly called her “A the B” poem for people as often as requested.
Katharine’s poem was first published on July 4, 1895. In 1910, people started singing the poem to a hymn, “Materna,” that had been composed by Samuel A. Ward, who had died in 1903. That leads to what could be a fun exercise for students. After “America the Beautiful” was set to Ward’s melody, people wondered if they could come up with a better tune for Katharine’s poem. A national contest for a new melody was announced. Many were tried, but the judges ultimately decided that the Ward melody had been the best after all.
Still, wouldn’t it be fun to try the poem to different melodies that exist or that students compose and vote for your favorite? If you do, I’d love to share audio or video of your students singing the song to different melodies – or to the popular Ward melody.
But my favorite project that I hope you’ll try is FOR SPACIOUS LINES. Just as Katharine believed in the power of words to change and heal the world, I hope you’ll share your children’s words on how we can all make America more just, more equal, and compassionate which is, after all, the way that Katharine envisioned America being more beautiful.
You’ll find a teacher curriculum/discussion guide, resources and the “For Spacious Skies” on my website. I look forward to hearing from you and celebrating the great things that your kids do. I know that together we can help make Katharine’s dream of “America the Beautiful” come true.
Learn More About the Book
For Spacious Skies, Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for “America the Beautiful” is written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Olga Baumert. It is available in contracted UEB braille from National Braille Press. Written for ages 6-14, grade level 3-7.
Nancy’s books, Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.and Anne Frank and Manjhi Moves a Mountain are also available at NBP with teacher curriculum/discussion guides, resources, and projects on the Nancy Churnin Website.