Nonfiction Wednesday: Of coal mines and Paris

NF Wednesday

Digging A Hole To Heaven:Coal Miner Boys by S.D. Nelson is just the kind of book I’ve been on the hunt for  as a read aloud in our Social Studies classes during our Industrial Revolution unit.


It’s the story of 12 year old Conall who toils away in the coal mines of Pennsylvania sometime during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century- the Gilded Age of the robber barons and their sumptuous lifestyle. Conall and his family, just like hundreds of thousands of coal mining families, lived lived fraught with danger, poverty, disease, and blight.  Day after day, Conall and his beloved mule Angel descend into the mines before daybreak and spend daylight hours hundreds of feel below ground harvesting and hauling the coal that powered the wonders of the Industrial Age.

S.D. Anderson tells his story beautifully, bringing to life the tedium and danger of the coal mine, where terrible accidents were commonplace.  Interspersed with Conall’s story are photographs of children working in the mines and informative sidebars which lend historical accuracy to all that transpires in the story.


Although I was familiar with most aspects of this distressing time in our history, before child labor laws were even thought of, I learned about the types of assignments these children (as young as five or six) were given, as well as more about the treatment of the mules who labored just as hard. I was shocked to learn that mules were often stabled underground for the duration of their working lives, since this was cheaper than hauling them out and back every day.

Nelson’s pastel illustrations are striking, especially the way in which he has rendered the facial expressions which register so much more than words can convey.  I plan to share this book with my students as a readaloud, along with first person accounts and video clips, and hope to design a writing  activity based on their response to the text.  I so wish I could find other books like this, which combine fiction and nonfiction so artfully.  if anyone knows of any, please let me know in the comments!

Salvatore Rubbino’s exuberant A Walk in Paris took me down memory lane and back into a city I love.


A little girl (we never do discover her name) and her grandpa visit Paris for the day, hitting all the right spots and sharing the sights and scenes with us.  I loved the gorgeous illustrations:

images (1)

which took us into buildings and grand outdoor spaces, with many sidebars and notations to give us information, pronunciation, and juicy little tidbits.  Just a delight. Now I need to find his other books, especially his A Walk in London.


9 thoughts on “Nonfiction Wednesday: Of coal mines and Paris

  1. The coal mining books looks great, Tara, & the ‘walk’ books too. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been during those mining times. Thanks for that book! The only ‘topic’ I could think of that might mirror the plight of the coal-mining children is the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy. We studied it when we went to NYC, but I don’t think there’s a picture book. There are several longer books that were published during its anniversary in 2011. Here is one:

  2. I really like finding photos and other primary sources in nonfiction picture books. Really brings the topic to life!
    I’ve been wanting to find A Walk in Paris since I heard about it last summer, but my library still doesn’t have it! I may need to find out how to request books!

  3. I am not familiar with either of these titles but I will be looking for them now. Thank you for bringing both of them to our attention.

  4. I’ve seen the NY book, but not London or Paris. I will definitely need to find them.
    I’m putting the Coal Miner Boys on my teaching list. I have a great activity about mining and environmental impact. This book will be a good one to accompany it.
    Thanks for sharing these.

  5. A Walk in Paris looks like such a beautiful read – love the image you shared here. Will have to see whether we have copies of both books in the library – the coal miner book seems like a powerful read. 🙂

  6. Ooo! Another S.D. Nelson book. I had my hands on my copy of Digging a Hole To Heaven earlier this week. So glad to see this review. AND, A Walk in Paris! Excellent post!

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