Award winning author Albert Marrin has a reputation for creating readable informational prose that makes even the most complex information accessible to readers of all ages. Now he turns his attention and talents to one of the pivotal issues of our time: the race for oil, aka “black gold.” This extraordinary book provides opportunities galore for students to engage in informational writing or compose arguments based on real world issues that affect our very destiny. Find out more . . .

Black Gold: The Story of OIL in Our Lives by Albert Marrin 

2012. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 158 pages.

Genre: Nonfiction chapter book, history

Ages: Middle school and up (Many passages sharable with upper elementary)

Features: Excellent glossary, detailed index, historic black and white photos that give the book a journalistic flavor


Tim Appenzeller, Science Editor for National Geographic, once called oil “a freak of geology,” saying it had resulted from a series of lucky accidents over millions of years. Author Albert Marrin borrows that phrase for the title of his opening chapter, which deals with the process by which oil is created. We generally consider it a non-renewable resource–but that’s the near-sighted human in us talking. In fact, oil is renewable; the catch is, it takes millions, if not billions, of years for it to form. In the meantime, we’re hooked on it–just about all of us, all over the world–and using it like there was no tomorrow. In terms of oil consumption, there may not be. Maybe you think if you don’t have a car, or if you don’t drive all that much, that your personal oil consumption is low. Think again. Is plastic part of your life? Bingo. And check any of the following products you’ve used lately: aspirin, deodorant, lipstick, Band-Aids, eyeglasses, waxed paper, ink, camera, toilet seat, computer–and that’s only the tip of the oil-coated iceberg. Thousands of everyday products guzzle oil far faster than the family car. Clearly, unwinding our dependence is not going to be easy–if indeed it’s even possible. In this fascinating, highly informative book, Marrin explores the wonders and dangers of black gold: where it’s found, how it’s processed, when it’s likely to run out. He examines the role of oil in building fortunes, empires, and nations, our own included, and in promoting and sustaining wars, including World War I and World War II. Middle East history obviously plays a major part in the drama, and Marrin walks us through with careful insight and analysis, helping us unwind some of the complexities that now affect our future. Throughout, Marrin’s confident, knowledgeable voice makes his nonfiction as appealing as any novel, and provides an outstanding model for meeting and indeed exceeding requirements of the Common Core Standards. The final chapter, titled “Toward a New Energy Order,” provides an outstanding basis for discussion in any class studying the foundations of strong argument (thesis, detail, evidence). And as the following classroom recommendations show, the book provides numerous opportunities to stimulate informational or persuasive writing on an engaging topic that affects every single human being on the planet.

In the Classroom

1. Background. What do your students know about oil now? Discuss where reserves exist on the planet, whether they think of oil as a boon to mankind or a threat, how oil is formed, and the kinds of modern-day products we make from oil. Ask them to make notes so they can see whether any of their initial impressions change based on Marrin’s book. 

2. Personal reflection. Make a class list of products that are manufactured using oil–products we might have to do without if we did not have access to this resource. Compare your list with Marrin’s partial list on pages 93-94. Does this comparison produce any surprises?

3. Argument. Given the number of oil-based products our society currently uses, how realistic is it to imagine a society free from dependence on oil? And what is the solution? As oil reserves begin to run out, what are some of the ways we can cope?

4. Personal research. A list in a book is one thing–but experience and personal research can be even more eye opening. Set up a research project in which students keep track of the oil-based products they (or others) use over the span of, say, one week. Then ask them to do an analysis to determine the real extent of our dependence on oil. How great is it? What criteria should we use to judge this?

5. Informational research. A few societies on our planet use very few, if any, oil-based products. Have students do research to identify at least one such society–then write a comparison piece, comparing their way of life to our own. Could a way of life we might consider primitive in some respects actually have advantages over ours, given our need for energy and our rapidly disappearing access to fossil fuels?

6. Informational summary. How long does it take to create oil? Is this a common resource worldwide–or relatively rare? Discuss these and related questions. Then share chapter 1, “A Freak of Geology,” aloud. Have students create a summary informational piece (without getting too technical) on what they now understand about how oil is formed. Why is it important to know this? What implications does it have for oil exploration and use?

7. Current knowledge and discussion. Of the world’s remaining oil reserves, what percentage do your students estimate belongs to the U.S.? What percentages belong to the Middle East, Europe, or other parts of the world? Record your estimates on a map of the world, if you have one available. Then, using a document camera, compare your estimates with those on Marrin’s map, page 126. Talk about the implications of this balance (or imbalance) for world politics and world peace.

8. Informational summary. Read the section titled “A Dangerous World” (pp. 124-126) aloud, and discuss it with students. Ask them to summarize Marrin’s message in this short section.

9. Research-based argument. Right now, according to Marrin’s book (p. 124), the U.S. uses 26 percent of the world’s energy–which is grossly disproportionate to our population. But . . . will this remain true throughout the twenty-first century? What evidence, if any, suggests that this percentage could change? And what factors, economic or otherwise, could prompt this change? By the end of the twenty-first century, which country is likely to be using the greatest percentage of world energy? (Remember the secret to strong argument: evidence, evidence, evidence.)

10. History/informational summary. Chapter 5, “Hopeless Monsters,” summarizes the role that oil played in world War I and world War II. Share all or part of this chapter aloud. Then ask students to summarize in writing their impression of the relationship between oil and war (based on this chapter and any additional reading or research).

11. Argument. Talk about the impact of oil production on our environment. How would your students rate this on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being minimal or nonexistent and 10 being catastrophic. Share all or part of Chapter 8, “Fossil Fuels and the Natural Environment,” aloud. Have students write an argument for or against additional oil exploration–or taking a moderate position. Ask them to defend their position using evidence from this chapter or any other research, including reading or interviews with environmentalists, oil producers, or any other stakeholders. Their argument should show both benefits and hazards, and recommend a position based on careful analysis of the two.

12. Argument. What energy alternatives exist for us in today’s world? Are some more practical or cost-efficient than others? Discuss this with students. Then share all or part of Chapter 9, “Toward a New Energy Order.” Have students create a persuasive argument based on one of the following topics: (1) True or false: Humans will decrease their dependence on oil only when forced by circumstance to do so; (2) What is a realistic plan for dealing with our energy needs, given the knowledge and options available to us now?

About the Author . . .

Albert Marrin is the author of Oh, Rats!, Years of Dust, Sitting Bull and His World, and Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy (recently reviewed here on Gurus), as well as numerous other nonfiction books for young readers. His many honors include the Washington Children’s Book Guild and Washington Post Nonfiction Award, the James Madison Book Award for lifetime achievement, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. Marrin is known for his stellar ability to connect world events to our everyday lives. 

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Thank you for stopping by. Please come again soon–and bring friends. Subscribe to our RSS feed to have info brought right to your electronic doorstep. Next week, following questions from several of our regular followers, we’ll examine the elusive trait of voice: What is it? How important is it? Does it appear in the Common Core Standards? And–most important of all–how do you teach it??? In upcoming posts, we’ll look at the Wonderful Appendix A (from the Common Core) and an outstanding book for teaching the art of argument (This one’s a winner, we promise). Remember . . . Give every child a voice.