Category Archives: History

In the Classroom: Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and Other Books About the Pilgrims

My 4th graders culminate a year of immigration studies with a close look at the story of the Mayflower passengers, aka the Pilgrims. I began teaching the unit years ago and  have enjoyed finding new material for the children every year. We have a great time reading primary sources like Mourt’s Relation  and end with a visit to the wonderful recreation of both the ship and settlement, Plimoth Plantation.  So I was curious when one of my students brought in Rush Limbaugh’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims for me to see. After all, I had heard that the author was a finalist for the Children’s Book Week Author of the Year Award due to the book’s high status on the best seller list (and this week was dubbed the winner).  And so I wondered — was the book any good?

Sadly, I have to concur with both the Kirkus review and editor Vicky Smith’s closer look at it (and its sequel);  the book is not good. The history offered is a fictional form of the Pilgrim story, the one most of us of a certain age grew up with and not unexpected given the author’s known conservative stance.  But it is the writing itself that really makes it such a dreadful book;  it is incredibly poor, cringe-inducing in spots.  Unfortunately, it isn’t helped by the digital illustrations which are cartoony in the worst way. There are a few older-looking images scattered throughout with citations at the end; unfortunately, these are muddled without proper identification. The whole package simply looks  and reads as something very unprofessional. The bottom line is that it would not be something I’d want to add to my curriculum, that is for sure.

And so, for those who may want to know of some alternatives here are some of the books I use in my teaching of this topic:

Connie and Peter Roop’s Pilgrim Voices: Our First Year in the New World. This is my favorite book to use with my class. The Roops have carefully combined the two main primary sources about the Pilgrims (Bradford’s journal and Mourt) to create an accessible and highly engaging book that is almost a primary source as they use only the original language. Add to that outstanding, carefully researched illustrations, and excellent back matter and you have a winning book. Please bring it back in print!

Kate Water’s Sarah Morton’s Day, Samuel Eaton’s Day, Tapenum’s Day, and others about the settlement are useful for my students who create imaginary characters who may have traveled on the Mayflower and write their stories. These books help them imagine their characters’ lives.

Lucille Recht Penner’s Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food and Manners nicely weaves in elements of both social and political history and ends with some yummy-looking recipes!

Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower and the Pilgrim’s New World which is a reworking of his adult title.  This is really for older children than my 4th graders and is not flawless  (there have been criticisms of the Native American aspects), but definitely is heads and tails above Limbaugh’s book for those looking for something for young people on this time in American history.  If I were teaching older children and using this I’d be sure to have them read and discuss the criticism and the author’s response to them.

Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About the Pilgrims.  Light, but nicely presented for a young audience.

Penny Colman’s Thanksgiving: The True Story focuses on the history behind our national holiday.

Cheryl Harness’s The Adventurous Life of Myles Standish and the Amazing-but-True Story of Plymouth Colony is a very nicely presented version of the Pilgrim story through the vantage point of the settlement’s militia leader.

Catherine O’Neil Grace’s 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving is a National Geographic title that provides a more nuanced view of this history than does Limbaugh.

 

 

 

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Albert Marrin’s A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery

I confess, until recently what I knew about John Brown was pretty much limited to a vague awareness of his foolhardy attack on Harper’s Ferry. Then, last summer, I read this review of James McBride’s historical novel about Brown, Good Lord Bird,  listened to it, thought it terrific, and  was very pleased when it won the National Book Award. And so, having Brown much more on my radar, when I first saw Albert Marrin’s nonfiction book A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery I was eager to read it. Having now done so I can say without reservations that it is excellent.

The excellently-titled A Volcano Beneath Snow is a book that is much more than a biography or history of one man. Rather, it is a book about slavery (both in history and in the United States), about politics, about war, about Lincoln, about religion, about history, about belief, and about terrorism. By placing Brown deeply within the context of his time, Marrin gives a unique and fascinating perspective on familiar and less familiar aspects of actions, people, and the ideas that led up to the Civil War. His portraits of Brown, Lincoln, and many other players are highly complicated, fascinating,  and thought-provoking. While the concepts in play are not always simple, Marrin writes about them clearly and elegantly, trusting in the intelligence of his young readers. This is a book that makes you think. Hard.

Highly recommended.

 

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Learning About Africa: Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History

Abina and the Important Men is a compelling and powerfully illustrated “graphic history” based on an 1876 court transcript of a West African woman named Abina, who was wrongfully enslaved and took her case to court. The book is a microhistory that does much more than simply depict an event in the past; it uses the power of illustration to convey important themes in world history and to reveal the processes by which history is made.

The above is from the publisher’s description of Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke’s Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History  which has just been honored by the Africana Awards as one of its “2013 Best Books for Older Readers.” It is an outstanding presentation of the complexities of slavery in late 19th century West Africa as well as remarkably clear and thoughtful consideration of the difficult work of doing history. Additionally, it also brings to us one of the “silenced,” the many in history we just don’t learn about because there isn’t  enough of the primary source paper trail that we tend to rely on when piecing together the past.

Here’s what I just wrote about it on goodreads:

Outstanding. This book seems to have gone under-the-radar in the broader world and it shouldn’t have. I had seen something about it a while back and finally had the time to read it and it is fantastic. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a graphic history. That is, it is a history book and one unapologetically didactic. And as far as I know, pretty unique.

The book consists of several parts. The first is an illustrated “graphic history” (so described in the flap copy) based on the 1876 court transcript of an attempt by Abina, a young West African woman in what is now Ghana and was then termed the Gold Coast to convince the “important men” of the court (jury, judge, lawyers, etc) that she was a free woman not enslaved. It might seem to have been a simple case, but it was not. What the author and illustrator do remarkably well is articulate the complexity of the situation. That is, while slavery by then had been long ostensibly been outlawed in the British Empire (of which the Gold Coast was part) there had also been tacit overlooked versions of it being maintained by wealthy men who helped supply the palm oil then eagerly wanted in Europe. The graphic novel part of the book is moving, compelling, and riveting. The art is well done and artist and author have done an excellent job weaving together what they know with what they imagined about the case and Abina. ( The author says this isn’t historical fiction and I suppose it isn’t a novel, but he and the illustrator have had to imagine things so I’m not sure what it is then.)

But that isn’t all. The graphic story is followed by a facsimile of the transcript, and then a section titled “Historical Context” that provides a clear series of essays on a variety of relevant topic such as “The British Civilizing Mission,” “Slavery in the Gold Coast,” and “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Abolition.” Next comes a section titled “Reading Guide” that is fantastic. The author unpacks the many troubling aspects of attempting to consider the many aspects of the story. And so he considers “Whose Story is This?,” “Is this a ‘True’ Story?,” and “Is This ‘Authentic’ History?” Finally, there is a section on “Abina in the Classroom” with different ways of using it. While the focus is on college teaching, it is clearly accessible to high school students too. The book closes with excellent back matter including the preliminary sketches by the artist for the comic.

There are many, many reasons to find and read this book and to get it into the hands of teens, those who teach high school world history, and more. Not to mention it seems perfection for those needing to address Common Core issues.  (For those interested in classroom use I recommend exploring H-Net’s Abina Forum which has a number of posts related to its use in the college classroom.)

The most important reason for me is that this is a smart and beautifully done attempt to bring to life one of the silenced. As the author notes, history is told by use of material that we have about the past and too often we don’t have anything about so many because they did not leave paper trails. We happen to know about Abina because someone left a transcript of her court case. And because Getz made it his mission to get it out to us.

Highly, highly HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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Filed under Africa, graphic novel, History, Learning About Africa

More Mulling on the Nonfiction/Fiction Conundrum

In the past year there have been some interesting discussions about nonfiction books that seem like fiction (e.g. Steve Sheinken’s Bomb) and fiction books that seem like nonfiction (e.g. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair). The one this week on the child_lit list serve (about how to identify books like Nelson’s) prompted me to write the following response:

… I’ve been thinking about how children take in history for many, many years (written some books and articles about this) and the issues of authenticity and authority are complicated. I’ve seen errors in nonfiction books  that were highly lauded, that appear to be absolutely perfect, only because I was an expert on the subjects. As you note, writers of history have to shape and consider what to include and what to leave out so the act is not as pristine as may be thought. 

I’ve just read Andrea Cheng’s ETCHED IN CLAY: THE LIFE OF DAVE, ENSLAVED POTTER AND POET, a fictionalized, multi-voiced, poetic exploration of what this enigmatic artist’s life (there is so little firsthand material about him) might have been like. Kirkus gave it a star and describes it as “verse biography.” I see it as belonging in the same area as Nelson’s book, another fictionalized biography.

A few weeks ago I attended a session about nonfiction for children at the New York Public Library. One of the issues that came up was how to make these stories engaging and accessible for young readers. One author spoke of fictionalizing one aspect in her otherwise nonfiction book and writing about this in the back matter as a solution. Another panelist said she would not have done this, feeling a nonfiction book should be only nonfiction, I’m guessing. Illustration came up too — an artist in one case had to imagine a significant person in a picture book biography because she was unable to find any images of her.

These stories and others just make me think again and again that the telling of history is not something that can be firmly one thing or another. There are reasons to fictionalized true stories in ways that aren’t  those of the historical fiction novelist. The novelist is firstly telling a story that happens to be set in the past. The story is front and center. Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES is firstly a heartrending story; I don’t think we expect to learn a whole lot about the French Revolution reading it. But others are writing about historical situations that they want known most of all. That these lightly fictionalized works end up being in the same category as works like Dickens’ seems very odd to me. (I guess this goes way back to me railing against the use of historical fiction to engage kids in history — way, way, way back on this list:)

And I’ve got a dog in this fight. Like Nelson and Cheng I wanted to get a person’s story out, someone for whom firsthand information is limited (Sarah Margru Kinson, a child on the Amistad). I tried for many years to write it as nonfiction, but the editors I worked with felt the individual always seemed too distant for the child readers and so, with enormous trepidation, I crossed the border to fiction. I suppose it will now be termed historical fiction, but I’m uncomfortable with that because the story is still as true as I could make it and I want children to know that. I don’t see them engaging with the book as they would a work of fiction, but more as a true story. Possibly like readers will with Nelson and Cheng’s works.

It seems to me that these stories need to get out there to children. That the historical record is slanted toward those in power, that the lack of the significant source trail that we require and demand should not be obstacles in getting these stories out there. When it comes to those enslaved from Africa we see a limited number of stories over and over because those are the ones for which there are records and sources. But there has to be a way to get more stories out there and it may be we have to look at that funny place between fact and fiction as one place to do it.

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Filed under Africa is My Home, Historical Fiction, History, Nonfiction

Accurate History— Who Decides?

There is a fascinating article in today’s New York Times that really gets to the heart of one of the struggles we, who are not trained historians, deal with when evaluating historical books for children. The article addresses the controversy going on regarding Henry Wieneck’s new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.  According to the article, the book is getting rave reviews from “nonspecialists.”

But the Jefferson scholars who have weighed in have subjected “Master of the Mountain” (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) to a fierce barrage of criticism, blasting away at Mr. Wiencek’s evidence, interpretations and claims to originality. Reviewing the book in Slate, Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study “The Hemingses of Monticello,” declared that it “fails as a work of scholarship,” recklessly misreading documents and dismissing other scholars in pursuit of a “journalistic obsession with ‘the scoop.’ ” Jan Ellen Lewis, a historian at Rutgers University, writing in The Daily Beast, was even blunter, denouncing the book as a “train wreck,” written by a man “so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he can’t see” contrary evidence “right in front of his eyes.”

I recommend reading the whole article as well as the reviews it links to.  Hard to know what to think because there is a lot of fury going on.  Wow.

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Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Melissa Sweet’s Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade has happily picked up some well deserved awards since its publication a year ago, say NCTE’s Orbis Pictus award and ALA’s Sibert award. It is a fabulous book and worth checking out as we head into this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations. To learn more about it see my review and interview with Melissa along with video and a slide show here.

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On the Fence Between Fact and Fiction

I was delighted to see the CCBC list, “Between Fact and Fiction: Selected K-5 Books about History to Encourage Critical Reading/Thinking” for several reasons. First of all, they are addressing straight on for educators the point that there are books that straddle the two genres, books that are mostly, but not totally nonfiction for various reasons. Secondly, they are letting teachers concerned about using more informational books as required by the Common Core Standards know that these books work.  They write:

The new Common Core Standards emphasizes the importance of informational, non-fiction texts from the earliest grades. But many books for elementary-age children related to history fall into the genre of creative non-fiction–authors and illustrators take some degree of artistic license as they interpret real events and lives for young audiences.

Thirdly, I personally am a big fan of many of the books on their list. And finally, selfishly I’m delighted because my forthcoming book Africa is My Home: The Memory Book of Sarah Margru Kinson, a Child of the Amistad, is one of these — a fictionalized account of something true.  I’ve been hoping it would be something that would work with the new Common Core informational book requirement, but wondered as it is fictionalized. So I’m very glad to see this list with its focus on books like mine that straddle the border between fiction and nonfiction.

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Marc Aronson’s Master of Deceit

I’m old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover and also old enough to want to forget all about him. However, young people are not me and so with a sigh I dutifully opened up Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies — and was immediately gobsmacked by the start of the prologue:

FACT: In November 1964, William Sullivan, an assistant director of the FBI, set out to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into killing himself.

With that Aronson had me and kept me until the end. Beginning with the Russian Revolution and the rise of Hoover, moving on to the development of the FBI mystic, and on through wars of honor and stealth, Aronson weaves a tale that you absolutely could not make up. With a clear and engaging voice he questions, probes, connects, and brings to light a remarkable time in American history. From John Reed to Joseph McCarthy and back to Martin Luther King, Jr. the book is a rich brew of personalities, historical details, and revelations — of the King suicide plot, of the crafty doctoring of photos and documents by the FBI, and of many other manipulations by Hoover’s men (and male they pretty much all were) within the complicated context of the times. Enhancing the powerful text and imagery is the book’s superb design: the fonts, the placement of images, and organization; Aronson’s author note detailing his research process; the expansive notes, and index. It is all and all an outstanding work of history for young people.

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Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job

For years one of my favorite teaching materials for the Civil Rights Movement has been the documentary Eyes on the Prizein particular the section focusing on the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March and so I was delighted to come across Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s MarchShe begins with a prologue:

On Thursday morning, May 2, 1963, nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks woke up with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, she knew she had to go to jail.

“I want to go to jail,” Audrey told her mother.

How could you not want to read on after that? Through Audrey and three other young people who were involved Levinson vividly makes this historical time up close and personal. And honest — there is no sugar coating here — at the very beginning she provides “A Note on Name-Calling” in which she clearly lays out the varied terms by which African-Americans have been referred to and referred to themselves over time. After that she presents those terms as they were used during this time period without further comment.

This is a real life story that takes place over a brief period of time and Levinson does a superb job bringing out the suspense, drama, harshness, and celebration of all. I especially appreciated the elegant way she brought in the complications — what was working and what wasn’t, the different behaviors and personalities of the leaders, and most of all the varied voices of her young people. Audrey, Washington Booker III, James W. Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter all were part of the marches, but in very different ways. By highlighting their different backgrounds, Levinson makes myth reality. Complementing her text are photos and perfectly-placed sidebars highlighting dates, quotes, and excerpts from relevant documents; an author note articulating the research and writing process; notes indicating sources for each chapter (though, I admit, I wanted even more of them); and an index. (I love books with indices!)

This is an engrossing, compelling, and fresh view of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of young people who were part of it.  Highly recommended.

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Thoughts on Newbery: Historical Fiction, Slavery, and Didacticism

I’ve been teaching a unit on the forced immigration of Africans during the time of the transatlantic slave trade for many years and can say that it is definitely the hardest topic I teach and, for many of my 4th grade students, the hardest for them to learn. The idea that living people took other living people in bondage, treated them as less-than-human, kidnapped young children from their families without a thought, were complicit in acts of murder and violence, and more is very hard for my 9 and 10 year-old students to take in. As is understandable at their age, they put themselves in the position of the children they are learning about. And so, when reading The Kidnapped Prince, Ann Cameron’s adaptation of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography or the draft of my forthcoming Africa is My Home: The Story of Sarah Margru Kinson, students will ask with such pain — did his parents go after Olaudah? Did they try to get him back? And what about Sarah — did she ever see her parents again? Or, most heartwrenchingly — would my parents come after me?

Reading a huge variety of primary and secondary sources on the topic as well as a variety of historical fiction over the many years I worked on Sarah’s story made me incredibly aware of the challenges we adults have as we figure out how to communicate to young children such difficult historical truths. Especially when we choose to tell them as historical fiction as Kimberly Brubaker Bradley did for Jefferson’s Sons, the story of  Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally HemingsHaving firsthand experience with research of this period I can say that I have tremendous admiration and respect for Bradley’s research and her efforts to tell this story for children. She does an excellent job giving young readers a sense of life in Monticello at the time. Considering her young audience, she is judicious in communicating horrors —the whippings and the selling.  By doing so she creates scenes that pack incredible emotional punches. The ending, in particular, is absolutely harrowing.

But. As a teacher, someone who spends her days giving lessons, the book seemed one big lesson to me. Beverly, Maddy, and Peter felt familiar to me — not as children of their time, but as children of my time, asking the questions my students would be asking, speaking as they would, responding as they would (in a 2011 vernacular and sensibility rather than ones more in keeping with the actual historical period). And then there were the teachers in the book acting as my colleagues and I would, earnestly and honestly attempting to answer the children’s questions as clearly and thoroughly as possible.  Mostly this was Sally,but there were others  too — say Beverly when he is older, Miss Ellen, Uncle John, and Jefferson himself (in an oddly removed way).  Over and over it felt like the child characters were standing in for the 2011 readers, asking their questions as they would rather than as someone in 1805 would (and would probably not because these seem to me to be 2011 questions not 1805 questions anyway). And the answers felt 2011 too, caring adults like ourselves patiently explaining a situation to 2011 readers more than the actual 1806 children. At least that is how it felt to me. Here are a few examples:

“She [Miss Martha] loved to come to Monticello and act like the boss of everything.”  (5)  Very 2011 vernacular.

“This was news to Beverly.  ‘Are you a slave, Mama?'” (22)  While I can certainly imagine my 2011 students asking this question I have a hard time imagining Beverly being so surprised in 1805.

“Mama,” Harriet said, “why are we slaves?” (33) Sally responds with just the sort of lesson I might do or a parent might today.  (This is just one example of what happens often in the novel. Sally is usually the one responding with the lesson, but others do on occasion too.)

“Enslaved people,” Mama said. “That’s what she [Miss Martha, Jefferson's daughter] meant. Don’t worry about it.” (53)  This really stuck out for me for the 2011 language in addition to being an explanation for the 2011 intended audience rather than her 1805 son.

“But I’m the same people she is,” Beverly said.  “I’m her brother.”  (53) Again, this is more a 2011 child speaking as it seems very unlikely to me that he’d voice this idea of being Miss Martha’s brother in such a way in 1806.

“If you and Master Jefferson got married,” he asked Mama, would you make Miss Martha stay away?  (68)  What, I wonder would make Beverly possibly imagine that Jefferson, president of the United States, would marry his mother?  Another question that I’d expect of my 2011 students more than of an 8 year-old boy living in 1806 Monticello.

“If she acts prissy,” said Beverly, “I’ll punch her.”  (74) That last bit — totally for the 2011 child audience. Would a child in 1806 speak that way?  I can’t imagine it.

“…France never allowed slavery.  In France, people with dark skin aren’t automatically seen as inferior to people with light skin.” (105)  Hmmm… I am very dubious that there weren’t racist people in Paris when Jefferson and Hemings were there. And France was quite active in the slave trade elsewhere into Napoleon’s time.  And Sally’s language — she sounds like a teacher yet again. Was she schooled by Jefferson to speak this way?

“It’s Greek,” Miss Ellen said.  “Aristotle. Know who he is?”  (136) in Maddy’s section we get Miss Ellen (one of Jefferson’s grand-daughter’s) as another teacher in addition to Sally.

“…but all I’m allowed to do is get married and have a dozen babies.  Like I’d want babies, or a husband. It’s stupid.” She [Miss Ellen] glared at Maddy.”  (138)  Yet again this is language and a view point for 2011 children not 1812 children.

“You want to know if great people can own slaves?” Uncle John asked. “Can a person still be great and still participate in evil?” He tapped on Maddy’s shoulder. “That’s what you are asking?” (255) Another lesson for the 2011 young readers, this time from the father-figure, Uncle John.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Newbery, Writing