Category Archives: History

I Review Two Books about the Historic “Wild West” in the New York Times Book Review

Here’s the intro to my reviews of Candace Fleming’s Presenting Buffalo Bill and William Grill’s The Wolves of Currumpaw in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review.

Learning about a country’s real past is a fraught activity; once mythological versions become embedded in the public consciousness they are tough to dislodge. Take the American West. Those of us who came of age in the last century did so with movies, books, television shows, toys, games and school curriculums that told us of wide-open and empty spaces, of buffalo and land free for the taking, of sturdy and stoic white settlers, of adventurous cowboys, and of fierce and frightening indigenous people. This romanticized notion of the so-called Wild West is remarkably resistant to correction and stubbornly enduring, as evidenced by those who can’t see why American Indian sports team names and mascots are offensive. As for who was responsible for the myth in the first place, many names could be suggested, among them Buffalo Bill Cody and Ernest Thompson Seton — as young readers of two new books will discover.


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Filed under History, Review

In the Classroom: Teaching About Slavery

Over the last year important if uncomfortable questions have been raised about how to approach the topic of American chattel slavery with children. I’ve been following the conversations closely and they have informed me greatly as I prepare to begin my own teaching of the topic with my 4th grade students this week. It is a unit I’ve done for many years, always reworking it in response to new learnings, new circumstances, and new thinking.

Part of our year-long study of immigration, the unit is bluntly on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, on those who came here against their will from Africa, unlike any of the others the children have already studied (Europeans coming through Ellis Island circa 1900, Chinese coming through Angel Island at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and recent immigrants through an oral history project). Since it is the first time our students have encountered this topic formally in school we continually grapple with how best to teach it. Over the years, teachers have approached it somewhat differently depending on personal experiences and background. One colleague began by sharing her own African-American family history. Another did so via her bi-racial background. A focus on social justice has been a third colleague’s framework. And mine is Africa due to my Sierra Leone Peace Corps experience and subsequent education, research, and writing.

In addition to readying the resources, activities, and discussions my students will experience, I’m preparing for their emotional responses. This includes letting parents know what I will be doing, what resources I will be using, and inviting their responses as well as any concerns regarding their children’s emotional reactions. Throughout the unit I will be carefully watching and listening and providing ways for my students to respond. I will do my best to create a safe place for all of them and be ready to shift my plans if necessary, well aware that each will respond differently depending on race, ethnicity, previous knowledge, family history, personality, and more.

And so tomorrow I will begin. First will be the establishment of a safe place. Here is what I’ve written on my internal class blog and will discuss with the children:

To start we want to be sure that all members of the Edinger House community are sensitive and aware that each person comes to this topic with different knowledge and experience. Some of you may know more than others, some of you may be more comfortable than others with this topic, and some of you may not yet know how you will respond to the topic. We need to be sure that everyone feels safe as we begin learning about these difficult truths about America’s past.

Along with this I will read two very different books, Penda Diakité and Baba Wagué Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa and Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way. I use the Diakités’ book to give a view of recent West Africa (it is set in Bamako, Mali) through a child’s eyes, one that I can also talk about personally as it is familiar to me from my life there, and  Jackie’s because it so powerfully connects the past with the present, establishing a tone and a theme for our work.

Because I feel it is a story of resilience and resistance, the center of the unit has long been the Amistad affair. Now I am able to use my own book, Africa is My Home; A Child of the Amistad, (with Keren Liu’s wonderful lessons) along with Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Risingsome of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from American Sublime, and various primary sources  (For anyone interested, more materials and resources for using my book are here.)

Many of my lessons are centered around books I read aloud. The following titles, among many more in my collection, are some that I am planning to use this year. I’ve selected them because I feel they are age-appropriate, well researched and created, and work for my particular approach to this topic. That said, which ones I end up using will depend on this year’s students’ expressed and observed interest and emotional responses.

Books set (or partially set) in Africa at the time of the slave trade:

  • The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi and Kadir Nelson.
  • Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack and Leo and Diane Dillon.
  • Circle Unbroken by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis. 

Books set in contemporary Africa (mostly West):

  • Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.
  • Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane and Hoda Hadadi.
  • Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls.
  • One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon.
  • Anna Hibiscus (various titles) by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia.

Books set in America under slavery:

  • Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Colin Bootman.
  • Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans.
  • I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady and Michele Wood.
  • Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle and Alix Delinois.
  • The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin, Dennis Brindell Fradin, and Eric Velasquez.
  • Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad  by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson.
  • Night Boat to Freedom by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis.
  • Way Up and Over Everything by Alice McGill and Jude Daly.
  • All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis.
  • Dave the Potter by Laban Carrik Hill and Bryan Collier.
  • Fredrick’s Journey by Doreen Rappaport and London Ladd.
  • Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper.
  • Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate.
  • Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
  •  The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate.

And so, tomorrow  I will begin. Given the passion of this past year’s discussions I am perhaps a bit less confident than other years. Admittedly a bit nervous. But that is okay as this is not about me, but about helping my students begin to know about this henious part of their country’s past.


Filed under Africa, Africa is My Home, Amistad, History, In the Classroom, Learning About Africa

Writing “Authentic” Historical Dialog

My reasons for looking at dialogue in a different way were mainly because I was heartily tired of reading what I have taken to calling the Berlitz phrase-book approach to dialogue and character-thought. In the phrase-book approach all language is modern, except when specific words are inserted. Sometimes words from entirely the wrong language are used: Modern French instead of Old or Middle French for the Middle Ages, for instance. Get me after a drink or two and I’ll tell you which writers in particular get their languages wrong, but otherwise I shall mutter their names to myself, unhappily.

That is from this fascinating blog post: “Dialogue in Novels — a Medieval Experiment by Gillian Polack.” For those interested in how to balance the historical real with the contemporary reality — that is what your intended reader will make of it —this is very good stuff.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, History, Writing

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.





Filed under History, In the Classroom

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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Filed under History, Review

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.


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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.


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