Category Archives: History

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

My Return to Sierra Leone: Bunce Island

Of the many infamous slave castles that existed along the coast of West Africa, Sierra Leone’s Bunce Island is the most historically significant for the United States. While the slave traders at others of these dreadful places were sending captives throughout the Americas, the 18th century British traders of Bunce Island were specifically targeting, warehousing and then shipping thousands of Africans to the Southern Colonies of what is now the United States. Rice farmers in Georgia and South Carolina especially were looking for captives from the Rice Coast, an area that included what is now present-day Sierra Leone. Traditional rice farmers, they were much desired.

Anthropologist Joseph Opala, with whom I served in the Peace Corps, has researched the Sierra Leone – United States connection for over thirty years. In addition to Bunce Island, he helped to show links between the Gullah and Sierra Leoneans and continues to be an important scholar and advocate for Sierra Leone and the country’s historical connections to the United States. Even more connections are coming to the fore as many African Americans are learning through DNA testing that their ancestors came from Sierra Leone, very likely through Bunce Island. Say actor Isaiah Washington who, after learning of his Sierra Leonean DNA, gained his Sierra Leonean citizenship and contributes financially and emotionally to the country as well as to the development of Bunce Island as a historic site for visitors.

Having a chance to experience Bunce Island myself a few weeks ago after having read and learned so much about it was a remarkable experience. I’d been to Senegal’s House of the Slaves years ago and was certainly very moved by that experience, but found Bunce Island even more moving.  The overgrown ruins of walls, towers, captive pens, graves, and other vestiges of the horrors of what happened there made experiencing it firsthand something I won’t ever forget.

The fort’s outer wall

Facing out defensively are a bunch of cannons

A wall of the interior house. our guide Amadu Massally told us of a visitor who looked out her window, was horrified by the captive pen she saw, and so wrote about it as an abolitionist upon her return to England.

One of the pens for captives

The original jetty from which captives were taken by canoe to the slave ships.

For now Bunce Island is still somewhat off the usual African tourist path (as is Sierra Leone), but hopefully for not too much longer.  Efforts are underway to make it more accessible and a destination as significant as others on Africa’s west coast.  You can learn more about Bunce Island here and by exploring the various links here.

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Filed under Africa, History, Sierra Leone

Learning About Africa: Going Back to Sierra Leone

Next Friday I’m heading back in time, so to speak.  That is, I’m going back to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for the first time since I left in 1976 after two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My emotions are very complicated as I went to Freetown straight out of college, age twenty-one.  I was part of a large group of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Sierra Leone at the time along with a number of British (VSO) and Canadian (CUSO) volunteers.  I can’t speak for all of them, but for me it was a seminal experience in my life.  So going back after so long and after a horrendous conflict is scary.  Will it seem familiar?  (I know the Cotton Tree will be even if the City Hotel is gone.) Will Krio come back to me?  (Kushe-o… How de body?…) My way around town?  Bargaining for a taxi? (Remembering that instead of it being two leones to the dollar it is now 4, 357.05 leones to the dollar.  Talk about inflation!)

Here’s my twenty-one year-old self upcountry circa 1976

I’m going for a meeting of the Friends of Sierra Leone, a group that came together when things were first falling apart in Sierra Leone and no one in the world media seemed to be paying any attention.  I remember several difficult meetings at the Sierra Leone Consulate here in NYC with Sierra Leoneans hopelessly talking about what we could do.  It took an invasion of Freetown for the world media to finally take notice and then it was mostly about child soldiers, blood diamonds, and amputating limbs.  Around that time I did a project with my fourth grade to raise money for Sierra Leone and draw attention to other aspects of the country than had been in the news to date.

In 2000 the Friends of Sierra Leone held its yearly meeting at Mystic Seaport to celebrate the Amistad. The replica of the ship was just completed and the museum had several exhibits about the captives and their stories.  While preoccupied with events in Sierra Leone I noticed that there had been children on the Amistad (something Spielberg left out of his movie) and later became obsessed with learning all about them (as they all came from what is now Sierra Leone). That turned into my story about Sarah Margru Kinson which is to be published by Candlewick Press in a couple of years (as it is an interactive book with envelopes and such it is complicated to create so while the writing is long done the designing and illustration is just getting underway).

The reason for this meeting is to celebrate Peace Corps return to Sierra Leone.  They had been there since the 60s, but were pulled when things go too dangerous in the mid-90s.  The Friends of Sierra Leone lobbied tirelessly to get Peace Corps to bring them back and finally last summer the first cohort returned and a second group is starting their training now.  And so we will be in Freetown shortly meeting with the current volunteers, returned volunteers (what Peace Corps calls those of us who served), family members of current volunteers, Sierra Leoneans who are also members of the organization, and many others.  If the weather prevails (it is the rainy season so who knows) we will visit Bunce Island, a notable slave fort that has great meaning and significance.  (I’ve always rued that I missed my chance to go during my own Peace Corps training because I was sick reacting to a shot of some sort —we got many.)  We will visit a school we’ve supported as an organization and help at another one.  Hopefully I will also visit the school I taught at, still there after all these years.

I will take photos and hope to blog as well — this grand adventure of mine.

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Filed under History, Learning About Africa, Sierra Leone

In the Classroom: Nothing But the Facts

A few days back I was in a rollicking debate with Marc Aronson at his blog over the recently released results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), this one focusing on history.  Disgusted by the 4th grade test I wrote in one of several comments:

I’ve been studying the questions for the fourth grade test and they got me crazy. I want to know at one point in the school year the test was given, did the kids study, etc etc. As for the Chicken Little “The sky is falling because they don’t know what Lincoln did” business, as Gary Nash and others have pointed out in various publications over the years, it was ever thus.

My curriculum is history-centered, but it is deep engagement and not the sort of superficial kind those fourth graders would have had to do well on that assessment. Teaching to this particular test isn’t going to make for better citizens, people, etc etc that I assume is what people want in the long run (or do they just want kids to be able to say what Thanksgiving is about evermore)?

I have not noticed a focus anywhere on memorizing and retention of facts when people fuss about schooling today. Some of the questions actually asked the kids to think, but far too many of them are simplistic fact-based ones.

At my school teachers sometimes express SHOCK when a class of fourth graders doesn’t know something in history, say indeed details about Lincoln, and my response is why should they? We don’t do a massive US history survey in third or fourth grade where they’d be exposed to Lincoln and I bet even if we did there still be many who wouldn’t remember. In my opinion what would make them remember would be the sort of deep engagement Myra [Zarnowski] is talking about and that ain’t gonna happen if they have to be ready for a test with questions such as these.

Yuck.

And so I’m now gratified to see Nick Paumgarten’s equally skeptical take on it in The New Yorker with the money quote from one of my favorite thinkers about kids and historical thinking:

“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.”

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Filed under History, In the Classroom, Teaching

Thinking Further About Nonfiction

Jim Murphy has a post up over at I.N.K., “Battle Cry Freedom” in which he further considers aspects of the conversation Marc Aronson’s “New Knowledge” article provoked.  Jim is rightly concerned about problematic research and other questionable methods of creating nonfiction (say invented dialog) as well as the critics, reviewers, and gatekeepers who are unaware and thus support what Jim calls”rogue” books.  He wonders:

Which brings us to the most important element of the discussion: our readers — kids of varying ages and depths of learning and sophistication, who read (sometimes reluctantly, sometimes happily) and absorb the printed word as gospel. When a rogue book gets out (whether it’s a willful act to grab attention or build drama in a text or an honest attempt to re-interpret the historical record) who is going to pick up the pieces?

I wonder about this too.  Jim writes further:

Is it fair to expect librarians and teachers to constantly patrol and explain these problem texts to scores of young readers? And in case you think any errors might be minor in nature, please remember that recent Virginia textbook where the author informed young readers that thousands of slaves happily signed on to defend the south and its traditions during the Civil War. That text (and its historical implications) was floating around in schools for weeks and months before the error was caught and the books recalled. There’s no reason to assume something just as egregious couldn’t happen in trade books.

Whether they are as serious as this example, I’ve seen errors in lauded books of nonfiction that troubled me greatly and which were pretty much dismissed by those who already had decided these were terrific books. And even before Jim raised this issue I was wondering about it when doing my own debating with Marc.  Since I’m smack dab in the middle of the intended audience and see how they respond to books and ideas, I have similar reservations to those Jim has expressed.  Marc has responded here and he, Jim, and others have continued the conversation in the comments.

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The Problem with Protection

Whenever I read about another effort to protect the young from historical nastiness (the latest being the new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with “the pejorative racial labels” removed), I think of Roald Dahl’s “Pig” a very creepy story for adults.  In it a child is raised in isolation as a vegetarian and has an epiphany as an adult when first encountering meat.  Wanting to know more about this wonderful new food he goes to a slaughter house and….well, go find and read the story if you want to know what happens.  Suffice it to say it is a cautionary tale about keeping hard realities from children.

The Twain flap also makes me think of Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s They Called Themselves the K.K.K., a book for children that is full of those “pejorative racial labels” in the oral histories, interviews, and other primary sources that Bartoletti employs with extraordinary heft and power.

History ain’t pretty, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be known.

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Filed under Children's Literature, History, Huffington Post