Category Archives: History

Everything You Wanted to Know About Barbie But Were Afraid to Ask

Dolls.  These real-life avatars can charm, creep, and fascinated.  Perhaps no more so than Barbie. Born in the 60s, reviled by many in the 70s, this toy with the permanent tiptoe feet seems to bounce back appealing to one generation after another.  While plenty of ink has been spilled about this doll for adults perhaps not so much for those who are just done playing with her — young people, that is.  And so how terrific that Tanya Lee Stone has filled this gap with The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, giving readers a clear-headed view of the life of her creator, Ruth Handler (and thus also her company Mattel); her unique appeal to young people; how she fits into social and cultural history of her time; the art (yes, there is quite a bit of Barbie-inspired art it seems); and more. Filled with color and black and white images, plenty of them of Barbie and her pals, and loads of firsthand comments from those who both loved and hated her as children and later, the book is a fascinating look at a unique piece of recent American history.

Wanting to know more about how she went about researching and writing about this icon, I went to Tanya Lee Stone herself and posed a few questions.

As you note in the author’s note, “I don’t recall having strong feelings about her one way or the other…”  So what then got you so interested in writing a book about Barbie?  Was there a triggering event or situation?

I started thinking about icons one day–what they mean to us and why, and how they come to be icons in the first place. In terms of pop culture, Barbie is at the top of that list and I found that fascinating. I knew there had to be more to the story than the often-quipped remarks of Barbie being some evil corporate plot to make girls feel bad about themselves. I wanted to find out the origin of the idea to create Barbie in the first place. I wanted to know the back story of the person who invented her. What I found was remarkably different than the pre-conceived notions I had heard in the past.

I loved the way you showed how Barbie and everything around the doll reflected the cultural and social history of our times.  Was that in your mind from the start?

Yes, absolutely. I’m a big fan of context. I think it’s imperative to understand what is going on at any given time in our social history in order to fully discuss one aspect of that culture. You have to know what the societal ideas and norms of the day are to understand how a product of that culture’s time fits.

You certainly have a lot of balls in the air — Ruth Handler’s biography, the development of Mattel, the doll’s evolution, history, play, and so much more — how did you manage to balance them all?  Did you start out featuring one more than the other?  Or had you in mind to do it all from the start?  It is a feat that you managed to get it all in effectively in a relatively short book!

I definitely had two main goals–one was to provide the history of the inventor and the invention to put Barbie in context for the reader. And the other was to really examine some of the themes I wanted to get into–body image, racial diversity, role-playing and development. I also had a strong desire to “let the people speak,” as you only need to mention the word Barbie to get fast and furious opinions on both sides of the table! Of course, there are things that wouldn’t fit and tangents I found fascinating that I had to make decisions about–but that’s par for the course. Eventually, the task is to assimilate all of that information for myself and choose a focus that stays true to the story I’m telling. I hope I did that.

As I read the book I was struck by an interesting conundrum — on the one hand Barbie from the start was an idealized doll and the early concern was that girls not see her as something to emulate.  Handler created her as a fashion doll — one for girls who were playing with paper dolls with a focus on clothes.  And so with the rise of feminism there was concern that girls not see her body and looks as something to wish to be.  At the same time you write about efforts to diversify Barbie — ethnic Barbies, African-American Barbies, etc — and quote those who felt they were not represented in these dolls.  And so I’m fascinated by this doll being something you both want to see yourself in and never see yourself in. Do you have any thoughts about this dichotomy?

I would modify that conundrum just a bit to say that Ruth Handler absolutely wanted little girls to see her as something to emulate–but what she wanted them to emulate had little to do with body type. She wanted girls to believe they could put themselves in any shoes at all–be anything they wanted. It was about clothes, yes, but what those clothes represented, also. Independence, in many cases. Ruth was a fiercely independent woman. So I think really, at least for me, the form she happened to embody–which was in part a product of Ruth’s time and place; Hollywood in the 50s– Let’s not forget to also factor in that Barbie taking off like it did had something to do with the body type not changing. Who’s going to mess with that kind of success? But one of the most interesting comments I came across was from Ruth’s granddaughter Stacey Handler, who suggested that if Ruth had stayed in a role of power longer, she may indeed have made some changes to the body type as time changed and societal norms shifted.

In regards to the diversity issue, I think it is nearly impossible to please everyone. I see all sides to the arguments and think, in the end, it’s a toy and a toy company we’re talking about. It’s not a self-esteem organization or a nonprofit organization. Ultimately, a toy company has its own mission to fulfill. Their attempts to address issues are appreciated, and can never fully satisfy. That is its own conundrum.

You describe a range of Barbie play in the book.  As a teacher I’ve done a lot of observing of kids’ play over the years and am very intrigued by the changes.  For example,  I bought my own Barbie (as my parents like many refused to buy me one) when I was around nine in the 60s yet she now seems to be more appealing to much younger children.  And while my friends and I had one Barbie and were eager to acquire clothes and objects for her, for some time now it seems more common for children to have many Barbies. In your research for the book did you notice any of these sorts of changes or others related to changing play patterns?

Anecdotally, I would venture a guess that the change has less to do with play patterns and more to do with societal changes regarding things like consumerism and materialism. I think earlier generations simply had less and that was the norm. Expectations can be quite different these days.

I’m curious about how you attracted the many young people you quoted in the book. How did you find them? How broad a demographic is it? Particularly the boys!

As I said, mention Barbie and people start talking! The response to my invitation to participate in the research for the book was overwhelming. Social media and email played a huge part in the success of the effort to reach out to people. I sent emails to teachers, librarians, writers, parents–and it went viral very quickly. I pored over hundreds of emails and started sorting responses into the natural categories that developed. The boys, almost entirely, were the result of teachers asking students if they wanted to respond. It was extremely interesting stuff!

Is there anything you found in your research that you were dying to include and then had to sadly leave out?

No, not really. I mean, I found many aspects of the family’s history fascinating, but as you know there are choices to be made and a focus to be kept for juvenile nonfiction, so I’m happy with where I ended.

Also at the Huffington Post.

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Filed under History, Huffington Post, Nonfiction

9/11, Children, and their Books

The children who spent their first day of fourth grade with me when the towers fell downtown are freshmen in college this year while my new class of fourth graders were babies when it happened.  And so with every anniversary my classroom experience is different. No longer will I have fourth graders coming in with their own vivid memories of the day, now they will be coming in knowing about it secondhand, through other people’s stories, through the media, through books.

In 2001 books addressing anything related to the event were the last thing my students wanted.  Those were hard days for all of us with the painful signs of the missing everywhere, the smoke, the smell, the sound of fighter planes and helicopters constantly overhead, our school’s incessant bomb threats that took some children completely over the edge, school closings, anthrax scares (with a policeman coming to my classroom to check on a package I received scaring the kids even more), National Guard with machine guns out standing outside subway stations, military vehicles moving down Broadway, and more.  We had school community members who had experienced personal loss and trauma and others who were displaced from their downtown homes and jobs.   I wrote about our experiences on various online discussion groups and in response well-intentioned and concerned people from outside New York offered unsolicited book suggestions about other equally horrible events, about war — books meant to create understanding, but books that weren’t for us at that time.  In late September 2001 I wrote:

… Yesterday, our first full day in the fourth grade, I wondered all day about my end of day read-aloud. The children were thrilled to see it on the schedule, but I worried about what I should read. Finally, after looking over my sure-fire hits I stuck with my pre-Tuesday book selection, The Best School Year Ever. It is a school story, completely off the wall funny, and it has a theme of tolerance and understanding (yes, it does, really!) I started reading and immediately worried as the narrator wrote of the Herdmans being like outlaws, that if they had lived in the Wild West they would have “blown” it up. I wondered, would those words scare? I discretely looked at the faces around me, (one of my most important teacher skills is this ability, long honed) but they just looked intrigued. I read further to the description of Imogene’s science project (something unknown scratching in an oatmeal box) and they giggled. By the time I stopped, half way through the first chapter one, I relaxed; it seemed be a good choice. (But I’m sure going to keep on watching. The smoke may go away, but not the pain.)

One other book  provided us with special solace:  E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a book that allowed us to consider life and death in a different place,  a book that each child could enter and connect to as he or she needed to.  A book I’d been starting the year with before 2001, it is one I continue to use as it brings out everything I want for children as they start their fourth grade year.  As for books about September 11th, I still don’t feel a need for them as I have so many artifacts and stories of my own.  But I realize that books can be helpful for those who haven’t the firsthand experience I had, for those who have children asking questions about 9/11, for those who want to begin a conversation with young children about that day.  For those of you, here are four books I recommend:

  • Maira Kalman’s Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey was one of the first to appear in 2002. Spectacularly beautiful it also unnerved me and my fourth graders that year, but no doubt we were still too close to the events to consider it objectively.  Kalman pulls no punches that is for sure, but for many children this book would be the right stepping-off point to talk about the day.
  • In 2003 we were graced with Mordecai Gerstein’s sublime presentation of Philippe Petit’s extraordinary tightrope stunt between the towers in 1974,  The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. This is my personal favorite of all the post-9/11 picture books for children, an exquisite memorial, celebrating this wild and unbelievable event in a place that is no longer there.
  • Jeanette  Winter’s simple yet evocative, September Roses came out in 2004, telling the story two women from South Africa and the thousands of roses they brought to New York after 9/11.  It is spare and moving and feels like a great book to start a conversation.  As with all of these books, depending on the age of the children, you may want to supplement with other materials, say a careful use of primary sources (as the images might be too disturbing for young children so I urge caution).
  • Carmen Agra Deedy, Thomas Gonzalez, and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah came out with 14 Cows for America last year, the true story of a Kenyan Maasai village’s response to the events of September 11th.  I like the different perspective this book provides, one from outside America, and think it could generate some excellent discussion in classrooms and families.

Also at my Huffington Post blog


Filed under Charlotte's Web, Children's Literature, History, In the Classroom

In the Classroom: A Smattering of Nonfiction

As a participant in  Share A Story- Shape a Future here I am with some surefire nonfiction hits for the classroom.

When it comes to independent reading, my students tend to prefer fiction; however, they do love compendiums, biographies of intriguing people, and other sorts of works of nonfiction. For example, a couple of years ago I had a student who avidly and exclusively read Horrible Histories.  I’d pick up a few when in the U.K. and he read those and every other one he and his family could find (some of which, I recall, they ordered directly from the U.K.).  These are so witty and visually engaging that I’m surprised that they are not better known in the U.S.

Another sort of nonfiction book that kids love are those that tell you how to do or make things. A recent one of this sort that was a great hit with my students was Show Off.  One of my 6th grade Book Bloggers wrote in her review, “This was the coolest book I have ever read! No, really. This book shows you how to do ‘absolutely everything, one step at a time.'”

I first met this cranky cat in Nick Bruel‘s Bad Kitty, a very clever ABC book.  A few years later the cat was back in  Bad Kitty Gets a Bath.   In this chapter book, Bruel, in a blunt and hysterically amusing manner, instructs young readers on how best to give cat a bath and slips in plenty of additional information about cats and their ways.  Enormously fun and informative.


Filed under History, In the Classroom, Nonfiction

Historical Fiction, Fantasy, and Fable

J. L. Bell has questions about whether this year’s Scott O’Dell winner is historical fiction.  While I’ve yet to be convinced by his arguments, they are definitely food for thought.  Check out this series of posts (and join in the commenting — I seem the only one doing any).

Fantasy and the Bounds of Historical Fiction

Half Magic and History

The Storm in the Barn as Fable

A Different Standard for the Dust Bowl?

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Filed under Historical Fiction, History

History and Art

Ann of bookwitch is struggling with a very difficult problem, a variation of one I’ve grappled with many times over the years — the historical fiction conundrum.  In a book about a time in history Ann knows well the author has changed things so that  “… what the adults did in the real event, has now been done exclusively by the children in the book.”    Is that okay?  Or is it not?  I’m going to be following the comments on this post closely.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, History

Yes!! Claudette Colvin Wins Young People’s National Book Award

Congratulations to all involved in the creation of this year’s young people’s winner of the National Book Award, especially author Phillip Hoose, editor Melanie Kroupa, and Claudette Colvin herself.  As I think I made clear in this post, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice is one of my favorite books of the year.  Hurray!

I’m a big fan of the runners-up too:

Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
(Henry Holt)
David Small, Stitches (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)


Filed under awards, History

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice


This afternoon I sat in on a wonderful event at the NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  It was a talk by Philip Hoose, author of the superb nonfiction book,  Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, and Claudette Colvin herself.  The event was for the Junior Scholars Program so the room was full of attentive teens as well as a few adults.  For me,  listening to Phillip and then Claudette speak to this particular audience made what they said all the more moving.

Philip began telling how he first learned of Claudette when researching his book We Were There Too, how he then wanted to tell her story, how he tracked down a reporter who was in touch with Claudette, and then how he was quietly persistent, checking in with his contact every few months until one day Claudette was ready to speak to him.  He spoke of how he was able to  “drag an important story from under the carpet of history.” He then gave an overview of the book, of the teenager Claudette refusing to move months before Rosa Parks, of her being jailed, of her courage when she later became part of a law suit against Montgomery that eventually overturned bus segregation in Montgomery, and much more.  There was at least one audible gasp from the young people in the audience when he presented a particular harsh story before he turned things over to Claudette.

And boy was she impressive.  She vividly recalled for us the memory of the click of the key when she was thrown into jail. She spoke of the way her teachers had filled her up so on that day she felt history glued her to that bus seat.  She reminded me of something I’d not thought of till then — that I had been in Montgomery at that time, barely three years old and my sister still a baby.  My parents were involved too, driving people during the boycott.  But this isn’t about us, it is about Claudette. And let me tell you, after reading the book, I was profoundly moved by seeing her and hearing her, especially in that venue and with those young people.  I thank @editorgurl for alerting me to this event.

And I highly, highly, highly recommend the book. Hoose’s research is remarkable, but it is the way he seamlessly interweaves Claudette’s own memories with his third person account (sprinkled with other quotes) that makes this book so outstanding.  Hoose does a beautiful job bringing in Jim Crow, the players, the situations, the trials, the arrests, and so much more while keeping Claudette’s own words front and center.  I think this book does an extraordinary job helping young readers today get a sense of that time through Claudette’s words and experiences.

The questions from the teens today were moving and interesting, reflective of their distance from a totally different time.  One asked if Claudette had been angry all the time. But she had not. Another asked about her heroes and she spoke of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Today I heard and saw history right smack in front of me.


Filed under History

Coming Soon: Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer

My eyes stung. I was spilling-over mad. I couldn’t stop what I had to say, even if she stood over me and became my crazy mother mountain and knocked me down. I was spilling over.

It is the summer of 1968 and eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters Vonetta and Fern have been sent from Brooklyn, New York to Oakland, California to spend the summer with a mother they don’t know at all. A mother who abandoned them after Fern was born.

Cecile is still a mother who wants nothing to do with them. She refuses to call Fern by her name, leaves them to get their own meals, and makes it very clear that she wants them out of her hair and home during the day so she can do her work as a poet.  And so she immediately sends them off to the Black Panther’s People’s Center. “Can’t miss it. Nothing but black folks in black clothes rapping revolution and a line of hungry black kids.” They are to go for the free breakfast, stay there all day for the program, and just keep out of her way till evening.

Delphine is used to taking care of her sisters and while she is horrified at the thought of spending their days with the Black Panthers she also isn’t totally surprised — the stories Big Ma, her grandmother, has told them about Cecile are right in keeping with this sort of behavior. Clearly Cecile has zero interest in them. Zero. And so the three girls make their way to the Center where they meet Black Panthers, learn about them, and, as the summer goes on, contribute their own part to the movement. And by the end, they have gotten to know their mother, one of the more unique mothers of recent children’s literature.

Rita Williams-Garcia has created unforgettable characters in the three girls and their mother —they are sure to linger in your mind long after you have closed the book. Especially Delphine — she tells their story and she tells it straight. There are big and powerful moments in the book — say a poetry reading at a rally — and small sharp moments as well — say requests by whites to photograph the three girls. Big or small, they feel absolutely real and true to the characters, the times, and the ideals of the times. And finally, there is the writing — spare, poetic, and incredibly moving.

Come January, keep your eyes peeled for Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer. It is a keeper.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Historical Fiction, History

Holt’s Darwin Ladies

images-1images A few weeks ago I was in one of the coolest conference rooms, a prow-like space in the Flatiron Building, at the invitation of Henry Holt, to hear their Dynamic Darwin Duo, Deborah Heiligman, author of Charles and Emma and Jacqueline Kelly, author of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.  Afterwards I managed to get a very poor Iphone pic of the two signing (so I could tweet it, natch); please take it from me that Deborah’s face is as gorgeous as her hair and blue dress.


Coincidently, before the event I’d given Jackie’s book to one of my history-loving fourth graders to read.  Here’s her review:

This story is about a little girl named Calpurnia Tate of the year 1899. Calpurnia is eleven years old and the only girl out of seven children. It takes place in a little town called Caldwell County, near Austin, Texas.

Calpurnia’s mother wants her to learn what regular little girls of the time do; piano, knitting, cooking, and other house work. Because Calpurnia’s mother wants her to become a proper lady and marry to a nice man.

However, once her grandfather shows her his science abilities, she opens her mind into the world of science and begins dreaming to be a scientist. When she hears the stories about woman-scientists like Marie Curie and all kinds of history about them, she gets fascinated and wants to grow up to be one, too. They start identifying insects and plants. They find a new specimen of a plant Vicia villosa, a member of the lowly pasture. They finally get a certificate for finding a new specimen of the plants.

In the 19th century, boys could only go to college or university. However, the year of 1899 is over and the year of 1990 begins in the end of the story. So it may mean that Calpurnia’s hope of going to college and dream of becoming a scientist may come true in the new century.

The author is trying to give a message that whatever little girls wanted to be in the olden days, some had to quit because it made their mothers uncomfortable. But some worked hard enough to prove that they really wanted to be something that women usually didn’t do. I would recommend this to people who are into history and following their own dream.

This book was a fascinating and amazing. Even though it might take some time for some readers to get into it, I think it is a great book to read.

In addition, the book cover is beautiful and makes you feel like Calpurnia. At first when you look at it, it just looks like branches and trees. But if you look and observe it like Calpurnia, you can find many things; books, microscopes, jars, animals, and other kinds of creatures. It will feel like you are at the river with Calpurnia and her grandfather. You may feel like being Calpurnia in the story.


Filed under Historical Fiction, History

Candace Fleming’s The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum


Candace Fleming does it again!  She brings yet another larger-than-live individual from America;  this one is a wild ride of a biography of the Barnum that many young readers may well recognize from the circus that still has his name.  Filled with great stories, amazing primary sources, this is one terrific book.   Now rather than going on, I’m going to turn you over to one of my fourth grade students.  While I can’t identify her, I can tell you that she is an avid reader of history and nonfiction and read this book with great enthusiasm.  (We both marveled at Fleming’s vivid description of Barnum’s Museum and I then showed her this very cool site about it.)  Here’s her review:

The Great and Only Barnum is a wonderful book of P.T. Barnum. P.T. Barnum was an amazing showman like Candace Fleming wrote in her book. Fleming gave Barnum and his family a great part in her story. As I read the part of the Barnum’s American Museum, his exhibits came to life. They moved and ran in my head. I was amazed. His tours with famous people came to an end and Barnum started a circus. Barnum & Bailey was an amazing circus. Not amazing, it was brilliant. You can still watch Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. Its name was changed after P. T. Barnum had died. Now, it is named The Ringling Bros (The Greatest Show on Earth.) Its acts are all the same from the time P.T. Barnum and James Bailey had made the amazing show. P.T. Barnum’s life is all in this very amazing book by Candace Fleming.


Filed under History