The Manifesto, so to speak

When I was a kid, I spent most of my time in the nineteenth century.  It all started with the Little House books.  My grandmother read them to me, and they became my very first chapter books that I could read all by myself.  From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump to Little Women, All-of-a-Kind Family, A Little Princess, and The Railway Children.  But I fell hard, really hard, for Anne Shirley.  This was in the late 1980s, when all of the books were being reissued.  Every time I went to the bookstore, I got to buy a new L. M. Montgomery book. 

Yet, there were so many things in those books that I just didn’t understand.  What was consumption and cholera?  Why were puffed-sleeves such a big deal?  What did the dresses look like?  And what did the food taste like?  Why was Sara Crewe in India?  When the Anne Treasury was published in the early 1990s, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Here, almost all of my burning questions were answered!

By the time I got to college, I was convinced that I was going to be an English major and one day write like Lucy Maud did.  Then, I got an internship at the Dallas Historical Society, going through their archives and writing educational curriculum.  It took me almost another year to admit that I was really a historian, which surprised me at the time.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have–I had already spent most of my childhood in the past.

As I began to dive into the study of history, I began to make all sorts of random connections between the history I was studying and the books I had loved as a child.  The most startling was during my History of Death in America class.  (yes, I took a death class.  It was awesome!).  We were reading Living in the Shadow of Death, about the 19th century experience of being a patient with consumption, or as we know it today, tuberculosis.  And I started thinking about Ruby Gillis.  A lot. For one of my mini-papers for the class, I wrote about Ruby’s experience, written when there were many more treatment options available, and how it took the classic literary portrayal of the disease and twisted it ever so slightly.  Eventually, this initial connection turned into a conference paper on the changes in how LMM portrayed consumption.  More importantly, it resulted in my first trip to Prince Edward Island.  Eventually, my paper was published in The Intimate Life of L. M. Montgomery, which was a whole other kind of thrill.

As I was working on the revisions to that paper, I realized that my paper didn’t exactly fit into normal categories–it wasn’t literary analysis, and it wasn’t a history paper.  It was a bit of both.

In my current job as a museum educator, I’m pulling children’s literature  in whenever and wherever I can.  When I redesigned our summer camp program, the most popular new camp was “Pages from the Past.”  Each day, we featured crafts and activities from a different classic children’s book, all set within the time period of the museum.  Little Women, Little House, Betsy-Tacy, All-of-a-Kind Family and Anne.  It was so much fun!  Using books that kids or adults are familiar with is a wonderful way to make connections with history. 

So this very long introduction leads up to where I was just over a month ago–sitting in a conference room at the Betsy-Tacy convention in Mankato, Minnesota.  I was listening to a presentation on the Syrian community in Mankato, something Maud wrote extensively about in her books.  One of the speaker’s sources, a history book, used Maud Hart Lovelace’s fictional stories as a source.  But then again, Lovelace isn’t purely fictional.

The following thought flew through my head: everything I really need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature. 

I realize this isn’t entirely true and there are all sorts of of caveats and exceptions and those things that historians love to do to make sure no one thinks we’re making a gross generalization. 

But there’s one key thing that all of the books that I loved so much have in common: they are either semi-autobiographical or they were written as contemporary and, over time, have become historical fiction.  Either way, they’re an important source in learning about history.  A source that most historians have ignored.  To me, they should be considered in much the way memoirs or oral history are considered–perhaps not true in every detail, but more true than not.  Even better, they give a voice to a group that are frequently left out in historical studies: chidren.

In talking to friends, most of whom would never consider them historians, they admit that they’ve learned all kinds of history from reading children’s literature.  Key incidents in a book become reference points for history.  But what are we learning?  And what’s the rest of the story?

That’s where this blog comes in: it’s a chance to explore the history in the books we love.  Perhaps dig a bit deeper into those stories we grew up with.

I’ve got a running list of topics and books to explore.  I do not plan on exploring contemporary historical fiction, though there are certainly some fine things being written today about the past.  Instead, I want to take a closer look at those books that are semi-autobiographical or have survived long enough to become historical fiction. 

So dear readers, what are some books you’d like to talk about?  Tidbits of history from them that have somehow lodged in your brain?  Let me know–I’m looking forward to the conversation!

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16 thoughts on “The Manifesto, so to speak

  1. I am a LMM fan too. I am an Australian, so many of the references were not just historical but fascinatingly exotic (You can chew gum from a spruce tree??!). I also loved the Gene Stratton Porter books, and have vague snatches of memory of so many wonderful moths, ferns, orchids and sylvan dells.

    Another book I loved, was Onions in the Stew by Betty MacDonald. I guess I always assumed it was non-fiction, and that life on Vashon Island would be actually as she described it.

    When we went to Canada a couple of years ago, I dragged my husband to PEI, expecting to recognize places. I arrived at Anne’s house, and found it was a tourist site, and somehow…(don’t know why I didn’t expect it!)… it was like they’d taken a shrine or temple and turned it into a theme park. So silly of me, yet so strongly did I still feel about those books.

    • I felt the same way about Green Gables, but I also felt that once you got out of Anne-land, the rest of the Island was remarkably untouched. And that’s when I got goosebumps!

      Welcome!

  2. I’m enchanted with your project, and look forward to reading your posts.

    I learned most of my history from kidlit, too. A few that spring to mind are the Melendy and Gone-Away Lake books by Elizabeth Enright, the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley (which are so splendidly evocative now, though not autobiographical), the Susannah books by Muriel Denison (Mounties! Canada!). Oh, and Cheaper By The Dozen and Belles on Their Toes by the Gilbreths. The Ark and Rowan Farm by Margot Benary-Isbert. This Boy Cody by Leon Wilson. Okay, that’s more than a few. I’ll stop now. Oh, this is going to be fun!

    • You kow, I haven’t read half of the books you mentioned. I knew this project would result in my to-read list getting even longer!

  3. Yes, to all of the above! I think you’ve hatched a wonderful idea here and I look forward to reading more of your posts. In addition to 19th/early 20th century stories, I’m also fascinated with the history in later 20th century books. Especially because clothes count as history…right? I’m as fascinated by Anne’s puffed sleeves as I am with the Frye boots in Ellen Conford’s 1970s books.

    • Yeah, I’m not planning to leave out 20th century books–it’s just that I really grew up with the late 19th century stuff.
      And fashion totally counts as history–a post on fashion is already on my idea-list.

  4. Count me in as another reader who as a kid absorbed a great deal of history from her readings. I didn’t read the Anne of Green Gables books until I was about 12 or so, and then I just devoured them — over and over again.

    The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace have almost always been a part of my life, and I would continually amaze my parents with random observations about things that I had gleaned from Maud’s books (references to books, places, art, people, music, flora and fauna, etc.)

    “How did you know that?” my mom would ask.

    “Oh, I read about it in a Betsy-Tacy book,” I’d airily reply.

    The All-of-A-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor taught me a lot about Jewish holidays and customs and a bit about tenement life in the early 20th century).

    The Laura Ingalls Wilder books painted a very vivid portrait of pioneer life on the prairie: the Homestead Act; holding down a claim; sod houses; surviving the Long Winter without going completely mad; the intricacies of making cheese, trapping fish, and butchering a pig. Not to mention my being impressed by the fact that Laura could recite the Declaration of Independence by memory!

    I have often thought that history classes could be enlivened a bit by slipping in some supplemental readings from children’s literature. What a great way to get people talking, and making connections, and maybe exploring things from a different angle.

    Looking forward to more of your posts!

  5. I earn my keep developing book club curriculum for mother/daughter groups for my school district and your recommended list is spot on. I have facilitated experiential book clubs for almost every book you have listed; however, I beg you not to discard contemporary historical fiction based upon the fact that it has not been around for 100+ years yet. The primary issue in getting girls to read classic literature that empowers young females is that they initially do not believe it is relevant to their 21st century learning objectives. In my humble opinion, NO GIRL should be allowed to leave their primary education years without reading Anne of Green Gables – there is no finer role model in fiction for girls than Anne Shirley. That being said, I often couple a classic reading with a modern book in order to draw the girls into the story. If you want to address childrens historical fiction then YOU MUST confront the obstacles established in modern education that children should read at a particular ‘book level’ and not venture beyond that until they have mastered some assigned ‘book level’. It took me almost four years to establish a trust with educators that the quality of the story and not the assigned book level were appropriate indicators as to why girls should be introduced to a particular work in fiction.

    A few examples:

    We read Heather Vogel Frederick’s The Mother-Daughter Book Club (modern) in conjunction with reading Little Women (classic). 5th grade girls read Little Women?!? It can’t be done! The introduction to Little Women that Ms. Frederick’s book provided created a great deal of enthusiasm for continuing on and reading Little Women. It also inspired a trip to Concord to “walk the story” and experience BOTH books – we had ice cream at the same roadside local favorite that Ms. Frederick had the characters in the book doing and we shared a picnic at Orchard House as described in the book, all the while sharing the same spot that Louisa May Alcott did and picturing in our minds eye the Alcott sisters’ experiences on the property. How can a 5th grade girl get through such a lengthy book at that vocabulary level? Let them fall in love with story and you have them hooked – grade level or book level be damned.

    We read Two Girls of Gettysburg (modern) by Lisa Klein in conjunction with reading a historical journal At Gettysburg: Or, What A Girl Saw And Heard Of The Battle by Tillie Pierce (classic). Tillie Pierce was 15 when she experienced the Battle Of Gettysburg and wrote about them in her journal. Tillie’s journal, published in 1889, made her famous and she is to this day considered the voice of the civilain side of this battle and is an incredible role model for girls. Ms. Klein spoke to our book club and explained to the girls how she researched Tillie’s life and the Battle of Gettysburg in order to write her modern historical fiction. We then spent three days in October in Gettysburg literally “walking the story” – seeing Tillie’s home, touring the battlefield, even having an opportunity to meet the owners of the Weikert Farm, a Field Hospital where the story takes place, and where the girls walked the same field where Tillie describes, “limbs stacked four or five feet high, above the fence rails”. The introduction of Ms. Klein’s modern historical fiction provided the appropriate background that made it possible for 5th and 6th grade girls to read a period historical journal and not only get through it but understand it! Try this with The Diary of Anne Frank (classic) and Bartoletti’s 2005 Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow (modern).

    And no Dickens? Who wrote a better or more graphic explanation of children surviving during the industrialization than Dickens? You don’t have to roadtrip to enhance the story, the girls read A Christmas Carol and we spent an incredible evening at the Ohio Village, run by our State Historical Society, where the girls experienced a Dickens of A Christmas with an authentic tavern meal, period carolers and music, they even ‘met’ the esteemed author who spoke with the tavern goers, and then ventured around the village to participate in period games and crafts. The horrid living conditions in Dickens England at the time and the fact that Dickens is often attributed with saving Christmas as they know it did not escape the girls – even if they were only in 5th grade and the book level is a 6.7 (meant for 6th graders with 7/10’s of their 6th grade year term completed if you follow that logic).

    My picks that are don’t miss!!!

    Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan, 1942
    In 1940, when the Nazi’s invade Norway a group of 12 year olds use their sleds to transport $9 million worth of gold past the German soldiers – true story!

    A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830 -32 by Joan W. Blos, 1979 and pair it with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen, 1956
    The best fiction of how a young daughter copes with her father’s return from the war and his moody and tired behavior.

    Amos Fortune Free Man by Elizabeth Yates, 1950
    Read this incredible book and pair it with reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

    The Watson’s Go To Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis should be what every child has to read before they embark on a study of the Civil Rights Era.

    I have hundreds more but will stop here…anxious for ideas and thoughts from any of you.

    • First, pleased to meet you (so to speak!) This blog is very much still a work in progress, so the book lists are far from complete. But I was just thinking the other night that maybe I needed to expand just a little bit into historical fiction, especially as I’ve read such good things recently.
      So though the focus of this blog will remain with my definition of kidlit history, I will definitely be dipping into historical fiction too.

  6. Hi! I’m a little late here since I just found your blog (and it really is wonderful), but there are some fantastic historical fiction titles that have been published in the past few years that definitely bear mentioning. The Patience Goodspeed series, the Boston Jane series, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos (Egyptology in Victorian England…swoon!), and A Drowned Maiden’s Hair (Early Teens and spiritualism and an orphan!). I can’t recommend those titles more highly. They compare favorably to Anne and company, although some of the richness of language and the feeling of knowing who you are in the world are missing. Of all the titles, I think Theodosia and Boston Jane come closest. There’s also the Enola Holmes series, which is quite good.

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  9. Little Women is now considered too difficult for fifth graders? How odd! I read the Whitman abridged book when I was about eight; also things like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe, etc. In fifth grade the teacher read Johnny Tremain to us after lunch; she wasn’t two chapters into the book before there was a waiting list for the two school library copies because everyone wanted to know what happened next before Miss Greenberg got to it!

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