Work hard for a living

I never thought I’d get excited about economic history.  Or economics, in general.  But when everything crashed in 2008, I got interested.  I remember being completely transfixed while listening to This American Life’s podcast about the real estate meltdown (A Giant Pool of Money).  And dumbfounded that I was so fascinated.  I started reading the business section of the newspaper.  And I started subscribing to the Planet Money podcast.

A few weeks ago, they posted the following graphic on their blog–all about “children in gainful occupations” according to the 1920 census.  The timing for this piece was wonderful–at work, we’re currently working on an event where we’ll talk about work at the turn-of-the-century.  We’ve made some exhibit changes over the past few years that make business and economic history much easier to teach.  We will talk about jobs at the General Store, Bank or Hotel, but since this is a family-centered event, I want to make sure that we also talk about children working.  We probably won’t delve too deeply into child labor, but I certainly want to talk about the kids of the past that had to earn money for their family’s (or their own) survival.

So, of course, I turned instantly to kidlit history.  Here are a few examples that I’ll be sharing as part of the pre-visit packet of kids earning money–sometimes for their own purposes and sometimes to help the family.  In roughly chronological order:

Meg and Jo in Little Women.  It’s apparent from the very beginning of the book that these girls need to help their family.  Who can forget those immortal lines:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

In Chapter 4, their work is better described.  Meg, at 16, was a nursery governess for four children.  Jo was a companion for Aunt March, as a companion and helper.

Laura in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.  First, Laura is a seamstress, earning money to send Mary to the blind school.  Later, she becomes a teacher (and has some horrifying experiences!)

Sara in A Little Princess.  When Sara’s father dies, bankrupt, her boarding school could have turned her out on the street.  Instead, they put her to work.  Miss Minchin tells her:

“You are like Becky–you must work for your living.”

To her surprise, a faint gleam of light came into the child’s eyes–a shade of relief.

“Can I work?” she said.  “If I can work it will not matter so much.  What can I do?”

As a child, I don’t think I got how terrifying this situation might have been.  Of course, the magical dinner that appears later might have helped with that illusion.

Perry Miller in Emily of New Moon and Peter Craig in The Story Girl.  There are tons of hired girls in L. M. Montgomery’s fiction–and of course, we know that before Anne found Matthew and Marilla she was working in a household, assisting with the children.  I think it’s really important to remember that not all of the hired boys and girls in LMM’s fiction are as alone as Sara Crewe appeared to be.  Perry had an aunt whom we occasionally see.  But these were still kids that needed to grow up quickly–Perry was only 12 or 13 when he went to work.

Interestingly enough, the divide between the kids who had to work and the kids who just want some extra money lines up  chronologically.  The books mentioned above are set from the 1860s to the 1890s.  The books below are the late 1890s to the 1900s–a sign of how the world was continuing to change?  That may be a bit of a reach, but it is interesting.

Lucinda in Roller Skates.  She wants to throw a proper Christmas party for Trinket, but needs the money to do it.  She finds all sorts of odd jobs with her neighbors–walking a dog to tutoring English.  There’s this lovely exchange, just after Lucinda is offered the dog-walking job:

“How perfectly glorious!  It doesn’t seem right to earn money so pleasantly.  Mama never paid me to do anything except what I positively hated to do.”

“That’s too bad.  I think money ought to be always earned pleasantly.  Think of how much gayer the world would be if everybody went to work in the morning knowing he was going to do something he enjoyed doing all day!”


Tom in the Great Brain books.  Oh, Tom.  A pint-sized con man.  He earns money in all sorts of crazy ways–tricking kids and adults.  But, that wonderful chapter about charging kids to see a flush toilet?  Yep, we’re totally borrowing that idea for the event at the Village.  Even cooler?  There’s a story of one of the Sullivan kids doing the exact same thing with “our” toilet.

My goal for all this list was to stick with the museum’s time period of 1840-1910–so no Henry Reed or the Melendys or others.  But these are all such good examples of kids entering into the workforce–sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity.  So often, when we think about the past, we’re using rose-colored glasses.  But so many kids had to work to survive.  It’s a startling thought for many young people, but using these stories is a great way to get started.

And then we can start talking about child labor laws. . .

So, what have I forgotten on my list?  Some friends mentioned Understood Betsy and Five Little Peppers.  I’ve never read the other Betsy, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read about the Peppers.  I was hoping to get a reread in, but I think I’m out of time.  Other thoughts?

Picture book history

Lots of authors write memoirs and autobiographies.  Some of these are even aimed at children–Beverly Cleary’s A Girl From Yamhill comes to mind.  But how many authors write a picture book memoir?

Earlier this summer, I ran across a mention of William Steig’s When Everybody Wore a Hat on Melissa Wiley’s blog.  Steig is best known for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Shrek.  Steig was born the same year as my own grandmother (1907), and this book is about his life when he was 8.  I love the jacket flap copy:

This is the story of

when I was a boy,

almost 100 years ago,

when fire engines were

pulled by horses,

boys did not play with girls,

kids went to libraries for books,

there was no TV,

you could see a movie for a nickel,

and everybody wore a hat.

When I read through it the first time, I liked it, but I didn’t love it.  And then I read it again and fell in love.  Steig is definitely comparing his life to the life of kids in 2003, when this book was published, but he doesn’t waste time on explaining every little tidbit that he tosses out.  He leaves plenty of room for questions and conversation about the past with little ones.  But, these open questions aren’t ones that parents would find it difficult to answer.  For example, he does a great page about the value of a nickel:

For a nickel you could get a lot: a hot dog sandwich from a stand.  A pound of fruit.  A movie.  And two movies if you sat in the same seat.  A movie was even called a “Nickelette.”

A nickel was money.

On your birthday you might get a nickel.

In those simple paragraphs are about 5 state standards for social studies and some main concepts we’re trying to teach in the General Store exhibit at the museum (and working on for the Bank exhibit).  Brilliant!

Of course, the illustrations are pretty fabulous too.  He includes a photo of himself in 1916 at the very beginning, and a photo of himself in 2003 at the very end.  His illustrations are in his usual style, but they’re not in the usual style of history-centered picture books.  So often, the illustrations in books like this are sweet, charming, nostaligic.  Though Steig definitely has some fun illustrations (I love this one with the crazy hat!)

But there are also illustrations of his parents arguing, his father threatening the radiator with a hammer, and his brother sick in bed.  There’s a reality and a harshness to these illustrations that I adore.  It makes his story seem more real.

I wish there were more picture books like this.  And perhaps there are–I will confess I’m not as familiar with history-centered picture books as I am with the chapter books.  But for now, I’m thrilled to add this one to my arsenal of kidlit history.

Things that make me happy. . .

Staying up past midnight, finishing one of the best books I’ve read all year.  And did I mention that it’s historical fiction?  Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein probably has a very long wait-list at the library (it took me months to get it), but it’s so worth the wait.  British women in World War II–pilots, spies, Nazis, friendship, and some remarkable writing.  The story will take your breath away.  And though it’s not based on a true story, there were plenty of women like Maddie and Julia that served.

Discovering that editors are currently hard at work, getting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book, her never published memoir, ready for publication.  Even better: there’s a blog chronicling the work!  The South Dakota Historical Society Press is currently working on transcribing Wilder’s handwritten manuscript.  They’ve spent time at the museum in Mansfield (still one of my favorite author-related museums).  This is good, good stuff, and I’m looking forward to following the blog–and reading the original when it comes out.  The rumors I’ve heard about it is that it’s a much harsher look at her early life, which may cause some fans to be up in arms (much like the way folks reacted when L. M. Montgomery’s journals were published and fans discovered that her life wasn’t all sunshine and roses).  But from a scholarship perspective, we need these kinds of writings to go hand in hand with the fiction we love.

Realizing that I’m going to have to reread Little Women for work purposes.  And bits of Little House.  And possibly Five Little Peppers and How they Grew.  And who knows what else.  Two different fall projects (one on children and work, one of the Civil War in fiction) require such sacrifices.  It’s a hard life.

Connecting the threads

Earlier this year, the Girl Scouts decided to completely redo their badges and patches.  Now, I haven’t been a Girl Scout in a few years, but we’ve offered Girl Scout workshops at the museum for years.  So, new badges means new workshops.  We were curious about the “Playing the Past” for Brownies–for a history museum, it seemed like it could work.  We finally got the curriculum, and I was thrilled to see a lovely quote from Laura Ingalls Wilder on the front cover:

The real things haven’t changed.  It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.

And then, they later suggest acting out scenes from Little Women as an activity to complete the badge.  What fun!

Now, I’ve been using kidlit themes for our annual Girl Scout days for a few years now.  We did Betsy-Tacy back in 2010 and Little House in 2011.  But I won’t claim that somehow GSUSA used my ideas as a basis for this tiny piece of their new badge program.  However, maybe it’s another sign of the growing realization that fiction is an important tool for historians.

A book was published earlier this year by Jonathan Gottschall called The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human.  I’ll confess that I haven’t read the book, but I did read a really interesting article by him about the importance of fiction in shaping society.  Check this out:

This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us.  The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence.  In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence.  Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up.  We are critical and skeptical.  But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard.  We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape. . .

Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people.

Isn’t that beautiful?  And for anyone that’s a reader, it’s not a big surprise.  Yet, we need scientific studies to explain this to non-readers.

And then, just today, I was reading an article in an academic journal that talked about how emotion should be a bigger part of public history.  These threads are starting to connect.

All this to say that I no longer feel quite so crazy for believing that one of the best ways to inspire a love of history in folks of all ages is through fiction.  People need stories to connect.  Suddenly, history isn’t so distant.  The people that live d in the past don’t seem so strange.  And for someone that works in a field that seems to be bottoming out (all sorts of studies indicate that attendance at history museums is at an all-time low), this is important.

So, though I haven’t been posting quite as often here, I like to think that I’m fighting the good fight.  For two different upcoming events, I’ll be drawing on children’s literature to explore some larger historical themes.  Who knows–maybe all of you will get a sneak peak.

Cheers to stories!

When bedtime stories and headlines collide

3343248It’s not often that I get the pleasure of reading books aloud to little ones.  The local nephews are either way too big (18 years old!) or way too little (7 months old).  There are no local nieces.  But, I am an occasional babysitter for two delightful little girls in the neighborhood that love to read.  We have continued to work our way through the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, and we just wrapped up Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.  They totally understood Julia and Katie’s big fight and felt like finding out who would be Queen of Summer was quite the agonizing cliff-hanger.  They were fascinated by Little Syria–the food, the language, the clothes.  But as I read, I kept thinking about the current war in Syria.  I was almost afraid that the dark headlines and stories of recent weeks had somehow fluttered downward into their heads and they would put two and two together.  Even though they’re young, they’re smart girls.  It was in the realm of possibility.  If they asked about how Little Syria of 1900 Deep Valley was connected to Syria today, what would I say?

For those that haven’t read BTGOBH, Little Syria is a part of Deep Valley that is just a little bit separate from the rest of the community.  The girls first meet Naifi, an immigrant about their age, during one of their famous picnics on the Big Hill.  They don’t share a language, but they do end up sharing laughter and snacks.  Later, Naifi is teased by some boys, and they rush to her defense.  And then they visit Little Syria.  Because of the way they had helped Naifi, they instantly make friends.  Naifi’s father invites the girls to their home.

They are fascinated by this different way of living.  A hubble-bubble pipe, a muinjaira, a different language, kibbee, raisins,  and figs. (food is always important in the Betsy-Tacy books).  Naifi’s father hesitates about their desire to be queens, saying “I do not think that queens are good to have.”

When the truth comes out about their trip to Little Syria, the fight deepens.  The girls are in trouble–not because they went to Little Syria, but because they didn’t have permission.  Mr. Ray, the ever-wise and patient father, shares with his girls a bit about the history of Syria:

Mr. Meecham and I started to talk about his neighbors.  He’s interested in them, and no wonder.  They come from a very interesting country.  You can read about their county in the Bible.  The Deep Valley Syrians are Christians, but most Syrians are Mohammedans.  Syria is under the control of the Turks, and the Turks are Mohammedans too.  A good many of the Christian Syrians are coming to America these days.  And they come for much of the same reason that our Pilgrim fathers came.  They want to be free from oppression and religious persecution.  We ought to honor them for it.

In some ways, not much has changed.  Though now it is two Muslim factions fighting, it is still a war about religion.  Syrians are again fleeing their country.    I often get tired of that over-used saying about how we must learn history or we are doomed to repeat it.  We repeat past mistakes all the darn time, and we never learn.  If anything, history gives a greater depth to the present.  Reading this passage made my heart ache for this ancient country.

Though I try to follow world news, I am certainly no expert on the ins and outs of the civil war in Syria.  And I’ll admit that I had kinda ignored the Syrian crisis.  But after re-reading BTGOBH again, I started paying more attention.  Thinking of Naifi and her family gave a face to the thousands that are fighting to survive right now.  This week, as I listened to stories on NPR about the recent declaration that this is, in fact, a civil war, I kept thinking about the immigrants of 100 years ago and the conflicts that brought them here.  Where might a Little Syria pop up today?  And would their neighbors be as excited and welcoming as Betsy, Tacy and Tib?

My girls didn’t make the connection between the headlines and their bedtime story.  And I’m still not exactly sure what I would have said if they asked.  Because I certainly don’t understand.

Place Matters

If I had unlimited vacation time and funds, I could have quite the kidlit history summer.  The bi-annual L. M. Montgomery conference just wrapped up on Prince Edward Island.  Way back in 2002, my dear friend Amber and I made it to the conference, and it was a trip of a life time.  In a few weeks, Laurapalooza starts in Mankato.  I’ve never been to a Laura gathering, but it’s on the list.  And then, there’s the Betsy-Tacy Convention.  It was a random thought during that convention in 2009 that led to the creation of this blog.  I was all set to do the Betsy thing again this year and then reason prevailed.  Silly budgets.

But that doesn’t mean that this year is bereft of literary adventures.  John Steinbeck isn’t exactly kidlit history, but  most folks are introduced to him in high school.  So, that works, right?  Besides, it’s my blog anyway.

As part of the peer review program for the American Association of Museums, I journeyed to the Salinas Valley of California.  Since someone else was paying for my plane ticket, I added a few days to explore on my own.  As I was getting ready for my trip, I realized that the only Steinbeck I could remember reading was Of Mice and Men, back in high school. In the last year or two, I’ve watched the movie versions of East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath.  But as a good former English major, I knew that didn’t quite count.  So, before I left, I read Cannery Row.

Salinas Valley and Steinbeck are intertwined.  In my conversations with museum staff and volunteers, Steinbeck came up, even though the tiny town I was in was only a peripheral part of Steinbeck’s work.  On  Thursday night, I headed down  to Cannery Row.  I know it’s nothing like what Steinbeck knew (and perhaps he would be horrified at the various sorts of tourist traps), but I was fascinated by how Steinbeck was everywhere.  There were these banners on the light poles:

And they didn’t just highlight Steinbeck–it seems there were even some for Doc Ricketts.  And of course, there were the historic cannery buildings.

Granted, there was plenty of cheese–like this rather scary wax museum (if this is what’s outside, what’s inside?)

But honestly, I’m just happy that so much of the historic fabric is still in place in Monterey, even if there are a few things that don’t quite suit Steinbeck’s work.

I also spent some time in Salinas at the National Steinbeck Center.  It’s a well done museum that spends more time on the work than the author, which I actually rather liked.  They had some really neat comparisons between the novels, the movies and the plays.  My favorite artifact was the camper Steinbeck drove in Travels with Charley.  Alas, my picture didn’t turn out.  I picked up a copy of East of Eden in the museum store.

But the highlight of the Steinbeck portion of my trip was lunch.  A few blocks down from the museum is Steinbeck’s birthplace, which was turned into a restaurant years ago.  It’s almost completely run by volunteers.

Years ago (before my time), my museum had a restaurant staffed by volunteers.  They had these calico aprons that still occasionally pop up.  So, when I sat down and my waitress was wearing a very similar calico apron, I felt like I was in some sort of time warp.  There aren’t many places like this left in the country.  But that whole famous author thing really helps keep them in business!  It was also fun to chat with the volunteers at length–they have such hometown pride for Steinbeck.  He’s “their” guy.

It may have been the height of nerdiness, but I totally cracked open East of Eden while I was eating lunch.  Have you ever read an author’s work while sitting in their birthplace?  Me neither.  Now that I’m in the middle of East of Eden, I’m so glad that I chose to wait to read this one until after my visit.  The landscape is so important to this novel, and though his descriptions are wonderful, there’s something to be said for experiencing the place itself.

Museum folks spend a lot of time talking about the value of the “real” artifact.  Will people still want to see the “real thing” when everything can be digitized?  In what’s probably no big surprise, I tend to lean towards the idea that “real” will always be important.  With books, I’ve traveled all over the world.  Armchair traveling is wonderful and important (and generally much cheaper!).  And yet, I wouldn’t trade my visits to Prince Edward Island, Mansfield, MO, Oxford, MS, Mankato and Walnut Grove, MN, and now Salinas, CA, for anything.  Those books, so intricately entwined with those places, have a whole new layer of enjoyment to them.  Place matters, even in fiction.

A Hectic Flush

Earlier this spring, I joined a young adult book club.  Based on the blog, Forever Young Adult (which isn’t one of my regular spots on the internet), I am thrilled to finally find some locals that also read young adult novels.

The Fault in Our StarsAt my very first meeting, several members raved about the books of John Green, someone who I had heard of but not read.  For the next month, the book was The Fault in Our Stars.  I didn’t know much about it–kids with cancer was really all I needed to know.  It was getting great reviews, but it wasn’t super high on my to-read list.  Sometimes, a girl needs fluff in her books and kids with cancer didn’t strike me as fluffy.

But like any good book club member, I bought it.  And then I devoured it.  It has been a very, very long time since I’ve read an entire book in one day.  As workmen replaced the carpet in my home, I sat on the back patio and sniffled my way through.  I really, really loved it and instantly became a huge fan of John Green.  It is quite possibly one of the best books I’ve read this year.  So many wonderful moments that shoot straight to heart with wisdom and grace and humor.  Like this:

“Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”

Or this (which totally illustrates the dark humor of this book, which is part of what makes it not like most books about sick kids):

“It’s just that most really good-looking people are stupid, so I exceed expectations.’
‘Right, it’s primarily his hotness,’ I said.
‘It can be sort of blinding,’ he said.
‘It actually did blind our friend Isaac,’ I said.
‘Terrible tragedy, that. But can I help my own deadly beauty?’
‘You cannot.’
‘It is my burden, this beautiful face.’
‘Not to mention your body.’
‘Seriously, don’t even get me started on my hot bod. You don’t want to see me naked, Dave. Seeing me naked actually took Hazel Grace’s breath away,’ he said, nodding toward the oxygen tank.”

When we discussed the book, one of the discussion questions was about how these characters compared to other fictional characters with cancer.  Part of the reason why I loved this book so much was because the characters were complicated–they were teenagers first.  You completely fall in love with Hazel and Gus.  Hazel’s parents are amazing.  There were no saintly folks, but real people struggling with all the emotions that come with a life-threatening illness.  I found myself talking about Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor and the literary types associated with consumption and how she brought that comparison forward with a discussion of AIDS.  And that maybe, just maybe, John Green was breaking cancer literary stereotypes with this book.  All of a sudden, my full history nerdiness was on display.  I shut up.  After all, these people didn’t really know me and should I really be going on about 19th century literary stereotypes of consumption?

Then, we watched the DVD extras that go with the audio book.  It was a series of short videos of John Green talking about the book.  One of those was titled “The Hectic Glow,”  and suddenly John Green was talking about literary types and consumption.   It took all of my energy not to literally smack my forehead.  Everyone turned to me in disbelief.  Apparently my history lesson wasn’t completely off-topic.  Though they were pretty impressed with me, I felt a faint hectic flush glow on my cheeks.  You see, “The Hectic Glow” is the name of Gus and Hazel’s favorite band.  And I had COMPLETELY MISSED THE REFERENCE.

This is even more embarrassing when you consider that my one serious publication on the topic of kidlit history is entitled “The Hectic Flush: The Fiction and Reality of Consumption in L. M. Montgomery’s Life.”  My only defense, and it is a weak one, is that I read The Fault in Our Stars so quickly that the reference just flew over my head.

Even though I missed this rather obvious homage to Green’s literary predecessors, the experience was a lovely reminder  that being familiar with older classics can make modern novels richer.  Hazel and Gus are only the most recent in a long line of fictional characters dealing with serious illness or disability: Beth March, Mary IngallsPollyanna and anyone in a book by Lurlene McDaniel.  In most cases, these characters are far too good and sweet to feel real.  Hazel and Gus are like a breath of fresh air with their sarcasm, confusion, and anger.  I don’t think I would have loved Hazel and Gus as much if I wasn’t so familiar with the saintly characteristics of most ill characters in fiction for children.

Now, the chances of today’s teens catching the “hectic glow” reference are pretty small.  But maybe, just maybe these teens read Anne of the Island and remember Ruby Gillis’ death.  And maybe, just maybe they remember they’ll remember this description of Ruby:

“She was even handsomer than ever; but her blue eyes were too bright and lustrous, and the color of her cheeks was hectically brilliant.”

And they’ll feel totally cool because they got John Green’s little nod to other fictional characters living under the shadow of death.  I just felt like a complete idiot.

Library Break

Last week, I had carpet replaced in about half of my house.  The good news: I didn’t have to move all of my books.  But I did have to move quite a few books.  I never really think about how many books I have until I move them somewhere, and then it suddenly becomes painfully obvious.

One of the shelves that got moved was my “to read” shelf–all the books that I’ve bought and never read.  It didn’t seem like that many books until they were stacked vertically.  I know it could be worse–heck, I have friends who have much bigger piles than I do.  But in a way, it stresses me out. 

And then I read this article, a review on NPR of Elizabeth’s German Garden.  I bought this book years ago (maybe 10?) and have never cracked the cover.  Of course, I must also confess that I only bought it because this book was one of L. M. Montgomery’s very favorite books and is where she borrowed that immortal phrase “kindred spirits.”  I bought it as a curiousity, never thinking that it might actually be a book I enjoy.  And based on this review, I think I might really like it.  I started feeling really guilty about all the books in my house that were interesting enough to buy, but haven’t yet been read.

Over the last year or so, the vast majority of books I’ve read have come from the library.  Which is a great and wonderful thing, and it’s not like I’m going to abandon the library.  But I have decided this: as soon as I finish the two books that I currently have checked out, I’m going to only read books that presently reside in my house for one month.  It’s a break from the library, as magical as it is. 

And though I’m not one of those bloggers that inspires challenges and such, I do invite you to join me in a library break and tackle your own to-read stack.  There’s no telling what we might discover on on our own shelves.

So, what should I read first?


An abundance of dandelions

Timing can be a funny thing.  Dandelion Cottage by Carroll Watson Rankin is one of those books I’ve heard mentioned with love and reverent tones on a book e-list I’m on.  A few months ago, friends announced with glee that it was now available digitally.  First published in 1904, it’s been out of print for a very long time and copies are hard to find.  Well, it was only $1, so I downloaded it on a whim. (Note: you can also get it from Project Gutenberg, but I think the formatting is better in this other version)

And this is where I will briefly digress to say that though I will never read everything on my Nook, digitization is a great way to make smaller, lesser known (and older!) works accessible.  So I love Real Books and I love my Nook, and gosh darn it, I hope both exist happily together for many years to come.

I didn’t actually begin reading it until early March.  And it didn’t take me long to fall in love and start giggling.  And if I had read this any other spring, I would not have laughed as hard.

You see, four little girls are in need of a playhouse.  And a tiny vacant house is available, but “nowhere else were there such mammoth dandelions or such prickly burrs.”  Their rent?  “If you pull up every weed in this place before the end of next week you shall have the use of the cottage for all the rest of the summer in return for your services.”

This spring has been the worst for weeds ever.  My yard has always had weed issues, but it’s much, much worse this year.  Between the drought and heat of last summer, and the rain this winter, there’s not enough grass to hold the weeds back.  My only comfort is that my yard is not the worst on the block.  I’ve seen some absolutely insane weeds everywhere, including this beauty, which was in front of my office.

I’ve never seen a dandelion so big before–well over 3 feet tall before it was cut down.  So, as I read of the four girls tackling those weeds, I kinda wished I could bribe some kids to tackle my yard.  Check out this scene of weed digging:

“I’m a soldier,” said Marjory, brandishing a trowel, “vanquishing my enemies.  You know in books the hero always battles single-handed with about a million foes and always kills hem all and everybody lives hapy ever after–zip!  There goes one!”

“I”m a pioneer,” said Jean, slashing away at a huge tough burdock.  “I’m chopping down the forest primeval to make a potato patch.  The dandelions are skulking Indians, and I’m capturing them to put in my bushel-basket prison.”

“I’m just digging weeds,” said prosaic Mabel, “and I don’t like it.”

Of course, they conquer the weeds, and then there’s that truly wonderful part about setting up house.  I don’t know when I started enjoying these domestic tales so much, but I’ve always loved stories of people putting together a home.  Since this is “just” a playhouse, the girls are at first consigned to cast-offs from their homes.  Which they totally realized and joke about:

“We might call this “The House of Tickless Clocks,” suggested Jean.

“Or of the grindless coffee-mill,” giggled Marjory.

“Or of the talkless telephone,” added Mabel.

Eventually, they make things so nice that they end up with a lovely boarder (another great example of a fabulous adult in children’s fiction that aren’t family, but are awesome) and some mean neighbors that try to steal their house.

And it was during that little scene, in which Mabel sends a telegram asking for help, that I giggled more than most people would.  You see, the same week I was reading this, we had a series of activities at the museum relating to communication over 100 years ago.  Somehow, most days, I ended up with our reproduction telegraph.  Over and over again, I explained to children about how telegraph messages had to be short and to the point, since you were charged by the word.  I made comparisons to early text messaging.  I had my spiel down pat.  And then I read about Mable carefully composing the telegram for help.  When she hands it over to the clerk, the following occurs:

The clerk opened the envelope–Mabel considered this decidedly rude of him–and proceeded to read the message.  It took him a long time.  Then he looked from Mabel’s flushed cheeks and eager eyes to the little collection of nickels and dimes she had placed on the counter.  Mabel wondered why he chewed the ends of his sandy mustache so vigorously.  . . .

“It’ll be all right, Miss Mabel,” said he at last.  “It’s a pretty good fifty-five cents worth; but I guess Mr. Black won’t object to that.”

I won’t spoil the message, but I will say that when Mr. Black received the telegram he had to pay a few more dollars to the Western Union man.

Dandelion Cottageis truly a charming little book, and one I highly recommend.  It’s sweet and funny, and you can’t help but fall in love with these little girls.  But honestly, I think half of my enjoyment of this book was the timing–it wouldn’t have been near as amusing and fun if I had read it before this incredibly weird spring.  I would have liked it, but part of my love is purely based on the abundance of dandelions throughout North Texas this year.

The cottage itself is a “real” place, located in Marquette, Michigan.  Several years ago, a wonderful piece was written by the current owner of the home, which gives a brief overview of its history–and what it’s like to live in a literary home. 

And because I can’t resist, here’s a picture of the “real” cottage.  What a magical playhouse!

For better or worse, these are my people

Past Perfect Some books are a pretty easy sell for me.  A YA romance set in a living history museum?  The only shock here is that it was published last fall, and I’m just now getting to it.  Leila Sales’ Past Perfect is absolutely delightful.  Now, it might not be as funny to non-history nerds, but I was laughing hysterically by page 2 and giggling throughout.

One of my favorite parts of my job is the junior historian program.  Right now, I have around 30 kids, ages 11 to 18, that are choosing to spend their spare time hanging out with me at the Village.  This book is all about the teen junior interpreters, who happen to be at war with the other living history museum across the street.  They are colonials, and those other guys are Civil War re-enactors.  Of course, there’s also forbidden romance, some museum politics, and ice cream.  Lots of ice cream. 

Chelsea, the main character, doesn’t want to admit that she’s totally hooked on all of this (she would have rather spent the summer working at the mall, in air conditioning), but history is part of her blood.  My favorite parts, obviously, are the parts about working at a museum.  I’ve known tourists (called moderners here-the one part of the book that just felt odd to me) exactly like the ones portrayed.  I kept thinking about my kids while I was reading about these fictional kids.  To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t had any actual romances at the Village, but there have been some crushes.  We definitely have some kids that are classic history nerds, some that really just want to dress up and create a character, and some that have been raised in the living history world.  But all my kids are there because they want to be, and that’s one of the things I liked most about this book–all the characters loved what they did (even if they did it for different reasons), and they were proud of what they did.  There was no shame in spending your summer in colonial dress. 

There are so many passages I want to share with you, enough that I worry about copyright infringement or something along those lines.  But I still have to share a few bits.

From the very beginning, when Chelsea is describing the types of people that work at places like Colonial Essex Village

Type one: history nerds.  People who memorized all the battles of the Revolutionary War by age ten; who can, and will, tell you how many casualties were sustained at Bunker Hill; who hotly debate the virtures of bayonets over pistols.  They are mostly pale-skinned, reedy, acne-scarred boys in glasses (unless they can’t find a pair of historically accurate glasses and are forced to get contacts).  I don’t know if they were born so unappealing, and turned to history for companionship because they realized they were too grotesque to attract real-life friends or if their love of history came first, and maybe they could have turned out hot, but invested all their energy in watching twelve-hour documentaries about battleships.  It’s a chicken-or-egg type of question.

Or this, on the top questions from visitors:

1.  “Where’s the bathroom?”

This is far and away the most common question.  You don’t actually need any sort of historical knowledge to work at Essex.  You just have to know where the nearest toilet is.

And then later, in that same chapter:

These are pretty much the only questions people ask Colonials.  If they want you to tell them anything else, just make it up.  They will believe you, because you are wearing a costume.

This is not a book that will change your life, but I’m still recommending it to just about everyone I know.  It’s so rare for history museums to be portrayed in popular culture, much less living history museums.  And it’s pretty accurate–from the employees and volunteers that are obsessed with historic details to the weird questions visitors ask.  I have met, at one time or another, every single character in this book.  Of course, they have a much, much larger staff than we do and there are no conversations about budget cuts and declining visitation.  But I can live with that–and most teens wouldn’t know anything about budgets anyway.  It’s a book that’s funny without being mean–she makes jokes about this crazy world, but they were al jokes we’ve made before.  And though Chelsea does something very damaging to the museum across the street, well, it’s the kind of scandal that does happen in the museum world.

The author biography on the back flap mentions that Sales spent some time as an interpreter on Boston’s Freedom Trail.  It shows, and I think that’s part of the reason this book works so well.  Sales has been a part of this world, but she can also separate herself enough to find the humor in all of it.  Because let’s face it: little about my workplace is ordinary.

Bonus: after checking the author’s website, I discovered that you can read Past Perfect online for free through the end of February.  Go!  Enjoy!