Filling a gap on the timeline

Dead End in NorveltIn anticipation of a solitary road trip, I headed to the library for an audio book.  Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos caught my eye, in part due to these lines in the description: “melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional.”  Now, this was something that would make the miles pass faster.

As luck would have it, the road trip got cancelled, so instead I listened to it in fits and bursts during my regular commutes and while cooking.  This is definitely not the best way to enjoy an audio book, and sometimes days would pass before I was able to listen to the next chapter.  And there were times that I really wished I had been reading it, as there were some really, really good lines about history.

Modern fictionalized autobiographies, books that carry on the traditions started by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ruth Sawyer, Carol Ryrie Brink and Maud Hart Lovelace, seem to be in short supply, but this book certainly fits the bill.  Jack Gantos grew up in a town with an unusual origin–Norvelt was a planned community, launched during the Depression as another relief organization.  Originally called Westmoreland Homesteads, town members later renamed it in honor of the woman who pushed this program through the legislature, Eleanor Roosevelt.  The book is just one important summer, a summer in which he’s grounded and becomes the official scribe for the obituary writer.  Miss Volker is a sheer delight–cranky and opinionated, but with a strong sense of history and her duty to pass that history on.  Her obituaries are truly a work of art.  As a historian, I loved watching the way she would weave past and present together.  At the same time, she was also a bit of a history preacher.  For example, there’s this great quote: “Be suspicious of history that is written by the conquerors.” Or this one: we have to save the history we have. You never know what small bit of it might change your life–or change the whole world.”

This book won the Newbery in 2012, and that award wasn’t well received by many critics.  I don’t pretend to be able to keep up with all the books in the running each year, so I won’t give an opinion on its worthiness.  Though this book wasn’t perfect, it does meet all my requirements for quality historical fiction.  It’s funny.  It has a good story.  It makes you want to find out more (I totally did some research on the history of Norvelt).  And it contains lots of details that you just might not include if your only knowledge of the time period was through research.  Do I think Jack will have the staying power of Laura and Betsy?  Probably not, but it was fun to get to know him.  And as a historian, it fills a great spot on the timeline of childhood during the 20th century.

With baby boomers’ strong tendency towards self reflection, I’m surprised that there aren’t more books like this being published.  Or perhaps I’m just missing them?  Who might be the next Laura or Betsy?  As technology marches on, childhood in the 1950s or 1960s is becoming more and more foreign, and it seems like this should be a booming sub-genre of children’s literature.  And honestly, after reading a lot of YA fantasy, it was a relief to be in a world for a while with no supernatural happenings.  Who else is writing fictionalized autobiographies for a young audience?  Is there a Laura for the mid-late 20th century waiting in the wings?

Favorites of 2012

Now that the hustle and bustle of Christmas is past (and I look forward to lots of lazy yet productive days at home), I’ve started doing my annual sorting and cleaning throughout the house.  And somehow, that always includes looking back at my year in books.  Below are a few favorite kidlit history books of 2012.  For my complete list of books, feel free to find me on goodreads.

Past Perfect by Leila Sales.  (read in February 2012)  Technically, it’s not kidlit history.  But it’s set at a living history museum, and it is absolutely hysterical.  I wrote about it in more depth here.

Dandelion Cottage by Carroll Watson Rankin.  (read in March 2012).  I admit it–I have  weakness for books about kids fixing up houses.  From Laurie and the Yellow Curtains to Jane of Lantern Hill to Gone-Away Lake to Andrew Henry’s MeadowDandelion Cottage is another great example of youngsters given a space to call their own.  This one made the blog as well.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  (read in August 2012).  Probably my favorite book of 2012.  Tight plot, believable characters, twists that will leave you gasping for air.  And it’s all about a somewhat forgotten area of history–women serving as pilots and spies during WWII.  And if all this makes you want to learn more, be sure to check out Flygirl by Sherri Smith (which I read in 2011).

Bicycle Madness by Jane Kurtz.  (read in September 2012).  A quite little book of historical fiction that will capture your heart.  More on it here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. (read in October 2012).  I first read Little Women when I was probably 8 or 9.  I only made it through the first half–things got too mushy for my tastes when Meg married.  And though I’ve returned to it several times over the years, have visited Orchard House twice, read all sorts of things about the Alcott family, and explored several of Louisa’s lesser known works, it’s been a very long time since I’ve read Little Women.  It’s a classic for a reason, and if you haven’t read it in a while, I highly encourage you to.  One of the very few kidlit history books about the Civil War, in many ways, the book could be set in any time and any place–it’s so much about the struggle to grow up and become a woman.  More on it here.

The River Between Us by Richard Peck.  (read in November 2012) Yet again, Peck proves himself to be a master of historical fiction.  A Civil War tale, but as much about the unique racial situation in New Orleans.  And it’s got a stellar love story as well.  One of these days, I just need to sit down and read all of Peck’s books, because I don’t think he’s ever disappointed me.

What were some of your favorites in 2012?

I’ve felt like I neglected my blog this year, and yet, I see that I’ve written about almost all of my favorite kidlit history books of 2012.  That being said, I’ve already decided that my resolution for 2013 will be to write more.  That writing won’t just be here, but I definitely need to get back in that writing habit.

Here’s to more great reads in 2013!

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!

More from the archive

Last week, mom brought another box of stuff to my house for me to go through.  It is truly remarkable what all she hung on to (and a lot of it is now in the recycle bin).  But I did find a few things that prove that my reading tastes haven’t changed that much in the last 20 or so years. 

Exhibit A:  My Summer Reading Club Logbook, from 1988, when I was 8 and 5/6 years old (yes, the fraction is on the logbook).  Some sample books, some of which I’ve been thinking about lately and am about to reread or have reread recently:

Trixie Belden, # 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,  7, 8, and 9.  (It appears I didn’t read these in order–must have had to wait my turn at the library!)

Henry Reed’s Journey (am currently reading Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service)

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Dead Eagles

The Long Winter

Meet Theodore Roosevelt (I’m currently reading the gigantic Edmund Morris bio of Teddy).

Turn Homeward, Hannalee

The only thing that appears to be missing is anything by L. M. Montgomery.

Exibit B:

But never fear!  In a paper dated September 4, 1990 (6th grade), I had to list both short term and long term goals and how to reach them.  One of my long term goals (and I swear I am not making this up!) was:

“Collect all L. M. Montgomery books.  How to reach: Paying attention to lists of books and sales.”

Yeah, I’m still working on that one, though the list has greatly expanded to include first editions.  But still!

Exhibit C:

And finally, in another paper from 6th grade.  It appears that the assignment was to write a persuasive letter.  I’m guessing that we could write it to anyone living or dead because, well, you’ll see.  Here’s my letter:

April 8, 1991

Dear L. M. Montgomery,

I just love your books and think I would make an excellent character.  I’m smart, a talented writer, and full of mischief.  I have many adventures and misadventures.  My friends are almost as nice as me.  The book could have stuff in it about goals and mischief.  I also have a short temper which would make quite a few interesting chapters.  As you can see, my life could easily be turned into a best seller.

Ummm, yeah.  I didn’t have an ego at all!  But it is obvious that the love was quite deep.

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!