More Like Him: Remembering Richard Peck

Six weeks ago, one of my favorite historical fiction authors for kids and teens passed away at 84. He died in the middle of a pack of famous writer deaths, but his death made me far sadder than those “Great American Authors.” I haven’t read all of Richard Peck’s novels, but the ones I have read have been funny and spot-on historically and full of characters that seem real. He never fell into the trap of so many people writing history for children, trying to cram too many big ideas or big events into one story. The story always came first. (Previous rants here and here.)

People posted some lovely remembrances of him including this obituary in the New York Times which reminded us all that he believed in “the need for children to learn history through vivid storytelling.” There’s also this lovely piece, written by Betsy Bird, at the School Library Journal.

When he died, I looked back through this blog and realized that though I’ve mentioned Peck as a favorite, I hadn’t ever written anything about his work. It took some time due to other deadlines, but last week, I picked up the one book of his that sits on my shelf and settled in for a reread of Fair Weather. Tucked inside was a ticket and program from a lecture he gave at the Dallas Museum of Art back in 2006. I don’t remember many details of what he said, just that it was delightful. However, I do remember what I said to him in the signing line.

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I don’t know if you have this problem too, but I never, ever know what to say when I meet an author who’s written books I love. Especially in a signing line, and especially when there are kids in line behind me that are Really Excited. They’ve heard it all before, right? Usually, I go with a quick “thank you” and move on. But with Peck, I told him “I’m a history museum educator, and thank you so much for making my job easier.” And he smiled, and we had a quick conversation about kids and history. Two of my favorite things.

Fair Weather isn’t my favorite of his novels, but it is about one of my favorite 19th century events–the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. And it may drift into that dreaded territory of too many delightful historical coincidences. But the characters are delightful. The amazement at traveling to a big city for the first time is there. It’s funny. And there’s that deeper story of “society” and the lines we draw between ourselves and others. Plus, there’s just enough history to encourage readers to dig a little deeper if they want to know.

Richard Peck was a charming, gifted writer who clearly loved history. But it’s perhaps his sense of humor that really makes his books stand out. We need more like him.

My Feminist Winter, Part 2

Strong female character: check. World War I setting: check.  A little bit of romance: check. Suffrage movement: check. Honestly, for historical fiction, this is usually about all I need for a book to be a winner. It’s why I put Crossing Stones by Helen Frost on my to-read list so many years ago. But I deeply regret not getting to it sooner.

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This is a book in verse, in the vein of Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (God, I love that book). Usually, that’s not a huge selling point for me. I read fast–I don’t pause and analyze and reflect the way you should with poetry. And I confess that when I started reading Crossing Stones, I was reading for plot, not the beauty of the language. It’s told from the perspective of three teenagers–Muriel, her best friend and neighbor Emma, and her brother Ollie. For some reason, about 50 pages in, I flipped to the back and noticed an author’s note on the form of the poetry. People–if you read this book, read the author’s note first! It completely changed the way I thought about the book. Suddenly, it made sense why Muriel’s poems were shaped so differently than Ollie’s and Emma’s. So, I slowed down and let the beautiful words wash right over me.

Muriel is a woman who just isn’t sure. She’s not sure about the war. She’s not sure she wants to be a homemaker. She heads to DC to pick up her Aunt Vera who has been picketing for suffrage at the White House, jailed, and in the middle of a hunger strike. She finds herself joining the movement and thinking about other options for her life besides farm life.

And then. there is the thread of her little sister getting influenza. Remember folks, it’s 1918.

A side note: I’m in the middle of reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It’s a little disturbing to read it in the midst of the worst flu season in years. And with the number killed and the horrible way they died, how do we not talk more about this moment in history?

Back to the story at hand: Muriel has just gotten back from DC, and she has a present for her little sister. She reads all of Anne of Green Gables at her sick sister’s bedside. And there is this moment that just brought tears to my eyes:

I stopped reading for a minute,

turned away, and she opened her eyes to ask

what happened next! I don’t know, Grace,

I’m reading it for the first time myself.

Mama said to wake her if there was any change,

but Grace insists, Keep reading, Muriel.

I think Anne really does like Gilbert, don’t you?

She keeps her eyes open, and I go on, as if

reading is breathing, and by reading I can

keep my sister breathing.

Honestly, it’s one of the best uses of another book in a book I’ve ever seen. But I may be biased since it’s Anne.

These are all characters that realize the world around them is changing, and they’re trying to figure out their place. I appreciated the hesitation and the fear and the questioning. Frost gracefully takes some of the big themes of 1917-1918 and weaves them together–suffrage, war, influenza, settlement houses. But it never feels forced. It’s easy enough to go to other sources to dig deeper on some of the topics, but not necessary. Her characterization is spot-on, and I never found myself thinking that Muriel was too modern.

I’ve always said that the story should come first in historical fiction, not the history. This is certainly a case where the words come before the history, but it still gives you plenty of history. I read this immediately after The Hired Girl and it was stunning how different the reading experience was. Refreshing, too. Frost hit all the right historical notes, but she also created deeply sympathetic characters–and to create them in so few words!

Definitely one of the best books I read last year. More of this, please.

Click here for My Feminist Winter, Part 1.

My Year in Books

Since 2001 (holy crap–that’s 15 years!), I’ve kept a reading journal.  2001 was the year I graduated college, so it flows through that last year at Hendrix, into grad school, early working years, furlough years and now the executive director years.  Most likely, I’ll never again hit the highs of 2001 (116 books), aided in large part by a paper I wrote on the Dear America series. For many years, the written journal has been supplemented by Goodreads, where I also keep a pretty daunting To Read list.  You can find my complete list for 2016 here.

As I looked back at the books I ranked 5 stars, several things stood out. In what should be fairly obvious, almost all my favorites had some connection to history. There are two exceptions to that. Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, was a pick for my Forever Young Adult book club. I loved the characters and the very real consequences of awkward high school things in the age of social media. Another YA novel I loved was P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han–it’s far from perfect, but deeply satisfying. Sometimes, you just need a fluffy romance!

This year, I discovered a new author to keep my eye on. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson came out a few years ago, but I just got to it this year. Was so pleasantly surprised by this book! In 2016, she released The Summer Before the War, which is one of those books that hits all my buttons. World War I, independent woman, England. It’s really one of the best of that genre, and I’d put it right up against one of my all time favorites, Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery (though no WWI fiction will ever beat Rilla!)

The most gut-wrenching book I read this year was Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Listening to the audio book during a road trip seemed like a good idea at the time, but sobbing while on I-35 on a weekend makes driving difficult. I wrote about this book earlier this year.

After visiting Detroit in January last year for a program committee meeting for AASLH, I decided to follow up on two book recommendations before my return for the conference in September. Both landed on my 5 star list. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is a family saga of 20th century urban, African American Detroit. The family home is way upside down on the mortgage, and the large family deals with that reality in very different ways. I almost wish I had read this after The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroiby Thomas Sugrue, a non-fiction work that takes a look at how Detroit got to where it is today. Reading it through the lens of what’s happening in Dallas right now (and my own increasing knowledge about affordable housing) made it extra fascinating. Highly recommend reading these two books together–they’re ultimately telling the same story, but in very different ways.

Rounding out my Five Star list are The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks by James Anderson (a 1930s whodunit that is simply fun and clever), Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife by Francine Prose (fascinating look at how Anne Frank became the phenomenon it still is today), The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant (a DHV book club pick that is an excellent coming of age, early 20th century history), and Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls (a fictionalized biography of the author’s grandmother).

Not a bad year at all–filled with plenty of strong women and a lot of history. Hope you also had an excellent year in books!

Making the hidden visible: World War II Fiction

There are certain periods in history that seem to get all the attention.  The pioneer experience. The Civil War. World War II. I’ve always enjoyed the less exposed parts of history more. My “preferred” war is World War 1, and the quantity of material centered around it pales in comparison to WWII.  Though I know there are many, many great stories about WWII, I’m rarely drawn to them.  However, I’ve read two WWII books in recent months that I adored.  Of course, both of them concern less visible parts of that well known story.

Because I’m friends with some of the organizers at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, I got roped into moderating two sessions.  One featured history.  Ruta Sepetys is an author that has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but knowing that she was a featured speaker at the luncheon as well as a likely candidate to be on my panel, pushed her to the top.

25614492I was able to get her most recent book, Salt to the Sea, on audio and listened to it during a long drive to Corpus Christi. All I really knew going in was that it was about the largest maritime disaster in history, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gusltoff.  It follows 4 young adults, struggling to outrun the advancing Russian army. The Wilhelm Gustloff offers a promise of freedom and a new life.  It’s a gripping, intense novel, and I had to think carefully about when to listen to it during my drive.  For the record: listening to the final chapters while heading north on I-35 in Sunday afternoon traffic is not recommended.

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This afternoon, I finished an older novel, Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, about her family’s exile to Siberia during WWII. Though the story of them suddenly being rounded up and piled into cattle cars was very familiar, the story of exile in Siberia was very different. When they were finally allowed to go back to Poland, Esther didn’t want to go–she had made a home in Siberia. And of course, home was now very different–almost their entire family that had stayed in Poland had died in concentration camps.

One of my questions for Ruta was about the piles of research that was necessary to write a book such as Salt to the Sea. Her answer surprised me: she wrote as she researched.  She was able to interview some survivors, and the story unfolded as she researched. I am baffled and amazed that she is able to do this.

Esther wrote her book based on her own memories, but published more than 20 years after the war.  One of my favorite tidbits in the book comes in the afterward. . .

The important thing about books such as these is they help make the hidden visible. You can’t tell every story in a classroom or a museum. But a book for every story?  That, perhaps, we can do.

 

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?

Required Reading?

231631There are some books that I just assume everyone has read.  Often, these lines are somewhat generational.  For example, I just assume that everyone my age and younger has read Harry Potter.  And I had also always assumed that most older women have read Little Women.  (I definitely think it is less-read today, but I also think it’s more read than people assume.)  For the museum’s book club, we decided to focus this year on books written during our time period (1840-1910) that have been repeatedly mentioned in other things we’ve read.  Little Women was at the top of the list.  Going into our discussion, I assumed that this would be a reread for everyone–though it had probably been decades since they had last read it.  But almost half or our group had never read it!

This led to a really interesting conversation about why they had missed it and what it was like to read it for the first time as an adult.  Everyone liked it, though I’m not sure if our first-timers loved it.

Frankly, I was even more surprised because all of these women love history.  It seems like there are certain books that all of us history lovers (especially the women) have in common: Little Women, Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables seem to be the three most common. We also chatted a bit about what books they had read, and not a lot of historical fiction came up.  Though I still believe kidlit history is one of the best paths to history, it is good to be reminded that there are many ways to become a history fan.

As you know, I have often incorporated my own love of children’s literature into museum programming.  During our Little Women themed event about a year ago, one of my most devoted junior historians confessed that she hadn’t read any of the canon–or even those of the “secondary” canon–Frances Hodgson Burnett, Maud Hart Lovelace, etc.  We might have teased her. I might have threatened to kick her out of the program if she didn’t read at least one of my favorites.  I might have sent over her buddies (who had read all of the required books!) to give her a hard time.  Don’t know if she ever picked anything up, though I still allow her to be a junior historian.

So, what titles make you say “I can’t believe you haven’t read that!”?  What’s in your kidlit history canon?

Small books about big wars

In the fall of 2011, my family and I made our first trip to Hawaii. In what should be no surprise, we made sure to make time for a visit to Pearl Harbor. My knowledge of World War II is probably deeper that the average bear, but I’m not even close to being an expert. Before visiting Pearl Harbor, I had never really considered the impact of that attack on civilian life in Hawaii. Their exhibit spaces made that abundantly clear, and I found myself thinking deeply about all that had to happen after the attack. And of course, the USS Arizona Memorial was incredibly moving, even though it was also incredibly crowded.

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Like any good museum professional/tourist, we made a lengthy stop in the museum store.  While there, I picked up this little book.

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And then it sat in my to-read pile for two years.  And I felt bad when I finally read it, because it is a gem of a book.  Funke took real women and fictionalized their war stories.  She did an excellent job of choosing women from a variety of backgrounds that did a variety of things in a variety of locations.  At the back, there’s a paragraph about each woman’s real life, adding a few nuggets of details.  And the stories themselves are beautifully written.  I think my favorite was “Three Thousand Men.”  Attie sketched thousands of soldiers in their hospital beds in LA.  The story itself takes place in modern times, as Attie is trying to find a permanent home for her copies of the sketches.  Attie says towards the end of the story:

I’m not asking for recognition for myself.  But some of these boys never made it home.  Do you see?  There should be a place where their families can go to find these portraits.  There should be a way for people to see what we sacrificed in that war, a whole generation of men lost.  I didn’t paint anything else those four years.  I put all my energy into this.  Four or five sketches a day, and then I’d have to stop.  Your eyes can only take so much.  This was the most important work of my life.

There is also a story set on December 7, 1941 and the days following.  Newlywed Marjorie is living on base with her army husband.  The chaos of the attack is vividly brought to life as Marjorie flees with a neighbor, not knowing if or when she’ll see her home or husband again.  In huge, dramatic events like this, it’s sometimes the details that capture the imagination.  When Marjorie returns briefly to her home, she instantly notices the dirty dishes in the sink: “‘Never again will I leave dirty dishes in the sink,’ I promised myself.”

World War II is such a big story–just go to any bookstore and see how many books about the war span the shelves, especially compared to other wars or periods in history.  Is there a place for a small book of fictional stories about women on those shelves?  I would argue that books such as Dancing in Combat Boots give people something small enough to hold on to.  Shelf after shelf of fat books about military strategy, soldiers, the European Theater, the Pacific Theater, the homefront, and politics are going to intimidate a lot of people.  But by its very nature, fiction is less intimidating.  And when you have a book like this, one that has good, solid historical research behind it and tells engaging stories, you’re one step closer to teaching people about the past.

I’ve recently returned from a three week professional development seminar that was all about the place of history museums in the world around us.  We spent hours discussing history’s role in public life and ways to increase the relevance of history.  Some people argued that we have to teach the public more about the ways of doing history.  There was also a subtle undertone that fluffy, feel good history was something we should abandon–we must focus on the Seriousness of History.  I have always believed that you lure people in through their comfort zone, and then you push them a bit.  With that pushing, they may realize they’re ready for a deeper exploration of the past.

And that’s what books such as this do so well.  The look of the book is utterly charming, but inside are some difficult stories about the Japanese internment, sexism in the workplace, and the fears when a POW comes home.  And these stories certainly have inspired me to look again at the stories surrounding World War II.