A season of reading

Growing up, the library’s summer reading program was always a highlight of the summer.  Finally, treats for always having my nose in a book!  Alas, I never won any of the big prizes.  Our program was all about the number of books read, not the number of pages.  And I kept choosing really big books.

As a grownup, I still have this feeling that I should be reading more in the summer.  After all, it’s been super hot, and reading is something you should do in the comfort of air conditioning.  Plus, summer tv just isn’t as good.  But every year, my visions of reading the summer away in June turn out to be not so true in August.  The pesky real world always gets in the way.  This year has been even more annoying–I added a reading goal to my goodreads profile.  According to their lovely bar graph, at my current rate, I’m 8 books behind.  At least this is better than earlier in the week when I was 9 books behind.

So what have I been reading this summer?  Lots and lots of varied things.  Not a huge amount of kidlit history (hence, the dearth of posts lately), but here are a few recent reads, somewhat related to kidlit history.

Papa Married a Mormon by John D. Fitzgerald.  Not kidlit at all, but Fitzgerald is best known for his Great Brain books–and this is really the first version of those stories, told to an adult audience.  I had really mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, it is a great slice of life/memoir of the Western frontier.  On the other hand, I kept waiting for it to have the sparkle and humor of the Great Brain books, and it never quite made it.  Perhaps if I read this first, I would have liked it more.  However, I do find it fascinating that he wrote two versions of his family’s story for two different audiences.  I can’t think of any other authors that have done similiar things.

Jane of Lantern Hill by L. M. Montgomery.  My memories of Jane were vague, but I certainly remembered her delight in keeping house.  And since I was enjoying rearranging after the roomie moved out, a bit of domesticity felt right.  This is one of Montgomery’s last novels (published in 1937), and it felt incredibly odd to read about cars.  There aren’t supposed to be cars on PEI!  But think of the changes in the 30 years since Montgomery had published Anne. . .

 A mention of an early edition of Alice in Wonderland in Lethal Legacy by Linda Fairstein (a fabulous mystery set in the world of rare books and the New York Public Library) caused me to bump up Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin on the To-Read list.  I’m about halfway through it now.  I’ve never really thought much about the real life counterparts to classics.  Granted, the story of Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll is a bit more questionable than the origins of some other children’s classics.  But I do wonder how Alcott’s surviving sisters felt about the runaway success of Little Women.  Did Laura’s sisters really want to relive their early strugges though Little House?  Something to ponder.

Is summer a season of reading for you too?  Where have your bookmarks been lately?

Beyond the frontier

At my museum, we get a lot of school tours.  Sometimes, we even get survey responses or comments or samples of the lesson plans teachers use to prep for the field trip.  Generally speaking, this makes me very, very happy.  And generally speaking, I’m amazed to see how creative teachers are in connecting their textbooks (usually somewhat boring and dry) with our village (hopefully, less boring.  Definitely louder).  Except for one thing.

Over and over again, teachers say “This museum is exactly like Little House on the Prairie.”  Or “This perfectly complements our unit on Little House on the Prairie.”  Now, don’t get me wrong–I love Little House.  Heck, these were the books my tiny young history loving brain was weaned on.  However, we have over 30 buildings at my museum.  Only a few of them can be connected to that pioneer time period.  So, does this mean that the kids aren’t connecting at all to the majority of our buildings?  Can they only think about history in the frontier/pioneer context?

Of course, I understand that many of the readers of this blog (whoever they may be) do not live in North Texas, will probably never visit my museum, and are wondering why I’m jumping on this particular soap box today.  But my frustration really speaks to a much larger issue in kidlit history–there seem to be a plethora of pioneer/frontier books out there, whether you’re looking at non-fiction, historical fiction or kidlit history (for visitors of the blog, here as part of the “Share a Story, Shape a Future” blog tour, check out my definition of kidlit history here).  This is not a bad thing–after all, it’s an important part of our American story, of how we became the great and crazy nation that we are today.  But some kids perhaps wonder: what happens after the frontier is settled?  How does a frontier town (like Dallas was) become a city?  What happens next?

And perhaps teachers wonder too.  But Little House really seems to have a lock on the historical fiction based on a “true story” category for kid readers or as a potential choice for classroom units.  But today, I’d like to suggest three other series that share some of those wonderful qualities that Little House has for so many readers: the details, the great characters, and the fact that all of this “really happened.”

Recommendation #1:  The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. 

I admit it, I talk about these books a lot on this blog.  Heck, these books are part of the reason I began writing this blog.  But I will continue to beat this drum until Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maud Hart Lovelace are in the same sentence on a regular basis.  These books also chronicle a girl growing up, from the time Betsy turns five and finds a best friend to graduating in 1910 to marrying in 1914 to sending her husband off to World War I.  Betsy is such a real character–I didn’t discover her until I was in my 20s, but when I did I had flashbacks to when I was 10 and 14 and. . . Well, you get the idea.  But from a history perspective, there are still all the great period details–playing with paper dolls, going to the Carnegie Library for the first time, the first car in Deep Valley, political talk (Teddy Roosevelt!), women’s suffrage, World War I.  The high school and beyond books, recently reissued, even include some great background material including tons of photos.  And the younger books have all sorts of ideas for fun classroom projects, as well as that taste of what life was like over 100 years ago.  Plus, these books are just plain fun.  Betsy is just a generation younger than Laura, but her life is so different.  Her family is settled, physically and financially more comfortable, and Betsy really doesn’t do a lot of chores.  Yet, Betsy lives in one of the same states that Laura spent part of her childhood–Minnesota.  What a great way to compare and contrast what a difference a few things (like the railroad) can make to a person’s every day life.

119247Recommendation #2: The Great Brain Series by John D. Fitzgerald

I have a sneaking suspicion that these are even less well known than the Betsy-Tacy books.  Which is even more of a crying shame since they feature boys–a gender that is definitely lacking thus far on my kidlit history timeline.  Set in late 1890s Utah, these books are funny.  J.D.’s older brother, The Great Brain, is constantly swindling every kid in town.  And yet, they still fall for all his tricks.  Again, there are still period details–an indoor bathroom!  the spiffy toys! the wonders of the Z.C.M.I. store!  Every now and then, The Great Brain’s antics will make you twitch, but you gotta love his parents.  They seem to do a lot of sighing.  These boys are just a few years older than Betsy, so there’s a lot of fun similarities.  Though I can’t quite imagine Betsy pulling off a monster hoax. . .

Recommendation #3:  All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

There are scenes from this book that you’ll never forget: dusting for buttons!  eating crackers in bed!  the books in the storeroom!  I don’t know how many times I read this book as a kid, but whenever I reread it, I feel like I’m cuddling up in a cozy blanket.  Plus, in addition to all the great period details of life in New York just after the turn of the century, you’ll also learn about Judaism.  The only book that makes me hungrier than All-of-a-Kind Family is Farmer Boy.  There are still a tons of things to talk about history wise, but it’s such a different life than what Laura had.  Much of this is due to the sheer size of New York–which could lead to a great conversation about urban versus rural.  Opportunities and/or technology had a lot to do with where you lived, not when you lived.  For instance, electricity and running water were not uncommon at the turn of the century, but if you lived in a rural area, you might not get electricity until the 1930s.  Or, to use the Great Brain books as an example, public school only went through the sixth grade in his town–high school meant boarding school.  And yet, they’re practically the same age as Betsy, who went to a high school just down the street.

Though these books take place years after the Little House books, time-line wise, the difference is just the blink of an eye.  A generation, really.  And think how different these growing up stories are.  These are all stories of our American past.  There’s so much beyond the frontier.  Honestly, I’ve always been more interested in the stories of that middle, building period.  It takes a lot of courage to head out into uncharted territory, but it takes a lot of courage to stay and build too.  These are just a few of my favorites–I know there are many more to explore, and I’m looking forward to continuing the journey.

This post is part of a larger blog tour: Share a Story, Shape a Future, specifically Day 3: Just the Facts: The Non-fiction Book Hook.  To continue your tour, click here.

Everybody poops. . .

For anyone who spends any time with children, there are certain questions and subjects that come up over and over again.  Subjects like bathrooms and poop.

At a museum like ours, this comes up fairly frequently.  We have outhouses, including one two-seater (glamour!).  We also have donkeys–you can always tell when they poop in front of a school group–there are usually lots of screams!  One of our homes also features an indoor bathroom, one of the earliest in Dallas.

One point that we try to make with our kids is that an indoor bathroom is a really big deal.  And it’s also one of those things that wasn’t immediately accepted as an “improvement.”  This is a historical concept that us modern folks can find hard to understand.  After all, indoor plumbing is certainly at the top of my list of reasons why I’m glad to live today and not back then (along with modern medicine and the right to vote).

Last week, I picked up The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald.  I know I read this as a kid.  I know I read it multiple times as a kid.  And yet, my memories of the book are more than a bit fuzzy.  So I entered into 1896 Utah as a practically new reader.  And imagine my thrill when the very first chapter is all about a brand new indoor bathroom! 

The entire town is checking it out, and they’re all secretly thinking that this family is nuts to put such a thing inside.  Aunt Bertha says “this is going to make us the laughing stock of Adenville.”  J. D. says “it will stink up the whole house.”  Of course, Tom sees it as an opportunity and charges neighborhood kids a penny to watch it installed.

As J. D. listens to his neighbors wonder at his father’s sanity, he becomes very, very worried: “I flung myself on the bed and began to cry.  I had always been proud of Papa in spite of him buying crazy inventions that didn’t work.  But this time he’d gone too far. . . Nobody would come to our house anymore.  How could Mamma entertain the Ladies Sewing Circle in a hosue that smelled like a backhouse?  It would be the same as entertaining in our old backhouse.  I visualized callers at our house stopping at the front gate and putting clothespins on their noses before entering our house.”

But it’s installed and it works the way it’s supposed to.  And Tom has yet another opportunity to make money off of his friends as he makes a sign that says “See the magic water closet that doesn’t stink.” 

And then the bathroom isn’t really mentioned again.  It’s become a part of their lives, as new technology so often does.

By the time of Heaven to Betsy (set in 1906–exactly ten years later), an indoor bathroom is no longer questioned.  In their new home, the bathroom is a definite improvement, as Mrs. Ray exclaims “I’m going to take one bath after another all day long!”

I’ve always been intrigued by those early times of transition–when a new thing isn’t quite accepted yet and people are still wondering.  Often, it doesn’t take long for it to become old hat.  But how lucky we are to have these books that helps us explore the wonder and curiousity of the beginning of modern conveniences.