Breaking News?

By The Shores Of Silver LakeToday was quite the day for breaking news in the kidlit history world: Scarlet fever wasn’t the cause of Mary Ingalls’ blindness.  Friends linked to articles on USA Today, the University of Michigan alumni newsletter, and–and I’m sure there were more.  In a nutshell, Mary most likely had  viral meningoencephalitis, a brain infection.  And Laura most likely chose scarlet fever for literary purposes because it was an infinitely more familiar disease to her readers.  Plus, it’s a lot easier to spell.

But here’s what I find most fascinating about this: this story isn’t hidden away on some obscure blog only read by Little House fanatics.  It’s all over the place.  Seriously, national news?  On the day after the Super Bowl?

The stories are all a little different, but most stress that these books are fiction, based on history.  And seem to conclude that part of the reason people are so fascinated with them is the reality within them.  I also love this comment by the Beth Tarini, author of the report, because it seems like we are kindred spirits:

“Since I was in medical school, I had wondered about whether scarlet fever could cause blindness because I always remembered Mary’s blindness from reading the Little House stories and knew that scarlet fever was once a deadly disease,” says Tarini, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“I would ask other doctors, but no one could give me a definitive answer, so I started researching it.”

When I was a kid, I was always curious about the diseases that popped up in books I was reading.  Sometimes, I would look them up, which was much harder to do in the years before the internet.  It’s a fascination that has remained–my best published piece is about tuberculosis in L. M. Montgomery’s work.  This curiosity about medial history seems to be pretty wide-spread–witness how many people were looking up eclampsia after Lady Sybil’s death on Downton Abbey.  Of course, I had already looked that one up after watching Call the Midwife.

For those of us who spend a lot of time hanging out in the past, we periodically get swept away by the “good old days.”    But medical realities always cause us to crash back to earth.  There are many reasons why I’m thrilled to be living in the 21st century, and modern medicine is certainly near the top of the list.  When it comes down to it, I don’t care how exactly Mary lost her sight.  But I do care that a disease took it from her, and that her sister became her “eyes.”  After all, we might not have the Little House books if Laura hadn’t developed those powers of observation and description.  Still, it’s not every day that Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the headlines!  I’ll take what I can get.

Armchair Traveling

As soon as I heard about The Wilder Life,I knew it was a must read.  And apparently everyone else knew it was a “Melissa book” because nine million people asked me if I knew about it.  Well, maybe not nine million people, but a lot.  Including some friends I’ve never really considered as “book friends.”

All of that can be a lot of pressure for a book, so I did worry that I might not like it.  What if I found author Wendy McClure annoying?  After all, I’ve never felt a desire to churn butter, something that was almost always mentioned in the pre-publication blurbs.  So I put my name on the library list rather than buying it.  I might have been #1 on my library’s waiting list. . .

Over the past several days, I’ve been engulfed in Laura World (Wendy’s term. I feel like I can call her Wendy.)  Like me, Little House was a huge part of her childhood.  As an adult, she felt a need to revisit the book and took it to a whole new level–doing the research into the “real” story, buying a butter churn, and visiting all of the historic sites.  She does it all with a lot of humor, but that humor is tempered with some real thoughtfulness.  Visiting the real places you’ve built up in your imagination can be really, really hard.

At Plum Creek

Once Wendy started traveling, I had issues putting the book down.  Perhaps it’s because I went wading in Plum Creek in 2009.  And last May, I visited Mansfield for the first time.  Her feelings were very, very close to mine–but she said it all so much better.  If this wasn’t a library book, there would have been pages turned down and underlining and scribbles in the margins (Yes, I’m one of Those readers). 

So, if you’ve ever made a literary pilgrimage, this book is for you.  It’s a strange, wonderful feeling to be walking the same ground as characters that have lived in your head for years.  And it’s something you can only, really do with kidlit history.  As much as I’d like to, I can never really visit Hogwarts.  But I can go to Prince Edward Island and commune with Anne (which I did in 2002–and was the trip of a lifetime).  Or to Walnut Grove, Minnesota and wade in Plum Creek.  And there is a definite different emotional pull to those places you first discovered as a child.  During the same trip to Walnut Grove, I was attending at Betsy-Tacy convention.  I didn’t discover Betsy until my 20s–I hadn’t grown up with her.  But I was with plenty of people that had grown up with her–and who promptly burst into tears when they saw her “real” house for the first time.

These literary pilgrimages are special and unique and a lot of people just don’t get it.  I’m so glad that Wendy McClure totally gets it–and is sharing her thoughts with the world.

A Good Day

On Saturday, I had a pretty magical experience.  It was our annual Girl Scout Day, featuring the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  We scattered beads at campfires, had a full supply of buttons, and were ready to help visitors make sunbonnets, if they hadn’t already arrived wearing them.  We also had a costume contest–and ended up with over 30 participants, far more than I had dared to hope.  It was a fun day!

But for me, there was one moment that was particularly magical.  We had set aside two different half-hour blocks of time for me to read sections of the book.  In the morning, I read “Fire on the Hearth” and “Indian Camp” from Little House on the Prairie.  In the afternoon, I read “School” and “Town Party” from On the Banks of Plum Creek.  Have I mentioned yet that I read this in our historic schoolhouse?

Granted, our school is a wee bit bigger than the one described.  But the desks are similiar.  And the slates.  And the blackboards surrounding the room.  There was a certain moment, as I was reading Wilder’s description of that school. that I looked up at the room.  The girls that were listening almost had this “eureka!” look on their face–they were sitting in desks almost exactly like the desks described in the book.  A slate was in front of them.  Suddenly, the boundaries between fiction and reality, past and present, Minnesota and Texas almost vanished.  Maybe it’s hokey to say this, but these little girls were at one with the book.

As a musuem educator, I wish we could have such powerful moments every single day.  And I think, as a museum, we’re closer to that goal.  As someone who has always loved children’s literature, there is nothing better.  As part of my introduction, I asked visitors how many had read the books.  Lots of hands went up.  And then I asked how many wanted to read the books after Saturday.  Almost as many hands went up.

A good day indeed.

What would you do?

There are many random and unusual perks in being a director of education at history museum.  The latest?  Our annual Girl Scout Day event has a Little House on the Prairie theme.  (any guesses as to who decided that?)  And you can’t have a book themed event without reading parts of the book!

So, I”ll be reading “favorite bits” from the book twice during that event.  Because I’m the boss, it’s really up to me on what to read.  I could just focus on Little House on the Prairie.  Or I could read portions of mutliple books in the series.  Our activites really center on Little House and Plum Creek.  Each reading session will last 30-45 mintues. 

Dear readers, what chapters would you choose?  I figure this audience will be composed of both rabid fans and people new to the series.


By Northern standards, the weather we’ve had this last week is Not Much.  By Dallas standards?  Well, life as we know it stopped this week.

On Monday night, a giant ice storm hit.  And the temperature hasn’t made it past 25 since.  Last night, the forecasters said there was a 30% chance of a light dusting of snow.  This is what my backyard looks like right now:

As one friend put it: “light dusting my@#*!”  At any rate,  I didn’t get much sleep last night, and late this morning, I decided that I might as well take a nap.  I mean, what else is there to do?  The house is clean.  I’ve been catching up on the DVR and reading.  Sleep was a way to kill some time (have I mentioned that I haven’t left the house since Monday?).

I had one of those absolutely incredible naps, in which you completely pass out.  And along with it was an incredibly vivid dream.  I came into the living room.  My roomie was on the couch.  I said “Why don’t we make some maple-sugar-on-snow candy?”  And she said “Sure!” And then we went out on the patio and poured maple syrup on the snow.

The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic StoriesThen I woke up and started seriously thinking about recreating the scene from Little House in the Big Woods.  I knew we had maple syrup in the house, but I wondered if they didn’t do something else to the syrup before pouring it on the snow.  Conveniently, last May, I had bought a copy of The Little House Cookbook at the museum in Mansfield.  I had never had a chance to really look at it, so after lunch, I plucked it from the cookbook shelf and looked up “maple-sugar-on-snow.”  Sure enough, there was a recipe!  But it was for molasses.  Not the same!  And involved boiling molasses and brown sugar, which didn’t sound very yummy to me at all.

So I put the dream aside, but I kept reading the book.  I have some other literary cookbooks, but this has got to be one of the best.  Walker brilliantly sets the context for what cooking during Laura’s lifetime was like–plenty of information about the technology changes, food preservation issues, and all that.  And a wee bit of wondering if the intense focus on food in the Little House book isn’t perhaps a direct result of the hunger Laura so frequently faced as a child.

I haven’t finished the book yet, and at this point, there aren’t any recipes I really want to try.  But for a fan of the books, this is a must read.

Are there any foods from Little House that you’ve dreamed about?  Any things you’ve always wanted to try?  Any experiments worth sharing?

“Wonder, contentment and more than a little hope”

On Christmas morning, just after hugs were given and coffee was poured, mom turned to me and said “You’re going to love the editorial page this morning!”  This year, the Christmas editorial of the Dallas Morning News featured Little House in the Big Woods!  The complete text can be found here.

Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)The editorial opens by mentioning the power of story, and listing some other favorite Christmas stories of staff.  And then, they wrote “One more book that comes to mind probably isn’t considered part of the Christmas canon, but it still has much to teach us about the spirit of the holiday and the foundation that our own traditions have been built upon.”  They do a brief summary of Little House in the Big Woods, complete with a bit of background on Laura.  They quote extensively the scene when Laura receives Charlotte.  The editorial concludes: “Somewhere in our past, each of us has roots and ancestors for whom something as humble as a pair of mittens or stick of candy would make a sublime Christmas.  And in these days of undertainity and political bickering, it’s never a bad thing to remember: ‘All alone in the wild Big Woods, and the snow, and the cold, the little log house was warm and snug and cozy.’  May we all, like Laura and her family, find wonder, contentment and more than a little hope in this Christmas 2010.”

First, I was thrilled to see Laura get such play in the mainstream press–and it wasn’t even Little House on the Prairie!  And this article didn’t quite descend into the common trap of “look how much simpler thing were–wouldn’t that be better?”  Instead, it really emphasizes the magic of Christmas, no matter what gifts were received. 

Of course, in my world, Little House is definitely part of the Christmas canon!   But after reading more than a few Christmas scenes from children’s literature and as I continue with The Battle for Christmas (a history of Christmas celebrations in the 19th century that is fascinating.  Our current “Christmas wars” have nothing on the 19th century!), I’m struck with the idea that often the most magical part of Christmas is found around the Christmas tree, with friends and family.  It’s the moments that aren’t forced or manufactured. 

Here’s hoping you had a very merry–and the Christmas joy continues as long as you’d like it to!

Meeting Laura

So, guess where I went today?

Today, I went to the source.  I walked the same rooms that Laura, Almanzo and Rose walked.  Interior photos weren’t permitted, but let me just say this: it’s one of my favorite historic houses ever.  It had so many wonderful personal touches, and their lives just oozed through the walls.  And can I just say here and now that I would love to have a man like Almanzo in my life?  He has got to be one of the handiest literary husbands ever (much preferable to Ewan MacDonald, L. M. Montgomery’s husband).  Laura was tiny, just 4’11”, so he built the counters so they would be comfortable for her.  She didn’t like to knead bread, so she requested he set the breadmaking counter between two windows, so she could gaze at the beautiful Missouri hills.  When they added to the house, he decided that she was taking too many steps between the kitchen and dining room, so created this great pass-through.  Can you tell I loved her kitchen especially?  She also had the most awesome wood stove EVER.

The house is a real hodge-podge, with rooms added gradually over the years.  You could definitely tell when they got to be a bit more successful, because the front room is gorgeous–and much nicer than the first part of the house.  They even have a little library nook!  There are such little details throughout–Almanzo’s collection of canes (that he made), his various lamps and nightstands made out of funky branches.  The lamp shades and needlework that Laura made.  Everything in the home was owned by the Wilder family.  The provenance and the collection (gotta get some museum nerd stuff in here somewhere!) is amazing.

She did some of her writing at this home and some at the rock house at the back of the property.  Her little desk is just charming, not too big, but lots of slots and such for notes and paper.  The first four books were actually written at the Rock House, built by Rose for her parents.  But her parents ended up moving back to the farm house in which they had put so much love and work.

But in some ways, the Rock House was my favorite.  First, there’s the view.

Then there’s all the wonderful 1920s touches–wonderful closets, light fixtures, and tile.  And I just love the door.  I’ve been looking for a porch light for my house, and I could totally picture their light at my house.

I ended my time at the Mansfield cemetery.  For a cemetery, it was actually kinda disappointing.  No big fabulous monuments or even any trees.  But it is where Laura, Almanzo and Rose rest.  And I will admit I got a bit choked up as I stood in front of Laura’s grave.

Laura, and after I visited her home, I do feel like I should call her Laura, lived a remarkable life.  She came from virtually nothing and created indelible images of the frontier experience.  There are two things we hear over and over at the museum, especially when kids are near our log cabins.  They either say “Look, it’s Abraham Lincoln’s cabin!”  (we will ignore how illogical this is.  They’re 8.  And we all know how great Texas is with Social Studies curriculum. . .). Or, they say “It’s just like Little House.”  Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

This is a place I have wanted to vist for many, many years.  It wasn’t quite the thrill that Prince Edward Island was, but it’s right up there.  These books have been a part of my life since I was very, very small.  My grandmother read them to me.  They were the first chapter books I read all by myself.  Today, I have all kinds of issues with these books, and they are no longer my favorites.  And yet, when it comes to kidlit history, they will always be first in my heart.

More pictures from my visit.

Front of the house--the final addition

The rocks of the chimney all came from their farm

Check out the mortar--all of it has some decorative element added to it

Anticipation. . .

In less than 48 hours, I’ll be in the same room with Pa’s fiddle, Ma’ china shepherdess, and Laura’s desk.  I’ll be in Mansfield, MO, the place where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the Little House books.  It’s a literary pilgrimage I’ve long wanted to take.  A college friend lives less than 2 hours from Mansfield, so it always seemed like an easy enough trip, even though I’ve never done it.  But after visiting Mankato and Walnut Grove, I knew it was time to add Mansfield to my list of literary landmarks.

Though Mansfield is never featured in Wilder’s famous books, I’ve always been as interested in the places where authors create.  Edith Wharton did almost all of her writing in bed, gazing out the window at the Berkshires.  I might have taken an illegal photo of that view.  Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women at a tiny, half moon desk in her room.  So tiny that I can’t imagine how she fit paper and herself at that desk.  William Faulkner wrote at a typewriter in his antebellum home in Oxford, Mississippi.  All of these places gave me a unique thrill–one I’m pretty sure I’m going to get again on Sunday.

This particular trip isn’t about just the one pilgrimage.  I’ll be communing with Lincoln in Springfield.  And I’ll be reconnecting with dear college friends in Kansas City. 

I am on the fence (freshly whitewashed, of course) about stopping in Hannibal.  My parents and I went there when I was around 14, and I thought it was a strange place then.  Becky Thatcher’s house?  But she was never real. . .  Somehow, I have a feeling it may be even odder to me now.  I’ll probably stop, but it remains to be seen if I’ll find it all amusing or horrifying.

Any of you planning any literary pilgrimages this summer?

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.

What’s left out. . .

I know the tagline at the top of my blog says “Everything I need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature.”  And I stand by my claim that my reading of certain books (over and over and over again) helped form my love of history.  But in reading books like A Little Princess as an adult, part of me just feels icky.  Because I know that there’s a whole other side to India’s history that Burnett would never have even thought about.

Honestly, I don’t know much about Indian history–I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I learned after reading most of this wikipedia article.   But as I was reading Princess, there was always this nagging feeling in the back of my mind–“You’re being enchanted by this glamourous vision of India, but all of this really sucked for the Indian people.”  Sara’s father, who she loved so much, was one of those white men who occupied India–and later profited from its resources.  Diamond mines, as glamorous as they sound, are horrible places to work.  Even today.

So I read these wonderful passages, and part of me was enthralled.  Who wouldn’t be, with descriptions such as this?

She did not know what being rich meant.  She had always lived in a beautiful bungalow, and had been used to seeing many servants who made salaams to her and called her “Missee Sahib,” and gave her her own way in everything.  She had had toys and pets and an ayah who worshipped her, and she had gradually learned that people who were rich had these things.

Replace the word “servants” with “slaves” and “ayah” with “mammy,” and you could very well have a book about life in the ante-bellum South.  There’s the same hot climate from which the wealthy must escape.  And perhaps this book has survived because its about India, a story in history few knew about, rather than about the American South, of which most know at least the basics.

But I digress.  Am I blaming Burnett for not being more balanced towards the Indian people?  Not at all-she wrote about what she knew.  And in this time period, few thought that what was happening in India was wrong.  Quite frankly, the way she wrote about India always made me curious about their culture.  Ram Dass is such a fabulous character.  He is human–well, as human as a fairy godmother-type can be!–which is more than we can say about most minority characters created during this era. 

But to really know about history, we certainly can’t rely solely on the images that children’s literature have placed in our heads.  I know that Laura Ingalls Wilder is frequently cited as being insensitive to Native Americans.  She’s not insensitive per se, but she’s not balanced either.  And I understand concerns about her books–they are so popular and I know that most readers won’t ever try to find out more and get the bigger story.  She is indeed creating ideas in children’s heads about the past–ideas that aren’t entirely right.

And this is part of the reason I’m championing, in my own small way, the genre of Kidlit History.  For those books written in the time–that some classify as historical fiction, but were written before there was the distance to properly assess the big picture.  There are still plenty of lessons in them, but we must acknowledge that they are biased to that one author’s experience.  Little House is not the only story of the pioneer experience, though it seems that some folks believe that it is. 

My childhood reading had extraordinary bias in it.  Almost all of the books I read were about white, middle or upper class, protestant females.  Yet, as a historian, one of my specialities is African American history.  I can’t trace that interest back to childhood reading.  But I don’t have to.  My hope for kids that read kidlit history is that this is a first step into a life-long love of history.  So, if they don’t figure out that colonial India wasn’t all about being pampered until they’re adults, that’s okay.  When they do, though, there’ll be a spark of recognition as they realize they’re discovering the rest of Sara’s story.