Shining the spotlight. . .

I’ve long bemoaned the general lack of knowledge on the women’s suffrage movement.  A continual soapbox is how you cannot escape Black History Month in February, but it’s hard to even remember that it’s closely followed by Women’s History Month in March.  But that’s another post.

But things are getting better.  I think more and more people know about the grand dames of women’s history: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  And if you’re lucky, sme folks will also have at least heard of Alice Paul (Iron Jawed Angels helped a lot with this).  But Carrie Chapman Catt?  Not so much.

24630970So kudos to Nate Levin for getting her story out there in his book Carrie Chapman Catt: A Life of Leadership.  Though I’d certainly heard of her, this was definitely the first biography I’ve read.  And in doing a bit of poking around, there really aren’t many other options.  His book is written for middle-grade students and is packed with information.  Catt was a master organizer–she traveled throughout the US and internationally, speaking on suffrage.  She established state organizations to work for suffrage.  She led the national organizations–twice!  But she wasn’t part of the “radical” group, like Alice Paul, which may be part of the reason she has been neglected.  Not quite so exciting.  After the suffrage battle was won, she began the League of Women Voters and then began to work for peace.  I don’t think she ever stopped working.

Levin is doing his best to make her story better known.  On his website, which can be found here, is the entire text of his book, along with tons of links for more information.  I wish he had included a few sources or at least the link to this site in his book.  The book itself is obviously a labor of love–it appears to be self-published and is definitely a print on demand book.  It would benefit a lot from slightly slicker packaging–better image quality and all that we’ve come to expect in books.  The text itself is great–he does a wonderful job of explaining some very complex issues.

It’s a well-written, succint, fascinating biography of a woman we should all know more about.  Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too much longer.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the author.

The Changing Face of Nancy Drew

There are certain advantages to being the daughter of a bookstore manager.  Chief among them: free books!  (though it’s been awhile, Dad.  What’s up with that?)  When I was a kid, dad would periodically bring home a stack of paperbacks, none of which had covers.  See, in bookstore land, sellers sent covers of books that didn’t sell back to the publisher and tossed the books themselves.  Unless you knew the right people.

At any rate, this had a few effects on young Melissa:  1.  Getting a book of my very own with a cover on it was a Very Big Deal.  2.  I have no memories of cover art.  3.  If I find certain books at used book stores where the spine matches my memory, I have to buy them.  Because see, even though I had the complete All-of-a-Kind Family series, they completely fell apart and I’ve had to replace them as an adult.  And that’s not the only example.

This random method of acquiring books led to me discovering many favorites quite by accident.  But one of my favorites to discover were the Nancy Drew Case Files.  Even better?  The books where she and the Hardy Boys teamed up.  I read these books over and over again, until they quite literally fell apart.  I imagined myself being best friends with Nancy, doing a much better job of helping her solve mysteries than Bess and George. 

Some time in my adult life, I realized that  Carolyn Keene was just a pen name.  But I really don’t remember how I figured that out.  And at some point during my interest in children’s literature, I heard about the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  But it wasn’t until I finished Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak that I realized what a profound impact Nancy had on 20th century life.  People, you really need to read this book!

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created HerThis is a book that doesn’t just examine the cultural impact of Nancy (which is pretty considerable), but how her story fits into 20th century women’s history.  The Statemeyer Syndicate, founded by Edward Stratemeyer, was the power behind many favorite series: the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana Girls, Tom Swift Jr., the Hardy Boys, and of course, Nancy.  Honestly, the Stratemeyer Syndicate sounds a bit mafia-like–and it was definitely a case that once you were in, you couldn’t talk about it and you were never completely free.  Stratemeyer  hired a team of ghost writers and did everything he could to keep that quiet.  When he died, just after creating the character of Nancy and outlining the first 3 books in the series, his daughters carried on the tradition of secrecy.

The women that were truly responsible for the Nancy we know and love was Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, head of the syndicate, and Mildred Wirt Benson, the ghost writer for most of the books.  In the 1930s, they were women that did it all–balancing work and family in a way that we still struggle to today.  Nancy, too, was a part of this “new woman” trend–the women who went to work during WWI, started voting, and were no longer quite so reliant on a man to take care of them.

Rehak seamlessly blends the back-story with the greater context of 20th century history.  It truly boggles the mind to think how many kids read stories created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  I honestly can’t think of another company that had such an impact on generations of children–even though not many people really knew the Syndicate was behind so many best-sellers.  She explores the ins and outs of the updates, the different writers, the changes–it’s fascinating stuff.

Though I wouldn’t necessarily put the Nancy Drew books in the category of “kidlit history,” her character grew and developed with the changing times.  How many other characters in literature have new books written about them for 70 years?  The Nancy of 1930 isn’t quite the Nancy of 1988, but she’s still familiar to generations of readers.  And she’s still incredibly popular today.  Just doing a bit of web research, I ran across this website–there’s a convention coming up next year.

So, were you a Nancy fan?  When did you first read them?  And have you gone back and read them again?

Let me count the ways. . . In love with Calpurnia Tate

As a public historian in Texas, there are certain subjects that you just have to deal with on a regular basis.  The Alamo.  Cowboys.  The frontier.  I have attended conferences where it feels like every single session is pre-1900 history and mostly about the Texas Revolution.  These are all fine topics for historical study, but I must admit: they bore me.  It’s just all been done Too Much. 

Now, try finding engaging history for kids that’s about Texas but not about the above subjects.  It’s hard—really, really hard.  Though we certainly have frontier-y stuff at the museum, it’s not the majority of the museum.  Our earliest structure dates to 1847, after our Republic days were over.  We’re really all about that shift from rural to urban that begins to happen around the turn-of-the-century.  But it’s so hard to find good books that talk about this time period for children.  So, I borrow from other states like Minnesota (Betsy-Tacy) and Utah (The Great Brain).  And it works, but it’s not Texas.  And I am a bit biased about Texas.

The Evolution of Calpurnia TateWhen I first heard about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, I was intrigued but cautious.  The jacket copy reads “The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia’s sleepy Texas town, and there aren’t a lot of good ways to stay cool.”  I become more intrigued–something set at the turn of the century?  Seriously?  But will it actually be any good?  There are so many pitfalls in historical fiction.  So many ways in which I could be disappointed.    But I had heard good things from people I trusted.  It became our museum book club’s first selection (partially at my insistence, but they agreed!)  So I started to read.

Folks, I am completely head over heels in love with Calpurnia.  It is an almost perfect work of historical fiction.  Calpurnia becomes curious about the world around her–in particular, the grasshoppers.  Her curiosity takes her to the library for Origin of the Species, and the librarian refuses to give it to her.  And then she realizes that right under her nose is another naturalist/scientist–her grandfather.  Together, they explore the land, make observations, continue experiments with pecan liquor (this really made me giggle), and discover what just might be an unknown species of plant.  In the mean time, there’s a lot of humor, a wonderful family, and great historical details.  The kinds of little things that thrill me in so much of kidlit history–Calpurnia’s first experience with coca-cola, the first car seen in that tiny town, the first telephone.  These are the kind of details that aren’t Big Events–like, say, The Fall of the Alamo–but are events that readers are much more likely to connect to.  And possibly fall in love.

But the reason why I am still so thrilled about this book, even though I finished it over a week ago, is that it is a wonderful introduction to some of the key ideas of women’s history.  Unlike some other books (that post is linked to above), this book sums up the challenges of being a woman at the turn of the century without being heavy-handed about it.  There is Calpurnia’s mother–who with seven children and a large household to manage–is known to take more than a few swigs a day of Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, “known to be the Best Blood Purifier for Women” and also known to be mostly alcohol.  But if I had seven kids and was stuck in a small town in Central Texas during a drought. . . yep, I’d be drinking something as well.  There’s Lula, Calpurnia’s best friend, who is really good at all the “womanly skills” such as sewing and cooking and such.  Lula does not understand Calpurnia’s interest in bugs and such–and only slightly understands why three of Calpurnia’s brothers always want to walk her home (another giggle scene).

But most of all, there’s Calpurnia.  She realizes she wants to be a scientist.  She very timidly begins to express this idea to some, but not all.  Meanwhile, her mother is upping the lessons on sewing and knitting and cooking, which frustrates Calpurnia to no end.  But she does it, because she knows she has to, even as she begs to spend more time with her Grandfather.  She thinks, rather hopes, that her parents understand.  At Christmas, she writes:

I peeled back the stiff paper to reveal the word Science printed in curlicues.

“Oh,” I exclaimed.  Such magnificence!  But even better than the solid reality of the book in my hand was the gladsome fact that my mother and father at last understood the kind of nourishment I needed to survive.  I beamed at my parents with excitement.  They smiled and nodded.  I ripped the paper off to reveal the whole title:  The Science of Housewifery.

“Oh!” I stared in befuddlement.  It made no sense to me.  What could it mean?  Was the writing even English?  The Science of Housewifery, by Mrs. Josiah Jarvis.  This couldn’t be right.  My hands turned to wood. . .

Conversation trailed off, and the room became silent except for the monotonous thwacking of J. B. riding his rocking horse in the corner.  All eyes were on me.  . . .

She said, “What do you say, Calpurnia?”

What does Calpurnia say?  What could I say?  That I wanted to throw the book–no better than kindling–into the fireplace?  That I wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all?  That at that moment I could have done violence, that I could have punched them all in the face?  Even Granddaddy.  Yes, even him.  Encouraging me the way he had, knowing that there was no new century for me, no new life for this girl.  My life sentence had been delivered by my parents.

 Calpurnia’s eyes open to the world around her, but her world hasn’t changed.  She’s caught between what she wants to be and what she is expected to be.  Like most women that came of age during that time period.  The ending is not wrapped up in a pretty bow–Calpurnia is frustrated.  There’s no afterword, fast-forwarding a few years to show her at the University.  Her life is in flux.  She accepts her path, but is not resigned to it.  She accepts it because she doesn’t have much choice.

So often, in historical fiction with a “spunky” or “modern” heroine, the heroine winds up defying the odds.  She’s one of the ones that breaks through all of those historical barriers.  With Calpurnia, you just don’t know what happens to her.  And I love that.  That uncertainty can start such wonderful conversations about college education for women, suffrage, careers, etc.  In a way that kids can hopefully connect with, without such topics being an Issue that requires a Historical Note.  So yeah, I love this book and would love it even if it wasn’t set in Fentress, Texas.  But that setting is a wonderful, delightful bonus.

So, Jacqueline Kelly, I know you’re still basking in the glow of the Newbery Honor Award.  And I’m thrilled for you!  But get back to work and keep writing.  We need more books like this.  They don’t have to be about Calpurnia (and a big part of me hopes that things are left ambiguous).  But we need more historical fiction like this.  A lot more.

The Perils of Historical Fiction

It’s not that I don’t like historical fiction for kids.  It’s just that there’s so much bad historical fiction out there–books that probably aren’t going to convert any kids to the history-nerd lifestyle.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual.  Due to the bizarre combination of a miserable cold, the holidays, lots of accumulated comp time, and a week of furlough, I haven’t worked a full 8-hour day since December 18.  Please don’t hate me.  But this whole not going into the office thing leaves a lot of spare time for other things.  Like books.  So I turned to my enourmous To-Read list on Goodreads and started requesting books from the library.

In the midst of the stack, I read two very different historical fiction books for children: The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages and The Hope Chest by Karen Schwabach.  The Green Glass Sea is the story of two girls growing up during World War II.  At Los Alamos, as their parents race to create the atomic bomb.  The Hope Chest is the story of two girls who witness the end of the fight for women’s suffrage in Tennessee. 

The Green Glass SeaGGS is almost a perfect book.  The characters ring true and natural.  It tells a complex story, but does it through Dewey and Suze’s eyes—not the all-knowing narrator who already knows exactly how this whole gadget thing works out.  I learned all kinds of little details (how does a kid apply to college when his high school doesn’t exist) and bigger stories too (women in science).  And at the end of the book, I wanted to know more about Dewey and Suze, but also the history of Los Alamos.  Klages provides a few, selected sources at the end, which is exactly enough to keep the interest going.

Almost all of my pet peeves in historical fiction happened in HC.  I began it with such high hopes–an older sister has taken the money given to her for a hope chest and bought a car instead.  And then she heads nThe Hope Chestorth to work for women’s suffrage.  Younger sister discovers that her parents have been hiding all these letters from big sis so she runs away.  And that’s where it all went down hill.  Violet gets to New York and gets lost.  She becomes friends with a younger African American girl (because that happened on a regular basis back then).  They hop a train to DC, meet an anarchist who happens to be her sister’s boyfriend, and then head to Tennessee.  Violet becomes a spy for the antis (what, they don’t notice an 11 year old hanging out?)  She just happens to be involved in the final crucial voting.  Every single person related to the end of the suffrage movement parades across the pages.  Oh, and there’s segregation issues and anarchist stuff and well, just about every historical issue possible in 1919/1920.  Seriously?  It’s just all way too convenient.  And doesn’t feel real at all.

My biggest issue with this book, and others like it, is that it felt like a history lesson.  Schwabach was doing everything she could to make sure it was a PC book that covered all the major issues.  Her author’s note and references at the back is huge–she recommends a couple of books for every single historical theme, even if they were just minor in the course of the story.  Schwabach was trying way too hard to teach history–rather than hinting at a few things, hoping to spark interest that kids will later follow.  It’s a complex time and a complex story, but there was no grace in this book.

Perhaps I’m being extra hard on this book for two reasons:  I read it just after reading Green Glass Sea and this is my favorite time period.  To my knowledge, there aren’t any factual errors, but I did have to suspend my disbelief on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, it seems like there are a lot more books out there that are like The Hope Chest, with its heavy-handed history, than the beautiful, graceful Green Glass Sea. 

Which all leads me back to why I think kidlit history is so important in inspiring future history nerds.  Often, you don’t even realize that you’re learning about history.  It’s just a good story.  There are no author notes at the back, explaining the details or historical events that might have flown right over your head. The author isn’t trying too hard to get all the details in there–because they’re writing about their own experiences.   And somehow, the history just seeps in.  It rings true and feels right, and you’re not wasting time questioning the historical details.  And though there aren’t a list of resources for “further reading,” kids can discover more if they want to.

Or, they might turn into someone like me–someone who doesn’t discover their love of history until they reach college.  And in looking back realizes that it’s been there all along, in the books I read over and over again.

Piecing it together

Last spring, our exhibit was on domestic arts.  Specifically, quilts, gardening, and woodworking.  We were part of a larger collaboration, and museums throughout the city were doing various exhibits on quilts.  Now I like quilts as much as the next person, but when you have two years of meetings, they can get a little, shall we say, tired.  Besides, as some gushed about how wonderful quilts are, I kept thinking of Anne Shirley saying “There’s no scope for imagination in patchwork.”  And then I had other irreverent thoughts and had to fight making inappropriate facial expressions during a meeting.

So many of the other exhibits celebrated the artistry and dedication of quilters.  But we wanted to talk about that other part of quilting and domestic arts in the 19th century–the fact that sometimes you do things because you have to, not because you want to.  Part of our exhibit is a collection of what we call “quote cubes.”  One side has a question and the other 5 sides have quotes, sometimes sharing similar views and sometimes differing.  I knew that it was going to be hard to find lots of letters or diary entries complaining about sewing.  It seems that if things like that are mentioned in those kinds of accounts they’re usually bragging about their latest accomplishment, not whining about it.  Then I thought of who is most likely to complain–kids forced to do handwork, because it’s expected.  Because it’s what their mothers did.  Because their mothers need their help.  And where else can you get the voice of a child but in children’s literature?

After combing through several books, I found some wonderful quotes that help fight that stereotype of the 19th century–that all women sewed and that they all liked it.  Today, it seems that we are always insisting on our differences; we are not all the same.  But when we talk about the people of the past, they’re usually lumped together–huge generalizations and assumptions are made.  We have to have other voices in the mix–and these books are certainly one way to make the story richer.

Check out some of these quotes that we used in our exhibit:

“I know I don’t sew nicely–I’ll never, never sew nicely.  I wish I was in heaven and you and your everlasting sewing in hell, Aunt Emily!”  Lucinda did not intend this to be the damning thing it sounded.  She had wanted to place Aunt Emily and herself as far apart as possible.  –Ruth Sawyer, Roller Skates  (This is one of my very favorites!)

She believed the devil must have invented a needle.  From the moment you first learned to thread one, and knot the thread, it had you plagued to death.  She hated-hated-hated sewing-this kind of sewing!  — Lucinda in Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer

‘Golly!  I could do that, too!’ said Tom.  ‘Girls think they’re so smart with their tiny stitches.  Where’s a needle?’

‘Me too!’ said Warren, and before Clara knew what was happening to her precious quilt, the boys had taken possession, and the three erstwhile adventurers were making riotous scrolls and roses all over it.  –Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink

There’s no scope for imagination in patchwork.  It’s just one little seam after another and you never seem to be getting anywhere.  –Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery

“Betsy,” scolded Carney, “you ought to learn to sew.”

“I despise sewing.  I’m going to buy my dresses in Paris.”

“But you ought to know how to embroider at least.  There’s so much sentiment in a gift you embroider. . . “

“Nobody would be glad to get anything I embroidered.”   –Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy was a Junior

‘How nice my handkerchiefs look, don’t they?  Hannah washed and ironed them for me, and I marked them all myself,’ said Beth, looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her such labor.  –Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

When some historians don’t like to use oral histories, I know it will be a long time before historians begin to consider these books as another kind of primary source.  But at my museum, we certainly do.  I know that Maud Hart Lovelace might not have ever had that exact conversation with her friends about sewing, but I have confidence that she certainly felt that way about sewing.  And she probably wasn’t the only one either.  But these voices addanother layer to quilts–you’re not just looking at the object, but you’re thinking more carefully about the people behind the object.  Did they enjoy their work?  Was it a burden?  Did they teach others?  How old were they when they began to sew?  Looking for these particular nuggets helped me to realize how rich in details these books are.  They’re a wonderful source, ready to be mined.