June 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Looking at U.S. History Through a Different Lens | Nonfiction Notions

Over the past few years, I’ve been tackling an immense project: weeding and updating our 900 (history and biography) section of juvenile nonfiction. I was once told that “history doesn’t change” and, partly as a result of that viewpoint, I had focused on updating the science, technology, and other subject areas that seemed more immediately in need of change. However, as I’ve been looking into new texts and reviewing what we currently own, I’ve come to realize that while it may be true that history does not change, our perspectives on it evolve over time, especially as we consider whose voices and stories have been privileged for decades.

How many biographies of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and other well-known figures of American history do you have on your shelves? If you’re a small library in Wisconsin, the answer is a lot! But the same events these historical figures experienced look very different through the eyes of other people from history. Giving kids different perspectives and ways to look at history is a strong reason to frequently—and critically—evaluate and update your history section.

Biographies for younger readers often focus solely on the positive aspects of the life of the subject. While these readers may need a simpler introduction to complex events, showing these people as without flaw can be a disservice to young learners. For those who are still learning about the basics of the American Revolution, The Good Fight is a lighthearted but informative introduction to the arguments and disagreements between the founding fathers and other colonists. The division between those wanting independence and those loyal to the king is shown in the chapter on Benjamin Franklin and his son, William. The heated debates over how the government should be run are introduced in the chapter on Alexander Hamilton (he was an argumentative kind of guy). Cartoons lighten the sometimes dark events and the book is both entertaining and educational.

Moving on to westward expansion, I reconsidered the biographies we had on this period and found that we had a LOT of material on Laura Ingalls Wilder. She’s a popular figure in my community and kids frequently ask for books about pioneers. While I don’t discourage kids from reading certain titles or criticize their choices, I do try to expand their horizons and get them thinking about different perspectives, especially regarding westward expansion. S.D. Nelson’s latest biography, Red Cloud, is an excellent resource to do just that. Nelson retells the history of the Lakota people during the 1860s in a first-person narrative from the perspective of Chief Red Cloud. The author does not shy away from describing acts of war and terrorism committed by both sides, giving a nuanced portrait of the different approaches the Lakota had in dealing with the white settlers and the U.S. government. In addition to the exploration of the cultural differences that made negotiation difficult and the dishonesty of the U.S. government, Nelson also highlights moments of courage and bravery, and deep appreciation for the Lakota and their hopes for the future. Readers who have previously only viewed this time period from the perspectives of white settlers will find this a gripping narrative that will help them better understand and interrogate events of the past.

Shifting to the events leading up to the Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed it, I found I had biographies of a few well-known names, such as Harriet Tubman, but not enough books that looked at how African Americans continued to deal with the effects of slavery long after Lincoln’s Proclamation. I found what I was looking for in a new series from Capstone, “Captured History,” where various authors re-examine historical figures, events, and scientific discoveries through the lens of photography. Face of Freedom is a skilled portrait of Frederick Douglass that not only shows his own evolution from a freed slave to abolitionist to retired and wealthy orator but also shows the evolution of black history through the Civil War and Reconstruction. Photographs of Douglass range from an 1852 daguerreotype to a final 1895 deathbed photograph. Along the way, Berne traces the effect photography had on freed slaves and how Douglass negotiated the often complex roads of freedom and advocacy for his people.

I also looked for books that delved more deeply into the causes and effects of the Civil War and found a great resource in one of Capstone’s “Encounter” titles, The Booth Brothers. This goes beyond the usual exciting and tragic story of Lincoln’s assassination to explain how two brothers, both well-known actors, could diverge so radically, one being a close friend of abolitionists and supporter of the Northern cause and the other to plot numerous dramatic attempts on Lincoln’s life and finally commit the crime for which the Booth name became known. The moment-by-moment account of the assassination plan is broken up by chapters explaining the larger context of the war and considering various perspectives of John Wilkes Booth’s actions. This is a good starting point for students to consider how their own family is affected by political disagreements and how they would face making difficult choices.

Finally, I considered group biographies that would expand readers’ knowledge of lesser-known figures in American history. I found two titles that were a good start in covering these areas. Balancing the many presidential biographies, a title I have been recommending frequently is Kathleen Krull’s A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies. Krull analyzes each woman’s contribution to the office, from women who were ambitious and had political influence of their own to those who suffered great tragedies or resented the fame that destroyed their lives. The author doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of women who supported slavery, did not support female suffrage, and the different ways first ladies dealt with their famous husbands’ infidelities. Krull also includes a kind of timeline of women’s rights, relating it to the progressive influence of first ladies and how they were perceived in their offices. The book ends with the role of Michelle Obama and the modern White House, with a brief look at Melania Trump, her prior life, and her stated plans for being first lady. Krull deals with the various trials and choices of the first ladies in an unbiased and matter-of-fact way. She stays away from the stories of the presidents themselves, focusing on how these women, in a position they did not choose and often had mixed feelings about, affected U.S. history and women’s rights.

Another excellent biography anthology is Tonya Bolden’s Pathfinders, which goes beyond the African American figures already familiar to many students—Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama—to profile 16 men and women who had a profound effect on the history of the United States as well as their own cultural group. The profiled figures include Mary Bowser, a spy during the Civil War; Clara Brown, a pioneer and active participant in the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush; Eugene Bullard, a combat pilot in World War I; and the still-living Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a mathematician and computer scientist who was a key player in the 1969 moon launch (who was portrayed in the Oscar-winning film, Hidden Figures, by Taraji P. Henson). Bolden includes historical context for each person and brief looks at numerous other African Americans who were also in related fields.

These historical figures have always been here. But their stories have to be told to get a full and accurate picture of history. If we only read the stories of white pioneers and don’t consider the stories of the indigenous populations whose land they settled in, we are only teaching our students half the story. If students learn of African Americans only in the context of slavery, we do both white and black students a disservice, denying them the chance to learn and be inspired by these American leaders. These titles are only a start on expanding and balancing the perspectives and stories of history, but I hope to find many more such biographies in the future and encourage tweens to think and read critically as they study history and apply it to their lives today.

 

Works referenced

The Good Fight by Anne Quirk, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. 2017. Knopf. ISBN 9781524700355.

Face of Freedom by Emma Carlson Berne. 2017. Capstone. ISBN 9780756556174.

Pathfinders by Tonya Bolden. 2017. Abrams. 9781419714559.

A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies by Kathleen Krull. 2017. HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062381071.

The Booth Brothers: Drama, Fame, and the Death of President Lincoln by Rebecca Langston-George. 2018. Capstone. ISBN 9781515773382.

Red Cloud by S. D. Nelson. 2017. Abrams. ISBN 9781419723131.

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Jennifer Wharton About Jennifer Wharton

Jennifer Wharton is the youth services librarian at the Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. You can follow more of her library adventures at jeanlittlelibrary.blogspot.com.

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