"Holding History in My Hands" | Authors, Illustrators, and Artifacts

Memorabilia and objects have long inspired the work of writers and artists. Here are stories about particular items that have stirred their imaginations or brought a period, person, or idea into sharper focus.

Memorabilia and objects have long inspired the work of writers and artists. In interviews, conversations, or emails with them, I’ve learned how particular items kept close, shared, or spotted in a museum, have stirred their imaginations or brought a period, person, or idea into sharper focus. Here are some of those stories, including one about an artifact “that got away.”

Author Tonya Bolden, supplied me with the title to this article, as evidenced in her contribution:

Old newspapers, photographs, postcards, street maps, political memorabilia, realia.

I love owning bits of history, old stuff. They help me get into character, be it a person or an era. There’s something transportive about exploring a piece of the past—not online, not in a book or magazine, not through a display case—but while holding it in my hands.

One bit of old stuff from Facing Frederick (Abrams, 2018) is a nineteenth-century engraving of a bay’s view of New Bedford, MA, the whaling town that was Frederick Douglass’s first home in the North. Holding this print in my hands, I imagined Frederick down at the docks hoisting casks of whale oil, imagined, too, the sight of this harbor’s ships hearkening him back to skiffs and schooners on the Chesapeake Bay he gazed at longingly during his days of enslavement in Maryland.

With my novel Inventing Victoria (Bloomsbury, 2019), in which my main character takes refuge from loneliness in sketching, I purchased a somewhat beat-up box of antique Maison Berville drawing sticks. I can’t draw a lick, but having them put me in the zone for Victoria to sketch away.

My fingers traced the streets of an old atlas map of DC when in my forthcoming novel, Saving Savannah (Jan. 2020), the third in a linked series of novels that began with Crossing Ebenezer Creek, (2018, all Bloomsbury, Gr 7 Up). I had my intrepid protagonist walk about her hometown in 1919. (What I would have given to own her exquisite party outfit—but, alas, for that and other clothing I had to make do with online images of authentic bygone fashion.)

Along with owning bits of history, I love sharing them with our young people during school visits. Time and again I’ve found that they get a kick out of holding history in their hands as much as I do.

Too, I’ve yet to see a student not handle my bits of history with care.

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“My favorite book-related artifact doesn’t actually appear in my books, but I associate it strongly with Code Name Verity (Hyperion, 2012; Gr 8 Up),” wrote Elizabeth Wein. “It’s a World War II escape map. Airmen carried these to help them navigate on the ground if they were stranded in enemy territory. My map is printed on silk, which is more durable than paper and more flexible than linen; it doesn’t disintegrate when it gets wet, and you can fold and unfold it silently. It shows northern France and the southern coast of England, where someone evading the Nazis might try to escape across the English Channel. But the rest of the United Kingdom has been blanked out, so that if the map fell into enemy hands they couldn’t use it to find their way to bomb London.

I love showing off this map to school groups and telling them of the real Special Operations Executive agent Krystyna Skarbek, one of my inspirations for Verity. Skarbek was once stopped at a Nazi checkpoint carrying an escape map she couldn’t risk being caught with. Thinking fast, she used it to tie back her hair and charmed her way through the checkpoint with the enemy none the wiser.

I sometimes wear my map as a jaunty scarf when I’m giving a talk in front of a large audience, just in case I need a prop—secure that I’ve got my escape map as a secret weapon. So far, unless I point it out, no one’s ever noticed.”

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Researching historical maps for Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island (Abrams, Aug. 2019; Gr 3-7), Jennifer Thermes "came across the Redraft of the Castello Plan, New Amsterdam in 1660. Coincidentally, the actual map was on exhibit at the New York Public Library.

The Castello Plan depicts the tiny southern point of the island under Dutch rule, albeit a sanitized version. (By most accounts, New Amsterdam was a crowded trading outpost with an abundance of taverns, roaming farm animals, and a noticeable lack of plumbing!) Precursors of familiar streets are clear: Broadway—once a Lenape trail—to the west, Broad and Beaver streets as canals that would later be filled by the British, Pearl Street alongside the East River, and the wall that would be dismantled to become Wall Street.

Seeing the plan in person, it was easy to envision the bustling settlement full of immigrants, energy, and hope—a herald of Manhattan today—and a great reminder that often, the magic of poring over a map exists in your imagination."

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In Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life (S. & S.; 2016; Gr 4 Up), artist and poet Ashley Bryan imagines the lives and dreams of a group of enslaved men and women, who, in the summer of 1828, were offered for sale through the estate of Cado Fairchilds. In his author’s note, Bryan mentioned a collection of documents dating from the early 19th century. In an interview with the author he commented, “It was just by chance that I acquired these… right here in Maine, I saw an advertisement for an auction that included Civil War memorabilia and slavery-related documents. I went right over. I bid and was able to buy 20-odd documents from 20 estates dating from the 1820s to the 1860s: sales of cows, cotton, and corn—and individuals.”

One of those documents, the 1828 “Fairchilds Appraisement of the Estate, “listed the names, gender, and prices of 11 enslaved people offered for sale.” When asked if we know anything else about these individuals, Bryan said,Absolutely nothing. After extensive reading on the subject, I created the 11 individuals, giving them each a job and an age. It was only then that I asked them to speak to me…. I gave them the names written on the document I purchased, but I asked them to tell me their real names and the meaning of those names. This was important to make them real people, people with identities [in my book]." For each of the 11, Bryan offers two images and poems.

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“Every autumn I bring my geraniums inside to a bright window, where they spend the winter on the old kitchen table. This table was never far from my mind as I wrote The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in Our Food and Drugs (Calkins Creek, Oct. 2019; Gr 8 Up)," noted Gail Jarrow.

"After at least 125 years of daily use, the wood surface is faded and worn smooth. My great-grandmother stood at the table to prepare meals, knead bread, and can her garden bounty. She laid out food on it for her family, which included my great-great-grandfather (a Civil War veteran). The kitchen table passed down to my grandmother and mother, and I ate meals at it until I left home for college. Now I’m its guardian.

In the first scene of The Poison Eaters, I imagined my ancestors gathered around this table at the end of the 19th century. The book is about scientists, politicians, and activists who worked to make our food and drugs safer. But at its heart, the story is about women like my great-grandmother who did their best to keep their families healthy."

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In 2014, Duncan Tonatiuh, author of Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War (Abrams, Sept. 2019; Gr 2-5), "bought a copy of a The World War I Diary of José de la Luz Sáenz (Texas A & M University Pr., 2014) after the editor and translator, Emilio Zamora, told me about it. The book, which was originally published in Spanish in 1933, is based on the diary a Mexican-American soldier kept from 1917, when he joined the U.S. forces, until 1919, when he returned home from Europe after the war.

In his diary, Luz wrote about his experiences in France—he had many close calls with death—and about the discrimination people of Mexican origin experienced in the army and back home in Texas. I was enthralled by the diary and I decided to create a picture book based on Luz's story.

Last year, I visited the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas Library in Austin, where Luz's archives are located. I was able to see a copy of the original book. I also saw drawings Luz made during the war, postcards he sent, and photographs and maps he kept. I even photographed some of his letters and used them in the background of my book's illustrations."

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The mixed-media art in Javaka Steptoe’s Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Winner, Radiant Child:The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little Brown, 2016; Gr 2-7), incorporates a variety of materials. Here the author/illustrator comments on what he used: Found wood, acrylic paint, oil pastels, and copies of photographs. The sources of the wood include molding from brownstone rehab projects in Flatbush, Brooklyn (similar to what Basquiat would have seen growing up). Some of the wood also came from a deconstructed exhibit; those pieces were found in the dumpster at the Brooklyn Museum—the same museum Basquiat visited as a child and where he had a junior membership. The Brooklyn Museum’s collections left a palpable influence on his work.

The wood was also sourced from dumpsters in the East Village and curbs in Soho—places where Basquiat roamed and might have crashed when he eventually left home. I believe every aspect of the work shares the burden of telling the story. If these sourced objects can trigger connections to places and experiences with readers, then the work collecting them was worth it.”

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From Deborah Heiligman, “I was in England, doing research for Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War ll Sinking of ‘The Children’s Ship (Macmillan, Oct. 2019; Gr 6 Up), and Sonia Bech Williams, 89, one of the two remaining survivors of the City of Benares [the ship torpedoed and downed in 1940 with 100 children on board], insisted my husband and I stay with her for five days. I knew Sonia’s story inside and out, but one morning, as we talked, looking through newspaper articles, scrapbooks, and photos, she asked me if I wanted to see her jewelry box.

The jewelry box?’ I shouted. ‘You still have it?’

‘Yes,’ she said matter-of-factly.

On the night of September 17, 1940, Sonia, her mother, and brother could not make it down into the lifeboat with Sonia’s sister. As her mother figured out how to save her two youngest children, the jewelry box she was holding spilled all over the deck. Picking up the jewels, she gave the box to Sonia, who put it in her coat pocket.

Sonia, her mother, and brother spent the night huddled together on a small raft with two other people. Sonia rolled off the raft into the sea twice, the jewelry box in her pocket. A sailor saved her both times. At dawn, no rescue ship in sight, her mother wanted to give up. ‘NO!’ Sonia said. ‘NO!’

Sonia handed me the box. It’s round, brass, with a painting of a woman in a fancy hat under glass on top. Now I could describe it in the book. But there was more. Sonia often says, ‘I was torpedoed! I am resilient.’ Holding the box in my hands, her words reverberated through me, and I understood.”

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When asked what have we have learned about the 16th-century and pirates from the 200,000 artifacts recovered from the ship that went down off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717, Martin Sandler, author of The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked, and Found (Candlewick, 2017; Gr 6 Up), wrote, "I could talk for 62 hours about this! Even more than artifacts on land, the entire history of the world is preserved on the ocean floor. The artifacts that are being recovered from the Whydah have been hugely informative. From the wreck, we’re learning more about the way pirates lived, dressed, and some of advanced tools they had, such as medical syringes; history had it that those arrived until 100 years later.”

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And from Steve Sheinkin, on the artifact that got away: “I was at the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, IL, researching Lincoln’s Grave Robbers (Scholastic, 2013; Gr 5-8), and I was kind of embarrassed to tell the park ranger I wasn’t there to pay respect to Lincoln so much as to find out more about the time some counterfeiters tried to steal his corpse. But when I mentioned this to the ranger, he got excited and said, ‘Let me show you stuff tourists never get to see!’ And he led me through his coffee-break room and into the 19th century. Well, into the catacombs beneath the monument, the dark, damp, brick-lined passages where both the detectives and body snatchers hid on the night of the 1876 heist. Then, back in his break room, he showed me something amazing. Beneath a heating duct were stacked many chunks of white marble. He lifted one. It was obviously heavy. He turned it toward me. It was engraved with words from Lincoln’s remarkable Second Inaugural, “CHARITY FOR ALL, or actually “RITY FOR ALL”—the CHA must have been on a different piece. This, he told me, was part of Lincoln’s sarcophagus. He’d been lying in it when the robbers cracked it open, and it had fallen apart in the years since. Not sure what to do with the pieces, convinced they should be in a museum, the ranger kept them safe under the duct. I thanked him for showing me this treasure—then dared to ask if I could take a piece. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said.”

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