Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Tim on Ever-Evolving History

Hi from Tim! It feels like an exciting time for teachers but also a daunting one. New and flexible teaching strategies are needed for the fall, no matter how many kids are back in classrooms, and a constant re-examination of our history is more urgent than ever.

I've always thought that history evolves. We can put up monuments, but there’s nothing permanent about the past because we keep learning personally, and historians keep uncovering new information. My 5th grade students learned about American history in detail for the first time with me. They were always shocked to hear that George Washington owned slaves his whole life, and we learned together that Thomas Jefferson had a child with a girl he owned who was 16 years old. American history can be tragic, confusing, inspiring, and funny, all at once. Before the United States was born, one Ohio Indian town apparently had a flagpole and kept both French and British flags on hand, flying a symbol of loyalty to whichever army was nearby as Europeans fought to control the continent. Our history presents teachers with an enormous challenge, to look at both the greatness and the horror of our nation from a racially diverse set of viewpoints. The good news is that our truth is certainly not boring, and also that we have a diverse group of skilled authors writing fiction and non-fiction history for children. These are just a few of those engaging books to help them as they begin understanding us.

Virginia Hamilton is a Newbery Award winner who isn't well know these days but wrote the greatest historical novel for middle level kids (ages 10 to 13 or so) that I've ever read. The House of Dies Drear is the story of a boy named Thomas whose history professor father moves the family into an Ohio home that served as a station on the underground railroad. From the moment they arrive, something is wrong, and the spooky plot takes on elements of mystery and suspense. This house must be haunted. The reason is amazing, and along the way we learn details about the subtle ways escaped slaves navigated to freedom.

Christopher Paul Curtis is one of our finest middle grade writers. The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963 is an excellent novel, funny, intense, a little raw, and climactic as the Watson family takes their troubled teenager from Michigan to Alabama in order to straighten him out at grandma's house. They end up in the middle of perhaps the greatest tragedy of the civil rights era. It's a story told with heart by 10 year old Kenny, so it was perfect for my fifth graders as they learned about America. Curtis also won the Newbery for Bud, Not Buddy, a depression era novel of a ten year old boy who runs from foster care looking for his father, and Elijah of Buxton, set in a Canadian town founded by escaped slaves from the American south.

Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963, by Sharon Robinson, is the story of the year Sharon turned 13, in January of 1963. It was a world-changing, heartbreaking year for the civil rights movement, and she lived at its center. Her father, the baseball legend and lifelong activist Jackie Robinson, was deeply involved with raising money for the cause, working side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, so Sharon heard firsthand about the roller coaster ride of the movement. This is an enlightening story of the pivotal year in American history, but it's equally a tender story about the loving family of an American hero and the story of a girl just becoming a young woman. The book is honest and clearly explains ideas of racial inequality in ways that children will understand. It's a gift to lovers of history and baseball.

Joseph Bruchac was my go-to author for middle grade and young adult books written from a First Nations perspective. His exceptional writing ability and prolific writing production, along with his own Abenaki ancestry, gave his books the quality and credibility that made me keep going back. He's probably best known for the novel Code Talker, about a Navajo teenager who joins the Marines during WWII. It's based on a true top secret project. The Navajo's Indigenous language was used as a code so complex it couldn't be cracked by the Japanese. Bruchac's biographies, such as Sacajawea and Pocahontas, are riveting, and his horror stories based on Native American legend, such as Skeleton Man and The Dark Pond, were creepy enough to delightfully frighten my 5th grade reluctant readers. Look for his Peacemaker, coming in October, a story of how warring nations came together to form the Iroquois Confederacy because of one man's legendary persuasive power.

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, is the beautifully written story of a girl born to wealth on her family's Mexican ranch, a girl accustomed to care from servants until tragedy changes everything. Esperanza flees to California with her mother during the Great Depression, and settles in a farm workers' camp where the labor and constant danger are like nothing she's ever faced. It's a story of survival by force of will and also a story of love for family above all else. Esperanza is an inspiration! My students also loved Muñoz Ryan's Riding Freedom, about a girl raised in a boys' orphanage during the mid-1800's who had a special gift with horses, and she wanted to do things which weren't legal for women of the time. She figured out a way!

Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park, is richly developed Americana, and I am deeply grateful! In her author's note, Park says it's a story she's been writing nearly all her life. "It is an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little House books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings." To reconcile the attitudes of Laura Ingalls Wilder's characters toward people of color while honoring the books, Park gives us 14-year-old Hanna, the half Asian daughter of a white father and a mother who was both Chinese and Korean. After her mother's tragic illness and death, Hanna and her father leave California in 1880 for the Dakota Territory, where four Little House books were also set. Hanna will need all the loving wisdom Mama gave her in order to be strong in the face of challenges and injustices from people who have never lived around a Chinese person and react very badly. Newbery Medal winner Linda Sue Park has given us a beautiful picture of a girl who is strong and determined, a girl who will search for ways to treat everyone justly, and to find just treatment for herself.

Who Got Game? Baseball: Amazing but True Stories, by Derrick Barnes, gives kids who love baseball a reason to get excited during a time when the game is on hold and also a way to learn important history. Barnes, the award-winning author of the picture books Crown and The King of Kindergarten, tells stories that are each brief but dramatic, and clearly laid out for understanding. It makes this a nice book to share with early readers, and it will also interest kids up to 12 years old. These stories are often not about the usual big names but rather about the underdogs who succeeded, the great comebacks, the courage of people like the Negro League players who were pushed aside but made it into baseball anyway, and of course the strange statistics that baseball lovers talk about endlessly. It's funny, and fascinating! Barnes belts it out of the park!

There are also many picture books which add to the study of history. The one I've loved the most lately is called A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, the brilliant children's book artist who has received far too many awards to list. It's a behind-the-scenes look at how Dr. King wrote and delivered the I Have a Dream speech, a visually spectacular and highly informative view of the historical context and the people surrounding Dr. King that day. With the depth of information, this is probably not for the youngest picture book crowd, but I feel that anyone interested in the topic will love it, at any age.

I also admire a more recent picture book by the team of Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, the pair who won both the Newbery and Caldecott Awards for a sweet story called Last Stop on Market Street. Their Carmela Full of Wishes shows us Carmela making birthday wishes, with the help of her brother, her birthday bracelets, and a fuzzy dandelion from a sidewalk crack. She's finally old enough to move through the neighborhood with her brother on an errand day, and her most important wish is that dad will get "his papers fixed so he could finally be home." It's lovely in every way! And we have lots of copies, with signed bookplates, of an important new picture book by the same illustrator, Christian Robinson, about life in all its forms, called You Matter.

No comments:

Post a Comment