About Me

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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Michelle’s List: Books for James, A British Kid Who Is Into American History

My friend and fellow historian Michelle recently asked me to make a list of books I would recommend for James, a British kid (age 8) she knows who is interested in American history.

At first I was a bit flummoxed: As I often complain (watch this space: I will continue to do so) too many American history books for kids tend toward the sort of worthy, well-intended, and dreary books that kids don't care to read.

So I've come up with a few books that I do think will appeal not only to British kids with a budding interest in American history, but also to American kids.

Most of the these titles are easily available from Amazon's British branch, amazon.co.uk, so Michelle can save on shipping when she orders the books for delivery within the UK. J

Here's the list of books for Michelle. The links are to http://www.amazon.com/ (the American Amazon! Gosh, this gets complicated…)

  1. The Horrible History of the USA: As author Terry Deary likes to say, it's history with the boring bits left out. America is NOT the best entry in the series, and Deary is not a huge fan of American culture, so please, Appropriateness Nazis and nervous parents, don't say you weren't warned. However, my son, a thoroughly patriotic American, adores this book. What kid wouldn't be tickled to learn that George Washington owned slaves, and all about the Salem Witch Trials? Chances are, James already owns this, because British kids love Deary's books. So on to…

  1. You Wouldn't Want To Be an American Colonist! A Settlement You'd Rather Not Start. All the gruesome bits of the Jamestown fiasco are here in this British book, cheerfully depicted with cartoon illustrations: disease (although why yellow fever is fingered, and not malaria, is beyond me, but never mind: James will find out better from other sources), fighting between Indians and English (ditto for the omission of the Powhatans' political maneuvers around the English, which get left out, but, again, no big), cannibalism (kids love that and, no, they don't try it at home) and much more. Look, what they get wrong is pretty minor stuff. What they get right is terrific: They interest kids in some pretty specific historical topics, most of which are dealt with very poorly in American books. Also in the You Wouldn't Want…series: Live in a Wild West Town, American Pioneer, Sail With Christopher Columbus, Sail on the Mayflower, Civil War Soldier, Boston Tea Party, and more coming all the time.

  2. Thomas Coram: The Man Who Saved Children: Thomas Coram was an 18th century Englishman and sea captain who spent many years building ships in Massachusetts, before he got fed up with the locals and went home. In London, he managed to get enough support to build the Foundling Hospital, an orphanage for babies whose mothers simply couldn't afford to raise them. Coram was also one of the Trustees of the colony of Georgia, and I don't for one minute doubt that George Whitefield was inspired to found Bethesda Home for Boys by Coram's example. This is a fun book with lots of colorful illustrations and photos about Coram, his years in America, and the Hospital. A great example of Britain and America's "special relationship," and a lovely book that fascinated my son. Only hitch: This small-press book is hard to find, thanks to the stranglehold of Big Bad Book Corps., but the British Amazon.co.uk will source it for you.

  3. If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America: This is interesting, rather than fun, and I find the series to which it belongs a bit "school-y". But if James is already hooked on American history, the series, and this book in particular, might do the trick. Written in a question and answer format, the book is heavy on text, but still well-illustrated in color. My main complaints are that it could be livelier (always a problem, especially when dealing with a subject and format that doesn't loan itself to humor), and that it is ahistorical: The book doesn't give much idea of the differences in slave life over place and time, and this leaves readers with an unsatisfactory vagueness. Still, at least it's reasonably honest about slavery.

  4. Samuel Eaton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy: There was a Samuel Eaton on board the Mayflower, and this is a reasonable conjecture of what his life might have been like. Better, it focuses on a day that, while hardly out of the ordinary, marks a milestone in an otherwise rather quiet existence. We meet Samuel on his first full day of work in the fields, at age seven, and share his anxiety that he prove himself grown up in his father's eyes. Best of all, the book is illustrated with photos of costumed actors, shot at Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum in Massachusetts. This gives the story a three-dimensional quality that my son commented made it seem real. On the downside, not much in the way of humor, and my son pronounced the book fair to middling. Still, a nice book that I catch myself revisiting from time to time.

Needless to say, this list is not exhaustive. I'm always on the look-out for genuinely enjoyable books on American history, fiction included, that don't preach, teach too obviously, or bore the socks off the reader. If you know of books that you think meet my criteria, please comment below.

Oh, and Michelle? Might want to suggest that James' parents take him to The American Museum in Britain, which is in a beautiful house on the outskirts of Bath. I'll review it soon.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Review #2: A Street Through Time ***** (Five Stars)

Annette's note: Starting with this review, I'll be using a quick-reference rating guide.

Five Stars= I couldn't put this down, and neither could my kid tester, Alec (age 8). We have read (or will read) it again. It's inspiring, thought-provoking, and very entertaining. A truly exceptional book.

Four Stars= Excellent and enjoyable history for kids. Both Alec and I enjoyed this very much.

Three Stars= Commendable effort. Headed in the right direction, but needs a bit of work to make it more engaging.

Two Stars= Fair. It might work for a kid who is already engaged in this specific topic, but won't fire up too many kids who aren't. Typically pedestrian stuff.

One Star= Beware. This is the sort of kids' history I'm complaining about.

Anne Millard and Steve Noon (illustrator), A Street
Through Time: A 12,000-Year Journey Along The Same Street (New York: DK Children, 1998)

For many years, a well-meaning community service club here in Snipesville donated the proceeds of its annual benefit breakfast to buy dictionaries for every kid in town. I used to have to restrain myself from suggesting that such a gift was about as exciting to the average kid as a clod of dirt, because, well, that would have been a bit rude of me. But maybe I should have been brave and spoken up, and suggested that the good ladies of the club buy a truckload of A Street Through Time instead.

This is, quite simply, a book that no kid should be without.

Our copy (I say our, because Alec is resigned to my laying claim to it, too) is in a shocking state. The cover is long gone, and there are ominous inch-log rips near the spine on several pages. We have owned ours since Alec was five, but he can often still be found lying on the floor with this enormous volume opened in front of him, pressing his nose up to the illustrations to see all the details (and no, he doesn't need glasses.)

A Street Through Time tells the story of one fictional northern European street, from 10,000 B.C. (or B.C.E. if you prefer) to the present day. The "street" and the events that take place on it are generic enough that many readers can imagine it to be wherever they like, although it's pretty clearly somewhere in England. Each double-page spread of this outsize book covers a different period, and the pace of the book slows as we enter the modern era. In other words, the early pages jump from 10,000 B.C. to 2,000 B.C. to 600 B.C., while the last few pages divide the 19th century into three periods, before jumping (rather startlingly) to a late 20th/early 21st century present.

But this is not a reading book in any conventional sense.

Adults who believe that only text and facts are worthy for children's history are terribly mistaken, and A Street Through Time is a perfect illustration of why. This book teaches children (and adults who pay attention) what history is.

Each double-page is an enormous and beautifully detailed, vividly colored illustration of the street. You must hold the book in your hands to appreciate how gorgeous it is, because no written description or computer image can do the book justice. It's the sort of illustration that eschews artsy abstraction for the sort of vivid and realistic detail that kids (and let's be honest, most adults) prefer.

The main text is a brief (fewer than 50 words) description of the historical context (discussing how, for example, the street's residents have developed ironwork since we last met them.) All around the edges of each picture are text snippets that highlight some things to look for, such as the building of a stone castle where previously there had been a wooden fort, or the outdoor toilets in the middle of the settlement (these are often in use in the pictures, to kids' delight. Who knew that people in the past went to the bathroom?)

But the pictures themselves serve as a text for teaching kids about change over time (the very definition of history) Often, the street is captured at a less than tranquil moment in its history. We see cattle rustled, Vikings invade, and plague strike. Oddly, we don't see the impact of modern warfare, because the book skips much of the 20th century because, I presume, it would be hard to depict while maintaining the deliberate vagueness of place.

In the pictures, we see not only changes in dress, crafts, customs, religion, and how people relate to each other, but also the ways in which people alter the natural environment: What began as a wooded hill behind the settlement is gradually deforested, and then built over for example.

What's most thought-provoking (I hope) is that the book vividly illustrates that history and progress are not the same thing. After viewing the street as it was during Iron Age, complete with thatched huts, modest wooden canoes, and wooden palisades around the settlement, we turn the page (and five hundred years) to find the glory that was Romano-Britain. A huge stone temple, an amphitheater, paved roads and an embanked river give an impressive display of (to quote Monty Python) what the Romans did for us. Yet, turn the page once more, to AD 600 (five hundred years later), and all that is left are a couple of ruins, as the street, now populated by the descendants of invading Angles and Saxons, returns to wooden huts and an unbanked river. Magic.

The book shows the zigzag that is history, and it also shows continuity as well as change. The holy site of the Stone Age becomes the Roman Temple becomes the stone church, which over time acquires a spire, and then a rebuilt tower, before burning down in the civil war of the seventeenth century. It is then rebuilt, and repeatedly modernized into the present day.

The success of A Street Through Time is partly reflected in how often it is imitated. Since its publication, the format has spun off and inspired all sorts of similar titles. All are welcome, because it's an inexhaustible genre that still has much potential, and I will review some of them here. None, however, quite matches the cleverness of the original.

This book will stimulate a child's interest in history of all kinds, so even if European history is not your thing, please don't hold that against it. For kids, the most important thing is NOT absorbing "information" (i.e. committing facts to memory). It is to gain a sense of history, and an enthusiasm to learn more. Kids gain from A Street Through Time a sense of chronology and change. Most of all, they love it. This book is a terrific investment in imagination and critical thought.

For more book recommendations, visit my
Non-Boring History Recommendations for Kids.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

History In The News: Facts, Facts, Facts

Every six months or so, the media predictably trots out some poll that reveals and bemoans young Americans' historical ignorance. Bob Herbert has an op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times about the latest of that ilk.

Whether it shows that young people think that the Civil War began in 1776, or that Pearl Harbor was a famous jazz singer, or that George Washington was named after the city, the dismal results of each study are offered up to confirm, yet again, that, yes, we're doomed as a democracy.

Let me start by asking a radical but unloaded question: Why are we concerned that kids know the particular facts that such polls emphasize?

Let's think about it. Maybe it seems self-evident. Most of us will mutter about "needing to know where we're been to know where we're going," (huh?) or being well-rounded informed citizens (huh, again?), but do we really ponder why we care about particular facts, other than feeling a vague sense of unease?

Often, we're upset because young people apparently don't know anything about an historical event that's important to us personally, either because we lived through it, or because our parents did. Do any of us feel alarmed when kids profess ignorance and indifference toward the French and Indian War? C'mon, really? But if the same kids were to shrug their shoulders at, say, the Korean War or the Carter Presidency, we flip.

Partly, of course, we value recent history especially because we still see its consequences playing out in the present: 1968 has been the elephant in the room during the last two presidencies, for example. But, mostly, I would suggest, we value our children's knowledge of the recent past because we are alarmed at the idea of our own lived history vanishing into the mists of time.

I recall a faculty meeting at my first teaching job, where one of my colleagues, in his fifties, complained that our college students had no recollection of Watergate. I said that I sympathized: It was hard for me to feel the same way because I was living in England when Nixon resigned. "I was also ten years old," I added, with an unprofessional smirk around the middle-aged faces in the room. My colleague shuddered, but then I corrected myself. "No, wait, I was nine." Ooh, I was rotten, but it was a good point: How could Watergate have the same resonance for me? How could I be brought to comprehend the resonance that it had for my older colleagues?

Now, admittedly, my dad had the presence of mind in 1974 to drag me out of bed, and emphasize to me that an American president had never, ever resigned before, and that I should watch this historic event on the BBC. I agreed that this was something I wanted to see, but all I would remember ever after was that Nixon was on the verge of tears. I had never seen a grown man get emotional, and I felt so sorry for him. And so, all my life, I've had a soft spot for Richard Nixon that my American elders have never understood. Watergate has not had, and cannot have, the same emotional meaning for me as it had for those who lived through it as Americans of voting age. As an historian, however, I have forced myself to confront this and to read up on the subject. Result? I have a decent intellectual grasp of its impact on American culture, because I have done my best to put myself in the place of those who experienced it as American adults.

It's misleading of me, however, to imply that no events that predate the 20th century make it onto the history ignorance pollsters' radar. The Civil War, the Bill of Rights: These are iconic political events that we want teenagers to know. But do we want to know them in their historical context (how many American adults truly understand that the Bill wasn't handed down on gold tablets, but the highly-contested product of fierce debate?), or do we want kids just to "know" the simple facts themselves?

Which brings me to my main point: If we agree that, yes, kids should know when the Civil War happened, and who Adolf Hitler was, what do those who churn out these tedious polls actually propose we should do about it? The answer seems obvious: Redouble our efforts to teach kids these important facts. Seems wonderfully reasonable, doesn't it? Good, solid, old-fashioned, back-to-basics stuff that reflects an awful lot of history teaching, from kindergarten through college.

The problem is that it doesn't work.

Kids study for quizzes and tests without enthusiasm, and spit back the facts, which we all then assume they have "learned." They haven't, because nobody got them excited about history, and so they simply dutifully memorize what is put in front of them. Within months, weeks, even days, the facts have left them, because they never even vaguely understood what those facts represented to begin with. They don't understand the historical context, the particular cultures and societies that produced the events we hold sacred, and how differently they were understood by those who lived through them. They don't, in short, understand history, which is the study of change over time. And professional historians have done a truly crappy job of explaining this to the public.

That's why I encounter college students who think that the World War Two was a nineteenth-century event…or who cannot understand that the 1800s were the 19th century, not the 18th…or for whom the past has congealed into an ahistorical mess of facts, factoids, and non-facts. That is why an ordinary, undistinguished, but passionate historian at a no-name Southern university is throwing herself heart and soul into writing News from Snipesville.

In his Times article, Bob Herbert has cottoned on to the idea that ignorance of history somehow demonstrates that American high schools are failing students, by failing to provide them with the "intellectual tools" required to take on the 2lst century. But what are those intellectual tools? He doesn't say. Heads up, Bob: It's critical thinking. It's dealing with the past as if it were, to its participants, as meaningful and immediate as the present is to us. Let's get the focus off of what we teach kids, and swing the spotlight onto HOW we teach them. So long as we cling to the virtues of isolated facts, absurdly wide-ranging survey courses, and mindnumbing high-stakes tests, and not on exciting students with the intensive study of lived experience in the past, we will never fix the problems, any of them. And the Henny Penny History Polls will keep on appearing.

(For more on what I propose we do about it, watch this space. And let me hear your suggestions, too.)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Random Ramble: History and Humor

A few years ago, chatting at an academic conference textbook exhibit with a Big Bad Book Corporation sales rep, I bemoaned how boring textbooks are. Would it hurt, I asked, if they could have a bit of humor occasionally?

He looked gravely and pityingly at me, as if I just suggested that Big Bad Book Corp. should publish the printed version of Springtime for Hitler, and slowly shook his head in wonderment at the naïve and unworldly chick academic.

"Humor in history," he pronounced heavily, "is a dangerous thing."

Perhaps, I would wonder later, having not really known what to say at the time. But for whom?

My college students? Doubt it. They've been laughing at my tacky jokes for years, except for the lame ones that I drop from the repertoire after they fall flat for three semesters running.

Kids? Not if the success of the Horrible History series in the UK is anything to go by. And I still have yet to see any evidence that tasteless and funny books corrupt the young: Quite the contrary, because kids who think for themselves are usually far more interesting, sensible, and likeable than kids who don't.

The Appropriateness Nazis? A small but vocal number of overly-sensitive adults who seldom seem to have even an inkling of what kids are really like, and to whom the best response may be a polite suggestion that they get over themselves. Being an Appropriateness Nazi, of course, is not an irredeemable state. Most of us go through that phase when we first have kids: Ooh, no toy guns, no TV unless it's heart-warming and improving, no unhealthy snacks. But then our kids turn on Barney the 12-Step dinosaur, and become monsters… Not really, if we're honest with ourselves (and most of us are). They just become more completely and recognizably human, bless their little flatulence-and-poop-joke hearts.

So who suffers, then, from humor in history? Could it be Big Bad Book Corp. and their fear of of millions of Appropriateness Nazis launching a boycott of their overpriced textbooks? Of irate parents demanding that all their books be banned?

But I'm still confused: When books are banned, they get more publicity than the publishers are ever likely to pay for, and lots of silent-majority librarians, parents, and kids rush to buy or read the books in question. Harry Potter leaping to mind, here.

What do y'all think?

Friday, April 18, 2008

History In The News: Race and American Memory

My freshmen students LOVE to study history and memory: It's a revolutionary idea to them, and indeed to most people, that history isn't handed down from generation to generation of historians carved on stone tablets (or in dry-as-dust textbooks), unchanging, but that historians constantly return to original sources from the past to ask new questions in light of present concerns, and argue with each other (constantly!) about what it all means.

In class, I have the students look at three examples of the same event described in three editions of the same textbook, published in the 1920s, 1950s, and early 2000s, and we are amazed by how each passage is different, and how it reflects the times in which it was written. We also consider how (understandably) resistant many people are to the fact that history is—and must be—constantly rewritten, and how "revisionism" is considered to be some vast conspiracy of historians who were schooled in the 1960s, when it's a constant of the writing of history from ancient times to the present.

It's understandable that they're resistant, but it's wrong. Not necessarily in a moral sense, but because it blinds us to our options in the present.

One of the best ways to check out how the memory of history can be totally divorced from the past is to think of family folklore. How many old family stories, I ask, reflect badly on the family or any of its members? I encourage students to do their own research into family history, and to embrace the baddies, because they are interesting, and because honesty is liberating. We are not responsible for the deeds of our dead ancestors: We need to try to understand them and the times in which they lived, and come to terms with what we discover.

Race is a hot-button topic throughout America, and nowhere more than in the South. Many of my students are initially shocked by the involvement of Africans in the slave trade, or by their ancestors' participation in lynchings in the South of 100 years ago. But the more they study the subject, the more they come to comprehend the cultural and social pressures, and the power of delusional thinking, that lead to dreadful deeds. The lesson to take away, I think, is to appreciate that our ancestors were complex human beings, just as we are. We are not responsible for their beliefs and actions, but we are responsible for our own. We should never shy away from the pursuit of truth in history as in life, because dishonesty and willful ignorance dishonors the past and ourselves.

Yet how we commemorate history is so often decided by people who have apparently never thought about these issues, or who have, and are more concerned with maintaining political correctness (on the left or the right) than in self-examination, and honest and rigorous examination of the past. That's no way to deal with history in a democracy. And I am so glad to see Roger Cohen's short but sweet article in the New York Times this week that reminds us, gently, that searching for truth in the past can, does, and should set us free in the present. As he says, "That's scary. It can also be salutary."

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Better History Day: Secrets to Successful History Day Projects

Annette's Note: If you're not familiar with National History Day, you might want to take a look at the official site.

The first time I judged student projects at National History Day was while I was an undergraduate in Sacramento, California. I well remember my bewilderment.

One project was on the history of shoes: The main part of the exhibit was a home-made poster, covered with a collage of pictures of shoes, all cut from magazines. Of course, this was during the mid-Eighties, when standards were higher, and the kids had to actually search through magazines. Today, I suppose, the pictures would be found instantly on Google, printed, and then cut out. The only problem was that the exhibit didn't actually have any history in it. Shoes could have made an interesting topic, but only if they could have given the judges some hint of why and how shoes have changed over time…Only then would it qualify as history.

Then there was the kid with the project on solar energy. I tried, in vain, to draw him out about the history of the development and use of solar energy. Nada. Then it became apparent that the project was recycled from a Science Fair.

Of course, these are extremes, and most of the projects I have judged over the years have been better than this . But this didn't mean that their designers were much up on their history. One project at that first fair was about the Battle of Something or Other. Two boys had painstakingly made a papier mache model of the fort where said battle took place. It was a terrific model. But the boys didn't really know much about the battle, much less about the war, or why anyone else should care. This, unfortunately, is more typical than it should be.

Back in the day, because I was young, arrogant, and brash (even more than today), and, most importantly, because I hadn't yet drunk the Kool Aid, I insisted on telling the students the truth. I think I was hard on them because, after a pretty decent British education at a no-name school in a rough working-class town, I coasted through my undergrad years. I knew that American high school-age kids ought to be capable of more, and I told them so. I still think it's better to be honest with teenagers, although I'm sure I could have been less damning in my tone back in Nineteen-Eighty-Whatever. I have got nicer (or more dishonest, your choice) over the years. But I'm still not convinced that most History Day projects reflect the abilities and potential of their creators.

So…I suggest that teachers and students take a look at the examples of first-rate projects that have won the national contests in the past. Unfortunately, in my experience, too few projects even get close…and they should. Students are capable of more, and given the right conditions, they can and will rise to the challenge.

Because I would like to see more and more projects that are genuinely outstanding, here are a few of my suggestions for History Day project success.

  1. Projects that reflect a real passion for the chosen subject on the part of the student(s), NOT a parent or teacher, are most likely to win. DON'T, parents, do the project for your student: It's painfully obvious when you do that, and you are harming your child's education. Further, don't choose subjects for students, or they are more likely than not to be a bit halfhearted about it. On the other hand, DO make them aware that the range of possible subjects is much larger than what's in a school textbook.
  2. Local history may not have the same immediate appeal to students as, say, the Salem Witch Trials, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, or one of the many battles of the Civil War. But a local history subject is far more likely to engage the student(s) , not least because it will require a bit of legwork. Students might want to look at a national or international event or phenomenon through local eyes: What was it like to live through the civil rights era in your small town? What was happening in your neighborhood during World War Two?

    Alternatively, a project could reverse that emphasis by focusing on a particular local event and putting it in national context: Recently, I saw a story about a small town whose only claim to fame was a water tower disguised as a ketchup bottle, originally put up by a defunct ketchup manufacturer. Students in that town could focus on the landmark, and how automobile travel led to the creation of crazy roadside attractions beginning in the 1920s. Alternatively, they could (if ambitious) interview former ketchup factory workers and ask about what life was like for them before and after the plan closed. The limits on subjects are the student's imagination and the availability of evidence. Which brings me to…

  3. Please, students (and especially high schoolers) read books for your projects. Get the help of your town librarian or school media specialist (that's librarian in real English) to find relevant books that you can handle. Visit your local university library, and ask the reference librarians to help you locate books and articles, which you can at least read in the library. What's on the Web is a tiny fraction of available evidence, and so much of what is online is dreadful. Primary source documents on the web are often just the tip of the iceberg on the subject, presented as disconnected from the huge archival array of sources to which they belong, and unlikely, by themselves, to offer much in the way of evidence. Certainly, the situation on the web is getting a little better, but not much. And using a real archive will be a memorable experience (I did it in high school, and you can too). Plus it will, I promise, impress the judges. See #5 for ideas.
  4. And don't just print stuff from the web. If you didn't write it, judges are not interested. Teachers and parents should help students evaluate the reliability of web sites. Believe it or not, I once saw a project on Hitler that reprinted material from a Neo-Nazi site. The student wasn't a Neo-Nazi (and, hopefully, neither were his parents), he just didn't know.
  5. Students: Do the best and most creative possible job you can in your research, not just your in presentation. Most judges will interview students on History Day, and many of us will make much of our judgment based on that interview, regardless of what the official NHD judging forms may say. We tend to be college professors and history graduate students, and many of us are unimpressed by PowerPoint bells and whistles, especially if the actual subject matter is very thin, not least because we know how little intellectual effort the bells and whistles represent. We are far more impressed by students who have gone the extra mile. You may take the initiative to do research in real archives, which is not nearly as hard as it sounds, and a lot more interesting: Churches, local libraries, state libraries, school board offices, even your attic… all are sources of primary source material! Think diaries, letters, newspapers, committee records, or census records, all of which can be the basis for a project, especially if you consult with the archivist or librarian, who can point you toward interesting and manageable collections. And many archival collections are available in libraries as published books or on microfilm. Another source? Do oral history. Grab a video camera and interview people who lived through history. I guarantee you will have a great time.

Other History Day judges, teachers, parents, students, what do you think? I look forward to an ongoing discussion…

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Post Script: Book Review, You Wouldn’t Want To…

David Salariya, creator of the splendid You Wouldn't Want To… series, has written me a lovely email to comment on my review. He notes, "We have about 50 titles in this series in print and have eight new titles in production." Wow. I must admit, I hadn't really done my homework, and didn't realize quite how many books his company has produced… That's very exciting news, as is David's mentioning that a TV series based on the books is in development here in the States.

As to my criticism that few of the books feature girls and women as the "You" of the title, David points out, "We have published 'A Greek Slave' from the point of view of a mother sold into slavery, losing her children and husband, 'on the Mayflower, a female passenger' ' Henry VIII from the point of view of Catherine Parr', 'Medieval Castle' from point of view of female kitchen servant. 'Evacuee', from point of view of girl sent to the country, 'Victorian Servant' from point of view of girl going into service at the age of 13."

Most excitingly (from my standpoint as an historian who deals with the connections between British and American history), David writes, "We have a really good title in production at the moment on the women's suffrage movement, this is being told from the point of view of an Aunt in America telling her niece in England about the suffrage movement and the mother in England telling her (the daughter/niece) what it was like being a suffragette in Britain.

However, he does admit that most of the books focus on men. He explains the relative lack of women characters: "As for woman as main characters, we have had some women, although we have a problem with women in that they do not have the freedom to go to places and move about in the way that men did, however we are aware of the lack of history from a female point of view..."

Sorry, David, but I have to take issue there! Women were not only present throughout the recorded past, but (as your own series shows), actors in it, especially when we focus on social and cultural history. May I suggest, for example, a title that takes as its starting point Laurel Ulrich's splendid Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Midwife's Tale? Martha Ballard, the midwife of the title, certainly got out and about. I can see it now… You Wouldn't Want To Be a Midwife in Early Maine (An Adventure in Obstetrics You'd Rather Not Have) OK, so I am NOT serious about the title, but the concept is definitely doable. Martha did much more than deliver babies, by the way!

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

TimeCamp...Coming Soon to Statesboro?

I'm currently mulling over the idea of a week-long time-travel camp for kids age 8-12, right here in Snipesville...I mean, Statesboro... in 2009. Those of you familiar with TimeShop will know that we were frustrated in dealing with the bureaucracy of a big university, and also that the program was quite a production. I think I've figured out the logistics (well, some of them) and I'm excited about some of the ideas that have popped into my head. Let's just say that I'm starting to plan... Uh, oh.

Book Review #1: You Wouldn’t Want To… Miss This Great Series of History Books

[Annette's Note: Too few history books for kids are both entertaining and thought-provoking. The problem is that writers for children are seldom trained historians, while trained historians generally don't write for the public, and especially not for children.
As I discover enjoyable and stimulating history books for kids, both fiction and non-fiction, I will share my finds with you on this blog. Every book I recommend has also passed the AlecTest, namely, does my eight-year-old son, Alec, also love this book? To view our ongoing list of favorites, please visit Dr. Annette Laing's NON-BORING History Books, DVDs, and Websites for Kids. If, while browsing there or here on the Blog, you choose to purchase any books by clicking on the Amazon links, you will support my work to make history accessible for kids: Amazon gives a small commission, at no cost to you.]

You Wouldn't Want To…

Various authors. Illustrated by David Antram. Franklin Watts (An Imprint of Scholastic.)

Hooking kids' interest in the past is easiest when they are enticed to imagine themselves there. Who wouldn't want to pretend to live in a castle in medieval England, or rendezvous with the Pilgrims as they disembark from the Mayflower? But kids also prefer their history to have an "ick" factor: The sanitized stuff about cardboard heroes that makes it into school textbooks is much less fun than Henry VIII chopping off the heads of his wives, or the grim business of mummification in Ancient Egypt. The ever-growing You Wouldn't Want To series of books appeals to both these demands, by inviting kids to imagine themselves living in the past, while showing them that, well, they really wouldn't want to.

Created by illustrator and publisher David Salariya (who, I'm happy to say, is a native of Dundee, Scotland, my home town), the series (known in the UK as Danger Zone) is especially exciting for its diverse choice of subjects. So many superb history books for children have been produced in the UK during the past twenty years, but, frustratingly, most focus on British and, to a lesser extent, European history, and do so in ways that sometimes make them difficult for American kids to connect. Salariya, however, has wisely chosen historical settings that range, albeit unevenly, over the whole gamut of world history, from the predictable (You Wouldn't Want To Be An Egyptian Mummy!) to the—by Western standards—exotic (You Wouldn't Want to Be an Inca Mummy! takes kids to sixteenth-century Peru.)

Let me rush to add here that mummification is far from the only theme of the series. All the themes are ambitiously and successfully specific, avoiding the vagueness about time and place that weakens many kids' history books. Kids learn that the past isn't just one giant lump of "Back Then": Culture and society change constantly, and a few years or miles can make all the difference.

You Wouldn't Want to Be a Victorian Mill Worker, for example, takes readers to England in 1842, during the grueling early years of the Industrial Revolution, and asks them to imagine being an 11-year-old child taken from the workhouse to labor in a cotton mill in the northern city of Manchester. The book gleefully illustrates the many terrible things that could (and did) befall child workers in early factories (scalping, crushed fingers, and various respiratory ailments) before the introduction and enforcement of safety laws. It also introduces kids to Lancashire dialect (with translations), and in so doing, neatly makes the point that English comes in many varieties, any one of which is not necessarily intelligible to other English speakers. Most excitingly, the link between slavery in America and near-slavery in Manchester is made explicit: The book begins with a quick explanation of cotton production and the export trade to England.

This isn't, honestly, as heavy as it sounds. Salariya's stable of writers don't shy from doing their homework, and consulting with experts when necessary: You Wouldn't Want to be a Roman Soldier! , for example, was written with the help of Stephen Johnson, the author of several books on archeology. But the authors also bring experience in teaching and writing for children to the table, and they don't hesitate to use humor to keep their readers engaged.

This approach is especially refreshing when it comes to American history. The teaching of U.S. history in schools is handicapped by the ways in which we conceive of history curriculum either as a course in patriotism, a lesson in self-esteem, or both. The problem is that neither approach impresses kids, and that the good intentions tend to backfire when young people encounter real history in college and discover for themselves that the candy-coated and dull history they were fed (and yet rarely absorbed) is nonsense. You Wouldn't Want To Be An American Colonist! will do more to interest kids in the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown than a whole stack of tedious and preachy textbooks. The story is gross, funny, and (hallelujah!) true. Kids vicariously experience everything from the "Starving Time" of the winter of 1609-10, when colonists resorted to eating their shoes and even to cannibalism, to the tense and often violent relationship between the settlers and Algonquian Indians. Finally, of course, the colony survives by planting the profitable crop of tobacco. Trust me, kids raised in an increasingly smoke-free society love to marvel at this.

The American history titles in the series also include Live in a Wild West Town, Sail With Christopher Columbus, Be A Civil War Soldier, Be An American Pioneer, Be At The Boston Tea Party, Sail On The Mayflower, Work on the Railroad.

My main criticism of the series is that non-Western history and recent topics get short shrift. While Latin America (Aztec Sacrifice, Inca Mummy, Mayan Soothsayer) and Asia (Great Wall of China) are represented, there is still much to be done in both areas, and I've yet to find a title in the series that deals with sub-Saharan African history. Also, while the series includes volumes on the Titanic and Apollo 13, I would love to see more titles that deal with the twentieth century, although I'm well aware that political considerations don't encourage that. Finally, although I freely admit that I haven't read every volume, I have yet to come across a You Wouldn't Want To book that features a girl as the character with whom kids identify. Several of the volumes, however, cleverly avoid identifying the "you" of the title…and since it's boys who often need the most persuasion to read, I'll give the editors a pass…for now.

The editions available in the U.S have been slightly adapted to American needs: When prices are translated into modern terms, for example, dollars are used for comparison. Each slim volume in the series is cheerfully illustrated with the colorful artwork of David Antram. His amusing and bold color cartoons help to make the often-grim subject matter digestible, even to easily-scared parents.

If you want to check out the series before buying, Salariya Book Company's site generously makes four You Wouldn't Want To titles available (FREE) on the web: Egyptian Mummy, Polar Explorer, Roman Gladiator, and Sail On The Whaling Ship Essex. The online books aren't as graphically appealing as their dead-tree versions, but a fun feature that allows you to roll over characters to see speech bubbles compensates, as, of course, does the price… Go to: http://www.salariya.com/web_books/pages/web_books.html

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Time Travel Trips For Everyone, #1: Beamish, England

[Annette's note: This is the first in an occasional series of postings about cool history destinations in the USA and UK, drawn from my first-hand experience. I firmly believe that most of the "must see" places on American tourists' lists are actually disappointingly dull, especially for kids, to whom they rarely cater (don't even get me started on Westminster Abbey…), and that the memorable gems reward the small effort it takes to get to them, because they make an effort to attract visitors, especially families. I will be very interested in your comments: Do give me feedback about how useful and/or interesting these postings are for you. ]

Headed Up North…and Out of Time

It's 1913, the year before the First World War, in a small town in the North of England. A bleak drizzle falls from the cloudy skies, and mixes with the earthy smell of coal smoke belching from the chimneys of the houses and shops on the main street. Passengers shiver on the open upper deck of the double-decker bus. Kids just out of school visit the candy shop to buy freshly-made pear drops. Miners' wives from the nearby pit village stop in at the member-owned cooperative stores for groceries and supplies.

And you are there.

You've likely heard of Colonial Williamsburg, the world's largest living history museum, and you may have even visited it. But did you know that it's just one of many living history museums (also known as open air museums) across the world?
Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum is the largest living history museum in Britain.
Why Visit Beamish?

Families, homeschoolers, and teachers: A visit to Beamish makes a great complement to your study of the First World War, Victorian Britain and/or America, the Industrial Revolution, and a reading of my novel, Don't Know Where, Don't Know When, which is partly set in 1915. Unlike most American living history museums, which focus on crafts, rural life, and/or the lives of the wealthy, Beamish focuses mainly on ordinary people living urban settings in the recent past. A visit to Beamish gives kids a chance to connect with a time and place that may seem at once similar yet very different from modern life in Britain and America. Situated near Durham and Newcastle, it is a good add-on to a visit to Britain that includes a rail journey between London and Scotland.

Everyone else: It's fun! Consider making it a stop on your railway journey from London to Edinburgh, for example. Allow two nights and one day in your journey. This is also your chance to mingle with Brits at a popular site that's off the American tourist trail.

Highlights (to get you excited about going)

Imagine Life as a Miner at the Colliery Village in 1913.

Put on a hardhat, and let a REAL former miner show you round a REAL coal mine (don't worry, it's not deep, but watch your head!)
Go to church: Miners' lives were unimaginably tough, and Sundays were among the few days when they could clean off the grime, put on nice clothes, and actually live: Check out the Methodist chapel, where mining families worshipped and maintained their self-respect.
Learn to Sit Up Straight and Pay Attention: Visit a Victorian elementary school, complete with desks in rows, and play with hoops and sticks in the playground.
Gatecrash a Miner's House: Enter the home of a miner and his family, and find out what it took to keep clean and respectable when coal dust was everywhere, houses were small, and families were large.

Shop in the North of England in 1913.

Don't miss the sweets! The sweet shop is always crowded, especially when school groups are visiting, so if it looks like you can squeeze in, do it, and fight your way to the counter! Most of the old-fashioned hard candies are mass-produced but still worth trying: Rhubarb and custard, lemon drops, sherbet pips, and mint humbugs are just a few of the interesting varieties available to be measured from large jars into small paper bags. In the back room, there are regular demonstrations of candy-making, with free samples. Yum.

See where Brandon served his apprenticeship as a dentist! If you have read Don't Know Where, Don't Know When, you may be surprised to learn that Mr. Gordon's home and surgery are in County Durham. I "moved" the house to Balesworth (itself a fictionalized version of Stevenage in Hertfordshire), after falling in love with it at Beamish. The building is largely as I described it, including the surgery and office on the second floor.

If you are 18 or over, have a drink in the pub. This friendly and tiny pub sells local brews, including a hard cider that is testament to Britain's love affair with the apple.

Return to 1825, and take the train.

Try State-of-the-Art Travel, 1825-style…Beamish is developing a new area depicting life in 1825. One of the first attractions is a working replica of the first-ever passenger train in the world! Nothing beats taking a ride in one of the open third-class carriages in the rain, as my son will attest...

Snoop in the Big House….At Pockerley Manor, a small manor house owned by a prosperous farmer, you might sample fresh Parkin (a kind of gingerbread) baked over the fire, watch candles being made, or find out what foods were stored in the bedrooms…

Don't Forget Beamish's Special Events…

Depending on when you show up, you may enjoy an early 19th century country fair, or cheer on the contestants in a horse-ploughing contest. Check out Beamish's calendar of events, because you may want to time your visit to coincide with one of them.
And Finally…
Interpreters at Beamish are dressed in period costume, but they don't pretend to be characters from the past. You will find that they are very friendly and knowledgeable, often have a great sense of humor, and are eager to answer your questions without boring you to death. In fact, if you have become used to being bored and patronized by interpreters at American historical sites (more about this theme in a future posting, because it's one of my pet peeves) you will be amazed at how fun and friendly a place Beamish can be! In case there's any doubt about this, Beamish is very kid-friendly. Alec, my kid testing assistant and son, has enjoyed two wonderful visits to Beamish in 2006 and 2007, and was impressed by how the staff often spoke directly to him, and answered his questions patiently and well.
American travelers: How to make it happen
Going to the UK?
Am I mad? Haven't I heard of recession and the plummeting dollar?

Sure: But I can help my American readers get over your fear of travel abroad, give you some tips for getting off the beaten track (and to venues that families will find more entertaining than boring old sightseeing at been there/done that tourist traps), and suggest ways to save money while you do it. And –for more people than realize it—it can be done without going into debt for the rest of your life. In a future post, rather than duplicate the work of some great travel sites, I'll get you started with a listing of those sites that help you plan your trip to get the most value for money.

For now, here are some useful tips. While they are certainly practical advice, the main purpose of these is to help you envision yourself as an independent traveler in Britain.

Beamish is near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, a major railway station on the north-south line from London's Kings Cross Station. Bus service is very affordable and frequent (but not fast!) from Newcastle to Beamish. That said, BE PREPARED with seat reservations, train times, bus times, and booked accommodation. See my upcoming posting, "How to Survive and Have Fun as an Independent American Traveler in the U.K." for web sites that let you plan easily in advance.

You should confirm details of opening times, public transport, etc, before travelling, since information may change with little or no notice.

By car: Beamish is easily accessed by car, and has plenty of parking. See the Museum website for directions and details. Some nearby hotels, such as the budget Premier Inns, may offer discount "vouchers" (coupons) for Beamish, as they did when I stayed at one near Durham in 2006: Just ask at the desk.

By public transport: Not easy, no, but certainly practical. Yes, I have done it! Take the train to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. If you're coming direct from London, you will need to spend at least one night, but there are affordable guest houses and bed and breakfasts (especially good deals for lone travelers and couples, since most are priced per person) from which you can walk to the bus station. The bus journey, while reliable, is an adventure in itself. The Beamish Museum site gives bus details, but you should also check the bus company site so you can check timetables (schedules) with their convenient journey planner. Be aware that there are two bus stations in central Newcastle, just a block apart, and that you probably need to catch the Beamish bus from the Eldon Square Bus Station, which has a lovely modern indoor waiting area: If in doubt, ask a local. To save money, make time as you walk past the Haymarket Bus Station (the one you won't be catching a bus from) to pop into the Marks and Spencers branch at 77-87 Northumberland Street, where you can pick up a picnic for lunch from their extensive range of ready-to-eat foods. As you board at Eldon Square Bus Station, ask the driver to give you a shout when you get to Beamish—He will. Here's the best part: Show your return bus ticket to the ticket office at Beamish, and you will get a huge discount that includes the cost of the bus travel.

And remember my travel advice for Americans in Britain: If in doubt, ASK. Almost everybody will be friendly and helpful, and you do speak the same language, after all. Well, sort of.

Special Note for Families & Teachers:

Stop in at the Gift Shop. Beamish Museum Shop (at the entrance) sells a wonderful and very affordable activity book, in which you affix stickers of characters from 1913 to photos from the Museum. The whole book then unfolds to make a long wall poster: It's a great souvenir!

P.S. If your travel plans don't extend to the North of England, don't despair. In future postings, I will highlight similar living history museums in other areas of England, and in the U.S.