Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Newsletter
Fall 1998. Page 4.
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Featured Author: Jean Fritz
For our author study this quarter, let's look at the work of Jean Fritz. As a child Jean Fritz had little interest in the subject of American history about which she was to teach us all so much. She was, however, greatly interested in the culture of America. She was born on November 16, 1915 in Hankow, China. The only child of missionary parents, Jean often felt lonely and misplaced in the country where she was born. In her book Homesick: My Own Story (Dell, 1984 ISBN 0440436834. Paperback. Paperback.), she describes feeling homesick for the America she knew only through her father's stories about life there. She also tells us a great deal about the culture of China of the 1920s. Her life there already had an international flavor since she lived in a French compound, attended a British school, had two German best friends and spoke fluent Chinese. She came to the United States when she was thirteen where again she felt misplaced. She returned to China a few years ago and wrote about that experience of rediscovering her roots in China Homecoming (Putnam, 1985 ISBN 0399211829. Hardcover). She and her husband Michael have two children and live near New York City.
Although the majority of Jean Fritz's writing is nonfictional, let's start with her excellent historical novels. Brady (Puffin, 1988 ISBN 0140322582. Paperback) fits in well with our theme this month on the Civil War although it is set in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. Brady's father is a minister and he and others of the family often despair of Brady's inability to think before he speaks. When Brady discovers a runaway slave hiding in his father's sermon house, he knows that to divulge this secret would be to disclose the existence of this station on the Underground Railway. When Brady's father becomes ill, it falls upon Brady to keep the secret and to take on the role of a conductor. The book is exciting and accessible for kids from grades four and up.
The Cabin Faced West (Puffin, 1987 ISBN 0140322566. Paperback. Hardcover.) is also set in Pennsylvania but at an earlier time: 1784. It faces west because that's where Ann's father thought the future of the country lay. That might well be true but the ten year old girl finds this a lonely place. She hates the road that leads back to their home in Gettysburg because she may not take it. The narrow dirt road seems incapable of bringing any joy but then George Washington comes down that road and stays for supper.
A third novel, Early Thunder (Puffin, 1987 ISBN 0140322590. Paperback.) is set just before the American Revolution in Salem, Massachusetts. There Daniel West's home reflects the turmoil in the town around it. Daniel's father is a physician and is frequently away from the motherless child on business in Boston. His father has taken a loyalist stand in this time when people are choosing sides and the family is becoming increasingly ostracized as the conflict accelerates. Daniel finds himself pulled in many directions as his friends and associates make different choices. The book is easily understood by most kids from fifth grade up.
Jean Fritz's most accessible work of fiction is George Washington's Breakfast (Putnam, 1984 ISBN 0606134182. Paperback.). Second graders on up can join the fun as a young boy asks an apparently simple question after eating breakfast one morning, "What did George Washington have for breakfast?" No one at the table has the answer but his parents assure him that, if he can find out what George Washington really ate for breakfast, they will cook it for him. The research takes many forms including a trip to Mount Vernon and we all learn some things about Washington along the way. It's at Mount Vernon that he finds the answer to the question and the meal is prepared and eaten. Then, of course, he asks, "What did George Washington have for lunch?" Mercifully, we leave him there.
That's it for Jean Fritz's fictional work. Each is historical and the background Fritz provides in each shows her extensive research and her ability to portray a time and the decisions made by ordinary people vividly for young readers. These skills are even more apparent in her nonfictional work.
At the time when Jean Fritz first began writing her biographies of famous Americans, most biographies for young readers were fictionalized. They contained lots of facts but writers often invented conversations and fictitious or imagined situations through the narrative was propelled. Then Jean Fritz came along and proceeded to tell us fascinating, often funny details about the people and events that brought full dimension to the book without resorting to fictionalization. Her biographies contain no invention or traces of author's license.
Let's start with the most accessible histories. Only Fritz could have given us the easy-to-read and very funny book about George Washington's Mother (Putnam, 1992 ISBN 0448403854. Paperback.). Illustrated by Dyanne Disalvo-Ryan this 48 page book gives us Mary Ball Washington who cared deeply about her son and nagged him constantly to her dying day.
Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln (Stern Sloan, 1993 ISBN 0448402703. Paperback.) gives us an easy-to-read book about the writing of the Gettysburg Address. After giving us a very brief background about the times and the occasion, Fritz debunks the legend that Lincoln scribbled the speech on an envelope as she tells us what really happened before and after the words were uttered.
A very brief autobiography Surprising Myself (Richard C. Owen, 1992 ISBN 1878450379. Paperback.) comes next in this hierarchy of books. As with other books in this Meet the Author series, there are numerous color photographs that accompany the words of the author as she goes about her life and fills in a few details about her past.
The next pile of Jean Fritz histories are the "question titles". Several of them were published just prior to the Bicentennial and they have become mainstays of the study of American history in the elementary school. Accessible from about second grade up, the touch is light, the facts are clear and the effect is delightful.
And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (Putnam, 1973 ISBN 0698113519. Paperback. Hardcover.) is illustrated by Margot Tomes. Fritz starts by telling us how many streets, lanes and alleys existed in Boston in 1735 as well as how many horses (418). With that bit of trivia, she helps us visualize the town that was to assume such importance in the coming conflict. Quickly she fills in Revere's childhood and then we're with him at the beginning and end of the ride. Revere didn't stop there, of course, and neither does Fritz as she tells of Revere's later inventions and accomplishments.
Can't You Make Them Behave, King George? (Putnam, 1996 ISBN 0698114027. Hardcover.) gives us the British view of the Revolution and paints poor King George III in his frustration, anger and often ridiculous pomposity.
Shh! We're Writing the Constitution (Putnam, 1997 ISBN 0399214038. Paperback. Hardcover.) illustrated by Tomie dePaola is not a question title but it belongs here because it is also one of the shorter histories accessible for second grade on up. Obviously, she's working with the Constitutional Convention here and she covers the personalities and frustrations of the men who gathered in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1786 to construct the master document.
Back to the question titles now with What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? Illustrated by Margot Tomes (Putnam, 1976 ISBN 0698302658. Paperback. Hardcover.). As she did with the Paul Revere book, Fritz starts this one with the streets of Boston. In 1706 they were still naming those streets and she soon takes us to Milk Street where the future great inventor and statesman was born. The eccentric patriot is brought to life with humor and affection.
Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? (Putnam, 1981 ISBN 0399207341. Hardcover.) is also illustrated by Margot Tomes. Again Fritz uses a light touch for much of the book but there's no humor when she gets to his dealings with the native people he encountered in the New World.
J. B. Handelsman illustrated Who's That Stepping on Plymouth Rock? (Putnam, 1975 ISBN 0698203259. Paperback. Hardcover.). This is actually a biography of that rock. Did they really step on it? Probably not, but it became a symbol and suffered many mishaps before it took it's place in the monument at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? (Putnam, 1975 ISBN 0698114396. Paperback. Hardcover). Well, on that date in 1736 he was in Williamsburg, Virginia being born. After that, Fritz brings us his childhood and leads us to his famous speech and later life.
Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? is illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Putnam, 1974 ISBN 0698114167. Paperback.) and brings us the rumpled, eccentric Mr. Adams who strode around Boston. Adams didn't fight in the Revolution. He knew his role lay in inciting and encouraging the rebellion but he was no soldier or horseback rider in spite of his friends' frequent requests that he get a horse.
Also illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman is Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1976 ISBN 0698203089. Paperback.). The foppish, vain patriot who financed much of the Revolution occupies center stage in this book. (You'll know whether or not you have a first edition of this one by whether or not there's an epitaph for a children's book reviewer on one of the gravestones.)
You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? (Putnam, 1995 ISBN 0399227865. Paperback.) came later but so did Lizzie. The fierce Abolitionist and demonstration leader did not live to see the passing of the 19th amendment that she worked so hard to achieve.
Only slightly longer than the question biographies is The Double Life of Pocahontas (Puffin, 1987 ISBN 0140322574. Paperback. Hardcover.) illustrated by Feodor Rojanovsky. Little actual information about Pocahontas is known but Fritz makes the most of it in this biography of the tragic woman caught between two cultures.
Fritz's longer biographies are much more challenging. It takes a good fifth through ninth grade reader to appreciate the full-bodied characters Fritz builds in these books. She says that the subjects of all her biographies have come to her, demanding attention as she does her research so that the next one is already in her mind when the current one is being written.
Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt (Putnam, 1991 ISBN 039921769X. Paperback. Hardcover.) is a 128 page book that gives us a picture of the sickly boy who grew up to adore physical exercise and had many achievements. The political giant summed up his life with the statement, "On the whole, I have continued all my life to have a better time year after year."
The Great Little Madison (Putnam, 1989 ISBN 0399217681. Paperback. Hardcover.) is a bit longer (160 pages). This unprepossessing figure was known for his passion for the establishment and preservation of the Union and for his wife, Dolly. His effect on American history is far-reaching and Fritz's biography makes us appreciate the little man.
The complex family founded by Lyman Beecher is the focus of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers (Putnam, 1994 ISBN 0399226664. Paperback.) although Harriet dominates the book. Her father's disappointment in her sex may have pushed her toward her role in writing the novel that was one of the causes of the Civil War.
Make Way for Sam Houston (Putnam, 1986 ISBN 0399213031. Paperback. Hardcover.) brings us the rough self-educated man who was to become the president of Texas. His alcoholism and his bigamist marriage are not slighted by Fritz as she gives us a full picture of the man.
Stonewall (Putnam, 1979 ISBN 0140329374. Paperback. Hardcover.) gives us Thomas Jonathan Jackson, the man who stood like a stone wall at the battle of Manassas. A bizarre man who lived on stale bread, lemons and lean meat and had rules for every kind of behavior, his leadership made him an exemplary general.
Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold (Puffin, 1989 ISBN 0140329404. Paperback. Hardcover) is perhaps the Fritz book from which I learned the most. She tells us not only what he did but why it was so important to the British and so devastating to the Americans. She also gives us some of the reasons why he fell from being the patriot hero at Ticonderoga to the epitome of villainy such a short time later.
Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site
Related Areas on the Internet
- http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/ is the American Civil War Homepage with links to lots of information and photographs about the Civil War
- http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/tl1861.html Is an illustrated timeline of the events in the Civil War
- http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/cwphome.html archives over 1000 photographs of the war
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