Friday, May 26, 2017

What Will We Do Without You, Jean Fritz?

Only when a book is written out of passion is there much hope of its being read with passion. - Jean Fritz

I read of the passing of children's author, Jean Fritz, in the New York Times this past week. Ms. Fritz was 101 years-old, yet she died too soon because her voice is needed now more than ever. As a history teacher and as a reading specialist, I had a particularly affinity for the works of Jean Fritz. Her books were all meticulously researched and highly entertaining. I could be confident that in recommending a Jean Fritz book to children that they would get accurate information and would likely find the books informative and engaging. Most importantly, though, Jean Fritz was a pioneer in the field of history for children because she was not afraid to tell the truth about our national heroes. Her portraits of famous Americans like Ben Franklin, John Hancock, Benedict Arnold, Paul Revere and others were famously warts and all accounts.

When Jean Fritz started writing for kids in the 1960s, history for children was notably homogenized and inclined toward what her New York Times obituary called "unalloyed veneration." George Washington "never told a lie"; Thomas Jefferson was a champion of  "equality" with no mention of his slave holding or rape of slave women; Andrew Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans with no mention of the "Trail of Tears." Jean Fritz would have none of that and for that, I, for one, am eternally grateful to her. I think we all should be. Her book titles signal to us that she is taking a look at American history with something of a sideways, critical stance. Can't you make them behave, King George?; Will you sign here, John Hancock?; Shh! We're writing the Constitution; Where do you think you're going, Christopher Columbus?

Here is an example of the Jean Fritz touch from her book, What's the big idea, Ben Franklin?. Fritz tells us that Franklin made up a list of rules for good behavior (like Don't spend too much money) and kept a notebook to record how he was doing.

But Benjamin liked a good time and he seldom let his rules interfere. Once he spent 6 pennies to see the first lion ever brought to America. This was a lot of money, he said, but it was worth it.

Another rule was "Don't show off", but once Ben had a little money he returned to Boston to visit his brother for the express purpose of showing off.

He swaggered into the shop letting [his brother] James and his apprentices see what a grand thing it was to be your own master. He twirled his watchchain. He jingled the money in his pockets and offered to treat everyone to a drink. (James was so angry that it took years for the brothers to make up.)

And then there is Paul Revere of the famous midnight ride. Turns out that for much of the midnight ride, Revere was without a horse, having been relieved of the horse and left on the side of the road by a group of British officers who had intercepted him. As Fritz tells it in And then what happened, Paul Revere?

Paul Revere felt bad, of course, to be on his Big Ride without a horse. He felt uneasy to be on a moonlit road on foot. So he struck out through the country, across stone walls, through pastures, over graveyards, back into Lexington to see if John Hancock and Samuel Adams were still there.

In an interview on Fresh Air! with Terry Gross this week, the historian Jill Lepore said, "When you ignore the facts of history, you turn history into religion." We should not attempt to turn children into faith based believers in a mythological American history. Children can handle the truth and we need, like Fritz, to respect them enough to give them the truth. The truth, ultimately, does not diminish our reverence for our history, but only enhances it because it is rooted in reality. Heroes, warts and all, are more believable, and therefore, more credible heroes.

In this age of "alternative facts", the writing of Jean Fritz stands as a strong reminder that thorough research and truth telling are the role of the historian, whether that historian is writing for adults or children. I for one would have loved to read a Jean Fritz book on the current political situation, perhaps entitled, What the hell were you thinking, President Trump?