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Comparing U.S. History Books

Comparing U.S. History Books

By Mary Lydon Phoenix

Mary Lydon Phoenix is a writer who homeschools her children, Sarah (12) and Antonio (4). Mary can be reached c/o Editor@Homefires.com

In this column we'll explore fiction and non-fiction covering the last hundred years of U.S. History.

The rights of working class people was a major issue in the early part of this century. Three non-fiction books by different authors address several aspects of this topic. A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter, by Patricia and Frederick McKissack (Walker Publishing,1989, 144p), follows the struggle of black porters to form a union. The first Pullman Porters were recruited from the ranks of ex-house slaves after the Civil War. Many people, including leaders in the black community, initially praised Pullman's offer of jobs for ex-slaves. Eventually, gratitude gave way to indignation as generations of porters were expected to silently submit to prejudice and ridicule by train passengers while being paid less than their white co-workers. Big Annie of Calumet, by Jerry Stanley (Crown, 1996, 102p), examines the life of Annie Clement, a miner's wife who stood up to the company that controlled her small town. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the..., by Russell Freedman (Clarion, 1990, 104p), looks at children who worked to support their families at a time when laborers of any age had few rights.

Although there are a handful of children's novels set in America during World War I, none offer much information about the war. The Singing Tree (Viking, 1939, 247p), Kate Seredy's sequel to The Good Master, does provide an account of the war from the perspective of a family in Hungary. Certainly it can be used as a springboard for discussing the war in general and the hope which all nations seemed to have that, once "The Great War" was over, peace was here to stay. Mature readers might also make use of adult fiction such as All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (Little, Brown and Co., 1929, 175p).

Non-fiction accounts of the first world war are almost equally rare in juvenile literature. Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler have written numerous books for children, including two about "the war to end all wars". An Album of World War I (Franklin Watts, 1976, 96p) is less appealing, both in writing and layout, than some of the non-fiction I've recommended on other subjects, but it does provide a broad overview of the war.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was another pivotal time for our country and Russell Freedman provides us with two excellent photobiographies about the most influential couple of that era. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Clarion, 1990, 200p) depicts the life of the only man to be elected four times to the presidency. Although it was Franklin who held office and officially set US policy, I found the saga of his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery (Clarion, 1993, 198p), even more compelling. From her beginnings as a painfully shy "poor little rich girl" (her mother once told her "You have no looks, so see to it that you have manners") to her role as an outspoken first lady, Eleanor's story is captivating.

Mildred Taylor has written several novels about the Logans, an African-American family struggling to hold on to their land during the depression. My two favorites are the Newberry winner Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (Dial, 1976, 276p) and its sequel Let the Circle Be Unbroken (Dial, 1981, 394p). There is a wonderful strength and authenticity in Taylor's characters, perhaps because so many are drawn from her own family history.

Recently I discovered a wonderful author of children's non-fiction named William Loren Katz who has several books related to African-American and Native American history. With Marc Crawford, he has also written The Lincoln Brigade (Atheneum, 1989, 84p). This account follows Americans from all walks of life who, in 1936, volunteered to defend the democratic government of Spain against fascism. Their makeshift battalion represented the first fully integrated troops from the United States. Many of those who survived the Spanish Civil War (more than half were seriously injured or killed) went on to fight with U.S. Armed forces during World War II. What makes their story especially poignant is that the House Un-American Activities Committee later targeted Lincoln Brigade members during the McCarthy era.

World War II has inspired an almost daunting number of books for children. For older readers, Farewell to Manzanar (Houghton Mifflin, 1973, 145p), by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, provides a moving first person account of one Japanese-American family's internment during the war. Pearl Harbor is Burning! (Viking, 1991, 54p), by Kathleen Kudlinski, is for a younger audience and looks at how the bombing of Pearl Harbor brings two boys together. Far From the Bamboo Grove (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, 1986, 183p) is Yoko Kawashima Watkins' compelling autobiographical account of her family's escape from Korea near the end of the war. One of the few children's books about the war in the Pacific, it also provides excellent historical notes about the history of Korea, along with U.S. involvement. Although written for children, this book contains several graphic accounts of atrocities committed by both Japanese and Korean soldiers.

Freedom's Children, by Ellen Levine (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1993, 204p), is a collection of first person stories by people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement when they were growing up. There are many inspiring and courageous stories from this era, but it is especially moving to read about children working alongside adults to make a meaningful contribution.

Certainly another event which irrevocably changed this country was the Vietnam War. In Vietnam: Why We Fought (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, 196p), Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler once again offer a comprehensive account, beginning with the history of Vietnam before America became involved and continuing until U.S. troops were withdrawn. Included are many of the most famous photographs taken during the war, such as Buddhist monk Quang Duc committing public suicide, children running after being exposed to napalm and demonstrators at Kent State. The overall quality of the writing and pictures is good and many important and difficult subjects are included.

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (Dell, 1994, 299p), by Sarah and Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth, offers a lively tour of the last hundred years through the eyes of two very feisty old ladies. Through them we read a highly personal account of segregation in the south, Harlem in the 1920s and the Civil Rights Movement. The Delanys are never shy about offering their opinions and our family enjoyed reading a book which makes no pretense of being unbiased.