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Oct/Nov 2009 Reviews & Interviews

Revolutionary Tales

Review by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon! Timothy Decker always brings a level of serious contemplation to his titles and it is no different with For Liberty: The Story of the Boston Massacre. Most adults will be familiar with the Paul Revere engraving showing British soldiers standing in a row simultaneously opening fire on a crowd. History has proven this was a brilliant piece of propaganda but not at all close to the confusing truth. Decker wisely addresses the actions of both sides here, showing the fury of the crowd who took their collective frustration out on a few soldiers who were wholly unprepared to deal with their concerns about unfair taxation. The rising tension on the street corner, the attempts by British Captain Preston to remain in control of his men and the situation are all depicted beautifully by Decker's sparse narrative and black and white drawings. Even for readers who know how the confrontation ends, Preston's words provide new insight and the emotion of the moment: "Surely the mob would not assault a trained soldier... Surely his men would not fire for fear of shooting their officer... Certainly a show of force would dissolve the anger." But it didn't work the way Preston hoped and all too quickly there were bodies on the snow and the soldiers were on their way to trial.

In most stories about the Boston Massacre, the reportage stops with the gunshots. But Decker goes beyond that moment to the trials themselves, where Captain Preston was found not guilty and the soldiers were determined to have rightfully defended their lives. John Adams was chosen to defend them and he performed his assigned duty quite well. It is Adams who closes the book, and his fears and hopes for his not yet born country which will linger long after the last word is read. "He understood that no nation held dominion over liberty, the protection of one person from the actions of another. He knew that liberty was precious and required wise, vigilant, and reasonable citizens to protect it, even, at times, from the ignorance of one's own countrymen." Decker channels Adams' wisdom beautifully here; he makes him and the cautious Captain Preston the heart and soul of a tragedy that far too many other authors have allowed to be only a caricature. Every time I read Timothy Decker I am reminded of how casually many authors approach historic subjects for children. Decker however respects his audience as much as his subject and thus is one of the best in this genre. Parents should count themselves lucky to find his books on the shelves.

Don Brown goes right into the site of the first shots of the American Revolution in his uniquely focused history title, Let It Begin Here!. Rather than covering the big names of the war (although some of them obviously make an appearance here), he sheds light on the actions of a multitude of British commanders and colonial militia. With direct quotes from people who were there, Let It Begin Here has a sense of immediacy that appeals strongly to the reader, particularly as so many of the participants were so-called "common men." Brown provides almost a play-by-play sense of immediacy to his retelling, introducing characters and then recounting how they survived or fell during the multiple troop interactions on April 19, 1775. There is far more here than just the infamous "shot heard round the world" and Brown is diligent about providing all of it, giving younger readers a glimpse of the greater story. The book is also heavily illustrated with Brown's signature watercolors that do not shy away from providing evidence of bloodshed. This is by far one of the more humane treatments of Lexington and Concord that I have seen directed at this age group and goes a long way towards removing the "one shot" myth and making the history come alive.

Former text book author Steven Sheinkin has latched onto a great formula with his "Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About…" series. King George" What Was His Problem? focuses on both the lead-up to the American Revolution and the actual war itself. With a very cheeky attitude he leads off with a step by step analysis of "How to Start a Revolution" (this would include unpopular taxes and brain dead responses to angry citizens). King George is revealed to be disconnected at best which is consistent with much denser histories on the subject. What's really cool about Sheinkin's approach is not just the humor (although thank heavens for that) but how he spotlights so many smaller participants in the war. From witnesses to the first shot to William Dawes ("the other guy" who took a famous midnight ride) and Samuel Prescott (the other "other guy") there are wives and daughters, low level soldiers, officers on both sides and spies all over the place—including slave James Armistead who served as a significant double agent for the Americans and was not released from servitude until the Marquis de Lafayette intervened with the Virginia legislature in 1787. That's a guy I'd love to know more about.

All the major players are certainly included but Sheinkin's ability to knit together big stories and small keeps What Was His Problem at a personable and relatable level—something the Revolution is not known for (everyone always seems larger than life even when their stories, like Betsy Ross, aren't real). Tim Robinson's comic-type illustrations break up the text nicely and keep the story rolling along through all the dramarama we have come to expect of this period. This is an easy book to read out loud and will be welcome by all readers unfamiliar with American history. I would not hesitate to share it with adults in fact—I think they would find it a great way to ease into far larger works.

The Revolutionary War Battle Box from Simon & Schuster is a pretty engaging way to immerse yourself in not just facts but actual "stuff" of the period. Presented in a very nice and sturdy box designed by Jeni Child and Dave Allen, it includes not only a sixty page full color book on the war but thirteen other pieces of memorabilia. You get to read about the regiments and then actually unfold a replica of the Philadelphia Light Horse Flag. There are imitation stamps as required in the Stamp Act (these are especially interesting), copies of letters, maps and important documents and fake money! This is interactive learning—an invitation to both read and touch history and unless you are able to walk the streets of Philadelphia (pardon me Bruce) and Boston, or hit the Smithsonian on a repeat basis then its pretty much as close as you're going to get to how some things looked for the people who were actually involved in the events of the war.

The book itself is pretty straightforward—lots of colorful boxes and illustrations; it actually reminded of something that DK would do albeit on a much smaller scale (and I mean that as a high compliment). There is a section at the end where each item in the box is explained in detail and throughout the text key battles are emphasized, thus reinforcing the "battle box" nature. Couple this with some soldiers and Liberty's Kids on DVD (with Walter Cronkite as the voice of Ben Franklin—it is awesome) and you've got a great set-up for any kid studying the Revolution; whether doing it for school or their own fun. Nicely done.

For a very humorous look at Revolutionary history, look no further than Jacqueline Jules' elementary school take on the Constitution, Unite or Die. Using a grade school classic, the play!, she brings a cast of cardboard constructed, state-shaped kids onto the stage to tell the story of how the colonial delegates came to form a single nation. There is a lot of drama here as everyone bickers over states rights vs federal and suffers identity crises ("Who am I, a Virginian or an American?"). Jules lays out some specifics (rarely presented in the discussion of this topic) such as whose ships would have the right to sail the Potomac (Virginia or Maryland), the Shays Rebellion and the many different proposals presented at the 1787 Constitutional Convention (which Rhode Island refused to attend—"I don't want anything to do with this suspicious nonsense!") Step by step the author patiently lays out how our system of government was formed through "a great compromise" and how laws are passed. Between this and Schoolhouse Rock, I can't imagine how a child wouldn't get a grip on the legislature process.

Another note on Unite or Die is the cartoon-like illustrations from Jef Czekaj. The kids are very funny—from loud mouths to crazy hair to one little girl representing New Jersey who insists on wearing a potted plant on her head. The best part though is that they are every shade and hue you would expect in the modern classroom and George Washington is portrayed by an African American child which quite frankly, made me grin with sheer joy. Overall the book is very funny both in words and pictures, yet also earnest and true. Homeschoolers grab this one for sure and teachers, make it a staple in your classroom.

I am constantly surprised by how after so many years of learning the Revolution there can still be significant stories that escaped me. Selene Castrovilla highlights one of those tales in her new picture book for middle grade readers, Upon Secrecy. This inside look at the Culper Spy ring shows how spies were critical to protecting the French Navy landing at Newport, Rhode Island in the summer 1780. I hesitate to say it was the turning point of the war—because there were so many bloody turning points—but the French arrival was certainly critical to the future American victory and without their assistance it is impossible to believe Washington would have been successful (he believed this as well). What the General did not know that summer was whether or not the British in New York were aware of the pending French arrival. He relied on the Culpers to find out and then based on their information he conducted a daring round of "chicken" that had enormously positive results for the Colonial side.

The Culpers were a group of men organized by Washington's head of intelligence, Benjamin Tallmadge. They were not related nor did any of them use the name Culper in real life—they were each given false identities in correspondence for protection. In fact, as Castrovilla explains in an extensive afterword, Samuel Culper Jr., key to the ring's success, was a man hidden by history until more than a century after his death. Protected until the very end, journalist Robert Townsend was also a devoted Quaker and struggled mightily to balance his pacifist views with his work for Tallmadge. He did not want recognition for contribution to the patriot cause; he sought peace and further, Castrovilla convincingly shows he sought forgiveness for joining in a war whose very existence violated the peaceful ideals he believed so strongly in.

Townsend was a complicated man, as were all those who joined the ring and aided Washington.

Upon Secrecy follows the trail of information after Long Island based Townsend made a startling discovery concerning the proposed British response to the French Navy. His letter, written in invisible ink (more on that in the author's afterword as well) is transferred to courier Austin Roe, then to Abraham Woodhull who added his advice and Caleb Brewster who took to the sea with his men and brought the message to Connecticut and finally another courier who could bring it to Washington in New Jersey. Each man was committed for a different reason, each responded in a different way, but all were loyal to Washington and protecting the Culper ring. Their dedication provided the American cause with an opportunity which Washington took full advantage of and protected the French at a critical time.

Upon Secrecy has full page realistic paintings of the participants to accompany the long text—this one is certainly for older elementary school readers or rabid Revolution fans of any age. Castrovilla includes not only detailed information on the ring at the end but also a much welcome "what happened to them" conclusion on the participants. I have no idea why we take so much interest in outright myths like Betsy Ross's flag or repeats of stories we know by heart (Paul Revere's ride, the Tea Party, the Delaware Crossing, etc.) when something as stirring as the Culper Spy Ring remains under reported. Kudos to Castrovilla for finding a way to bring a bit of their story to light for younger readers and to Calkins Creek for recognizing something wonderful when they saw it.

 

For Liberty: The Story of the Boston Massacre
By Timothy Decker
Calkins Creek 2009
ISBN 1-59078-608-6

Let It Begin Here!
By Don Brown
Roaring Brook 2008
ISBN 1596432217

King George: What Was His Problem?
By Steven Sheinkin
Illustrated by Tim Robinson
Roaring Brook 2008
ISBN 1-59643-319-1
190 pages

Revolutionary War Battle Box
Simon & Schuster 2009
ISBN 1-4169-7126-9

Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation
By Jacqueline Jules
Illustrated by Jef Czekaj
Charlesbridge 2009
ISBN 1-58089-190-5

Upon Secrecy
By Selene Catrovilla
Illustrated by Jeff Crosby & Shelley Ann Jackson
Calkins Creek 2009
ISBN 1-59078-573-7

 

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