Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tillie Pierce: Eyewitness to Gettysburg

 It's fun to read two works based on the same primary source. When you do and find scenes or turns of phrase common to both, it's a safe bet that the words or the scene came from the original material.

The Battle of Gettysburg occurred from July 1-3, 1863. One of the witnesses to the battle was fifteen year old Tillie Pierce. More than 20 years after the battle, she wrote her memoir, Tillie Pierce: Teen Eyewitness to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Thunder at Gettysburg, written by Patricia Lee Gauch (Calkins Creek, 2003) is a simple little chapter book written for elementary and middleschool-age students who have mastered easy readers. Ms. Gauch's main character is Tillie, and her book is a work of fiction that retells the biography on a very simple level. It is an historically accurate account of a young girl's involvement in the Battle of Gettysburg, especially her experiences helping wounded soldiers.

My book, The Bent Reed, is a work of fiction, but like many works of historical fiction, it includes historical characters. Sarah McCoombs, the teen-aged protagonist, and her family don't exist. Most of their neighbors did. I set the fictitious McCoombs family's farm right in the thick of the action, between two real farms that took a beating with actual artillery. Almost everything that happened in The Bent Reed actually did happen, but to other, real people. One of those people was Tillie Pierce. After her home is commandeered and turned into a hospital, Sarah McCoombs tends to wounded soldier from both the Confederate and Union Armies. Much of her empathy is derived from Tillie Pierce's writing.

Tillie actually shows up in a crowd scene in my book. She is named in a group of girls who went to the ladies seminary, a Gettysburg finishing school for young ladies. They are depicted waving flags during a Union parade through town. I got the description of the parade, including the songs they sang and the names of some of the handsome young men parading in their spiffy new uniforms, from her memoir.

To commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg and celebrate Independence Day, The Bent Reed will be offered on Amazon at special low prices from June 30-July 7th.

Jennifer Bohnhoff teaches New Mexico History to 7th graders at a Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the author of The Bent Reed, Code: Elephants on the Moon, and On Fledgling Wings, all works of historical fiction for middle grades and Tweet Sarts, a funny contemporary novel for middle grade readers. Swan Song, a dual narrative contemporary/historical fiction for young adults, is due out later this summer and can be preordered for Kindle on Amazon, or in paperback at her website.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Mad About Suffrage, by Mary Hertz Scarbrough

One of my current works in progress is a middle grade book about the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. Years ago, I wrote about the 19th Amendment for an adult reference book, so I’ve had a pretty good grip on the topic since that time. However, digging into research on this children’s book has opened up avenues of research I never thought about when I was merely concentrating on the facts.

Historical fiction can incorporate offbeat information to bring those sometimes hard to relate to facts to life. Yet there’s surprisingly little fiction for middle grade readers where suffrage is featured prominently. There’s a ton of nonfiction, of course, and a fair number of picture books, some of which are suitable for older readers too. Here are a handful of worthwhile middle grade historical novels with a good suffrage connection; as a bonus, two of them feature boy protagonists: 

Secrets on 26th Street by Elizabeth McDavid Jones: In New York in 1914, Susan O’ Neal’s widowed mother has taken in a new boarder – a suffragette from England. Does this boarder have something to do with Susan’s mother’s disappearance?

Operation Clean Sweep by Darleen Bailey Beard: Cornelius’s mother is secretly running against his father for mayor in Umatilla, Oregon, in 1916. Based on a true story.

You Come to Yokum, by Carol Otis Hurst: 12-year-old Frank’s mother is an ardent suffragist, to the dismay of many, in rural Massachusetts in 1920.

A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, by Kathryn Lasky: A Dear America book.

Searching for Silverheels by Jeannie Mobley: As the U.S. enters World War I, young Pearl gains an understanding of the big issues of the day as they play out in her small Colorado town.

Below are a few of my favorite sources for off-the-beaten path information about suffrage. Perhaps one of them will inspire you with ideas for a classroom display or another way to explore suffrage themes.

According to Kenneth Florey’s website, he has been collecting suffrage memorabilia for 35 years. A retired English professor, Florey’s website and two books are packed full of goodies of all sorts – both information and many great images.  

For example, I read in his memorabilia book that in 1916, a snake charmer walked around the midway at the South Dakota State Fair wearing a "Votes for Women" pennant and a large serpent!

Suffrage cookbooks, such as the Washington Women’s Cookbook, are a lot of fun. Read a quick round-up about such cookbooks in this NPR story.

Alice Duer Miller’s poetry: Are Women People?  Much of it is easily accessible for today’s students. You can read more about Duer Miller’s suffrage poetry at my blog.

If you’ve discovered some fun sites or books on suffrage, I’d love to hear about them. 

Mary Hertz Scarbrough writes for all ages, but loves writing for kids most of all. She is passionate about history, reading, research and writing, and dogs, among other things, and has written more than two dozen books for kids. Visit her site at to learn more.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The War That Made America

I am sure the American War of Independence was depicted in our British history books in a very different light from that in which it was reported to American pupils in theirs.  

Whatever the different opinions, the outcome of this war was the same - the eventual emergence of the independent United States of America.

One might say this was the most important war Americans ever fought, and yet in literature it has been overshadowed by the numerous volumes dealing with the Civil War, America's bloodiest war.   I know so little about either.  

'Time to find out a bit more than the bare bones I recall' I thought.  So I've recently finished reading 'Through A Howling Wilderness', by Thomas A. Desjardin.   This is an account of Benedict Arnold's campaign to lead an army through the wilds of Maine towards Québec City, and enlist the disgruntled French residents in overthrowing the British in Québec and eventually all Canada.  Though the book is written for adults, I'd recommend it for reading by a literate middle grade history buff - and there are many of those.

We now live in the province of Québec, and last year drove from north of Montréal to Bar Harbor, Maine.  Once we had left the corrugated streets of Montréal behind, we travelled mile after mile of smooth blacktop, our only view on either side nothing but tall trees or massive cliffs.  As our car climbed and descended the long, steep hills it was easy to imagine the struggles faced by that motley crew of not so long ago.

No modern highway eased their path.  Instead the army of men following Benedict Arnold’s push to Québec City had to fight their way through the dense undergrowth, relying on the accuracy of their scouts and native pathways to lead them to their goal. They faced miserable rain, deep snow, and fierce cold in winter.   Summer was plagued by mosquitoes black flies, and humid heat.  Hunger was a constant, whether from lost or spoiled provisions or barren surroundings.  Attacks from some native, tribes, drunkenness, deserters, and various other misfortunes dogged the expedition.  In the end, despite their determination, they failed to capture Québec City.  

Yet, they had come so close to success. 

Desjardin's work leads me to believe Benedict Arnold was one of the ablest commanders ever to lead an American force.  So why is he portrayed in American history books as a traitor? Here is an ideal opportunity for teachers to start a junior debating club over his reasons for decamping to London; once a reader learns why Colonel Arnold made the decision he did, then he may form an opinion on whether or not that decision was justified.

Dejardin’s work focuses entirely on the viewpoint of those Americans who were bent on independence.  By contrast, in 'Johnny Tremain' Esther Forbes tries to show the reasoning of both those who wanted independence, and the loyalists.

A realistic, entertaining historical fiction story for middle graders, with a little personal mystery and romance for Johnny thrown in, it is a lighter book, and will appeal more to younger readers.

Either of these books could make excellent material for teachers to encourage a  lively classroom discussion on the emergence of the United States of America, with any number of essay possibilities arising. Towards the end of term, as the long summer vacation approaches, it would be fun to combine history with drama and stage a re-enactment of one of the battles.  With due caution on teacher’s part J.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

When You Realize Time is Finite

Well, at least your time is. When I was a little girl, I used to sit by my grandfather in the warm summer afternoons listening to the radio. If I was lucky, he'd pull out his pocket watch, take his knife, and flip open the back. There were all the fabulous gears, clicking back and forth. Better yet were the tiny jewels sparkling in the sunlight that streamed across the room. "It keeps perfect time," he'd say. Time was important to him - he was a railroad man and those trains had schedules to meet. If I were luckier still, when I begged for a story, he'd tell me one. There was nothing I liked better than hearing his stories, unless it was listening to my grandmother's.

Lately, I've become aware of a different schedule, one for stories, I've been digging around to fill in the blanks in family histories and I've discovered a great resource in the google books project. Much as this open book project worries writers that their work will be e-published without compensation, the books I've found are from the late 1800s and they contain information on my far removed ancestors that I've not discovered in any other place. The reason? Someone took the time to interview living people and write down their stories. Those living people are now long dead, but these collections and transcriptions contain many interesting stories - embellished or not - and connections to ancestors I couldn't make on my own.

My take away from this is that I need to be writing down my own memories, the stories I was told by my parents and grandparents, and collecting stories from my still living cousins, aunts, and siblings. We have the information in our heads that our grand-children and great grand-children may want someday. So I've started a new project - writing a family story per day. These are either ones that I've discovered (these date to the time of the earliest European settlements in North America) or ones that I remember - which are from a bit later time period :) I'm not sure these snippets will become anything publishable yet, but they may.

I wish, when I was studying history, that I'd known how many of my own ancestors were represented in the dry paragraphs in the very thick, and dry, history book. I liked history, but it didn't seem personal then. It does now. And my own memories have an expiration date - sometime. Maybe you have to reach a certain age to feel the reality of history as life. I'm there. Or maybe, if you read great historical fiction, you can achieve the same realization as a child or young adult. What historical fiction books gave you the feeling that history was, in fact, about living, feeling people that you cared about? Comments please. . .

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Netherlands in Person and Through Books by Mary Louise Sanchez

My husband and I recently returned from a month long European adventure which started in the Netherlands where the tulips were in full bloom at the Keukenhof Gardens in Leiden. I read the history of tulips before we went and it made me appreciate the Dutch people's love affair with the tulip all the more.

Visiting the Anne Frank House was definitely on my bucket list too, even though we couldn't get a reservation from the states. The stars must have been aligned the day and time we went to the Anne Frank House because the line was short and we were privileged to visit. At the house we bought a graphic novel about Anne Frank for our grandchildren to get some background knowledge about her life so they can appreciate reading her diary.

In preparation for the trip, I read a wonderful children's historical fiction book set in Amsterdam during WWII by Monica Hesse called, The Girl in the Blue Coat. This is definitely a story of the ultimate of friendships between two girls and I recommend it highly.

As we were exploring the Netherlands on the train, I saw some cows by a canal. I laughed when I saw them because I was reminded of the picture book, The Cow Who Fell in the Canal by Phyllis Krasilovsky and illustrated by Peter Spier.

I'm not the only one who equates a place with a book or story. Here's a tourist at a windmill site, reenacting the story of the boy who put his finger in the dike to save his town.

Books, especially historical fiction, certainly play a big part in my preparation for a trip, and I'm always inspired to read more when I return. I have seen paintings by the Flemish artist, Nicolaes Maes, at the Denver Art Museum in past years. But after visiting Rembrandt's house in Amsterdam, where Maes was one of his students, and seeing one of Maes' paintings in Cologne, Germany, I want to learn more about this 17th century Flemish artist,  because my maternal grandmother's maiden name was Maes (from New Mexico of Hispanic heritage) and my paternal great-grandmother was also a Maes (from New Mexico of Hispanic heritage).

Amsterdam bookstore 2016
Family lore has always said our family had Dutch roots and every one of my maternal aunts and uncles has at least one child who is blonde. I want to know more about the connection of Spain and the Netherlands and started looking  at various indexes of books about Spain's presence in the Netherlands in an Amsterdam bookstore. The Dutch Revolt against the Catholic Spaniards was in 1568 and my ancestors were in present day New Mexico in 1598. Is there a connection to my family?

What books helped you learn about places you've traveled to? What books were you inspired to read after your visits?