Thursday, April 20, 2017

Sara K Joiner: History in Verse

Part of a poem by Wilfred Owen, a soldier who fought in
and wrote poetry about the First World War.
April is one of my favorite months because it's National Poetry Month. I love poetry, but much to my chagrin, I am no poet. I cannot express myself as beautifully as poets, and that is something I continually practice.

We tend to think poetry is about nature or feelings. We tend to think that poetry should rhyme. However there are many poems about historic events that have delicious lines to say aloud (and which may or may not rhyme).

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.
from Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now aliven
Who remembers that famous day and year.
from Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she aid.
from Barbara Frietchie by John Greenleaf Whittier

There are also poems that were written during significant historic events--like these from World War I--that make you weep for the writer.

I have a rendezvous with Death
     At some disputed barricade
     When Spring comes round with rustling shade
And apple blossoms fill the air.
     I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
from I Have a Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seeger

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
     That mark our place; and in the sky
     The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
from In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae

There are even poems that seem to be written by history itself.

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo
Shovel them under and let me work—
                                  I am the grass; I cover all.
from Grass by Carl Sandburg

Poets often bring a new perspective to the familiar and a sense of awe to the extraordinary. In addition to the poems I've mentioned, there are books that are perfect for middle graders to see history through new eyes and to encourage them to engage with their history in a new way. Here are some:

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders - J. Patrick Lewis
Includes poems about Josh Gibson, Aung San Suu Kyi, Coretta Scott King, Mohandas Gandhi, Harvey Milk, Sylvia Mendez, Muhammad Yunus, and others.

A Wreath for Emmett Till - Marilyn Nelson
A powerful work about the lynching of a teen boy in Mississippi in the 1950s.

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life - Ashley Bryan
Using original slave auction and plantation documents, Bryan imagines the lives of enslaved individuals whose true hopes and dreams are lost to history.

America At War - Lee Bennett Hopkins, selector
Includes a variety of poems written during or about wars America fought from the Revolution to modern times.

Birmingham, 1963 - Carole Boston Weatherford
Using a fictional character, Weatherford explores the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes. She is also a public librarian.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Immigration: Always in the News

To say that Immigration is in the news these days is an understatement. The truth is, people have been moving around the planet since the first humans ventured out of Africa. What causes people to leave the comforts of home? Adventure lures some, economic gain attracts others. but the inciting incidents that move masses of people are usually due to famine, persecution, and war. It's no surprise then that much historical fiction centers on immigration stories. Here are a few I've discovered recently.

Last year, I reviewed several Irish historical fiction stories including the Nory Ryan series by award winning Patricia Reilly Giff. Maggie's Door, the second in the series, follows Nory as she journeys to America in the wake of The Hunger--the terrible potato famine of 1845-1847.Wrenching, yet inspiring, Nory overcomes tremendous odds to bring herself and her little brother across an ocean to find her remaining family.

Streets of Gold, by the beloved children's book author Rosemary Wells and beautifully illustrated by Dan Andreason, is a retelling for children of Mary Antin's memoir The Promised Land. Due to increasing persecution, a Jewish family emigrates from Russia at the turn of the century.

As with Maggie's Door, the father leaves first to establish a job and home before sending for the family. This struck me as a key dynamic I had not understood before. Immigration stories are very much about the courage of those left behind and the complication of making the journey without a father.

When the family arrives in America, they discover the streets are not paved with gold, of course. But they are safe. They are together, again.

Journey to America by Sonia Levitin is another Jewish immigration story, which takes place on the
eve of WWII. Again, the father precedes the family to America leaving his wife and three daughters to escape Germany when the time is right.

This story opened portrays the flight of many people into Switzerland before WWII, the difficulties children faced there, and the overwhelming situation for the Swiss in dealing with the flood of refugees. Some children were exploited while other Swiss generously took children into their own homes, although this further separated children from their families. It was often months before refugees could obtain an exit visa, if they could obtain one at all. Levitin also shows how each child may cope differently with upheaval in their lives.

The Frozen Waterfall by Gaye Hiçyılmaz is a more contemporary immigration story, but I add it here because it is a rare find--a Turkish family that immigrates to Switzerland for economic reasons.

Twelve-year old Selda has trouble adjusting to life in Switzerland, but her friendship with a Turkish boy who is an illegal immigrant leads to the realization that life can not only be difficult, it can be dangerous. This book is for upper middle-grade and high school. It is also quite long, and the writing is fair, but for me, it was worth the effort to gain a valuable perspective, and to understand more intimately the hardships of immigration on not only children but also parents.

I hope these books will inspire you to find more immigration literature and share it with the children in your lives. Please share any of your favorites with me!

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Southern Manifest Destiny

When most people think of the Civil War, they think of the huge battles that raged from Gettysburg to Atlanta. Few even realize that the Blue and the Gray also clashed in the arid Southwest, but they did because of a couple of Confederate schemers. Had their dreams come to pass, the outcome might have changed the war entirely.

One of those schemers was Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose fascination with the Southwest probably began during his tenure there as a lieutenant during the Mexican-American War. Like many men of the period, Davis believed in Manifest Destiny: that the future lay in the west.

While he was President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, Davis advocated for the Gadsden Purchase, in which the United States bought nearly 30,000 square miles of barren sand in what is now southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico from Mexico. Davis pushed for this $10 purchase so the federal government could build a transcontinental railroad that would link the southern states to the deep-water ports of California. That railroad never materialized, in part because of the rancor the northern industrial states felt for the south after the Civil War.

Davis’ interest in the Southwest also prompted him to lobby Congress to purchase camels for a Camel Corps during his tenure as Secretary of War. The camels, purchased in the Middle East and brought by ship to Texas, worked as military pack animals because horses and mules had difficulty in the rocky and dry western territories that the U.S. acquired. Although they could carry a huge amount of baggage and travel for days without food or water, the fact that they spooked horses and mules and most soldiers disliked them doomed the Camel Corps.

Soon after he was chosen by acclamation to be the president of the Confederacy, Davis received a visit from another schemer, Henry Hopkins Sibley. A fellow graduate of West Point who had also served in the Mexican-American War, Sibley left his post fighting Navajos in New Mexico to travel to Richmond and talk Davis into supporting an invasion of New Mexico. Although there is no record of their meeting, apparently Davis needed little persuasion. Sibley walked in a Major and walked out a Brigadier General.

Sibley’s plan was to go to San Antonio, where he would organize a brigade of three regiments of Texans. Once he’d taken New Mexico, he’d proceed north and capture the gold mines of Colorado, then travel west and procure California’s gold and ports for the Confederacy. Had Sibley’s plan succeeded, the South might have had the economic means to better support its army. Further, Davis was convinced that winning the west would convince England and France to support the Southern cause.

That was the plan. What actually happened is another story entirely.

Jennifer Bohnhoff teaches New Mexico History to 7th graders in Albuquerque. Her next book, Valverde, is a middle grade historical novel that follows two protagonists. One is a packer who travels with Sibley’s army into New Mexico. The other is a New Mexican boy determined to see all Americans, both Northerners and Southerners, out of his land.

Valverde will be available toward the end of this month. You can learn more about it and Jennifer's other books here.