Books: Rewriting History; These Kids' Books Are a Real Blast from the Past

Newsweek, February 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Books: Rewriting History; These Kids' Books Are a Real Blast from the Past


Byline: Karen Springen

Ann Dehovitz, 46, doesn't remember learning much history as a kid. "The Revolutionary War and the Civil War--that was about it," she says. But it's easy for her daughter, Rebecca, a sixth grader in Palo Alto, Calif., to go way beyond George and Abe. On her reading list are books like "The Breadwinner," about an Afghan girl who helps support her family after the Taliban jails her father. And for a school assignment, Rebecca, who is Jewish, read "No Pretty Pictures," about a girl during the Holocaust. "I can relate to the story," she says.

Just as history books and historical fiction loom large on adult best-seller lists, children's publishing is also getting a blast from the past. Nobody specifically tracks sales of kids' history books, but publishers and booksellers agree it's a hot niche, and not the old sanitized version of events. Many of the new books aimed at kids 4 and older take a surprisingly sophisticated look at our world and our heroes, warts and all. "There's been this amazing leap in the quality and breadth of the topics," says Ilene Cooper, children's-book editor for the American Library Association's Booklist.

Authors are taking on many touchy subjects once thought too controversial for children. "In the '60s, it was explosive to say America was founded by slaveholders," says historian Marc Aronson, who has written three books for older children. His "Witch-Hunt" corrects the myth that Tituba, a woman who became a scapegoat during the Salem witch trials, was black. Other new books celebrate black heroes: Lesa Cline-Ransome's "Major Taylor: Champion Cyclist," about an African-American biker, and poet Ntozake Shange's "Ellington Was Not a Street," about Duke Ellington and other luminaries who gathered in her childhood house.

Several stories frankly tell youngsters that presidents owned slaves and had affairs. In "Thomas Jefferson," Cheryl Harness writes that evidence now suggests that "in the long years after Martha died, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, her owner, produced six children." In "Lives of the Presidents," Kathleen Krull reveals that John F.

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