The American Revolution: Our Literary Legacy
by Rea Berg
1942, Esther Forbes was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in history for
her work on Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Only the second woman in history to win this
distinction, it is ironic that it was not for this achievement that Forbes
became a household name, but rather for her children's novel Johnny
Tremain, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1944. While inspirations for works of art are
multiple and varied, Cornelia Meigs has noted in her Critical History of Children's Literature, it was Forbes' work in
Paul Revere that acquainted the
author with the "apprentice boys of Boston and the part they played in the
Revolution. Although they may have changed
the tide of events many times, history has paid them neither honor nor blame
and they have been lost in the crowd of ordinary unknown people for whom and by
whom wars are fought"1.
elaborated on this theme in her 1944 "Acceptance Paper" for the
Newbery Medal when she expressed how the attack on Pearl Harbor forced modern
boys to face losses and hard decisions like those confronted by boys in the
eighteenth century. "When war
comes, these boys suddenly are asked to play their part as men [. . .] today,
the boys Johnny's age are not yet in the armed forces, but many of them soon
will be and many will lose or have lost older brothers. I also wanted to show that these earlier boys
were conscious of what they were fighting for and that it was something which
they believed was worth more than their own lives"2. The force
of these inspirations—the archetypal young warrior sacrificing himself for
freedom--resulted in Forbes's Newbery Medal novel Johnny
years after its publication, Johnny
Tremain remains one of the best-loved children's books for its simple yet
sublime depiction of the quest for liberty. Indeed, as recently as 2005, Alan
Levoy, the children's author and literature critic, described Johnny Tremain as "one of the great
children's novels of all time"3. Long a staple for middle-elementary students
studying American history, the novel explores the issues of the Revolution
through the eyes of a star silversmith apprentice who is permanently
handicapped by the cruel actions of a fellow apprentice. Not an endearing character to begin with,
Johnny's resulting fall from power and grace exposes all the human frailties of
loneliness, despair, angst, lost love, and broken dreams–ultimately developing
a character all readers can identify with.
Befriended by a kind and generous Son of Liberty, Johnny eventually (but
painfully) finds his way back to meaning and purposefulness. All of these
important life-lessons take place against a backdrop of key historical
characters and events during the American colonies' struggle for
by Esther Forbes draws upon the author's Pulitzer prize-winning work on the
life of America's most famous silversmith and revolutionary. Indeed, it was
after Lynd Ward (who ultimately illustrated the children's version) read
Forbe's work that he approached her with the suggestion that they do a
children's edition. America's Paul Revere
combines the muscular energy of Ward's dynamic oil paintings with Forbes
historically grounded and inspiring text.
story of Paul Revere actually begins in France, where Revere's ancestors–French
Huguenots–suffered under the brutal persecution of both church and state.
Huguenots were a sect of Protestants that through the writings of John Calvin
had come to believe in the primacy of God's word and had rejected what they
viewed as unscriptural church practices. Ongoing persecution forced many
Huguenots out of France and Paul Revere's father settled in Boston and learned
the trade of silversmith. His oldest son
was Paul Revere who became the famous Son of Liberty, exquisite silversmith,
soldier, dentist, lithographer, but most importantly devoted patriot. America's
Paul Revere is suitable for the middle reader and will acquaint students
with the gripping drama of the early days of the Revolution. Younger readers will enjoy Ted Rand's
beautifully illustrated Paul Revere's Ride by Longfellow.
Ward also illustrated America's Ethan Allen by Stuart
Holbrook, which won a Caldecott Honor in 1950.
This book relates the history of the intrepid Ethan Allan and his Green
Mountain Boys and the tremendous part they played in the colonies struggle for
independence. Shortly after the Minutemen fired on the Redcoats at Lexington,
Allen and his backwoods troops were given the commission to take Fort
Ticonderoga–a strong British post on Lake Champlain. Allen's wily and
courageous men had no trouble overpowering the forces there. When the British Lieutenant in charge of
Ticonderoga asked by whose authority Allen dared to take the fort, Allen
replied with the immortal words, "In the name of the Great Jehovah and the
Ethan Allen's passion for liberty, his fearless pursuit of colonial
rights, and the tender devotion and loyalty he inspired in his Green Mountain
Boys is a timeless tale of America's early years.
by Jean Fritz explores the life story of the man considered the "Father of
the Constitution" for middle grades and up. Indeed, no other American founder did more to
advance and promote the public understanding of a federal republic than James
Madison. As Fritz points out, though Madison was small in physical stature, he
was a giant of a man when it came to laying a firm foundation for
representative government in the new republic. This book won the Boston Horn
Book award in the year of its publication.
Fritz also penned delightful biographies of a number of other key figures of
America's early years particularly for the youngest historian. Parents will find her works introduce central
figures with humor and a keen sense of what children like to know. Look for the following: Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam
Adams?, Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?, And Then What Happened, Paul
Revere?, Shh! We're writing the Constitution!, Can't You Make Them Behave, King
George? and a number of others. Various artistic masters have lent
their hand to beautifying Fritz's work including: Trina Schart Hyman, Tomie
dePaola, and Margot Tomes.
latest work (written at the ripe age of 95!) is Alexander Hamilton, Outsider
and tells the life story of America's founder responsible for the National Bank
and a secure monetary system in this country.
Newbery Honor book of 1958, that is no longer in print, but worth locating
through a used-book search is Leo Gurko's, Tom Paine: Freedom's Apostle. A fast-paced biography of the life of the
author of Common Sense, this work
also introduces middle and upper-grade readers to the Enlightenment philosophy
that was so fundamental to many of the founders.
story of John and Abigail Adams has received much deserved attention in the
past decade for the critical and seminal role they played in America's
founding. Due in large part to David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography
Adams, the nearly forgotten story of one of America's most passionate
founders has been introduced to a new generation. This is a must-read for any home schooling
high school student studying American history and for the adults mentoring him
or her. The PBS series of the same name, based upon McCullough's work, is sure
to delight and provides a golden opportunity to enjoy some family entertainment
that will prompt discussion and reflection on the providential forces
responsible for the American experiment.
Abigail Adams, Witness to a Revolution by Natalie Bober will
make a great companion study testifying to the tremendous power and influence a
strong, supportive, and intelligent woman can make, not only in her husband's
life, but in the life of an entire nation.
Meigs, Cornelia et al. A Critical History of Children's Literature. New York: The Macmillan
Company, 1969. pg. 516.
2. Mahoney, Bertha Miller & Elinor Whitney
Field. Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 with the
Author's Acceptance Papers & Related Material
chiefly from the Horn Book Magazine.
Boston: The Horn Book, Inc.
1955. Vol. 1. p.253-254.
Higonnet, Margaret R., "Time Out: Trauma and Play in Johnny Tremain and Alan and
Children's Literature 33, Hollins University,
4. Holbrook, Stuart. America's
Ethan Allen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949. p.74.