A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
NOVEMBER 16:

  • Happy birthday Ann Blades (Mary of Mile 18, A Salmon for Simon), Robin McKinley (The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword), Carolyn Reeder (Shades of Gray, Moonshiner's Son), Stephanie Spinner (Aliens for Breakfast) and Angela Shelf Medearis (The 100th Day of School).
  • Missouri trader William Becknell arrives in Santa Fe, New Mexico on this day in 1821. His route becomes known as the Santa Fe Trail. Read Tree in the Trail by Holling Holling and All the Stars in the Sky by Megan McDonald.
  • It’s Button Day. Read Bone Button Borscht by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Dusan Petricic.

On November 16, 1915, Jean Fritz was born to American missionaries in Hankow, China. She spent the next thirteen years there—and observed another culture while “wondering what it was like to be an American.” Fritz would write about that childhood in the 1980s for her compelling autobiography, Homesick: My Own Story, a Newbery Honor Book, as well as China Homecoming and China’s Long March.

In the 1970s Fritz began a series of chapter book biographies for children grades one through four that revolutionized writing about American history for children. Showing the foibles of our founding fathers in books such as And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?, Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?, and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock, Fritz demonstrated that one of the best ways to get children to read and understand history is to get them laughing. “I realized when I started doing research for my first book that history wasn’t what I’d been taught in school. History is full of gossip; it’s real people and emotion. I kept being surprised by the real people I met in the past. They all had their foibles and idiosyncrasies.”

A genius at picking out the telling details of history, she lets children know that Paul Revere, a secret agent, also made false teeth. In such a hurry to make his secret ride, he forgot his spurs and sent his dog on a mission to get them. She also explores the character of her subjects. In Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus? readers find out that Columbus was emotional, stubborn, high-tempered, and deluded: He died believing that he had discovered China.

Fritz keeps a light hand while telling these incidents of American history, but her search to understand the past had a very serious purpose in her life. Since she was raised in another country, she wanted to understand her native land and comprehend its history. Because she had not been inundated with the fabricated and romanticized versions of stories taught during this time period in American schools, she was able to take a fresh look, to reflect on what she found, and to present her recent discoveries to children. So in books that present our heroes—from Columbus to Teddy Roosevelt—she creates flesh and blood human beings, who accomplished great things and yet are completely human and believable. So popular did these biographies become in the 1970s and 1980s that they encouraged all information writers to take a more honest, less idealized approach to writing history for children.

Jean Fritz has always been a class act—intelligent, witty, charming. Please join me today in extending birthday greetings to her and thanking her for everything she has done.

Here’s a passage from And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz:

 

In 1735 there were in Boston 42 streets, 36 lanes, 22 alleys, 1,000 brick houses, 2,000 wooden house, 12 churches, 4 schools, 418 horses (at the last count), and so many dogs that a law was passed prohibiting people from having dogs that were more than 10 inches high. But it was difficult to keep dogs from growing more than 10 inches, and few people cared to part with their 11- and 12-inch dogs, so they paid little attention to the law. In any case there were too many dogs to count.

 

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Originally posted November 16, 2010. Updated for .

Tags: Award Winning, History, Newbery
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COMMENTS

  1. Laura says:

    I believe I read Homesick: My Own Story as an elementary school student in the 80’s. I remember reading and being fascinated by a book about an American girl who spent her childhood in China; I also remember that the book was written by an author known for her other works. For a long time, I thought that I had read a childhood memoir written by Pearl Buck, but I believe this is the book I remember. I added it to my list of books to reread — I wonder what new perspective I’ll have as an adult?

  2. Anita says:

    It is a great book to reread — as are so many of our childhood favorites.

  3. CLM says:

    What about Magic to Burn? Is that worth hunting down for my nephews? I am not sure I ever read it and none of the local libraries appear to own it any more, which seems a pity.

  4. I loved HOMESICK: MY OWN STORY! I’ll never forget the young Jean teaching a servant to speak English–Sewing Machine as a greeting, I believe it was. And, of course, Jean’s almost instantaneous remorse for what she had taught a beloved friend.

    Happy Birthday dear, dear Jean Fritz. We love you!

  5. Anita says:

    CLM: I have never read Magic to Burn. I myself keep sets of author’s books (from first book to last) so I would never discourage anyone in this task. Sometimes it is just pleasurable to read an early book, to see how the person has changed as a writer.

  6. Cathy Ogren says:

    American history comes alive when using Jean Fritz’s biographies!

  7. Happy, Happy Birthday Jean Fritz! I remember when you came to Oz Books in Southwest Harbor, Maine! As a former history teacher who wanted good literature I so appreciated your work. Thank you.

    Sheila

  8. Myra Oleynik says:

    Happy Birthday to your wonderful site! I am using it often. btw – Jean Fritz visited our elementary school years ago and was wonderful!

  9. Ruthie Weil says:

    Jean’s books make great introductory texts for older history students, even middle and high school. She packs so much information into them in an easy-to-read manner. I also love What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?

  10. Suzi W. says:

    Happy birthday, dear Jean!! I feel very close to Jean Fritz because her book, Homesick: My own story, was the first book that I ever read about someone like me, who had lived overseas as a child. (My parents were not missionaries, I didn’t live exclusively overseas as a child.) There are so few narrative books for children about this subset of the world population, we are called Third Culture Kids or TCKs for short. (Your first culture is your passport country, your parents overseas are in a second culture, but you are three degrees away, as you are the child of someone from the passport country.) I always wondered why Jean focused on American history, but that makes SO much sense now.

    Thank you for this post!!

    xo,
    Suzi

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