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If You Learned About History

I picked up If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon at Vroman's in Pasadena early this summer as part of my campaign to make our cross-country trip more interesting for Damian. It's part of a series of history books by Scholastic, written in the question-and-answer format, detailing daily life in different places and times with an understandable emphasis on how children lived.

The covered wagon book was fascinating for both of us, I think. I had no idea that the travelers mostly walked alongside the incredibly slow wagon train, no idea that they made butter by placing pails of milk high up on the arching wood that formed the bow of the wagon. The bumpy motion of the wagon over the prairie would churn the butter for them. I never thought about what might happen when a wagon lost a wheel, couldn't get down a gorge, crossed a deep river. The book recreated the adventure of it. And it did what I wanted: Damian was enamored enough that we went out of our way to visit Fort Laramie and even visited the bit of Oregon Trail our path crossed in Wyoming. Damian walked in the ruts the multitude of heavy wagons had bitten into the rock more than a century ago and we all had a bite-sized taste of history.

I picked up If You Lived With the Sioux Indians at the Fort Laramie gift shop. We were traveling into Sioux land as we headed north toward their sacred, beloved Black Hills and I thought it would give Damian a flavor of the way the land had been, how people had lived there. We didn't get to read it until we got to New Jersey, but Damian and I both enjoyed reading about the Sioux. I learned little new – this is a part of history and culture that has always fascinated me – but it was Damian's first real exposure to American Indian / Native American civilization, and he loved the idea of the animal spirits and of the communal living.

Toward the end of the book, things got dark. The Sioux were crowded onto reservations, slaughtered by the thousands, died of imported disease. At first, I was taken aback that it was all there, laid out in the same question-and-answer format as the rest of the (far more innocuous) material. But really, would I want the authors to edit out the hard truth? That would be a lie, with disturbing connotations. So no, it's better that they tell the truth, that children learn how Indians were treated, the travesty that was part of this country's birth pain. So I read it to Damian, who sat very quietly and listened.

Since we've arrived back on the east coast, I've found myself intrigued about the history of this area. I want to take some walking tours of the city, maybe in the spring. I want to learn about the transformation of the Lower East Side, the political history of Greenwich Village, the origin of Brownstone Brooklyn. I want to find out about the buildings I walk among. New Jersey too, but that comes later; after I learn about the state in the present tense, I'll want to know its past. So I picked up If You Lived 100 Years Ago to read to Damian because it was specifically about life in New York. We just finished reading it.

I don't know what I expected. This book was brutally honest. People traveled by horse-drawn carriages. The book described that. How were horses treated? Very badly indeed. The book described that. With each subject, the author, Ann McGovern, described how the rich lived (in ostentatious luxury) and then how the poor lived. She pulled no punches in describing the squalor of tenement living and the long, punishing hours children worked. Damian didn't ask too many questions about the rougher material. He just listened.

At first, as with the previous book, I squirmed as I read. Should I put the book down, should I cover his ears, is he ready for these images, this sadness? But it's part of history, and it's important to understand these things. Deep divisions remain between rich and poor, and the middle class is getting so squeezed, more people may be dropping below the poverty line every year. This is not just history, this is life. I don't sugarcoat death when I talk to Damian. He knows what happened to our cat Dante this summer, for instance. I try to explain homelessness when Damian asks about someone bundled up and trying to sleep in an alcove on the subway stairs. Why would I want a book to avoid the tough issues? Is there some specific time in a child's life when it's appropriate to explain, all in a rush, about every harsh aspect of life? Or is it better, as these books do, to weave it into the ordinary and the exotic, just an other facet to discuss?

We do tend to shelter our children. We don't want to talk about the depth of horror of a disaster like the tsunami in Asia or the details of devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I may talk in passing about the war in Iraq because Damian heard us talking, but I don't tell him about Abu Ghraib or the pictures of rows of coffins, soldiers coming home. I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe because children are more prone to nightmares. Maybe because they have less of a context to place the facts into. Maybe because they're simply not ready and we recognize that on some deep level. But at the same time, they do need to know some of it. To start understanding that there are aspects of life that just aren't fair, aren't nice, aren't sweetness and light. It's a gradual process, I think, teaching a child about the darker side of human nature. Of Mother Nature too, for that matter.

The more I think about it, the more glad I am that these books do cover the tough stuff. It's just – well, I'm not used to it. Not in a children's book. And some of these are harder. If You Lived in the Time of Slavery, for instance. I'm not ready for that one, I think. Not quite yet.


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What an endorsement. I'm tempted to go buy a copy right now :-)