One that I am re-reading is Robert Lawson's They Were Strong and Good. Published in 1940, it won the Caldecott that year. The book opens with a Foreword that reads:
This is the story of my mother and my father and of their fathers and mothers.So, Lawson tells us, They Were Strong and Good is a family history of sorts. His disclaimer is interesting---it leaves me with many questions. The cover of the book shows us his parents and grandparents:
Most of it I heard as a little boy, so there may be many mistakes; perhaps I have forgotten or mixed up some of the events and people. But that does not really matter, for this is not alone the story of my parents and grandparents, it is the story of the parents and grandparents of most of us who call ourselves Americans.
and the end pages (pages just inside the front and back cover) show us the same people. This image is from Peter D. Sieruta's blog, Collecting Children's Books, where he's got an essay on They Were Strong and Good. His essay title is "They Were Strong and Good Enough for 1940."
In 1994 a revised edition was published. In the revised one, the phrase "Indians--tame ones" was changed. The phrase "tame ones" was omitted. That wasn't the only part of the book that was changed. Its language with respect to African Americans was also changed. Beverly Slapin wrote about the changes a few years ago, and Jean Mendoza shared some pointed questions about the original text. Please take time to read what they said.
As I studied They Were Strong and Good yesterday, I honed in on this page:
The text that goes with the page places that image in Minnesota. In the foreground are an Indian man and woman who have been given a pie and are being chased away. But who is chasing them? The young girl behind the African American woman is Lawson's mother. Lawson was born in 1892, so I'm guessing the year for that story is roughly 1872, assuming his mother gave birth to him when she was 20 years old. So... Minnesota in 1870s. Slaves? That gave me pause, so I started digging in to Minnesota history and slavery. Right away I found a Minnesota Public Radio story about the research and upcoming book by Professor Christopher Lehman at St. Cloud University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Here's the first few paragraphs from the MPR site:
St. Paul, Minn. — A St. Cloud State University professor has found evidence of slavery in several Minnesota counties before the Civil War, a groundbreaking discovery that sheds light on the Midwest's pre-Civil War history.
Christopher Lehman, an ethnic studies professor who is researching slavery in states along the upper Mississippi River, has documented slavery in Stearns, Benton, Hennepin, Ramsey, and Washington counties.
His research, to be published in a book in 2012, also found that prominent St. Cloud families of the mid-19th Century were slave owners.
I wrote to Professor Lehman to let him know about They Were Strong and Good and he's written back asking for more information. Hence, today's blog post. I don't know if it will, in the end, be useful to Lehman. What I find deeply satisfying about studying children's books is the information they hold. Some, like They Were Strong and Good tell us a lot about history and race. They should not be dismissed as "less than" because they're written for children.
There is value in having children study They Were Strong and Good. I don't recommend it be used with young children "as-is"---it should be studied by students in high school, perhaps in critical media literacy or social justice or civics courses.
I'm looking forward to the Symposium, listening to learning from others who also work with and study children's books. One keynote speaker is Mary GrandPre. She did the illustrations for the Harry Potter books. The other keynote will be given by Kenneth Kidd, author of Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. An excerpt from his book is available at the publisher's website. If you're near Sarasota on Saturday, consider attending the symposium. Registration for the general public is $85.00 and includes lunch and snacks.