Monday, October 13, 2014


As I write this post, Stephen Krensky's Christopher Columbus is ranked at #1 in e-book biographies for children. The paperback edition is ranked at #3 in historical biographies for children.

I'll start by saying that I don't recommend Krensky's book.

It was first published in 1991 in Random House's "Step Into Reading" series. At first read, you might think the book is ok, but I want to walk through the book, pausing at certain parts. On one page, we read:
There are people on the island.
Columbus calls them Indians
because he thinks he has reached
the Indies.
He names the island San Salvador.
He says it now belongs to Spain.
On the next page, Krensky writes:
But the island really belongs
to the people who live there.
See? Krensky essentially says "wait up Christopher, you're wrong about that!" Sounds good, doesn't it?

Don't be taken in! It might seem like Krensky is giving us something different from the "Columbus discovered America" myth, but... let's keep reading.

Columbus notices that some of the Indians are wearing what appears to be gold, so he pushes on, to look for gold. He visits other islands and:
He meets more Indians.
Most are helpful and friendly.
Most? Who isn't helpful or friendly to Columbus? And why were they not helpful or friendly? Krensky doesn't say.

Skip ahead a few pages to where Columbus is gonna return to Spain:
The ships are already loaded
with many new kinds of food--
corn, potatoes, peanuts,
papayas, avocados.
Columbus has also forced
six Indians to come with him.
People in Spain have never
seen Indians.
Krensky tells us that Columbus is taking Indians to Spain so people can see them? Why didn't Krensky rebut those last two lines, like he did earlier when he said that the island really belonged to the people who lived there?

Skipping ahead again, Columbus is back in Spain where he "is a hero." The last page is:
For the rest of his life,
Columbus never knows
how truly great
his discovery is.
He has really found a new world--
a world that no one in Europe knew about.
It is called America!
"Discovery"? "[F]ound a new world"??? I can hear defenders say "but Krensky says it was new to people in Europe! Leave poor Krensky (and Columbus) alone, you mean woman! You leftist liberal!"

Does Krensky want kids to feel sorry for Columbus because he didn't (according to Krensky) know how great his "discovery" was?! On one page, in one place, Krensky pushed back on the Columbus myth, but everywhere else? He just told the same-old-story!

Krensky's book, as noted earlier, is in the "Step Into Reading" series. Books like it are ones designed to help kids become independent readers. Christopher Columbus is a "Step 3" book. That means it is for kids in grades 1-3. Becoming an independent reader is a powerful moment in a person's life. Books that help with that process can take on a lot of emotional weight. They did for me, and likely for you, too. Go to the library. Get one that you read. See what sorts of strings it tugs as you turn its pages. The frightening thing is that a reader can also develop emotional attachment to the content of books like this.

Even more frightening is the information I shared at the very top of this post. This is a best selling book. It was first published in 1991 (no doubt to coincide with the 500 year "anniversary" of Columbus "discovery" of the "New World") and it still going strong.

Do you know of a book for independent readers, or a picture book, that honestly presents information about Christopher Columbus? Betsy Bird at SLJ says she's just learned of one that might do a better job of telling readers about Columbus. Due out in January of 2015, we'll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, those of you with older or capable readers can get Thomas King's brilliant Coyote Columbus Story. I recommended it in 2006.

If your child comes home today with coloring sheets of Columbus and you want to push back on what he/she was taught, the Zinn Education Project has an excellent page of resources.

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