The Scoop on Science Books
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Practicing History

History is a hot topic right now on several of the children's book blogs. A recent newspaper article and then an op-ed essay, both in the New York Times, have prompted some fascinating discussions. The Times pieces point out that many historians debunk the popular notion that quilts provided a secret code of geographical clues for escaped slaves using the Underground Railroad.

A number of children's books feature the use of quilts on the Underground Railroad as a central motif. The following blogs have some good posts on the current controversy:  Boston 1775, Farm School, Educating Alice, and MetaFilter. Author Chris Barton also considers "fictionalizing" in nonfiction books for children, at Bartography.

Fergus M. Bordewich wrote in his Times op-ed piece,

... faked history serves no one, especially when it buries important truths that have been hidden far too long. The “freedom quilt” myth is just the newest acquisition in a congeries of bogus, often bizarre, legends attached to the Underground Railroad.

In another excellent post at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell questions the  historical documentation of an award-winning book, Hanukkah at Valley Forge.

I encountered some history weirdness with the lauded picture book The World's Greatest Elephant, presented as the true dramatic adventures of a circus trainer and his elephant. Wonderful illustrations by Ted Lewin, but... the picture book provides no historical documentation. The copyright page does state that it was adapted from an adult "novel" by the same author. Internet searches for terms, names, and geographical locations in the book only led back to the book itself.  I can't help coming back to Bordewich's statement that "fake history helps no one," children included.

P.S., I stole the title of this post from a book by the historian Barbara Tuchman: Practicing History.


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