Starting this month, I’m splitting my roundup of US history texts for the pre-tween set into two posts — first, a recap of how the past month’s selections fared, and then the unveiling of my picks for the coming month.
The books we tried this past month (covering 1950-2000, and themes relevant to — but not necessarily entirely contained in — the first half of that period) were heavy on biography, and most of them didn’t do so well. The only clear winners were Wilma Unlimited and Uncle Andy’s, and I think I know why.
Both of them are strong stories about children, and their strength doesn’t lie in the fact that those children became famous (Wilma Rudolph) or had a relative who already was (James Warhola’s uncle, Andy Warhol). The emphasis adults place (often unwittingly) on celebrity can come across to kids as, “You should read about this person, because this person is famous” — and in the case of my son, S, that’s a real turnoff. He just wants a good story.
Harvesting Hope also qualifies, and S has loved that story before, but this time around he showed no interest in it. Go figure.
But the Muhammad Ali and Michael Collins books, whatever their strengths and/or weaknesses, begin from the fact that their subjects were important adults. I still think Ali and Collins are worth knowing about, and I can’t emphasize enough how splendid the design is in The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon. But S just wasn’t into learning about them. I’ve got to respect that and learn what I can from it, both as a parent and as a writer.
The issues with those two books went twelvefold for The Blues Singers and Shake, Rattle and Roll, as they cover not just one well-known adult but an array of a dozen or so each. The childhood experiences of Little Richard and James Brown might well make for fascinating reading, regardless of — even without reference to — their subsequent fame. But I’m not sure any modern child really needs to know anything about Bill Haley. If S develops an interest in the music of yore — you know, beyond wanting to hear “Yakety Yak” or “Move It on Over” 36 times in a row — I might try again with one or both of these. Or with the forthcoming Long Gone Lonesome History of Country Music, illustrated by Halden Wofford.
As for The History of the Personal Computer, it was as I figured, unfortunately: a subject that would have captivated S if presented in an engaging format. He lasted only a chapter. I read the whole thing, though, and I sure learned a lot. I’ll look forward to someone out there (hey, don’t look at me) giving the topic as nifty a treatment as that Michael Collins book. (Did I mention how cool that one is?)