The Living Past: An Interview With Cheryl Harness

We end our extended history week with what some consider to be the purest form of history: biography.  The old argument of whether great events, great thoughts, or great people make history will always be with us, but there’s no doubt in our subject’s mind what the most important history-making factor is: “People, definitely.”

Without intending to, in our peregrinations this week and last we’ve focused on recent trends in teaching America’s the past–particularly the heritage of the west.  The two main trends are cynicism and irony.  It’s probably no secret to most of our readers that, in an excess of zeal to correct the mistakes of our forefathers, too many educators have tacked way too far in the opposite direction, presenting the whole American enterprise as an exercise in hypocrisy.  There’s no need to put George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest back on a pedestal with soft lighting and inspirational music playing softly in the background.  They were men (sinners like us), with the particular biases and vices of their times (don’t think for a minute we don’t have our own).  But they had timely virtues, also, and what they providentially accomplished in the establishment of the United States was miraculous.

Cheryl Harness represents another way of teaching history-through-biography.  As she writes in her book, Grab Hold of the Past: “. . . [A]ny nation is a combination of all the stories of all of the people who’ve been in that land all down the years of the living past.”  History is not a cautionary tale, but a living heritage.  Through words and illustration, she attempts to place the subject in context: to show the man or woman as a product of their own time.  But with something extra: a measure of courage, or foresight, or vision, or compassion (or all the above) that gives them the means to see a little father, move their fellow men a little longer down the road of human progress.

Her books are too many to list here (so see the website), but I particularly like the Cheryl Harness History series, published by National Geographic.  In these books she takes a single character–not necessarily in the forefront of American history (such as Miles Standish, Narcissa Whitman, George Washington Carver)–and tells his or her story against the background of their times.  The timeline at the bottom of each page records events in political, social, scientific, and cultural history, while sidebars shed additional light on the subject’s world.  Those who remember Genevieve Foster’s “The World of . . .” books will recognize this approach, but Cheryl Harness Histories are more conversational and less detailed, therefore more accessible to younger readers.

Her illustrations are a lot more than page decoration; they’re also maps, charts, timelines, and storehouses of more information.  Some kids will skip a lot of the details, but others will pore over the pictures over and over, finding something new each time.  There’s no better way, in my opinion, to encourage a love of history in a young person.  Cheryl obviously loves it, and it shows.

That’s why we’re especially glad she shared some of her thoughts with us to round off history week.  With no further ado:

1. What do you see as positive and negative about the way history is taught today?

I would not suggest that I’m an authority on what goes on in America’s classrooms, so I’ll only say that I’m a big fan of E. D. Hirsch’s core knowledge curriculum (  So much necessary historical knowledge is conveyed in order that young citizens will be aware of what has occurred in their shared civilization and world culture.  I am not a fan at all of the way history and social studies have been sidelined in the demand for so much testing.

2.  You say on your website that the historical persons you would most like to meet are Abigail Adams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton–not to talk to, but to listen to them talk to each other.  Suppose you could round out that pair with two or three others to make your ideal dinner party: who would they be?

Oh baby–bring your hubby, Abigail!  And Cleopatra.  I would say Theodore Roosevelt, but he tended to dominate conversations, so let’s have his niece, Eleanor.  And Lorenzo de Medici.  And could we invite Thomas Edison?

3.  You mention developing a taste for history by reading the Little House books.  Did you have any other favorite historical novels from your growing-up years?

The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I loved Irving Stone’s books, The Agony and the Ecstasy about Michelangelo and Those Who Loved, about John and Abigail Adams.

4.  I love the way your illustrations just brim over on the page.  How do you decide what to leave out, or is that a problem?

I tend to shove everything in!

5.  In honor of Independence Day, who’s your favorite “founding father and why?

John Adams, absolutely.  [She forgot to say why, but probably couldn’t say it better than she already has in her picture biography, The Revolutionary John Adams:]

“. . . In the nation’s capital, the sun glitters on stone monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  John Adams was every bit as brave as the former and as brilliant as the latter but there is–at this writing–no such monument for him.  Perhaps this is fitting because stone is cold, and he was anything but.  The United States is a proper, living monument to intense, cranky, warm, heart-on-his-sleeve John Adams–America’s champion.”

Thank you, Mr. Adams–and Happy Birthday, USA!

All right, history buffs: you still have a chance to enter our quickie History Week contest.  We have a copy of The Revolutionary John Adams, and a copy of The Adventurous Life of Miles Standish (a Cheryl Harness History), and one more title as yet undisclosed for the lucky winners!  So click on over to our Sparkling Contest and tell us who your favorite founding father is (and why). (Contest closes at midnight on Wednesday, July 6.)


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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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