The first time I browsed through Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire’s biography, Columbus, I purchased it for my kids on the spot based largely on the art. The D’Aulaire’s books are old, and for that reason, I hoped it would present Christopher Columbus without some of our current culture’s antipathy for him. Their first book, Ola, was published in the 1930’s, and many of you will be familiar with their book on Abraham Lincoln. It won a Caldecott Medal for illustration back in 1940, and you can still find it in some libraries and book stores today. Some folks will like the antiquated look of the art, the same way they like authentic Revolutionary era dresses. Others will be turned off by the drab colors and unrealistic people compared to today’s kids’ books. But when I finally sat down to read Columbus with my children, I found that the text was even better than I’d hoped.
Perhaps one reason has to do with D’Aulaire’s themselves. They were both immigrants to the U.S., a husband and wife team who met in Munich while studying art in the 1920’s. Thus, they saw things a little differently than most Americans. The Amazon.com summary about them says this:
“Shortly after their marriage, they moved to the United States and began to create the picture books that have established their reputation for unique craftsmanship. Their books were known for their vivid lasting color, a result of the pain-staking process of stone lithography used for all their American history biographies. This was an old world craft in which they were both expert, which involved actually tracing their images on large slabs of Bavarian limestone. Throughout their long careers, Ingri and Edgar worked as a team on both art and text. Their research took them to the actual places of their biographies, including the countries of Italy, Portugal and Spain when they were researching Columbus; to the hills of Virginia while they researched Washington; and to the wilds of Kentucky and Illinois for Abraham Lincoln, winner of the Caldecott Medal. The fact that they spoke 5 languages fluently served them well in their European travels and in their research of original documents. Since their deaths in the 1980’s, Ingri and Edgar’s books and works have been kept alive by their two sons Ola and Nils.”
I would very much like to know how common it was during this time to research children’s books from primary research and by visiting historical places. As a general rule, kids’ books have been derivatives of work done by adult historians. In fact, the expectation that kids’ book authors should do primary research was seemed a pretty new concept ten years ago when I was just getting started as an editor. The new thing encouraged by award committees was for nonfiction authors to include footnotes for their research, justifying their statements and conclusions in the same way a college professor would do. The shift in thinking was subtle, but it was there: kids’ book authors were no longer expected to draw on common knowledge. Instead, they were expected to do the work of real historians, and many adult historians were increasingly solicited to do kids’ books (see The Story of Salt by Mark Kurlansky or my friend Philip Dray’s book on Ida B. Wells.) Having preceded this trend by a quarter of a century, I am especially impressed by The D’aulaire’s accomplishment in their books.
In their Columbus book in particular, they present a flawed man who is neither a saint or a demon. Their Columbus is a man of adventure and intelligence. He is a man who believed in God and his calling to spread the Christian faith. He is a man of science, who knew that the world was round and sought to make use of that knowledge. But he is also a man who used his intelligence to exploit natives and who ended up very unhappy. The D’Aulaire’s write, “Many people say that Columbus was poor and forsaken in his old age. That is not true. He wasn’t poor, but he was bitter because he was not the richest and mightiest seaman in the world. Columbus was a great man. But he was not a modest man. He wanted too much, and so he did not get enough.” This doesn’t rise to the level of the gospel, but it’s a criticism worth reading and talking about with your kids. And in so doing, it opens the door for conversation about the One good man.
THE FOUNDING OF OUR NATION
Of course, wrapped up in our understanding of Columbus is his influence on the founding of our nation. And on that point, I want to recommend one textbook today: Never Before in History: America’s Inspired Birth. This is not a kids’ book per se, but many preteens and teenagers would benefit tremendously from its contribution. So will younger children if parents take the time to read it and weave its teachings into their parenting or homeschooling.
Written by Gary Amos, professor at Regent University, and Richard Gardiner of Princeton Theological Seminary, this book demonstrates in bold letters why religion can’t be left out of American history. It isn’t intended to be a comprehensive picture of America’s founding. Rather, the authors focus on the contribution of Christian thinkers, and in particular how the ideas of the Reformation made our form of government possible. Including photos and excerpts from thinkers like Martin Luther’s and John Calvin to John Locke, the textbook reads like a concise and well-documented bombshell of ideas. For instance, I was shocked to learn of the direct influence that the Salem Witch trials played in the construction of our Bill of Rights.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and we’ll probably detail some kids’ books about it before long. But if you want one book that will equip you as a parent or teacher to discuss the founding of our country intelligently and succinctly with your children and relatives–without white-washing that history or slipping into hero-worship–this is a book you can’t pass up.
Any thoughts on Columbus and his portrayal in kids’ books? Or maybe you have a reaction to old Dick & Jane type art?