During my childhood, my favorite reading genre was historical fiction (now as an adult it’s a tie between that and travel narratives). When I was in the sixth grade, a new series of historical fiction novels came out, entitled Dear America. Each book was written in the form of a diary of a young girl from an important time period or event in American history. The books covered everything from famous eras of American history such as the Civil War, the American Revolution and slavery to lesser known happenings such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Hello Girls, American girls who served as bilingual telephone-switchboard operators in France during World World I. The series was canceled in 2004 but has since made a comeback with a re-launch of previously published books, as well as new releases.
As a librarian, I know firsthand just how much books can inspire a person, spark interest in a particular topic, and more importantly from a traveling perspective, make you want to visit a particular destination or site. Exposing children to books like those from the Dear America series not only helps them become interested in history, but also helps them to better experience it when for instance, their parents decide to go to Plymouth, Massachusetts to tour the Mayflower, the replica of the ship the Pilgrims sailed to America on in the 17th century. Although most children would probably be more interested in visiting Disney World than a 200 year old plantation in the American South, more and more historical attractions are enlarging their efforts to appeal to all ages and types and not just the history geeks.
My dad was a history major in college and has volunteered at the Independence National Historic Park in my hometown of Philadelphia for 30 years. Needless to say, many of our family vacations when growing up revolved around history-visits to Colonial Williamsburg in Virigina multiple times, the Gettysburg battlefield, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate-for starters. Growing up in Philadelphia, birthplace of America, I was constantly exposed to history. In addition to such famous sites as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, outside of the city there was also Valley Forge, most famous for being the place where the rag tag soldiers of the Continental Army encamped during the winter of 1777-1778. For most of that winter they froze and starved, and yet by spring they eventually found their footing and went on to become the army that would beat a colonial empire. At Valley Forge you can tour the reconstructed huts where the soldiers stayed during the brutal winter and also visit the colonial era house where General George Washington lodged, all while the British Army took up residence in nearby Philadelphia where lavishness and excessive everything was the norm. One of the first Dear America books was The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart-Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (1777) by Kristiana Gregory. Although I had visited Valley Forge long before the book was ever published, I visited it again shortly after. Everything had a much deeper meaning, not to mention I enjoyed imagining the characters from the book standing in the same places as I was.
My favorite Dear America book is perhaps Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl-New York City (1903) by Kathryn Lasky. If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m immensely interested in immigrant history in the United States at the turn of the last century, due to my own great-grandparents who emigrated from Eastern Europe. This book is fantastic and even though it is geared towards middle school students (I was 12 when it came out), my mom and some other adult relatives read it too; it’s that good. What’s more incredible than the book is a visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (LESTM), a five-story brick tenement building in New York City that was once home to an estimated 7,000 people from over 20 nations between 1863 and 1935.
When children visit a historical attraction, they often feel bored and uninterested with no sense of connection to the site or area. However, if they read a book about a fictional child their age that lived or frequented the site they are visiting, I feel that they would be more interested. Touring one of the famous mills in Lowell, Massachusetts might mean nothing to a 13 year old, until she learns that girls her age worked in the mills, often under terrible conditions for very little pay (So Far from Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl-Lowell, Massachusetts, 1847 by Barry Denenberg). Or even something as simple as connecting with older relatives. Growing up, my grandmother would often say to me phrases that began with “when I was your age…” usually in regards to me wanting to buy something and not necessariyl save money. However, reading Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift by Kathryn Lasky put things into perspective for me more, knowing that just because a family wasn’t forced to live in a Hooverville (a popular name for a shanty town built by homeless people during the Great Depression and named after the president at the time, Herbert Hoover) there could still be shortages of necessary things like food, heat, and electricity.
Here are some other books in the series that could definitely be tied in with a historical trip:
When Will This Cruel War Be Over? The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson-1864 by Barry Denenberg –Any antebellum plantation in the American South
A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee-a Slave Girl-1859 by Patricia McKissack
-Any antebellum plantation in the American South
A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence-1836 by Sherry Garland
Early Sunday Morning: The Pearl Harbor Diary of Amber Billows-1941 by Barry Denenberg
A Coal Miner’s Bride: The Diary of Anekta Kaminska-1896 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
-Sites like the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour in Pennsylvania or the Kentucky Coal Museum
Note: While some of the older Dear America books are out of print to purchase, many will be available at your local public library.