BEST OF ENGAGE
BY LAURIE CALKHOVEN This post originally appeared on the Engage/Teacher to Teacher blog in February 2012. Laurie Calkhoven has always loved reading and writing (just don’t ask her about arithmetic). She’s especially interested in the small moments of American history that usually get left out of the history books. Learn more about her at www.lauriecalkhoven.com
Nov 5, 2012
. I GREW UP TO BE PRESIDENT follows future presidents from boyhood through their time as U.S. Presidents. What important facts/lessons can be learned from studying these men’s childhoods specifically?
I think it’s important for children to know that the presidents are just like us. John Quincy Adams was nearly shipwrecked—twice!—while traveling to Europe with his diplomat father. Ulysses S. Grant hated school and loved horses. Harry S. Truman was teased because his thick glasses kept him from playing sports, so he read every book in the public library instead. And Lyndon Baines Johnson was so poor as a child that his family didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing.
The presidents loved their pets, played sports, and ate ice cream. Some of them were terrible students, and more than one was a prankster. They were ordinary kids who grew up to do extraordinary things. In other words, the presidents are not so different than you and me. Any American can grow up to be president! In your Boys of Wartime series, you have created characters who are young men during famous wars and battles. Have you presented these books at schools, and, if so, have you gotten any interesting feedback from children whose older siblings might be fighting in America’s current wars?
My Boys of Wartime novels are about ordinary kids who get caught up in extraordinary events, and that’s a big focus in my school presentations. I’m always surprised that children don’t ask questions or make connections to America’s current wars, but so far they haven’t.
In presentations about DANIEL AT THE SIEGE OF BOSTON, 1776 and WILL AT THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG, 1863, I like to talk about the small, funny moments that played a role in the war or the battle—how a broken egg helped keep the American Revolution on track, for instance, or the insulting song a Gettysburg girl sang to the Confederate soldiers camped out under her window. Students have really enjoyed those stories.
MICHAEL AT THE INVASION OF FRANCE, 1943 is just about to be published, and I have wondered if—because it’s more recent than the other wars in my novels—it might spark more questions about contemporary events. Having written a biography of George Washington (GEORGE WASHINGTON: AN AMERICAN LIFE), do you have suggestions for little-known or interesting aspects of his life that might help teachers to connect their students to the first president?
We tend to look at George Washington as this giant, heroic figure, and forget that he was, in many ways, an ordinary man.
Washington had an “interesting” relationship with his mother. She was something of a scold, and more than one of his friends was afraid of her. He wanted to join the British navy when he was a teenager, but she wouldn’t let him. Mrs. Washington didn’t think her son paid nearly enough attention to her and would have been happier if he had stopped his soldiering and politicking to stay home and take care of her.
He also struggled with poverty after his father’s death. Washington became a surveyor because he couldn’t afford to go to college. He liked to dance, but he missed more than one party as a young man because he couldn’t afford extra feed for his horse. He was also shy and quiet, which made him unlucky with girls! He even had to borrow money from a friend to travel to New York City for his inauguration.
I think stories like those that humanize Washington and make him more interesting to today’s readers. He was a heroic individual, but he struggled just like the rest of us. What periods and/or events in history would you like to write about in the future?
There are so many time periods and events that interest me that it’s hard to choose! Two of my favorite places to bring visitors to in New York City are Ellis Island the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, so I suppose that one of these days I’m going to have to write a novel set in the immigrant world of the Lower East Side. My original plan was to include a World War One story in the Boys of Wartime series, but World War Two proved to be more compelling. So that’s still a possibility.
When I write a historical novel, I usually spend a good long time researching (six to eight months) before I even begin writing (which can take another year or more), so I have to find a story that I love, and one that makes sense given that my characters are 12-year-old boys. Do you have any favorite research techniques that teachers can adapt to their classrooms, and help their students be more successful in researching historical figures/events?
My process has been a little different for each book. I got the idea for DANIEL when I was writing my biography of George Washington, so then it was a matter of finding out everything I could about what led up to the Siege of Boston and what day-to-day life was like during that year. I usually begin with big, general histories and then dig deeper. I comb through the bibliographies of the books I’m reading looking for more. I browse the library stacks, reading the titles nearby the ones I’m using. And I always try to find primary sources—first-hand accounts from the people who actually lived through the event.
For the next two books in the series, WILL AT THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG, 1863 and MICHAEL AT THE INVASION OF FRANCE, 1943, I started reading very broadly about the time period, looking for an aspect of the war that intrigued me. The Battle of Gettysburg captured my attention because it was such a pivotal battle in the war. Control of Gettysburg changed hands four times very quickly. For a time, one home was the battle’s front line. Confederate soldiers were on the back porch and Union soldiers were on the front. They shot at each other through the windows while the family crouched in the basement. The history books are mostly about the soldiers and the generals, but I wanted to know about the townspeople.
Once I settled on that battle as the basis of my novel, I turned to primary sources. Many of the townspeople recorded their stories. I also visited Gettysburg more than once. A lot of the Civil War buildings are still standing. I was able to walk the streets, poke my fingers into bullet holes, and stand under the shade of trees that witnessed the battle. That was invaluable.
I knew that my World War II novel would be about a boy in the French Resistance. Again, I started with very broad research. As soon as I read about the spy networks that helped Allied airmen make their way across France, into Spain, and safely into the hands of the British, I knew that’s what my story would be about. There are some great recent nonfiction books about the escape lines, and many of the airmen and Resistance fighters put their experiences down on paper, too. Once again, primary sources proved to be the most useful in getting the details right.
For nonfiction my approach is pretty much the same—I begin with contemporary historians and then make my way back in time, getting more and more specific and looking for the fun details (like the broken egg in DANIEL) that don’t usually make the history books.
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