Fritz, Jean 1915-
Jean Fritz 1915-
(Full name Jean Guttery Fritz) Chinese-born American writer of nonfiction, fiction, and picture books.
For addition criticism on Fritz's works, see CLR, Volumes 2, 14.
Fritz is an acclaimed author of biographies, historical works, children's books, young adult literature, short stories, nonfiction novels, essays, literary criticism, and book reviews. Although the majority of Fritz's works are nonfictional, she is best known for her accurately crafted historical biographies for young children, for which she has won numerous awards. Fritz is credited for presenting "historical facts in an informative way using language accessible to all readers," reported Rachel Lawrence in Kliatt. In her essay "The Voice of One Biographer," Fritz declared: "As I write, I am aware that my audience is children and I don't want to lose them. I hope for their undivided attention so I talk informally, conversationally, often in simple declarative sentences—not so much for the sake of simplicity but because I believe in the strength of my material and want to present it without distraction."
Born on November 16, 1915, of YMCA missionary parents Arthur Minton and Myrtle (Chaney) Guttery, Fritz spent her first thirteen years in a French compound in Hankow, China. She attended a British school, spoke fluent Chinese, and spent most of her time writing a journal in which she expressed her longing to live in America. When the family moved to Washington, Pennsylvania, Fritz was frustrated with the stubbornness and arrogance she found in her educational setting and the ignorance of people in general, which made her feel trapped between two cultures. Fritz enrolled in 1933 at Wheaton College and earned a B.A. in English in 1937. Encouraged by her mother, she enrolled in an advertising course in the fall of 1937 at Columbia University but soon switched to a secretarial course to broaden her employment skills. She then began her career as a research assistant for the textbook publisher Silver Burdette Company in New York City. Fritz took a graduate course in children's literature under Jean Betsner and submitted her term paper for publication in October 1941. She married Michael Fritz on November 1, 1941. Moving to San Francisco with her husband, Fritz reviewed children's books for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Ledger-News-Tribune in Tacoma, Washington. Relocating to New York, Fritz served as a ghost writer, prepared teacher's manuals for Macmillan, and wrote educational and promotional materials for the Prang Company. In 1955 Fritz became the children's librarian in the Dobbs Ferry, New York library.
Fritz had begun her writing career while she was at home with her children, publishing short stories for Humpty Dumpty magazine. She recognized in her essay "The Teller and the Tale" that she was writing for young people and "trying, in a disguised form, to work out past and present relationships." Fritz smoothly moved from picture books to children's books to novels. In 1962 Fritz founded the Jean Fritz Writers' Workshop in Katonah, New York, where she was an instructor until 1970. After her fourth novel, Early Thunder (1967), Fritz decided to try her hand at nonfiction starting with Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies, 1728-1814 (1972). This adult biography, which took her seven years to write, helped develop her interest in biographies. She was a teacher in Westchester County, New York, for the Board of Co-operative Educational Service from 1971 until 1973. Seven years later she resumed her teaching as a faculty member of Appalachian State University. Fritz and her husband were permitted to visit Hankow, China, in 1983 and then again in 1986, inspiring two autobiographies, Homesick: My Own Story (1982) and China Homecoming (1985). Fritz began to make appearances as a lecturer in primary schools to be able to interact with children. Currently, Fritz and her husband reside in Dobbs Ferry, New York; their children are married with their own children and live an hour away. Fritz continues her two favorite interests: reading and traveling.
In the 1950s Fritz began publishing "concept" books: Bunny Hopwell's First Spring (1954), Help Mr. Willy Nilly (1954), Growing Up (1956), and The Late Spring (1957). Her picture books allow children to interact as the stories are read. O. Mell Busbin in Dictionary of Literary Biography indicates that Fritz's picture books have "an effective balance of text and character-revealing illustrations." Fritz wrote Fish Head (1954) as a result of her desire to be near the sea and to feel free. How to Read a Rabbit (1959) is inspired by the concept of pets being loaned out to children. December Is for Christmas (1961) is a picture book that searches for the true meaning of Christmas. Three of Fritz's books relate stories in the same format: Brendan the Navigator (1979), a retelling of the story of Saint Brendan of Ireland; The Man Who Loved Books (1981), the story of Saint Columbia; and The Good Giants and the Bad Pukwudgies (1982) examines the legend of the Wampanaog Indians of Massachusetts. The most recent picture book written by Fritz, The Great Adventure of Christopher Columbus: A Pop-up Book (1992), is printed on fold-out extensions and renders brief summaries of Columbus's voyage, cargo, landfall, and return to Spain.
Early in her career, Fritz began writing nonfiction and historical fiction. Champion Dog, Prince Tom (1958) concerns Prince Tom, a National Field Trial Champion dog. Adult-child relationships are stressed and dog training suggestions are provided. Suggested by a documentary film, The Animals of Dr. Schweitzer (1958) is a sensitive yet humorous description of a man's scholarly concern for all living things. San Francisco (1962), a guided tour of the city, is based on Fritz's own experiences. In her historical novel The Cabin Faced West (1958), Fritz depicts a child's life in the 1780s and draws on real names and places. Brady (1960) examines the relationship between a minister and his son Brady, who battle the issue of slavery in rural Pennsylvania in 1836. In her novel I, Adam (1963), Fritz acquaints her readers with life in the East during the 1850s. Her protagonist,, fifteen-year-old Adam, must make decisions that will affect his future. The themes of decision-making and inner conflict continue in Early Thunder (1967) and China's Long March: 6000 Miles of Danger (1988). In Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan (1994), Fritz confronts problematic issues confronted by ten explorers between 1421 and 1522. Fritz is well versed in historical fiction and comments, "A historical writer is always looking for old hoofprints, old footprints."
Fritz is noted for well-crafted biographies of America's founding fathers that are presented as adventure stories. Her first biographies for children, And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (1973), Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? (1974), Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29thof May? (1975), Who's That Stepping on Plymouth Rock? (1975), What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? (1976), Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (1976), and Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? (1980), are told with vitality, candor, and humor. A reviewer for-Publishers Weekly praises Fritz for "creating her witty and highly personalized portrayals of our Founding Fathers." Soon Fritz continued her biographies with Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold (1981), The Double Life of Pocahontas (1983), Make Way for Sam Houston! (1986), Shh! We're Writing the Constitution (1987), and The Great Little Madison (1989).
Fritz told Children's Book Council that one of the reasons she writes so much about history is "because I enjoy research so much." After receiving numerous awards for her unique story-telling, Fritz constantly searched for ways to present familiar stories with an entertaining and unusual interpretation. Her later biographies include Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! (1991), George Washington's Mother (1992), Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln: The Story of the Gettysburg Address (1993), Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers (1994), You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? (1995), Why Not, Lafayette? (1999), and Leonardo's Horse (2001). In Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, Fritz observes, "I'll never be able to stop trying to convince people how much our future leans on our past. Nor will I be able to stop reaching into the past to enlighten my life today."
Fritz has been widely recognized by critics as an author of unique skill. Dictionary of Literary Biography writer O. Mell Busbin acknowledges that Fritz "has established herself as a writer of historical fiction and biographies for children, two genres which require accuracy, something for which Fritz diligently strives and at which she constantly excels." Carol Hurst and Rebecca Otis praise Fritz's fictional and nonfictional works in Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site. They state, "Each is historical and the background Fritz provides in each shows her extensive research and her ability to portray a time and the decisions made by ordinary people vividly for young readers. These skills are even more apparent in her nonfictional work." A Bound To Stay Bound Books, Inc. contributor adds, "It is her penchant for making distant historical figures seem real that brings the characters to life and makes the biographies entertaining, informative, and filled with natural child appeal." Many of Fritz's biographies have been important in the enrichment of the Social Studies curriculum. Marsha K. Savage and Tom V. Savage in Social Studies praise Homesick: My Own Story for addressing cultural studies, geographical studies, history, and economic concepts. Ellen Lewis Buell, a reviewer for The New York Times Book Review, points out that Fritz's picture books have "charm and freshness and the kind of humor that makes the reader feel he is sharing a special joke with the storyteller." In Wilson Library Bulletin Donnarae MacCann and Olga Richard contend that The Great Adventure of Christopher Columbus: A Pop-up Book "is a flippant narrative accompanied by three-dimensional panoramas.… Fritz makes nakedness … a running joke throughout the narrative." In School Library Journal, however, Jean H. Zimmerman declares "this title is well suited to reading aloud and perfect for classroom use if not for circulation."
Fritz collected the New York Times outstanding book of the year citations in 1973 for And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?, in 1974 for Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?, in 1975 for Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29thof May?, in 1981 for Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold, and in 1982 for Homesick: My Own Story. She also received honor book citations from Boston Globe-Horn Book in 1974 for And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?, in 1976 for Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? and in 1980 for Stonewall. Fritz was named an outstanding Pennsylvania author by the Pennsylvania School Library Association in 1978. For her "body of creative writing" Fritz accepted the Honor Award for nonfiction in 1978 and 1979 by the Children's Book Guild. She twice received the American Book Award nomination, first in 1980 for Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? and again in 1981 for Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold. Fritz earned an LL.D. in 1982 from Washington and Jefferson College and another in 1987 from Wheaton College. In 1982 she was awarded the Child Study Award and the Christopher Award. Her autobiography Homesick: My Own Story won the Newbery Honor Book Award, the American Book Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book honor book in 1983. The Double Life of Pocahontas received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award in 1984, as did The Great Little Madison in 1990. The Great Little Madison also won the Orbis Pictus Award in 1989 from the National Council of English Teachers. Fritz was honored with the Regina Award in 1984, and in 1986 she received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. She received the Knickerbocker Award for Juvenile Literature in 1992. Many of Fritz's books have been named notable books by the American Library Association.
Bunny Hopwell's First Spring (picture book) 1954
Fish Head (picture book) 1954
Help Mr. Willy Nilly (picture book) 1954
121 Pudding Street (children's book) 1955
Growing Up (children's book) 1956
The Late Spring (children's book) 1957
The Animals of Doctor Schweitzer (nonfiction) 1958
The Cabin Faced West (historical novel) 1958
Champion Dog, Prince Tom [with Tom Clute] (nonfiction) 1958
How to Read a Rabbit (picture book) 1959
Brady (historical novel) 1960
December Is for Christmas (picture book) 1961
San Francisco (nonfiction) 1962
Tap, Tap Lion, 1, 2, 3 (children's book) 1962
I, Adam (historical novel) 1963
Magic to Burn (children's book) 1964
Early Thunder (historical novel) 1967
George Washington's Breakfast (historical novel) 1969
Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies, 1728-1814 (adult biography) 1972
And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (biography) 1973
Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? (biography) 1974
Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29thof May? (biography) 1975
Who's That Stepping on Plymouth Rock? (biography) 1975
What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? (biography) 1976
Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (biography) 1976
Can't You Make Them Behave, King George? (biography) 1977
Brendan the Navigator (picture book) 1979
Stonewall (biography) 1979
Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? (biography) 1980
The Man Who Loved Books (picture book) 1981
Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold (biography) 1981
The Good Giants and the Bad Pukwudgies (picture book) 1982
Homesick: My Own Story (autobiography) 1982
The Double Life of Pocahontas (biography) 1983
China Homecoming (autobiography) 1985
Make Way for Sam Houston! (biography) 1986
Shh! We're Writing the Constitution (biography) 1987
China's Long March: 6000 Miles of Danger (historical nonfiction) 1988
The Great Little Madison (biography) 1989
Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! (biography) 1991
George Washington's Mother (biography) 1992
Surprising Myself (autobiography) 1992
The Great Adventure of Christopher Columbus (picture book) 1992
The World in 1492 [with Katherine Paterson, Fredrick and Patricia McKissack, Margaret Mahy, and Jamake Highwater] (nonfiction) 1992
Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln: The Story of the Gettysburg Address (biography) 1993
Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan (nonfiction) 1994
Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers (biography) 1994
You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? (biography) 1995
Why Not, Lafayette? (biography) 1999
Leonardo's Horse (biography) 2001
Jean Fritz (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Fritz, Jean. "The Voice of One Biographer." In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, pp. 337-40. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Fritz provides detailed information on her philosophy and methodology for writing biographies.]
As a young, beginning writer, I once took a publicity tour with my editor. We shared the same hotel room—a female editor, I may add—and one evening I sat down at the desk to write a letter home to my husband. When I finished, my editor remarked, "Do you know that when you write, you move your lips?"
I didn't know. I felt a bit embarrassed like a slow reader who has silently to mouth every word. I doubt if I still do this; still, I don't think it's a bad idea. I suppose I had developed the habit of listening as I wrote, testing the rhythm of the sentences, fitting the punctuation into my voice.
It is hard for a writer to comment on his or her voice. Once one has struggled through those awful preliminary stages of stilted, textbook-like writing, and has begun to feel at home with written words, a writer's voice seems as natural as his walk. The voice is not always the same; it adapts itself to the subject at hand but it is the writer's own voice. Of course sometimes the voice doesn't ring true and has to be worked over again and perhaps again. Trying out words, I often feel as if I am throwing coins down on a counter as we did when I was a child in China to determine by the sound if the coin is genuine or counterfeit. The voice I have developed, I realize, is the voice of a narrator. Indeed, I feel lucky to have written fiction before tackling biography, for story is what I look for and people are what I hunt down. Real people. It is the truth of biography that attracts me. It is so much more dramatic, more bizarre, stranger than anything I could ever dream up. Even in telling a dinner table story, I love to hear people say, "Isn't that incredible!" I love to say it myself. So biography seemed to suit my voice, for throughout my books I suspect you can hear me whispering, "Yes, it really happened that way. Can you believe it?"
I remember reading with my children the popular orange Bobbs Merrill biographies about the childhood of famous Americans. The theory was then that children could identify best (and perhaps only) with other children. Preferably children like themselves. Moreover, children wouldn't read a biography that didn't contain a fictionalized dialogue. Educators went further. Children shouldn't be bothered with explanations of the motives of characters. Deeds alone were enough.
Well, I knew my voice would never fit such a pattern. Besides, I had enough confidence in children to believe that they would react as I did to the surprises in history, to the extraordinary nature of people of whatever age and they would be curious, as I am, about what leads people to do what they do. I had equal confidence in the startling quality of pure fact and in the wealth of specific and sometimes out-of-the-way details that can be depended upon to bring events to life. I would make up nothing. I would include conversations only when I had a documented source for it.
I think because my childhood took place in China in a very different world, I have always hung on to memory consciously and tenaciously for fear it might slip away altogether. As a consequence, I feel the child in me is still alive and well and I expect that in real life as well as in print you can hear that the child persists in my voice. As I write, I am aware that my audience is children and I don't want to lose them. I hope for their undivided attention, so I talk informally, conversationally, often in simple declarative sentences—not so much for the sake of simplicity but because I believe in the strength of my material and want to present it without distraction.
Not that I am against long sentences. I am delighted to be able to string a long series of explicit facts together. "In 1735," I write in And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (1973), "there were in Boston 42 streets, 36 lanes, 122 alleys, 1,000 brick houses, 2,000 wooden houses, 12 churches, 4 schools, 418 horses (at last count) and so many dogs that a law was passed prohibiting people from having dogs that were more than 10 inches high." Children love to know numbers; they like lists, and for much of this information I am indebted to a secondhand copy of Justin Winsor's wonderful two-volume history of Boston—one of the most useful purchases I've ever made. For dramatic effect I often isolate separate words or phrases and let them stand alone.
To focus attention and quicken the pace, I often use questions. In my book Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? (1980), for instance, I am describing how frustrated Columbus was when in effect he was grounded between his third and fourth journeys.
"Indeed, it wasn't easy to stay quietly at home in Spain while other men were exploring his Indies.… Atleast five men were leading their own expeditions.…
"And what was Columbus doing?"
"Sitting on dry land, twiddling his thumbs."
In this passage I am indirectly getting inside Columbus' mind, and by asking the question and answering it as I have, I have quickly demonstrated his impatience. With humor, I hope. I never consciously think, "Now I must work humor into this." Humor is simply indispensable to me, not just as a writer; and if it didn't crop up frequently in my work, it wouldn't be my natural voice.
So although it is my voice I use, I adapt that voice and in the long books for older young people, I take a more leisurely approach and follow the time sequence more closely. When I have extra information that is helpful to know but doesn't quite fit into the rhythm of the writing, I enclose it in brackets as if it were an aside. Without fictionalizing, it is possible to look at the world through someone else's eyes and to experience that person's emotions. I still maintain the voice of the narrator and if nothing else, I must show understanding. I don't excuse and obviously don't approve of Benedict Arnold's becoming a traitor, but a narrator must not be didactic or judge. It is clear that he acted wrongly, but given the kind of person he was and given the particular set of circumstances in his life, I show how he rationalized his behavior. There is plenty of documentation for this. Few people, I think, commit such a crime (or perhaps any crime) without finding some way to justify themselves.
I had a harder time entering the mind of Pocahontas because of course she, herself, left no written records. Fortunately, the settlers, especially John Smith, left full accounts. John even left a word-for-word record of his unhappy conversation with Pocahontas in England and for this I am very grateful. This one conversation substantiates much of what I suspected of her feelings as a younger girl and also her feelings as a married woman in England. Yet time and again in order to give the Pocahontas story the emotional intensity it deserved, I had to resort to such qualifying words as "perhaps," "she must have," "she may have," "probably." I did feel that I was filling the gaps with reasonable assumptions based on wide research, yet I didn't like to compromise my voice in this way. At the same time, it seemed to me that Pocahontas, who has only been a myth as far as school children are concerned, needed to be rescued. Actually, of all the characters I've written about, I feel closest to Pocahontas. Since the main facts of her life are recorded, I am not uneasy. Still, I wish my voice could have been more certain at all times.
I have often said that I don't pick subjects; they pick me. I hear their voices and I suddenly have an intense desire to record them. If these voices in turn have to be filtered through my voice, there is no help for it. All biographers accept this. It is the only way that the past can speak.
Fritz, Jean. And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? New York: Coward, 1973.
———. The Double Life of Pocahontas. New York: Putnam, 1983.
———. Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold. New York: Putnam, 1981.
———. Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? New York: Putnam, 1980.
Jean Fritz (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Fritz, Jean. "The Teller and the Tale." In Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, edited by William Zinsser, pp. 21-46. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Fritz reveals how her childhood influenced her writing nonfiction and biographies, as well as Homesick: My Own Story and China Homecoming. She also includes a bibliography of works that have inspired her throughout her life.]
I don't think it's possible to discuss the craft of writing for children without first exploring the nature of the writer. I suspect that anyone who writes—particularly those who write for children—had a childhood that for one reason or another was very vivid. Often it was also a lonely childhood, with solitude enough to expand one's capacity for wonder, to sharpen awareness, to encourage remembrance. My own childhood was spent in China, and it has lived with me ever since. Indeed, I can't remember a time when I didn't think that the world was a great deal stranger and harder to explain than my missionary parents let on.
Isaiah Berlin, drawing on an old Greek quotation, divided people into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs are those who want to change the world, who try to fit it into a single, overall explanation. Foxes, on the other hand, accept the world as it is, exulting in all its variety and its paradoxes and its many explanations, or even its lack of explanation. That may be a simplistic notion, but, in any case, there were a lot of hedgehogs around in my childhood. I heard men exchange stories of when they "heard the call," in the same way that women trade descriptions of having a baby. I had no idea what the call was. But I lived in terror that one day I would hear the call myself.
I needn't have worried, for, as I discovered much later, I was not susceptible. I was a fox, listening, savoring, observing, first trying out life as one person and then as another, exulting in the diversity of the world. And in China there was plenty of diversity. Like most people who become writers, I was unconsciously storing away this personal material. Yet when I actually started writing it was fiction that I wrote, fiction set in American history.
I needed to accumulate a long American past for my displaced childhood. That much I realized. Nor was I surprised that I was writing for young people. What I didn't recognize until much later was that I was also trying, in a disguised form, to work out past and present personal relationships.
With my fourth novel, Early Thunder, however, I suddenly became impatient with the fictional framework. The story was set in Salem, Massachusetts, a year before the Revolution broke out, and my research turned up such incredible events in that year that I longed to tell the story as it actually happened. But in fiction everything depends on the illusion of reality. And so, to maintain that illusion, I had to tone down the reality, and it was such a waste of good material.
At this point I decided to move straight into nonfiction—into biography, where I would be caught up in the life of a real person and where, however strange the events, I could just let 'er rip! I would make up nothing, not even the dialogue, and I wouldn't even use dialogue unless I had a source. I would be honest. If there was a fact I wasn't sure of, or if it was unknown, I would say so.
I started with Paul Revere, perhaps because as a child I felt uncomfortable with Longfellow. I always felt that Longfellow was trying to take me on his lap, to make sure I would listen and hear his midnight story of Paul Revere. But when I told the story of Paul I wanted to jump into specific, unexpected facts, the kind that give the past a pulse. Fortunately, I had just found in a small, second-hand bookstore Justin Winsor's wonderful four-volume Memorial History of Boston, with exactly the kind of minute details that I treasure. So I began. "In 1735," I wrote,
there were in Boston 42 streets, 36 lanes, 22 alleys, 1,000 brick houses, 2,000 wooden houses, 12 churches, 4 schools, 418 horses (at the last count), and so many dogs that a law was passed prohibiting people from having dogs that were more than 10 inches high.
There were, of course, people in Boston—more than 13,000. Four of them lived in a small wooden house on North Street near Love Lane. They were Mr. Revere, a gold and silversmith; his wife, Deborah; their daughter Deborah; and their young son Paul Revere, born the first day of the new year.
I called the book And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? It turned out to be sixty-four pages, as did my subsequent books about people in the Revolution. All of them have titles that are in the form of a question, because questions imply surprise. We underestimate the power of surprise in education. It seems to me that I have been surprised into learning almost everything I know.
As for the style of writing, I'm constantly asked, "How do you know what children will like?" All I can say is, "Well, I was a child." I don't expect all children to react in the same way, but I write as if I'm talking to children, naturally. I limit my vocabulary, but not any more consciously than I do when I'm talking to my grandchildren. If you're intent on communicating, the vocabulary takes care of itself.
But I won't omit words because they may be strange to a young reader. In my research on Paul Revere, for instance, I had discovered Paul's own account of his midnight ride. He reported verbatim the talk between him and the British soldiers who stopped him. One soldier said, "Sir, may I crave your name?" Well, I relish that eighteenth-century use of the word "crave," and I wasn't going to take it out. I thought children could surely figure out its meaning from the context. There was another officer, however, who wasn't so polite. He said, "Damn you, stop! If you go an inch farther you are a dead man." I had no intention of meddling with that officer's words either.
But soon after the book was published I discovered that the world of education is filled with hedgehogs. Don't think I'm putting down hedgehogs; in every century great hedgehogs have moved the world forward. Usually it's the prickly, small-minded variety that hold the world back. They don't inhabit the world of trade books; it's the world of textbooks where they hang out, their red pencils at the ready. These prickly hedgehogs are particularly sensitive to the study of American history. They aren't interested in stimulating children to understand American history. They want to convince children in the easiest possible way that the past was perfect. When they reprinted my story of Paul Revere they decided that "crave" was a confusing word. "Damn" was absolutely unacceptable.
One group of Texas hedgehogs complained that I had demeaned an American hero when I said that Paul Revere seldom made a mistake in arithmetic. How could I imply that he ever made a mistake? They were incensed that I said Paul Revere doodled in his account book. If I had been patriotic I would have covered for him. Well, I don't have to accept a hedgehog's request for a hedge. And usually I don't.
Of course I do like my characters to make it into the schoolroom. In my so-called younger biographies, like Paul Revere, I zero in on the main characteristic of my subject. This immediately puts the reader on a familiar footing with the character, and it gives me a chance to match my narrative voice to the thrust of the material. Paul Revere, for instance, was one of those compulsively busy, active men, into everything, rushing from one project to another. So I assume a rather breathless style for his story—short sentences, long accumulated sentences that race from comma to comma, broken phrases, questions to move the story along quickly.
Although my framework is chronological, I don't feel bound by chronology. I can begin a series of sentences with "once" or "sometimes," listing events regardless of their sequence. I know that in the end the book will assume the shape of a story, not because it has been forced or coaxed into that, but because the story is already there. Every person is a story. And when a writer lives with a character, the story line emerges, gradually becoming more distinct, until at last it takes command. This is not to say that the writer follows effortlessly in its wake. One of the built-in hazards of this trade is the sleepless nights that accompany the period of composition. For some reason the horizontal position seems to prevent the motors from stopping.
It was on one of those sleepless nights that I decided to write some longer biographies, in addition to the short ones, so that I could explore my characters in more depth. The writer of biographies for adults and the writer of books for children or young people have much in common, especially their methods of research. But in the selection of a subject the writer for young people has both more freedom and more restrictions. If I were writing a biography for adults I probably wouldn't consider someone whose life had already been definitively treated, or who had been covered in recent years, unless I had a new angle—some brand new source material such as letters suddenly discovered in a faraway attic, which of course is every writer's dream. But biographies for young people, until quite recently, have often been so hagiographic, or didactic, or patronizing, or just plain dull that I have no shortage of people to choose from; I'm not so limited. On the other hand, some subjects are simply more appropriate for adults. I did write an adult biography—of Mercy Otis Warren, an eighteenth-century woman writer, a historian of the American Revolution and a worrying mother. I identified with her on all counts. But I couldn't have made her story accessible to young people.
When I started writing longer biographies I decided on certain guidelines. I would pick characters with dramatic, perhaps adventurous lives. They would also be people that I myself would be curious about, people whose personalities would require some unraveling. Their lives would be fairly well documented, and they would be people who could make it into the schoolroom. But in the end, how do you really decide and settle on one person? Children are always asking me that, and I have to say that I don't feel that I'm picking a person; I have the feeling that my subjects are picking me. This may sound suspiciously as if I am hearing "the call." All I mean is that I can't write on demand, or even make a calculated decision. The historian Peter Gay once said that every biography is part of a writer's autobiography, and I believe that. Something about a personality in the past commands a personal response in the present. Not admiration, necessarily; not love. Often, in fact, the relationship that I develop is a love/hate relationship. I grapple with a person as one sometimes does with a member of one's own family, in an attempt to reach a kind of understanding and arrive at acceptance.
Certainly I grappled with Stonewall Jackson—as eccentric, as rigid, as difficult a man as you could find. I sensed the ambition that drove him through his life, which he adamantly refused to acknowledge because his religion required him to sublimate himself to God. I felt sure that this basic paradox caused the anguish behind his character, but I needed a witness, a contemporary witness, to back me up. I searched long and hard, and then one day I met General Richard Taylor of Louisiana. Observing Stonewall Jackson closely, General Taylor wrote: "I caught a glimpse of the man's inner nature. It was but a glimpse, yet in that moment I saw an ambition boundless as Cromwell's, and as merciless. His ambition was vast, all-absorbing. He loathed it, perhaps feared it, but he could not escape it, it was himself.… He fought it with prayer, constant and earnest."
I started my book with a question I asked myself: How could such a compulsive, literal-minded oddball as Stonewall Jackson ever have become a national hero, not only famous for his military exploits but idolized in the way that rock stars are today? I guess the answer is, he got what he needed: a war. It suited him as nothing ever had or probably would have. And if I had been a soldier in his army, I would have loved him too, not in spite of his idiosyncrasies but because of them.
Then there were Sam Houston and Benedict Arnold. Sam fascinated me, but he didn't win me over until his old age, when he stepped down as governor of Texas rather than sign up with Jefferson Davis in the Confederacy. Here was a man with an ego as big as Texas itself. But he believed in the Union, and for the sake of principle he retired from the public stage that he was so very fond of. Benedict Arnold never won me over, but how I pitied him. The son of the town drunk, harassed as a boy by his peers, he determined at an early age that he would overcome life by being brave. He would be a hero; he would show the world. It's heartbreaking to see how truly brave he was and how great was his need to prove himself. Unfortunately, there was no room left in his makeup for judgment or morality. He never believed that he had done wrong; he simply believed what he wanted to believe, which is a fairly common human characteristic that has again and again led people and nations astray. Anyway, these were all adventurous men whose lives conformed to the guidelines I had set myself.
But two people were so compelling that I took them on regardless of the fact that they didn't meet all my requirements. One was Pocahontas. How could I resist this high-spirited girl, truly trapped between two cultures? Yet she left no personal record; her life would have to be pieced together, her emotions deduced from reading about Indians at that time, from reading accounts of the Jamestown settlers, especially John Smith's. Still, in the end, I did feel that I knew Pocahontas. But for lack of evidence I sometimes had to resort to such words as "may have," "must have" and "perhaps." Equally interesting to me when I was working on the book was the insight it gave me into the settlers themselves. Their accounts reveal in graphic terms their unbelievable arrogance toward the Native Americans. To read these records is to see the havoc that the white man has wreaked in so many parts of the world. When my daughter read my book about Pocahontas she said she could see that my childhood in China had participated in the writing.
As for the subject of my latest book, James Madison, I suspect that my need to write about him also had deep personal roots, although at first I had no intention of having anything to do with him. I originally met him when I was writing about the Constitutional Convention, and suddenly there he was at my elbow. "I'm next," he said. I looked him over—shy, awkward, without a single adventure in his life. "No," I told him, "you won't do." But he was insistent. "The Constitution had a hard time making it," he said. "Don't stop your story with the Convention." The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the essence of the American experiment was at the core of Madison's life. Certainly America had some very rocky years during his lifetime. All I had to do was to thread the story of this totally committed man through the life of the country itself, and I would have all the adventure, the suspense, the upheavals I needed. And I was given one extra piece of luck. If the city of Washington ever had to be burned, I was grateful that it was burned during Madison's administration.
But behind the story itself, I was there—a child who longed to feel like a real American. I wanted to give this very real American, Madison, a chance to have his say. Indeed, I needed him to speak to me. I knew the outline of his life and times, but it is only as a biographer travels slowly from year to year, making connections, that he or she comes into possession of a chunk of history. It seemed important that I come to the point of assimilating America's experiment at the moment when nobody was sure that it was going to work. Many people were skeptical and some frankly hoped they could send the Constitution back to the drawing board and start over from scratch. I was struck by a letter that James Madison wrote his father in the beginning of Washington's administration. "We are in a wilderness," he said, "without a single footstep to guide us. Those who may follow will have an easier task." Notice that he used the word "may," indicating that even in his own mind there was a question of whether the venture would succeed. I wanted to share in this period of uneasiness.
There is a misconception on the part of many adults, I think, about the process of writing history for children. They assume that it's just a matter of retelling well-known facts in simpler terms. Partly, perhaps. But there is seldom a time in my research when I don't run into a problem that I've never seen dealt with in a book, or a statement that doesn't need questioning. In my book on Benedict Arnold, for instance, I met a Revolutionary patriot named John Brown, who hated Arnold with such a consuming hatred that it twisted his life. I couldn't help but suspect that in addition to his known grievances he had some deep, personal grievance against Arnold. On the surface he had many obvious reasons. Brown was one of Ethan Allen's boys who resented Arnold's trying to take command in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. He blamed Arnold for refusing to promote him in the Canadian expedition. And when Brown's brother died from an inoculation against smallpox, Brown said it was Arnold's fault for ordering inoculation throughout the army.
Eventually Brown did get his promotion. Still, he never gave up his ambition to bring Arnold down. He drew up a list of complaints and not only submitted it to the Continental Congress, but went from general to general in an attempt to get action. He got nowhere. And in his anger he resigned from the army and had a handbill printed, which he posted publicly. At the end of all its accusations he stated, "Money is this man's god, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country." Brown had reason to hate Arnold, but to hate him to that extent? Enough to assert such an extravagant claim?
When I discovered that Brown was married to a cousin of Arnold's I suspected a family grudge that ran beneath the professional ones. Arnold was known to have taken financial advantage of members of his family, and I tried to track something down, consulting all kinds of records, going to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Brown's hometown. I found nothing. But I did give John Brown a larger role in my story than he is often given, and I made a connection that I hadn't seen made before. I imagined his "I told you so" reaction when he heard that Benedict Arnold had defected, so I looked up his whereabouts at the time. John Brown was in the Mohawk Valley fighting Indians, and I'm sorry to report that he was killed before he could hear the news.
When I was working on Pocahontas I came across a new theory by a historian so eminent that I couldn't overlook it. Yet if I accepted his theory, it would change the entire way I told my story, and it seemed to me to defy all common sense. He suggested that Pocahontas's uncle, a major character in the story, might have been the same Indian who was captured by the Spaniards many years earlier, taken to Spain for eight years, brought back to the Jamestown area by Jesuits and turned over to his own tribe in the hope that he would convert them to Christianity. Instead he and his tribe killed the Jesuits. At this point, according to the eminent historian, the uncle took a new name for himself, Opechancanough, which supposedly meant "he whose soul is white." None of the settlers mentioned that Opechancanough showed any knowledge of European ways or passed any of this information on to his people, yet many of the Indians were close to the settlers and had made friends with them. If Opechancanough had seen European cities, why wouldn't he have stopped his brother, Powhatan, from giving his emissary to England a stick, with instructions to cut a notch on it for every person he saw, so that he could figure out the population of England? Or why would Opechancanough as an old man have asked the settlers to build him an English house, and, when it was built, have spent his days walking in and out of the front door, entranced by the magic of the front door key? If he had been in Spain for eight years, surely he would have seen a key; he wouldn't have been knocked out by the act of locking and unlocking a door.
It didn't make sense, but I know that life can be bizarre, so I checked at the Library of the American Indian in Chicago. The people there had also heard this theory, but they were as skeptical as I was. They gave me the name of a leading authority on Jamestown. In fact, he lived in Jamestown. I went to him, and he also knew about the theory and dismissed it out of hand. Finally I called the Smithsonian Institution's authority on Native American languages to ask him about the translation of "Opechancanough." Could it mean "he whose soul is white"? His answer was unequivocal: the language of Pocahontas's people had been lost. Besides, there's no word in any Native American language to correspond to our word "soul."
I would be disappointed if writing history for young people didn't raise such tantalizing questions for me to ponder. But the real incentive for the writer comes from the drive not only to know but to incorporate another time into oneself—to penetrate that time and that person's psychology in such a way that it will forever be a part of his or her total response to life.
The writer is on a quest. I. F. Stone, in the introduction to his book The Trial of Socrates, describes his own motivation. "The more I fell in love with the Greeks," he says, "the more agonizing grew the spectacle of Socrates before his judges." Stone's book is the fruit of that torment. Only when a book is written out of passion is there much hope of its being read with passion. Children, above all, need to feel that they are partners in the quest.
Writing biographies for any age becomes a spiraling process, circling away from oneself, circling back with messages from afar, and all the time circling around one's own autobiography. As long as I can remember, I had wanted to tell my own story directly. Time and again I tried, but I just couldn't find the right voice. I was determined not to write one of those autobiographies that begin with the roster of one's ancestors or a catalogue of one's first memories. I tried to put myself in the third person and to invent a story for myself, but that didn't work either. But when my father died at the age of ninety-six my last link to my childhood was gone, and I felt an urgency to get it all down on paper and make it safe.
It was China, really, that I had wanted to capture—the sights, the sounds, the smells of China. America, too—and me in the midst, feeling all of it. I could see the story line in my own life, and if this had been a biography of someone else I wouldn't have tinkered with the time sequence or with some of the minor facts. But this was my story; I could do with it what I pleased. So I labeled the book "fiction," and by tinkering with it and telescoping twelve years into one I felt that I had a more unified book, one that felt more emotionally true to me than if I had carved it up into years. I called the book Homesick: My Own Story. I was amazed by how memory hidden for fifty years could turn up as fresh as ever, yet filled with surprises that had never quite surfaced before. And at long last I had a chance to pour out my love for my two countries, China and America.
Actually I had had no idea how deep my loyalty to China ran until my first day in school in America—in eighth grade, in Washington, Pennsylvania, where I was teased about being "the kid from China," I who had thought that once I was in an American school I would feel like a real American. Nor did I realize that the America in which I was taking such joy would be anything but perfect. I went home to my grandmother after that first disillusioning day, spilling over with all the bad news.
The Palmer method of penmanship—that was the worst. The Palmer method, here in the land of the free. My grandmother was working in the garden, and she straightened up with astonishment. "You can only move the underside of your arm when you write?" she asked. "You can't move your fingers at all? They must be preparing you for a crippled old age." Soon we were both laughing. After all, isn't that the only way to face absurdity? And with this shared laughter I was ready to close my story. I had said what I wanted to say, and I ended the book with my grandmother, my grandfather and me walking back to the house, past the cabbages and beans, down the path lined with golden orange chrysanthemums. We stopped to admire the grapes, and I ran ahead to put the plates on the table.
Children with many different kinds of life experiences write to tell me that they identify with this book. Many of them hope that I never gave in to the Palmer method. And I haven't. But one little girl was furious. "You threw me down," she wrote in her letter. "You just stopped your book and never said a word at the end about living happily ever after."
Well, so far, I have been living happily. But having repossessed my childhood, I also needed to go back and see if fifty years later I could also repossess my hometown on the Yangtze River. I was excited at the prospect, but also frightened. What if I felt like a stranger? What if the whole country seemed unfamiliar and I was left an outsider? I hoped to write a book about the experience. In fact, I had already given it a title: China Homecoming. But what if I had no story?
The first thing I did on arriving in Hankou was to go to a park beside the Yangtze River and get my fill looking at the river that had run through my dreams for so long. I was sure nothing could change the looks of it, and nothing had. Muddy, mustard-colored and wide, wide, wide—the same as ever. When I turned around, a crowd of people had gathered, as they so often do today around foreigners. I smiled. I was born here, I told them in Chinese, and I spent my childhood here. Now I had come home. And indeed I had; they welcomed me and shook their heads in wonder. Fifty years away and still I had come back. They asked me my age; it's the first question Chinese always ask. A man pointed his chin at my husband, in the way Chinese have. " Lao tou—how old is he?" they asked. I burst out laughing. Lao tou means "old head"—it's what the Chinese call all white-haired men. I hadn't heard or thought of that expression in all those years, but it had been in my memory all the time, dormant but intact, waiting to be recalled. In that one instant that man returned my childhood to me, whole. So it went. Every day was exciting, full of recoveries and discoveries.
As for my book, I was collecting incidents, people and anecdotes to light up both old China and new. But I wanted my theme to be a personal one. Could I recapture my sense of belonging? There were many moments like the one with the old man on the Yangtze River, but I wanted to build my story to a more climactic scene. And I didn't know how. This is something that you can't research and plan, yet it's one of the ways you write. You take risks, and you wait and see.
I was lucky. Just such a climactic experience occurred toward the end of our stay. I asked our guide if he knew where my little sister had been buried. Yes, he knew; it was now a children's playground. He took us to it. I was delighted to see what a happy place it was today, with children playing all over, on the swings and the jungle gym and in the gazebo. It wasn't until I returned to the hotel that I asked myself whether the guide takes all foreigners there who ask that question, just to make them happy. Was this really the old cemetery?
Of course there was no way to know, but one afternoon my husband and I returned by ourselves to that playground. I didn't know what I was looking for. After all, there had been wars and bombings and revolutions. What could I expect? Nevertheless, I walked slowly around the outer edges of the playground, looking down at the ground all the time. Finally, in a far corner, buried under some brown leaves, I saw a flat broken stone. I leaned over and looked at it, and it had English letters on it: S EARS, it said, and it gave a date of birth and a date of death. It was part of an old gravestone. Obviously this must be the right place. Then I looked at the playground itself, and I noticed that all the benches were of stone, the size of a gravestone. I ran my hand underneath one of those benches, and I could feel the inscription.
By this time, as you can imagine, the Chinese onlookers were extremely curious. What was this foreign woman doing running her hand under their benches? One young woman came over, and I explained to her as well as I could that this had once been a cemetery, and that my sister had been buried here, and that I thought these benches were old gravestones. Immediately she fell in with the idea. She called some young men, and they turned over those benches one by one, and they gathered around, waiting for me to read the inscriptions aloud, telling them the name and nationality of each person: this was a German, born and died in certain years; this was a Russian; this was an American. I never did find my sister's stone, but that no longer mattered to me. I realized that by myself I was uncovering my own small portion of Chinese history. I belonged.
That period of foreign domination was one that the Chinese preferred to forget. Nevertheless, it was part of their history, I had participated in that time, and now it was my own. It was an experience that I had wanted and that I had been waiting for, without knowing it.
At the end of my visit I knew I still wasn't finished with China; I would be back. With such trips, of course, there are always books involved. When you've been writing as long as I have, your books and your private life mesh; they are of a piece. Time itself ceases to be as linear as it once was. I still eavesdrop as unashamedly as I ever did. I'm still looking for clues.
But I also have a growing suspicion that maybe I did inherit a few hedgehog genes. Not that I have any urge to tie life neatly together in one comprehensive package; I'm not looking for simple explanations. But there are some things I'd like to change. Certainly I would like to see the quality of education in the United States improve. I'd begin by revitalizing the study of history. I talk about this a lot to teachers all over the country. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable while I'm doing it. "What am I doing?" I ask myself. "Am I proselytizing? I should be home writing." But then I realize that I'll never be able to stop trying to convince people how much our future leans on our past. Nor will I be able to stop reaching into the past to enlighten my life today.
When we were planning this series of talks it occurred to us that we would like to know what books these six writers of children's books remember with particular affection from their own childhood or, as adults, have found helpful or influential in their life and work. This is their answer to our request for an informal bibliography.
Rather than list specific sources for my books, I'd like to name a few of the books that have sustained me. They have earned a permanent place on my shelves.
Books about Biography and Autobiography
Since I know no biographers or autobiographers who are likely to drop in for shop talk over a morning cup of coffee, I have found companions and inspiration in books.
Marc Pachter, ed., Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art (1979). Seven well-known biographers talk about their craft. In my copy the sections by Marc Pachter and Leon Edel are the most heavily underlined.
Eric Homberger and John Charmley, eds., The Troubled Face of Biography (1988). Another collection. Here my favorite selections are by Robert Skidelsky and Michael Holroyd.
James Olney, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (1980). Although I don't plan to venture again into autobiography, this book contains so many starred passages, marginal notes and turned-down pages that it's bound to be a lifelong friend.
Commentaries on the Human Condition
Surely every biographer, every historian, perhaps every writer, is ultimately inquiring into the nature of the human condition.
Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly (1984). An overview of history, highlighting those instances, from the Trojan War to the Vietnam War, when governments have deliberately pursued policies contrary to their interest, in spite of opposition, in spite of the fact that alternatives were available.
Milton Klonsky, The Fabulous Ego: Absolute Power in History (1974). Eighteenth-century readers who studied history as a succession of tyrants and were suspicious of power would have loved having this collection of power-mad despots within the covers of one book. I do.
Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953). Berlin draws on an old Greek saying that divides people into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes.
Alan Arkin, The Lemming Condition (1976). A hilarious but profound children's story in which a lemming refuses to do the lemming "thing."
Other Cultures, Other People, Other Times
It is imperative for me to take a vacation from twentieth-century America and look at life through other eyes. Indeed, most of my writing has been a series of such excursions.
Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1968). Many scholars have made me feel at home in the eighteenth century, but more than anyone else Peter Gay has helped me acquire the intellectual outlook I needed.
Jamake Highwater, The Primal Mind: Vision and Reality in Indian America (1981). Especially helpful as I was working on The Double Life of Pocahontas, but in any case a book I wouldn't want to miss.
Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution 1895-1980 (1981). All of Spence's books, marvels of detailed research and literary style, have been invaluable in my study of China.
John Hersey, The Call (1985). Since John Hersey and I were contemporaries in China and our fathers were colleagues, I took special joy in this fine, realistic novel.
Mark Salzman, Iron and Silk (1986). An entertaining account of the author's two years in China, filled with anecdotes that in a remarkable way illustrate various facets of the Chinese personality.
It is important for me to keep in contact not only with the child in me but with childhood itself.
C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955). A wonderful autobiography of a childhood in which the author feels free to come and go as an adult with his adult observations.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (1943). Writers and children both can appreciate the frustration of the Little Prince when his drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant is mistaken for a hat.
Florence Parry Heide, The Shrinking of Treehorn (1971). A highly amusing read-aloud story for all ages that illustrates the difficulties of being a child in a world of grown-ups, recognizable but so dense that they seem almost to belong to another species.
Janice Alberghene (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Alberghene, Janice. "Artful Memory: Jean Fritz, Autobiography, and the Child Reader." In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, pp. 362-68. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Alberghene analyzes how Fritz intermingles fact and fiction in her autobiographies written primarily for children.]
Although most autobiographers of childhood write for an adult audience, the past ten years have seen an increasing number of authors who speak intimately to young readers in autobiographical narratives directed toward a child audience. Virtually all of these authors are known primarily as writers for children and therefore might be expected to be especially in touch with their former child selves. Indeed, many writers for children make just such a claim when explaining the sources or inspiration for their stories. A close look at their autobiographies suggests, however, that these texts owe at least as much, if not more, to art as to memory. At the same time, this is not to imply that "art" is synonymous with "fiction," and that "memory" is synonymous with "truth." Memory fails and memory often lies, even if facts about one's life are what one's after.
In this context, the candor of Jean Fritz's autobiography comes as something of a shock. Fritz begins Homesick: My Own Story (1984) with a discussion of method:
When I started to write about my childhood in China, I found that my memory came out in lumps … my preoccupation with time and literal accuracy was squeezing the life out of what I had to say.…
Since my childhood feels like a story, I decided to tell it that way, letting the events fall as they would into the shape of a story, lacing them together with fictional bits, adding a piece here and there when memory didn't give me all I needed.
Fritz's candor indicates that Homesick is less a paradigmatic autobiographical text than an extraordinary one, but its very extraordinariness is what makes the book so useful a focus for pointing out two considerations to have in mind when thinking about the narrative art of autobiography for children.
The first of these considerations takes its cue from Domna Stanton's reflection that
the specific texture of an autobiography also represents the mediation of numerous contextual factors … [such as a particular intertext or set of intertexts]. More broadly, every autobiography assumes and reworks literary conventions for writing and reading. And its texture is ultimately determined by the way in which meaning can be signified in a particular discursive context, an (ideo)-logical boundary that always already confines the speaking subject.
Intertext or set of intertexts, literary conventions, particular discursive context—can Homesick bear such detailed scrutiny? Quite simply, yes. On a practical level, Homesick can bear the scrutiny because of the volume of related autobiographical and biographical material,1 but in this present essay, as in an earlier study of Homesick 's relationship to American literature, my interests are broadly contextual rather than specifically intertextual.2 I want to explore the intersection in Homesick of two additional and equally relevant contexts: that of writing for children and that of being a female autobiographer.
The context of writing for children immediately raises that perennial bogey of children's literature: Does the book in question provide good "role models" for its child readers? Fritz's uneasiness with the question highlights both its freight of prescriptive assumptions (not to mention its condescension to child readers) and its essential irrelevance to her own concerns. Consider, for example, these remarks from her acceptance speech for winning the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for The Double Life of Pocahontas :
But actually I was writing for my own sake because I wanted to learn.… Although on the whole I was very much pleased with how students and teachers worked with my biographies in the Jean Fritz contest, I was saddened by the entry that required students to list the attributes necessary for the perfect person—as if my books were being used subversively in a lesson on character building. Well, this is not what I'm after.
("Turning History Inside Out," 30)
Wanting to learn—to learn about and make sense of the self—is one of the chief reasons for writing an autobiography. But the "self" that makes it to the page is a persona, a crafting of the self that blends memory and desire. I am not saying anything new here in terms of contemporary theory about autobiography; my position rephrases the implications of the title of Paul John Eakin's recent Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (1985), a book Estelle Jelinek summarizes as "claim[ing] that autobiographical truth is not a fixed but an evolving constant in a process of self-creation" (The Tradition of Women's Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present , 4).
Critics such as Jelinek and Eakin theorize about autobiographies intended for an adult audience. But I want to do more than suggest that we ought to accord texts intended for children the same serious critical consideration. We are accustomed to the idea that biography and autobiography for children are only relatively truthful in that they delete material thought to be inappropriate for tender sensibilities. In this sense, the children's texts limit exploration of character. And I have to confess that my original intention in writing about Homesick was to look at what Fritz left out, speculate why, chastise her mildly, explore the implications of her omissions, and then conclude that Homesick is a good book despite its shortcomings. What I want to suggest instead is that far from being a limitation, writing for a child audience can be an enabling situation in which the writer, in particular the woman writer, can explore or create a self and find a voice that writing for an adult audience may preclude.3
To follow this line of thought we need to return to the foreword of Homesick, where Fritz mentions including "fictional bits" in her "lacing" the story together. This leads to her concluding, "Strictly speaking, I have to call this book fiction, but it does not feel like fiction to me. It is my story, told as truly as I can tell it" (7). Here the book's nature as autobiography could be called into question, my earlier references to autobiography's fictionalizing notwithstanding. If the book is "fiction," not autobiography, what I attribute to the enabling situation of writing for a child audience could be ascribed instead to the fiction writer's license to create. Fritz's avowal "It is my story, told as truly as I can tell it" provides, however, a good reason for seeing the book as an autobiography. Any lingering doubts can be put to rest by turning to Jelinek's definition in The Tradition of Women's Autobiography: "I consider an autobiography as that work each autobiographer writes with the intention of its being her life story—whatever form, content, or style it takes" (xii).
This is an expansive definition. It is one that admits many works into what Jelinek calls the tradition of women's autobiography, a tradition she outlined several years ago in "Introduction: Women's Autobiography and the Male Tradition." What is fascinating about Homesick are the ways in which it does and does not belong to the women's tradition of disjunctive, decentered, domestic, fragmentedly selved self-imaging. Homesick is, for example, matrilinear in that China-born (and China-situated) Jean longs for the day she and her missionary parents will go home to the America she has never seen. Jean focuses her longings by writing to and thinking about her grandmother back in Washington, Pennsylvania. In contrast to the ferment of China, Jean's grandmother's world is undeniably domestic. One evening during the siege of Wuchang (the city across the river—the time is the mid-1920s, and the nationalists and the communists are battling each other), Jean tries to alleviate her anxiety by asking her parents what people back home consider to be news. The answer is whether or not it will frost and if the tomatoes ought to be covered up (89). Jean's view of America is so domestic that her best friend exclaims, "'Your trouble is that you think America is [i.e., equals] just feeding your grandmother's chickens'" (116).
Yet Homesick is "masculine" in many ways. Unlike the decentered, disjunctive narrative typical of women's autobiographies, Fritz's autobiography has a single point of view—young Jean's—that is so central and consistent that she sometimes sounds very naive. She is focused, however, as is the narrative, which moves determinedly forward to Jean's reunion with her grandmother. Like other women autobiographers, Fritz includes journal-like entries in her story, but these entries—italicized passages in which Jean thinks about her grandmother—are used to advance the "plot" and punctuate its underlying theme of going home. (In contrast to Homesick, its sequel, China Homecoming , seems to speak more to the adult reader than to the child. China Homecoming is decentered, disjunctive, anecdotal; it matches Jelinek's description of texts in the female tradition.)
The paradox is that Fritz uses "masculine" formal elements in a work progressively masculine in movement but feminine in that it presents a fragmented or incomplete self: Fritz feels that she is not "American" enough. This is a central issue in the text, one that makes it impossible to write off Fritz's sense of incompleteness as a concomitant to her being a child and therefore unfinished. The fragmented self is so characteristic of women's autobiographies that the significance of Homesick 's formal structures might be seen to pale were it not for the book's detailing the emergence of another sense of self, one in marked contrast to the incomplete self. This self feels whole because it is a "self-at-home." The second half of Homesick is an accretion of self-at-home episodes, only two of which we have space to look at here.
In the first we see Jean on deck as the President Taft, the ship bringing her from China to America, approaches the Golden Gate. Fritz portrays herself in the "heroic or exceptional terms" Jelinek associates with the male tradition in autobiography ("Introduction," 5):
Dressed in my navy skirt, white blouse, and silk stockings, I felt every bit as neat as Columbus or Balboa and every bit as heroic when I finally spotted America in the distance.…
Then the ship entered the narrow stretch of the Golden Gate and I could see American hills on my left and American houses on my right, and I took a deep breath of American air.
"'Breathes there the man with soul so dead,'" I cried,
"'Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!'"
I forgot that there were people behind and around me until I heard a few snickers and a scattering of claps, but I didn't care. I wasn't reciting for anyone's benefit but my own.
The second episode is mythopoeic in its autochthonous answer to the question of origins and home. Jean and her family have sailed the breadth of the Pacific and traveled by car cross-country to Pennsylvania. As they approach Jean's grandmother's home on Shirls Avenue, Jean's mother worries that the street will be "one big sea of mud … 'worth your life to drive through'" (137). And so it is. Jean's father puts his hand on the horn, the car in low gear, and they careen through mud hubcap-deep to arrive triumphantly, up out of the very earth. Jean runs into her grandmother's arms and hears her cry, "'Welcome home! Oh, welcome home!'" (138).
I haven't done this reading of Homesick to undermine Jelinek's delineation of male and female traditions in autobiography, but rather to underline the importance of intended audience: Jelinek's authors did not write for children. But then, on one level, neither does Fritz, as Elaine Edelman reported in an interview in 1981:
When asked why she hadn't yet written for children about a woman, her whole body whips around on the couch. "I'm not a sociologist," she answers. "I'm not trying to provide role models. I'm exploring for my own good. If it 'helps' children, fine." Later, she amends that. "I can't say the audience has no effect at all. With Columbus, for instance. He'd been so wrongly portrayed to children—just a blah figure, a persistent man. No one had told any of these really rotten things he did. A character isn't just good or bad—it's both. Everyone."
The date of this interview is important; it was conducted when Fritz was beginning to write Homesick, a book she called "a kind of autobiography" and which Edelman characterized as "another stage in her on-going dialogue between child and adult" (77). That the dialogue between child and adult was no simple chat is revealed by Fritz's reference to Columbus, the subject of one of her biographies for children. He was soon to become a metaphor for Fritz herself in Homesick 's description of her feeling "every bit as heroic" as Columbus as when she "finally spotted America" from the deck of the President Taft (128).
Reaching this stage in the dialogue between child and adult prompts some writers for children to leave the child behind and write books for adults. Fritz certainly had the option; not only had she previously written biography for adults (Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies, 1728-1814 ), she would have been joining in a hundred-and-fifty-year-old tradition of writing about one's childhood and adolescence.
A person who is homesick, however, does better to turn to the conventions and impulses of children's literature. So too does a person looking for a pattern with which to construct a unified sense of self. As critics Christopher Clausen, Virginia Woolf, and others have shown, children's literature does its best to bring both the stories' protagonists and child readers home. The protagonists return with a more integrated sense of self, not one that is more diffuse. And perhaps in writing the returns, the authors who create them feel their own real selves experience that integration too. At least that seems to be the case with Fritz, who responded to the question, "How were you particularly attracted to writing for children?" like this: "I wonder sometimes whether it was the fact that my childhood was so cut off from the rest of my life, and that I had the feeling I should hang on to it very strongly in my memory or else I would lose a whole big chunk of life itself" (Contemporary Authors, 16: 127).
- Homesick was preceded by The Cabin Faced West, an early novel Fritz now sees as a "companion book" to Homesick ("There Once Was," 435) and has been followed by another autobiography, China Homecoming. In addition to writing biography for children and for adults, Fritz has commented extensively on her practices as a writer, contributed to the SATA autobiography series, and based several short stories on her early days in China.
- Homesick revises the mainstream (adult) autobiographical tradition of presenting the passage through time as the psychic equivalent of expulsion from the Edenic paradise of childhood; Jean's journey is from being a "foreign devil" in China to being an inhabitant of an America where Edenic moments are possible. American literature typically presents the New World as a new Eden; in Fritz's very American book, the conventions of American literature partially preempt some of the conventions of autobiography ("Paradise Regained in Homesick: My Own Story ").
- My view of writing for the child audience parallels that of the following critics who have explored the implied contract between the writer and reader of autobiography: Elizabeth W. Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); Philippe Lejeune, Le Pacte Autobiographique (Paris: Seuil, 1975); Paul de Man, "Autobiography as De-Facement" in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984); and William Leake Andrews, "The Identity of (Not in) Autobiography," Discussion Group on Autobiography and Biography, MLA Convention (San Francisco, 28 December 1967).
Alberghene, Janice M. "Paradise Regained in Homesick: My Own Story. " Panel on the Autobiography of Childhood, Twelfth Annual Conference of the Children's Literature Association. Ann Arbor, Mich., May 17, 1985.
Clausen, Christopher. "Home and Away in Children's Literature." Children's Literature 10 (1982): 141-52.
Eakin, Paul J. Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Edelman, Elaine. "Jean Fritz." Publisher's Weekly 220, no. 4 (1981): 76-77.
Fritz, Jean. The Cabin Faced West. Illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky. New York: Coward, 1959.
———. Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies, 1728-1814. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
———. China Homecoming. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1985.
———. Homesick: My Own Story. Illustrated by Margot Tomes. New York: Dell, 1984.
———. "Jean Fritz." Something About the Author Autobiography Series, 2, 99-109.
———. "There Once Was." Horn Book 62, no. 4 (1986): 432-435.
———. "Turning History Inside Out." Horn Book 61, no. 1 (1985): 29-34.
———. Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? Illustrated by Margot Tomes. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1980.
"Jean Fritz." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, 16, 127.
Jelinek, Estelle C. "Introduction: Women's Autobiography and the Male Tradition." In Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
———. The Tradition of Women's Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Stanton, Domna C. "Autogynography: Is the Subject Different?" In The Female Autograph, 5-22. New York Literary Forum 12-13. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1984.
Woolf, Virginia. "Paradise Lost? The Displacement of Myth in Children's Novels." Studies in the Literary Imagination 18, no. 2 (1985): 47-63.
Virginia A. Walter (essay date summer 1991)
SOURCE: Walter, Virginia A. "Crossing the Pacific to America: The Uses of Narrative." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 16, no. 2 (summer 1991): 63-8.
[In the following essay, Walter focuses on Fritz's use of narrative to create a secondary level of meaning in her cross-cultural contexts.]
Three children cross the Pacific from China to America, moving from one continent and culture to another. Moon Shadow is 8 years old, summoned to join his father in the Land of the Golden Mountain, in Laurence Yep's Dragonwings. Against a backdrop of civil unrest and revolution, Jean Guttery, an American child born and raised in China, returns to a native land she knows only through books and letters and her parents' stories in Homesick by Jean Fritz. Ten-year-old Bandit Wong takes a new American name before her voyage, traveling to America as Shirley Temple Wong in Bette Bao Lord's In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. Three children, three cross-cultural journeys, three stories for contemporary children to read. While there is much to interest the student of children's literature in these novels, I would like to focus in this article on the use of narrative. While each story is primarily a story of self-discovery in a cross-cultural context, the authors' different uses of narrative create a secondary level of meaning.
Laurence Yep uses narrative as a vehicle for problematizing the immigrant experience. His device for accomplishing this is to present an adult's story through the eyes of a child. While Moon Shadow is the narrator, Dragonwings is really the story of his father's experiences. Father, or Wind Rider, had come to California, the Land of the Golden Mountain, from China before Moon Shadow was born. Part of a great wave of immigration, he was one of thousands of Chinese men who came to seek their fortune. Prevented by United States immigration law from bringing their wives to this country, these men saw themselves as sojourners, temporary residents in a land of more economic opportunity than their native land. As Ronald Takaki has pointed out, these men remained strangers in America, so defined by "the demands of white capitalists for a colonized labor force and the 'ethnic antagonism' of white workers" (130). By presenting Wind Rider's story through the eyes of his son, Yep is able to dramatize the alienation and disillusionment, as well as the perseverance and strength, of this generation of Chinese Americans.
The tension between the myth and promise of America and its reality is presented early in the novel. While still in China, Moon Shadow hears the demon land described as a place of opportunity and danger: "There was plenty of money to be made among the demons, but it was also dangerous" (2). His Grandmother tells him why America is called the Land of the Golden Mountain: "It's because there's a big mountain there," she said. "The mountain's a thousand miles high and three thousand miles wide, and all a man has to do is wait until the sun warms the mountain and then scoop the gold into big buckets" (6). While Grandmother talks of riches, Moon Shadow's Uncle Hand Clap, who accompanies him on the sea voyage when he travels to join his father, talks of dangers. On the boat from Canton to San Francisco, Moon Shadow is homesick and frightened by foreign sailors, so big and tall and hairy that he thinks they are Tiger Demons. He hears tales from his fellow travelers about sailors who had fattened up their Chinese passengers and delivered them to a butcher's shop when they landed. Hand Clap does nothing to reassure Moon Shadow, in fact, he adds to the horror stories:
And then Hand Clap said that was nothing, and went on to talk about a ship of tiger demons who plied their trade between Canton and Hell, delivering the Tang men for work there. Hand Clap cared little about the truth, and loved to let his imagination run wild. He told us about how the sailors had slept upside down on top of their heads with knives between their teeth, and so on.
When Moon Shadow arrives in San Francisco, he quickly learns that while both his grandmother and his Uncle Hand Clap had exaggerated, there is more truth to the myth of danger than to the myth of opportunity. His first glimpse of California is a disillusionment. As the first-person narrator, Moon Shadow shares his reaction: "To my disappointment, I only saw a brown smudge on the horizon—as the Middle Kingdom had looked from a distance. There was no glittering mound of gold to be seen" (11). Released from the customs demons after two weeks of questioning and testing, he sees San Francisco up close:
I saw plenty of hills, but not one golden one … The houses had almost no ornamentation and were painted in dull colors—when they were painted at all. The little boxlike houses seemed so drab to me that I even felt sorry for the demons who lived in them, for they lived like prisoners without knowing they were in a prison.
Moon Shadow soon learns from his Father and other Uncles that the Golden Mountain is only a dream.
"You mean there's no Golden Mountain?" I was disappointed and felt a little betrayed.
"Not that we've ever seen." Uncle Bright Star added more kindly. "Though we've often wished it."
"Oh," I said in a very small voice.
Father took my hand kindly. "But there's a lot left to the demons' land that we haven't seen. Maybe we'll run across it yet."
The Golden Mountain was the dream; the laundry was the reality. Takaki points out that the Chinese laundryman is an American phenomenon. There were no laundries in China in the nineteenth century when Chinese men were going into that business here in America. They did so because it was one of the few lines of work available to them. After the great Transcontinental railroad was built, the Chinese coolies who had been imported to build it represented a threat to white American workers. There was a reaction against the cheap labor that Chinese workers provided, and they were shut out of farms and factories. Laundry work, however, was stigmatized as "women's work," unsuitable for white American men. Chinese men were no threat here. Furthermore, laundries could be opened with a small capital outlay. Little English was needed to transact business. The result was that one out of four employed Chinese men in America in 1900 were laundrymen (93).
By making Moon Shadow's father a laundryman, Yep takes a stereotype and turns it inside out. Wind Rider is a laundryman with powerful dreams in which he flies with dragons. Before this story is over, he makes those dreams come true. Before Moon Shadow can tell that story, however, he must learn the truth about the stories of danger among the demons; and here many of the myths have disturbing parallels in reality.
Danger is everywhere for Moon Shadow and the other Tang people living in San Francisco. The boy is aware of this in his first hours on shore. Passing a saloon, Moon Shadow sees a young white man stumble out the door. Moon Shadow notices his strange black and white clothes and watches as he falls against a railing and his eyes cross. The white man speaks to Moon Shadow:
" What are you looking at, you little "—sounded like—" chai-na-maan? "
I looked at Father for a translation, but he had grown angry. Uncle Bright Star stepped in between us and bowed. " No sabe. No sabe. So sorry. "
There is no hiding from the violence of racism, even in Chinatown. During the first evening in the laundry, a gang of drunken white men hurl a brick through the window. Moon Shadow relates:
For one moment I glimpsed howling, sweating, red-and-white faces, distorted into hideous masks of hatred and cruelty, a sea of demon heads that bobbed restlessly outside our store … Looking into that huge mass of faces was like looking into the ugliest depths of the human soul.
By the light of the gas lamps in the street, I could see the Company. They all wore the same proud, silent expression. They had all been through this before. The demons called out things in their tongue. Father's face flushed, and he clenched and unclenched his fists.
With these two incidents, Yep begins to establish the father's character; we already sense a strong, proud man who would defend himself and his son, even if the cost were high. Uncle Bright Star is more practical; he conciliates because that is the wise thing to do, even if it is sometimes humiliating.
Racism is a constant in the America that Moon Shadow and his father inhabit. Yep doesn't turn his face from it; nor does Wind Rider. Later in the novel, the father and son meet one white man who encourages Wind Rider's mechanical abilities; and when events in Chinatown make it unwise for Wind Rider to remain there, an elderly white lady and her granddaughter rent them a stable behind their home to live in. In fact, Miss Whitlaw is so sensitive and wise that Moon Shadow thinks she must have been the ghost of a Tang woman, reborn as a demoness. Just as Moon Shadow begins to think that white people are not so bad, he encounters the boy next door. The boy kicks him, and Moon Shadow cracks his head on the ground. Half a dozen boys gather around and shout:
Ching Chong Chinaman,
Sitting in a tree,
Wanted to pick a berry
But sat on a bee.
Moon Shadow tries to respond in English, but the boys taunt him more. He curses in Chinese, and the boys mimic him. They start to throw tomatoes and bits of garbage, finally hurling stones. Moon Shadow feels a sense of triumph because they had to use such strong weapons against him. He tells us the story as it happened: "I turned slowly, as if I were not afraid of them but only bored. A stone caught me in the small of the back. I grunted, but I took my time despite the pain … Besides, I did not want to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry" (119). Later Moon Shadow wins the bully's respect by giving him a bloody nose.
The racism that Moon Shadow and his father face is not only individual and personal, but institutional. When the great earthquake of 1906 leaves them homeless, along with most of the residents of San Francisco, they take shelter with Miss Whitlaw and Robin in Golden Gate Park. Soldiers come and round up all of the Chinese there and move them from one location to another, separating them from the white refugees.
Yep thus places the story of Moon Shadow and his father against a backdrop of lost illusions and the dangers caused by overt racism. What enables the Lees to survive are the friendship and loyalty of other Chinese people, particularly their clan, their belief in the viability of their own culture, and the father's overarching dream of flight. The theme of loyalty and cohesion is established early. The laundry is a family business, an economic partnership and a haven in a hostile world. Uncle introduces it to Moon Shadow as "a superior home for superior men" (23). The Company will come to the aid of its members over and over again as the story takes its course. At the novel's end, having witnessed Wind Rider's remarkable flight in his glider, they lend him one thousand dollars to bring his wife (and Moon Shadow's mother) to America.
The power of Chinese culture is another antidote to the hostile environment. It is Wind Rider's dream, based firmly in Chinese folklore, that gives him the desire to fly. This ambition leads to a correspondence with the Wright Brothers and the eventual construction of a glider that does enable Wind Rider to soar, in a memorable flight off the Oakland hills. It is a sharing of lore about Chinese dragons with Miss Whitlaw that cements the friendship between the Chinese boy and the elderly white woman. Looking at the stars one night, Wind Rider tells Miss Whitlow the Chinese story of the separated lovers that explains the origin of the Milky Way, and he realizes that he himself is separated from the woman he loves, with no heavenly bridge to bring them together. Miss Whitlaw senses his sadness and brings the conversation back to constellations: " We see the same thing and yet find different truths, " Miss Whitlaw mused. For Yep, folklore appears to be the bridge between the two cultures, a universal connection that transcends the barriers of racism and cultural misunderstanding.
Wind Rider's dream of flight and his labors to accomplish it are the centerpiece of the novel. Moon Shadow and the reader learn about the father's fascination with flight early in the novel. During their first night together, Wind Rider shows his son many strange devices and machines in his room. Moon Shadow is frightened by the first electric light that he has ever seen. Wind Rider tells him that these devices are part of his name, part of a dream given to him by the Dragon King himself. In his dream, Wind Rider healed a wounded dragon and was given in return a set of shimmering wings made of a transparent material stretched over a fragile wire framework. Wind Rider put on the wings and flew with the great dragon. The dragon promised him that he would be reborn as a dragon. Until that time, Wind Rider tinkers with machines and engines, studies the design of kites, corresponds with the Wright Brothers, and eventually builds a plane—Dragonwings—that takes him for a glorious flight before crashing into the Oakland hillside from which it was launched. In that wonderful, terrible moment, we know that this is truly Wind Rider's story, one that Moon Shadow has observed and told. We know that the real self-discovery in this story is the father's; his epiphany occurs on a mountain far from the land where he was born. After Wind Rider has been treated by a doctor for the injuries from his crash, Moon Shadow tells him that Dragonwings is a wreck.
"We'll have to build another one."
Father sipped his tea and set the cup down carefully on the dirt floor. "Would you be disappointed if we didn't?"
"I'm not going to build another Dragonwings. When I was up there in it, I found myself wishing you were up there, and your mother with you. And I realized I couldn't have the two of them together: my family and flying. And just as I saw the hill coming at me, I realized that my family meant more to me than flying. It's enough for me now to know that I can fly."
Thus the story ends with the father's self-discovery and the son's second reunion with his father. The first meeting was physical, when his father greeted him as he emerged from the immigration officials in San Francisco. Now at the novel's close, his father is united with him again, this time emotionally. Yep has given us a story of self-discovery in which the setting is hostile and the resolution hard-won. The "happy" ending is purchased at the price of a man's dream, a fairly subversive closing for a juvenile novel.
In Jean Fritz's Homesick, narrative is the device for creating a pattern and making sense out of a young girl's life. Writing about this autobiographical story in her essay, "The Teller and the Tale," Fritz explained: "It was China, really, that I had wanted to capture—the sights, the sounds, the smells of China. America, too—and me in the midst, feeling all of it. I could see the story line in my own life …" (40). The year is 1927. China is in the turmoil of revolution. Great events are occurring all around her. But for 12-year-old Jean what is important is the scheduled return to America.
Born and raised in China, Jean feels out of place. In the first paragraph of the novel, she explains that she was on the wrong side of the globe, in the city of Hankow on the Yangtse River in China. "I loved the Yangtse River, but, of course, I belonged on the other side of the world. In America with my grandmother" (9). And yet, she doesn't feel like a real American either. She frets, for example, because as a foreign-born American, she can never be President. The novel chronicles Jean's efforts to make sense of her place in that foreign land, where the Chinese curse her as a "foreign devil" (24, 42), but where her Chinese amah is one of the most important and loved people in her life and where the sights and sounds and smells have been part of her life since she was born. She has created an idea of America from her grandmother's letters and from her parents' stories; the America of her imagination is about roller-skating and Halloween and fluffy yellow chickens in her grandmother's back yard. But her worldly friend Andrea tells her, "Your trouble is that you think America is just feeding your grandmother's chickens. There's a lot more to America than that" (116).
Moon Shadow's passage to America served to strengthen his apprehensions about a dangerous land. For Jean, the sea voyage helps to smooth the transition from one culture to another. It helps her to understand how much China had meant to her. She tells us:
It seemed to me that once we were completely out of sight of land, I would feel really homeward bound. But as I looked at the Shanghai skyline and at the busy waterfront, I had the strange feeling that I wasn't moving away at all. Instead the land was slowly moving away and leaving me. Not just Shanghai but China itself. It was as if I could see the whole country at once: all the jogging rickshas, the pagodas, the squeaking wells, the chestnut vendors, the water buffaloes, the bluebells, the grey-coated soldiers, the bare-bottomed little boys. And of course the muddy Yangtse with my own junk looking at me with its wide eyes. I could even smell China, and it was the smell of food cooking, of steam rising from so many rice bowls it hung in a mist over the land. But it was slipping away. No matter how hard I squinted, it was fading from sight.
The ocean voyage is a time for coming to terms with her feelings about China and her own identity as an American. She describes it as an "in-between" feeling, one that lasts until the ship passes the international date line. The closer Jean gets to America, the more "herself" she feels. Unlike Moon Shadow, however, she will not see a brown smudge of land when she reaches California. She waits instead for the ship to pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. "For years I had heard about the Golden Gate, a narrow stretch of water connecting the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay. And for years I had planned my entrance" (128). She dresses up in a navy skirt, white blouse, and silk stockings, feeling "every bit as neat as Columbus or Balboa and every bit as heroic." She stands on the deck and watches the land come closer.
Then the ship entered the narrow stretch of the Golden Gate and I could see American hills on my left and American houses on my right, and I took a deep breath of American air.
"Breathes there the man, with soul so dead," I cried,
"Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!"
This heroic landing on her native land is a marked contrast to Moon Shadow's arrival as a stranger in the Land of the Golden Mountain.
Where Moon Shadow found the houses and terrain and people in America to be foreign and strange, Jean finds it all as she expected it to be. There is no initial disillusionment for her. She drinks her first American soda while her father reads from the newspaper about Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic. Jean feels a connection with Lindbergh: "Of course I admired him for having done such a brave and scary thing, but I bet he wasn't any more surprised to have made it across one ocean than I was to have finally made it across another" (132). Driving across the country to Pennsylvania, she sees two cows grazing in a meadow. "I had never seen cows in China but it was not the cows themselves that impressed me. It was the whole scene. The perfect greenness. The washed-clean look. The peacefulness. Oh, now! I thought. Now I was in America. Every inch of me" (133). And when she reaches her grandmother's, the homecoming is complete. Like Moon Shadow's, Jean's arrival in America is associated with a reunion with a special relative. Until she runs into her grandmother's arms, she only feels herself to be in the country where she belongs; after meeting her grandmother, she feels that she is home.
If Fritz allowed Jean to feel only the contentment and satisfaction of a long-awaited homecoming, however, the story would lack tension. It would trivialize the twelve years spent growing up in China. But neither the adult Jean who is writing this story nor the child Jean who is living it in this narrative is that bland and simple. Jean must continue to come to terms with her China experience; she has not left it completely behind. It is still a part of who she is. She confronts the ignorance of neighbor children who ask if she ate rats in China. She overhears a woman in church whispering to her husband: "You can tell she wasn't born in this country" (144). Jean wonders how she can tell. Her American teacher refuses to pronounce Yangtse correctly: "In America," she said, "we say Yangs-Ta-Zee" (148). And like Moon Shadow, she encounters racism among her peers in the form of the chanted "Chink, Chink Chinaman" rhyme. She responds in defense of the people with whom she had grown up: "'You don't call them Chinamen or Chinks,' I cried. 'You call them Chinese. Even in America you call them Chinese '" (149).
So Jean learns that Andrea was right; America is more than just feeding her grandmother's chickens. But most importantly for Jean, America is home. China was where she came from, but America is where she belongs.
While Jean Fritz uses narrative to uncover the story line of her life, Bette Bao Lord uses story to create a heroine and a happy ending. Significantly, Bandit Wong, otherwise known as Sixth Cousin in China, chooses the name Shirley Temple Wong when she learns that she is going to America. She clearly means to be the heroine of her own life! Her women relatives are full of ominous predictions about her fate in that distant land, surrounded by strangers who aren't even Chinese:
"And those cowboys and Indians. What kind of place is that for a child to grow up in? Dodging bullets and arrows?"
"You'll starve! Imagine eating nothing but warm puppies and raw meat!"
"How will you become civilized? America does not honor Confucius. America is foreign, so foreign."
On and on they went, wailing like paid mourners at a funeral. But Bandit was not afraid.
The ocean voyage presents Bandit with her first challenge. It is rough crossing, and Bandit spends much of it sick in her cabin. Lord dramatizes this ordeal by comparing the sea to "a fierce, black dragon with chili peppers up its snout" (21). After a train trip across the United States, Bandit and her mother are reunited with her father in New York City, a strange and frightening place with tall buildings, empty streets (it is Sunday), and the Brooklyn Bridge, mysteriously held up in the air by slender ropes. "Sometimes Shirley wondered why she was not afraid. But there was too much magic in this new place for her to question it" (28).
And the plucky little heroine is determined to conquer this new territory. On her first night in the New York City apartment that will be her home, Shirley volunteers to go out to the store for cigarettes for her father. She wins his approval of this daring venture by reciting the directions. He agrees. "Shirley stood tall as a warrior" (35). She sets off with a dollar to buy four packs of Lucky Strikes. She successfully locates the store, but they are out of her father's brand. The shopkeeper points to another store across the street, and Shirley completes the transaction:
Simple. It was quite simple. Nothing to it at all, Shirley thought as she fingered the cellophane and walked proudly out the door. Turning right, she could almost see Father smiling at his amazing daughter as he passed cigarettes to the men, who shouted and clapped. Turning right again, she imagined Mother, teary with pride, reaching for a handkerchief. Congratulations, Shirley Temple Wong! Congratulations!
Unfortunately, the stop at the second store has made Shirley's memorized directions home inaccurate, and she gets lost. The conquering warrior must be rescued by her Father. Shirley feels like a fool at first, but she is never down for long: "Later Shirley wrote a letter to Fourth Cousin and boasted of how she had triumphed on her very first day in Brooklyn. Naturally, she did not mention the little mishap. Why worry the clan unnecessarily? She would never be lost again" (39).
School is yet another trial for Shirley to undergo. Her mother reminds her that she may be the only Chinese person that her classmates will ever meet. She must be extra good, an ambassador for China. At P.S. 8, her classmates tower over her. She is unable to understand any English: "the words sounded like gurgling water" (45). She finds herself making a clandestine trip to a candy store with some classmates at lunch, and then worries all afternoon that she will get in trouble for it. As the days pass, her classmates lose interest in the novelty of the new Chinese girl and begin to ignore her. She doesn't know how to speak to them in words they will understand, and she is unsuccessful at their games. She feels humiliated when they laugh at her in class. Her Mother gives her Confucian advice: "Always be worthy, my daughter, of your good fortune. Born to an illustrious clan from the ancient civilization of China, you live in the land of plenty and opportunity. By your conduct show that you deserve to enjoy the best of both worlds" (58). Shirley is not convinced.
Over the months that follow, Shirley works hard and does well in school, but she still longs for success on the streets and playgrounds. One day she decides to face the challenge head on. Instead of hurrying home from school like a hungry ghost, "she decided to cross the school yard like an emperor" (71). Not looking to the left or right, Shirley walks right into a baseball game, colliding with the runner stealing home base. The runner, who is tagged out, is Mabel, "the tallest and the strongest and the scariest girl in all of the fifth grade" (71). When Mabel curses her in English, Shirley responds in Chinese. Mabel escalates the hostility by punching Shirley in the eye. "Shirley considered fleeing. But emperors do not flee, and had a teacher not stepped through the school door exactly at that moment, one puny Chinese surely would have died right there and crossed over the Yellow Springs to greet her ancestors" (72). Shirley doesn't tattle on Mabel, not even when her parents take her to a police station to name her assailant. Her adherence to the children's code of honor wins Mabel an unlikely friend who teaches her to play baseball, changing her life. Shirley turns out to be a very good baseball player, one the other children call Jackie Robinson because she's pigeon-toed and steals home. She becomes a devoted fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and of Jackie Robinson, in particular. The book reaches its happy ending when Jackie Robinson comes to her school for an assembly, and Shirley is selected to introduce the great ballplayer and present him with the key to P.S. 8. As the audience claps, Shirley can truly feel like the heroine of her own life in the year when dreams came true.
At one level, Lord is writing a simple, lighthearted school story with a likable heroine that all children can relate to. But Shirley Temple Wong is no ordinary heroine. As the previous quotations from the book show, she is a Chinese American heroine, guided by Confucian philosophy and the heritage of emperors. When confronted by racism, she has the powerful Mabel for a protector and the pride of her ancestors for compensation. Looking back on her first year in America, she muses about her unborn baby brother, who will probably never know the life Shirley had lived in China. It would be up to Shirley to tell him about all of that:
The taste of watermelon cooled in the well … the sound the willow branches make when the clansmen swept their ancestors' graves … the fragrance of perfumed fans … the touch of the fortune-teller's finger, tracing destiny along the palm of one's hand … the view from the House of Wong as the sun set over the Mountain of Ten Thousand Steps … and especially the people who lived on that far side of the world, to whom they would always belong.
For Bette Bao Lord, the key to Shirley Temple Wong's heroism is her eagerness to accept her bicultural identity. Lord has created a story in which the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson coexist happily, a story with the perfect Chinese American heroine.
Narrative is a powerful literary device, perhaps especially powerful for children. Aidan Chambers quotes James Moffett: "Children must make narrative do for all" (4). I take it that he is claiming more than vicarious experience as a benefit of story for children. He is talking, I think, about the child's vivid interaction with story which makes reading such an active experience. Louise Rosenblatt claims to regret ever having spoken of literature as vicarious experience. She finds that the reader does not "substitute" for a character in a novel but rather inserts herself into a literary world which the reader has helped to create through the unique experiences and references she brings to the experience (68). Narrative is essential, to pull the reader along, led by the desire to see what happens next. Narrative helps the readers keep their place in the text.
Wolfgang Iser points out that in the phenomenology of reading, three events occur: "picturing" or visualizing the world of the text; anticipation and retrospection; and the formation of a consistent pattern (283). I suggest that the three authors discussed here have used narrative to provide the reader with the tools needed to picture, anticipate, retrospect, and form a pattern. Yep's tools are sharp-edged, didactic, incisive. The reader has little doubt what to do with them; their function is clear. Yep intends to subvert the traditional happy ending of the immigrant story and raise the issue of racism so that it cannot be ignored. Fritz is the least "readerly," as Roland Barthes uses the term (4). Her text is evocative; it invites the reader in to coproduce the text. She leaves enough gaps in the text that the child can create his or her own meaning. Lord provides the most consistent pattern. She writes in a genre unencumbered by didacticism or pretensions of high literary merit; she writes a realistic children's story. The outlines are clear, and Shirley Temple Wong stands out as the heroine of two worlds.
For each author, cross-culturalism is the canvas on which the story is drawn. It provides the tension in each narrative and the context in which self-discovery takes place. Leonard Lutwack has pointed out that place orients the reader in the narrative: "Setting is immediately positive and reassuring until action and character are gradually unfolded," he writes (37). In these three novels, setting is more problematic; the authors have used setting to displace and disorient their protagonists. By moving their child characters from one culture to another, they have shown how even the most ordinary activities—taking out the trash, going to the neighborhood grocery store, or going to church on Sunday—can be opportunities for heroism or at least, for insight, when they take place in a strange culture. While the authors use narrative to different effect, they unite in presenting the cross-cultural experience as a special catalyst for self-discovery.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
Chambers, Aidan. Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Fritz, Jean. Homesick: My Own Story. New York: Dell, 1982.
———. "The Teller and the Tale," in Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children. Ed. William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction From Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
Lord, Bette Bao. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Lutwack, Leonard. The Role of Place in Literature. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1989.
Yep, Laurence. Dragonwings. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Weimin Mo and Wenju Shen (essay date December 1999)
SOURCE: Mo, Weimin, and Wenju Shen. "Homesick and Homecoming: Jean Fritz's Search for Childhood." Children's Literature in Education 30, no. 4 (December 1999): 249-65.
[In the following essay, Mo and Shen explore how Fritz's personal experiences influenced her interpretation of historical issues as related in her two works Homesick and China Homecoming.]
Jean Fritz's Homesick has the same remarkable quality of blending truth with storytelling that distinguishes her other biographical works. The story describes the feelings of an American girl who was born and grew up in China and stayed there until 1927 when she was 12. At that time China was at a historical intersection, humiliated by the Opium Wars, impacted by European ideas and technology, troubled by a broken economy and social unrest, and pressured by the Western powers. Everywhere in China, people were angry at almost everything, especially at Westerners. Young Jean was accustomed in her childhood to being called "Foreign Devil" but never truly understood why. She was homesick for America, a country she had never seen. When she emigrated to America, Fritz began to feel that she could not let China go, either. She was surprised to find that her homesickness began to go the other way around. She revisited China more than a half century later and related her experiences of the visit in the book China Homecoming. She felt welcome in her hometown Wuhan and was finally able to set at rest her twoway homesick complex. During the visit she found the answers to some of the questions that troubled her in her childhood. (In the following discussion of the book Homesick, we use the first name Jean to refer to the protagonist of the story and the last name Fritz to indicate the author of the book.)
Linda W. Girard comments on Fritz's biographical works: "The biographer at the very least coaxes a life into a story or culls a story out of a life.… Yet, what Jean Fritz has really done is to bring biography back to art—but not entirely to fact. In the best sense she's brought it back to the truth mainly, with some stretchers" (464-65). Fritz does exactly that in Homesick. She explains in the foreword of the book, "Since my childhood feels like a story, I decided to tell it that way, letting the events fall as they would into the shape of a story, lacing them together with fictional bits, adding a piece here and there when memory didn't give me all I needed." According to Fritz, the book should be considered as fiction instead of biography. In other words, in spite of the fact that the people and places in the book are real, she allows herself to tailor freely the events and people in her childhood in order to consummate the imagery artistically and to re-create her emotions she remembers so vividly. It is true that personal experiences in reality do not always reflect the nature of life and their artistic appeal is not always satisfying, either. Truth represents the substantial essence of reality and is much more powerful in striking a sympathetic chord in readers. In the book, Fritz has to deal with three types of realities: her emotions, her personal experiences, and the part of Chinese history in which her story is set. She faithfully depicts the inner emotional world of a 12-year-old girl caught in the fast lane of Chinese history. Young Jean had her unusual childhood encounters in the most turbulent time of modern Chinese history. Fritz uses the freedom of writing fictionally to gather the events and people in her childhood into a rich historical conglomeration; she presents convincingly a group of well-rounded characters who, in spite of the extraordinarily adverse environment, show unforgettable vigor in their life pursuits. However, in dealing with Chinese history, the book has some obvious misconceptions that have long been accepted in the West as proven facts but are, nevertheless, not true.
Fritz notes, "I suspect that anyone who writes—particularly those who write for children—had a childhood that for one reason or another was very vivid. Often it was a lonely childhood, with solitude enough to expand one's capacity for wonder, to sharpen awareness, to encourage remembrance" (23). Obviously young Jean was such a sensitive girl. She got more questions than answers about life in her first 12 years. She found it unacceptable to be an American but to grow up in a strange hostile land even though she had some positive feelings for China, too. Her mixed feelings about China are expressed in the very beginning of the story through her description of the Yangtze River:
Orange-brown, muddy mustard-colored. And wide, wide, wide. With a river smell that was old and came all the way up from the bottom. Sometimes, old women knelt on the riverbank, begging the River God to return a son or a grandson who may have drowned. They would wail and beat the earth to make the River God pay attention, but I knew how busy the River God must be.
Jean was aware that the river was not beautiful, but she loved it because it was, in many ways, like the China she knew at that time. As one of the very few Caucasian children in Wuhan living in isolated compounds for Westerners, Jean felt extremely lonely and wished she could go back to where she belonged. When her father told Jean in China that they were "living right in the middle of history" (55), she could not feel the least excitement about their personal "narrow squeaks" in Chinese history. Her obsession with being "a real American" was really not the cause of her homesickness but a symptom of her escape. She tried to escape the frustration imposed on her by the adults' world. Being an American meant that she had the right to go back to the U.S. and leave the unhappy environment in China.
Young Jean was prematurely exposed to a complicated world. At age 12, she had experienced life's loneliness, ugliness, and hostility, seen heart-breaking sufferings, helpless desperation, and insensitive waste of lives, beheld the striking inequality between the white colonialists and the Chinese, and witnessed the racial arrogance of her own race in China. She certainly had sympathy and love for the Chinese. As young as she was, Jean instinctively resented the unfair way Chinese were treated. For instance, when she saw the insulting sign the British put at the park, "No Dogs, No Chinese," she felt sorry that she could not take Lin Nai-Nai there (21). Even though she did not understand much about the revolution, she hoped that all the people who had rotten lives would be given a change of luck (55). But she was so engulfed by the devastating reality that all she could dream of was leaving China.
To a child, the most intolerable feeling might be loneliness. Jean almost had no friends in the British school. She felt especially lonely after the Hulls moved to Shanghai. She was filled with hope when her sister Miriam was born. Unfortunately, the baby died; it was a heavy blow to Jean. She screamed to her father, "You and Mother will never understand. I was waiting for Miriam to grow. I knew she'd understand. She was the only one. I was counting on her. I needed her" (Homesick, 76). Her tearful outpourings revealed how desperate Jean was to have someone who truly understood her feelings. She was hungry for companionship, but most of the time the situation was hopeless. There was little evidence in the book that she had enough attention from her parents. She even tried once to make friends with a Chinese boy. At the Mud Flats, she shared her oranges with him and insisted that the boy call her "American Friend" instead of "Foreign Devil" (25). However, the bridge she attempted to build across the racial gap was too fragile to succeed. When she was boarding the ship back to America, she ran into the boy at the gangplank again. She was excited and reminded him, "It's me.… Look, it's me. Your American friend.… I gave you oranges" (107). The boy recognized her, but, to her disappointment, he still spat on the ground and screamed, "Foreign devil" (Homesick, 107).
Possibly, the boy was a fictional character, and so perhaps was the episode; Fritz may have "stretched" the facts and fabricated this event from the anecdotes of contact with Chinese children in general. Nevertheless, this episode fits logically in the story. It is important because it shows how depressed Jean was by loneliness and the futility of her attempt was pre-destined in a society in which race was a condition of everything. In a symbolic depiction of the vulnerable nature of this type of cross-racial friendship in a colonial society, E. M. Forster did something very similar. Toward the end of his novel A Passage to India, Forster suggests in a conversation between the Indian doctor Aziz and his British friend Fielding that friendship can never stand firm in the drift sand of racial inequality:
And Aziz in an awful rage danced this and that way, not knowing what to do and cried: "Down with the Englishman anyway. That's certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We [Indians] may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don't make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then," he concluded, half kissing him, "you and I shall be friends."
"Why can't we be friends now?" said the other, holding him affectionately. "It's what I want. It's what you want."
But the horses didn't want it—they swerved apart.
When a society is divided along the racial line, one's personal will is totally lost in the irresistible social collision. Once the horses Aziz and Fielding rode wanted to swerve apart, their riders could do nothing but part. The tense racial relationship makes one feel like walking in a mine zone. Like it or not, you have to follow the social norms of your own race. Sometimes, these norms become survival skills and could mean life and death to you. Early in her childhood, Jean had been taught, for self-protection, to ignore the sufferings of the poor people. She had learned not to look at them when she passed beggars and her father explained that if she showed sympathy, she would have been mobbed because they would have followed her everywhere and never left her alone (Homesick, 19). Throughout her life in China, Jean had many experiences with racial hostility. Like most Westerners, Jean and her family did not live in the same China as most Chinese did. The two worlds were clearly divided along the racial line. On the one hand, Jean's family and other Caucasians lived in the concessions and their houses were like "castles" surrounded by "high stone walls with chips of broken glass sticking up from the top of it" (13). She went to the British school which accepted only Caucasian students: the British, Americans, Italians, and even Russians whom Jean found intolerably different, but not a single Chinese. They vacationed in Peitaiho or Kuling, which were forbidden resorts for ordinary Chinese. The Chinese she directly contacted were mostly servants and cooks who lived separately in the servant quarter.
On the other hand, most Chinese lived in places like the "Mud Flats" where "when the river flooded, the flats disappeared underwater … even the fishermen's huts were washed away, knocked right off their long-legged stilts and swept down the river" (Homesick, 22-23). Wherever she went in China, Jean saw beggars roaming around (19). There were the sedan chair coolies and ricksha coolies, most of whom, as Jean heard from her father, "did not live to be thirty" (33). Jean and other white people were constantly called "foreign devils." People spat directly in their path while saying that. It happened so often that they became numb to being called names. As Jean put it, she was "used to insults" (42). They were constantly worried about being robbed, mobbed, and poisoned. Jean was even concerned that Yang Sze-Fu, the cook, would poison her pet when the cook was feeding her cat (85). When she revisited China half a century later, she reflected on these experiences and expressed a deeper understanding of the hostility: "As a child, I had been used to Chinese calling me a 'foreign devil' and I couldn't blame them. I had often felt guilty being where I wasn't wanted, having so much more than the poor people." (China Homecoming, 16).
The Double Life of Jean
After the family left China, Jean soon realized that she was not free from being frustrated by the adults' world: the stubborn and arrogant Miss Crofts in the school of Washington, PA, the boring Palmer penmanship, and, more intolerable, people's ignorance. She felt as if she became the Chinese Pocahontas when she was being stared at or tried to explain to people that the Yangtze was not pronounced as Yangs-Ta-Zee, that Chinese should not be called Chinamen or Chinks, and that no one in China ate rats (142-156). People did not bother to correct those misconceptions. Maybe people's ignorant staring at her or their careless remarks about China or about her experiences in China stirred up her memories of the arrogance of the white race in China and the inequality Chinese suffered. By then, Jean had realized that she was actually trapped between two cultures and that her loyalty to China ran deep ("The Teller and the Tale," 41).
As a writer, Fritz tackled those unsettled feelings in China Homecoming. Fritz strongly felt the draw of the land in which she was born. She endeavored to understand those feelings rationally in an attempt to repossess her childhood. She began to know how much she loved China when she set foot upon American soil. She dreamed of the Yangtze: "Why did I love the river so? It wasn't what I would call beautiful. It wasn't like anything. It just was and it had always been. When you were on the river or even look at it, you flow with time. You were part of forever" (Homesick, 61). The memories of her stay in China were entangled with the Yangtze. During her adventure at Mud Flats, she had sneaked into a boatyard, carved her name in Chinese on the junk, and imagined its eyes seeing the river sights for her (23). On her way to Kiukiang, she looked among all the boats for "her" junk with eyes peeled (61). When she was in America, she felt as if she did not have a beginning and there was not a place she could call her hometown. In Hankow,1 she was a foreigner. She had doubts that she had the right to call the birthplace her hometown if people there considered her as an outsider, an intruder (China Homecoming, 19). She felt guilty for what Americans did in China, but she also felt the need to go back to be accepted. She did not understand the whole truth about her feelings with China until after she left there.
Because of the displaced childhood, Fritz has been painfully trying to strike a balance between childhood and adulthood, between past and present, between illusion and reality, between fiction and biography, and between China and America. For a half century, she had been struggling to solve her emotional puzzle which resulted accidentally from being an American born in a chaotic period of Chinese history. Fritz says: "I needed to accumulate a long American past for my displaced childhood.… What I didn't realize until much later was that I was also trying, in a disguised form, to work out past and present personal relationships" ("The Teller and the Tale," 24-25) That feeling, to a certain extent, helped her stay as a child inside throughout her life. As she put it in China Homecoming, "There are two kinds of grown-ups: some simply remember and some know that a person doesn't have to be a grown-up or a child" (29). She puzzled out the personal implications of being an American born in China. Homesick was only the beginning of her search—a revelation to herself of the sealed feelings and emotions. Her search was not complete until she finished writing China Homecoming, in which she realized that her homesickness had traveled in a circle and she needed to go back to where it all began (21).
There is one episode in Homesick that does not seem very convincing. In Chapter 4, when Wuchang2 was under attack by the National Revolutionary Army, out of her concern for Lin Nai-Nai's family, Jean "shouted all the Chinese swear words" she knew at the "Communist" airplanes which flew over her head to Wuchang (84). That event is directly followed by her sudden worries that the cook Yang Sze-Fu was going to poison her and her family after he became a Communist. Jean's parents did talk a lot about the war. "[I]t was just more Chinese-fighting talk. Who was going to rule China. Who was going to beat whom" (82). However, Chinese Communists did not own their planes until much later than 1926 as indicated in the story. The description of the event, as well as the follow-up to Jean's imagined Communist terrorism, is difficult to justify by historical reality or to support by the development of the story. First of all, the Communists were just a tiny political force at that time and, as Fritz points out in the book, they were allowed to join the Nationalist Party and the National Revolutionary Army by Dr. Sun in 1922. They participated in the attack on Wuchang in 1926 only as part of the NRA led by Chiang Kai-shek in the Northern Expedition (162). Second, they were then little known to ordinary people and not as influential as Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party. As Fritz points out, they worked basically "behind the scenes" (162). Finally, as part of the National Revolutionary Army against the warlords, they generally did not get negative comments either internationally or domestically. It is hard to believe that Jean would single them out for being responsible for the Wuchang attack even considering what her parents told her.
Furthermore, even if we accept all the stories about Yang Sze-Fu's attitude-changing and poisoning attempts as just a 12-year-old girl's perceptions or imagination, it is difficult to find any evidence in the book, no matter what her parents or Lin Nai-Nai told her about the Communists, to explain Jean's abrupt association of the murder attempt with a Communist Yang Sze-Fu. When Jean was looking for Kurry and asked Yang Sze-Fu, "You like my cat?" Yang also gave an abrupt answer, which is the only direct quote from Yang Sze-Fu in the book: "A cat is a cat. There are no foreign cats, no Communist cats. Just cats" (86). Then Jean suddenly forgot all about his murder attempt and became sympathetic with him for his lost fingernails. What is the purpose of this passage? A statement to characterize Yang Sze-Fu's personality? To contribute to Jean's characterization? Or to depict the risky situation that impacted a girl's mentality? None of them could be reasonably accepted. It is true that the Westerners in China were often scared of being mobbed or mugged. But on what grounds is it that Jean connected her murder concerns to Yang Sze-Fu becoming a Communist? Either there is a missing link in the development of the story or Fritz transposes her perceptions of Communists in history.
Fritz's search for her displaced childhood was a difficult one. Of course, she has to sensitively recall what happened and how she felt at that time. The difficulty exists in the fact that her perception of the experiences and emotions, to a large degree, relies on her historical perspective. It is small wonder that when those memories of hers were unsealed after half a century, "they were filled with surprises that had never quite surfaced before" ("The Teller and the Tale," 41)
Fritz studied hard to accumulate a Chinese past. In both Homesick and China Homecoming, Fritz provides pages of brief Chinese history to help readers interpret the historical situations. However, in the candid narration of her childhood experiences, there are a few misconceptions, which have long been taken for proven facts about Chinese history. They may have resulted either from a traditional Western historical outlook or from lack of research. As Irving S. Michelman points out in his recently published book The Moral Limitations of Capitalism, "[i]t should be a commonplace that our view of the world, and hence our related moral norms and standards, are primarily shaped by the particular cultures we live in" (1994, 18).
Without appropriate explanation about the historical facts in the book, these misconceptions could be passed on to young readers. Besides, without providing the appropriate knowledge of the historical situation, readers would have difficulty fully understanding the feelings and emotions she experienced in the story. People may argue that what Fritz did in the book was just a faithful recollection of a 12-year-old child's thoughts then and there, and those misconceptions were just natural in her situation. If so, there should be an explanation somewhere in the supplementary materials of the book about the truth of history. Aren't those pages of Chinese history supplied by Fritz at the end of the book intended to serve that purpose? Unfortunately, the supplementary materials do not tackle the misconceptions that are the offspring of a traditional Western historical outlook. As a matter of fact, some misconceptions are presented by Fritz as truth both in the story and in the supplemental material.
A number of terms that Fritz mentioned in her book are very special to that period of Chinese history. First of all, how did the concessions come into being? Fritz gives the following explanation:
They [concessions] didn't belong to the Chinese.… A long time ago other countries just walked into China and divided up part of Hankow (and other cities) into sections, or concessions, which they called their own and used their own rules of governing.
What she meant by "a long time ago" was the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s, about a half century before Jean was born. But the Westerners did not simply "walk in." They shot and shelled their way in. Historians Chesneaux et al. recorded how the concessions came into being in their book China from the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution:
In the years following the first Opium War, the Westerners strengthened their positions inland by securing the concessions, or privileged zones, in the treaty ports and the control of the customs, neither of which had been provided in the treaties of 1842 to 1844.… The concessions were privileged zones which, in some treaty ports, became real foreign enclaves exempt from Chinese authority.… The Chinese authorities were consulted only as to its boundaries, not as to its political status.
No other nation in the world has suffered so bitterly from her own inventions as China did. The Chinese invented the compass but only used it in Fong Shui, a way to locate an ideal spot for building a house or for burying their deceased. When the invention was learned by the Westerners, they used it to develop navigation and found their way to China by sea just as Columbus had sailed to America. The Chinese also invented gunpowder but used it only in ceremonial rituals to scare away ghosts and spirits. But Westerners used it to make cannonballs and shot death and pain to the Chinese. Chesneaux et al. also mention that during the second Opium War, the Westerners captured and looted the capital Peking, including the Summer Palace, in such a shameless way that Victor Hugo described France and Britain as two bandits entering a cathedral in Asia (79). In the concessions, Westerners enjoyed extraterritoriality, that is, they were untouchable by Chinese law. Chesneaux et al. analyze its unfair nature as follows:
In line with the principle of extraterritoriality, consular courts were set up in the main open ports.… Appeals against decisions taken by the … consular courts had to go to Saigon, Batavia, or Manila … so that the Chinese who were liable to trial by the consular court (a trial involving a foreigner) were placed in a position of obvious inferiority.
As mentioned above, Fritz mentions in her book that in the British concession, the British put the insulting sign at the park entrance on the Bund, "No Dogs, No Chinese." In a child's mind, she tried to justify it: "Maybe the British wanted a place where they could pretend they weren't in China" (Homesick, 21), but Jean still strongly felt the racial inequality: "In order to load and unload boats in the river, coolies had to cross the Bund. All day they went back and forth, bent double under their loads, sweating and chanting in a tired, singsong way that seemed to get them from one step to the next" (21).
The reader may ask: Why did the Westerners travel halfway around the planet to fight a war with China? Was it because of China's closed-door policy or, as Fritz put it, because the Chinese had tried to seal their country from the rest of the world (Homesick, 161)? Neither of them is true. China had always had good trade relations with her neighboring and Western countries until 1840. The real reason behind the wars was the smuggling of opium, the raw material of heroin, by British, American, and other Western firms. Chesneaux et al. note that because they were increasingly anxious to balance their trade with China, those firms did not want to go on paying for goods with silver, so they were engaged in the large-scale smuggling of opium, a product that was forbidden in China (53-55). It was downright piracy to force a sovereign country to accept narcotic trade by threatening wars.
British scholar Michael Greenberg (1951) also points out in his book British Trade and The Opening of China 1800-42 :
The dominant fact for nearly three hundred years of their commercial intercourse, from the 16th to the 19th century, was that the westerner3 desired the goods of the East and was able to offer little merchandise in return. Until the epoch of machine production, when technical supremacy enabled the West to fashion the whole world into a single economy, it was the East which was the more advanced in most of industrial arts.
He further explained how the opium trade helped solve the problem of trade imbalance:
The solution was finally found in India. It was discovered that the Chinese had little taste for British goods, they were eager to accept the produce of British India, particularly raw cotton and opium, though China itself produced the one and prohibited the other.… The rapid increase of Indian imports into Canton soon reversed the flow of treasure.… A contemporary pamphleteer wrote: 'From the opium trade, the Honorable Company have derived for years an immense revenue and through them the British government and nation have also reaped an incalculable amount of political and financial advantages. The turn of the balance of trade between Great Britain and China in favour of the former has enabled India to increase tenfold her consumption of British manufacture; contributed directly to support the vast fabric of British domination of the East, to defray the expenses of His Majesty's establishment in India, and by the operation of exchanges and remittances in teas, to pour an abundant revenue into the British Exchaquer and benefit the nation to an extent of £6 millions yearly without impoverishing India."
Based on these historical facts, the assertion that China had tried to seal herself off from the rest of the world is groundless.
Gunboats is another special term. Fritz mentioned in quite a few places in the book the role of American gunboats as protecting Americans: "[T]hey had gun-boats on the river. In case, my father said. In case what? Just in case. That's all he'd say" (Homesick, 20). Obviously, Fritz's impressions of China were strongly influenced by her parents and other Caucasian adults. However, what her father was unable or perhaps unwilling to explain was that protecting their citizens was not the first thing in the minds of British and American policymakers in the beginning. Chesneaux et al. note:
One of the most important rights obtained by Westerners, that of sailing warships on the inland waters, was one of the most widely resented by the Chinese in the inland regions.… The gun-boat policy (the official term used at the time)4 was designed to intimidate the authorities and the public and to make them aware of the dominant position which the West intended to occupy in all China.
Finally, the trade of opium was made legal. The power and glamor enjoyed by those drug trafficking pioneers in the last century could not but make today's Manual Noriegas5 feel sorry that they were born too late. Ironically, a century later, when she and her family eventually landed in America, young Jean was upset because they had to open their baggage for customs inspection to make sure they "weren't smuggling in opium" (Homesick, 131). While innocent individuals had their moral standards, the policymakers and the merchants had their own way to justify the wrongdoing. The historical facts Michael Greenberg provides show that the opium trade was totally profit motivated:
Opium was no hole-in-the-corner petty smuggling trade, but probably the largest commerce of the time in any single commodity. In 1840 William Jardine defended his character as the leading merchant by citing the repeated declarations of both Houses of Parliaments, "with all the bench of bishops at their back," that it was financially in-expedient to abolish the trade. The men directing British policy at the time were not of more than average cynicism. They were helped in overcoming moral scruple by an appreciation of the size of material interest involved.
In spite of the above-mentioned facts, there are such traditional Western historians as those Gerald S. Graham mentions in his book The China Station: Warand Diplomacy 1830-1860 who would present history in a very creative way by saying things like "The Chinese effort to suppress the opium traffic was incidentally responsible for the start of the first Anglo-Chinese war.… An apprehensive China … would gladly have drawn back into her shell, and dispensed with a mutually profitable trade that had been going on for some two centuries" (1978, x). It is regrettable to see how history could be distorted just by manipulating the language. Graham also reminds readers that, "[i]t is important to remember, however, that British commercial and territorial expansion was the result of accepted policies pursued by every European power, or more specifically, by every maritime power" (x). Therefore, the history of the East-West relations is, in a sense, a history of racial relations.
Irving S. Michelman's explanation for the motivation in slave trade fits perfectly well for the opium trade, too:
There is little point in conjuring a name for such an overwhelming alliance of politics, wealth, and sanctimony. "Hegemony" is often used, but the conjuncture of the complex system was more fortuitous than planned. It was neither prescribed nor necessary for the success of mercantilism, capitalism, or for the wealth of nations. The basic motivation was the untrammeled profit motive.
History represents the inexorable trends in development of humankind, but it is also made of myriads of individuals' fortuitous experiences. That is why reality is such a kaleidoscopically complex human drama. In cultural interactions, each individual consciously feels tied to his/her own culture and represents it in some way. Jean witnessed what the Westerners did to the Chinese as one race to another. In childhood she saw everything was divided along the racial line. Fritz was very sensitive to Chinese people talking about the past and the role of Westerners in Chinese history. In her visit to China half a century later, she, as a member of the Caucasian race, felt heavy in her conscience when one school principal started to talk about the past:
And suddenly there I was, a foreign devil again. I felt as if I were all foreigners rolled into one. As if in my own lifetime I might even have fought in the Opium War of 1839, which in a way started the domination. That was when the British forced China to buy the opium that the Chinese were forbidden by the law to use.… History again, I told myself. It was history that shut the door between me and this school principal.
(China Homecoming, 70)
Jean Fritz's parents and many other people mentioned in her book were involved in missionary work. Unfortunately, to the disappointment of millions of kindhearted Christians, at least the first few pages of the history of Western missionary work in China were not glorious at all. During the Opium Wars, some missionaries worked as Western governments' spies. Chesneaux et al. have found historical evidence that the early missionaries
caused perpetual conflict. They used fraudulent means to enlarge their sphere of activities. They interfered constantly to protect their flock from the public authorities. They demanded enormous indemnities from the slightest incident. They complained that the punishments inflicted on their opponents were too mild, meanwhile railing against the "barbaric cruelty" of the Chinese. The arrival of Protestant missionaries in the Chinese interior made things worse … they showed such rash aggressiveness that they exasperated the diplomats who had to negotiate for their protection. The missions made few converts, but they did attract Chinese hangers-on who had been uprooted from their normal surroundings and ancestral traditions. They were the people whom the missionaries recommended to the consuls to make up their network of informers. These informers, together with the compradors, the agents, the officials who sold yamen6 secrets to diplomats … were instruments of foreign interests.
Possibly because of her personal experiences in China, Fritz has the capability to stretch her imagination and convincingly creates the complicated emotions of the protagonist in The Double Life of Pocahontas : "Indeed, the only reason he [Alexander Whitaker] had come to Virginia was because he believed it was more important to turn heathens into Christians than it was to turn people who were already Christians into better Christians" (61-62). In her description of Pocahontas's Christian life, the image of religious arrogance of the Europeans can be traced back to what she witnessed in her childhood: "In the spring of 1614 she said she was ready to become a Christian. At her baptism, she was required to renounce Okee, to declare that all her former beliefs were false and evil" (65). Is it typical of colonialist bigotry that the conqueror tries to "civilize" the conquered people by imposing on them the conqueror's cultural values? No wonder young Jean intuitively realized the ironical inconsistency when her mother persuaded her to just go along with other students and sing "God Save the King" in the British school by saying, "When in Rome … do as the Romans do" (Homesick, 10). In reflection, Jean thought,
If my mother and father were really and truly in Rome, they wouldn't do what the Romans did at all. They'd probably try to get the Romans to do what they did, just as they were trying to teach the Chinese to do what Americans did. (My mother even gave classes in American manners).
Fritz's experiences in China may have helped her visualize Pocahontas's fears after she got married:
Yet how could she explain her fears to this man who had lived with her three years and had never tried to understand the Indian in her? He spoke of how easy it would be to turn thousands of her people ("poor, wretched, and mysbelieving people," he called them) into Christians.
It is interesting to read about how young Jean self-consciously defended America and felt like a "traitor" if she sang "God Save the King" in the British school. When the class bully Ian Forbes tramped on her foot and twisted her arm, she insisted that "Americans haven't sung that since George the Third" (12). Ian treated Jean like an American colonist even after a century and a half of independence. Jean's answer proved clearly that she knew that part of history very well—America was no more a British colony. However, when this episode is placed side by side with the historical setting of Homesick, Jean's naive patriotism was ironically laughable: a member of the ex-British colony was fighting a member of the ex-colonial country for the honor of her country's sovereignty, and all this was happening in a colony which both the countries were ruling. Similarly, in a few places in the book, young Jean recites to herself the first few lines of Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott's ballad The Lay of the Last Minstrel to express her allegiance to America: "Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!" (1838) There truly is a kind of patriotic feeling expressed in the ballad. But these were the feelings of the legendary gallant warriors of the conquered people who rebelled against the English, the conquerors. Fritz ingeniously creates a convincing image of a girl who single-mindedly uses the ballad to express her strong desire to leave China but, interestingly, does not realize in her childish action the ironical implications of the ballad sung in China by a Caucasian girl.
Fritz mentions in her book the senseless and illogical fighting between the warlords: All my life there had been fighting somewhere in China—warlord against warlord. Grownups were constantly talking about these warlords, hoping that one of them would finally bring the country together in peace. When a warlord was Christian (and one or two were), my father really got his hope up. (Homesick, 43)
Ironically, history provides evidence that the major warlords might not have been able to cause worry and pain to people, including young Jean and her family, if they had not been supported by Western powers. Spence notes that,
[o]ut of choice or necessity, a number [of warlords] worked closely with foreign powers, whether it was the British in Shanghai, the Japanese in Manchuria, or the French in the southwest. Some controlled extensive lengths of railway line, drawing their revenues from passenger and freight services, and from the commerce of the cities on the line. Some reinstituted opium growing in their domains and tapped the greatly expanded drug trade for revenues. Opium use once more began to attain the scale it had before the suppression campaigns of the late Qing and of Yuan Shikai's early presidency.
Young Jean was just one of the innocent victims of the Western governments' selfish policies driven by "the untrammeled profit motive" of the Western business firms. In photos of the warlords' troops, the military uniforms, their weapons, and other supplies show clearly which Western country supported that warlord.
Graham concludes about the East-West relations: "the fundamental differences remained unsolved; a traditional wariness of the West had not been exorcized. Today, more than a hundred years later, the contour has changed, but the separating gulf has scarcely narrowed" (xi). It is inevitable that people do not agree with each other on some historical issues either because of their traditional historical outlooks or because of their personal experiences. It takes time to solve historical differences. We may coin terms like "historical justice" or "racial justice" to explain people's differences in some historical or racial issues. But eventually they will be smoothed out as the humankind moves forward. In only a half century, Fritz's experiences in her visit to China changed from what they were in her childhood. She was accepted as an honorary citizen of her hometown Wuhan and was befriended by almost everyone she met in China (China Homecoming, 129-133). Fritz's revisit to China was the fulfilment of her search for her childhood. She found most of her personal landmarks from childhood. Even though she did not find at the former International Cemetery her babysister Miriam's grave stone, she was happy to know that the old cemetery had become a children's playground. Fritz writes emotionally:
Here was a piece of history—Chinese as well as my own. In all the museums in Wuhan no one would find relics of the colonial period which, of course, the Chinese would prefer to forget. Nevertheless, it was history, stone by stone we were meeting individuals—friends, missionaries, profiteers, businessmen, teachers, students, refugees, rogues perhaps, adventurers.… I had discovered a chunk of hidden history that belonged to me and my time.
(China Homecoming, 121-123)
Symbolically, on the same site sprawled a beautiful playground, a happy laughing place for children who would write tomorrow's history. Fritz was glad that happy children every day were better than flowers once a year for her sister (China Homecoming, 109). More important, on this visit her love for China was accepted and greatly appreciated by the people in her hometown. Before she left China, she stood one more time by the Yangtze River and felt that the moon shone the brightest on her hometown (p. 132). By then she realized that China existed not only outside but also inside her.
Fritz spent most of her childhood in a chaotic period of Chinese history. The displaced childhood haunted her for a half century. The book Homesick is the result of a long-time desire to recapture something precious to her. She expresses clearly in "The Teller and the Tale" how, during her visit to China half a century later, a gesture or a casual expression from the ordinary Chinese people could evoke her whole childhood (p. 43). She has created a remarkable work of art on the borderline between biography and fiction. In writing the book, Fritz deals with three types of realities: her emotions, her experiential facts, and the historical facts. Her highly proficient artistic treatment of the childhood experiences reveals profound truth about her emotional world and, thus, exerts powerful aesthetic appeal. There are some misconceptions about Chinese history in the book. Despite the flaws concerning some historical facts, it is a very touching, unique story about a child sandwiched between two cultures and two histories. In order to prevent traditional misconceptions from being passed on to young readers and to provide background knowledge necessary for them to understand characters' emotions and experiences, work of historical fiction should be read together with more accurate historical information.
- Wuhan is a tri-city on the Yangtze and the Han River. Hankow (Hankou) is part of it.
- Wuchang is another part of Wuhan.
- Not capitalized in the original text.
- The brackets are in the original text.
- In 1989 the U.S. invaded Panama to arrest the strongman Manual Noriega for his alleged crime of smuggling drug into the U.S.
- Yamen means government in Chinese.
Chesneaux, J., Marianne B., and Marie-Claire B., China from the Opium Wars to the 1911 Revolution. Chap. 2, 3, 6, and 8. Hassocks, UK: Harvester, 1977.
Fritz, J., Homesick. New York: Putnam, 1982.
Fritz, J., The Double Life of Pocahontas. New York: Putnam, 1983.
Fritz, J., China Homecoming. New York: Putnam, 1985.
Fritz, J., "The Teller and the Tale," in Worlds of Childhood. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Forster, E. M., A Passage to India. Chap. 37. New York: Harcourt, 1952.
Girard, L. W., "The truth with some stretchers," in Horn Book Magazine, July 1988, 64.4, 464-469.
Graham, G. S., The China Station: War and Diplomacy 1830-1860. Preface. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1978.
Greenberg, M., British Trade and The Opening of China 1800-42. Chap. 1 and 5. London. UK: The Cambridge University Press, 1951.
Michelman, I. S., The Moral Limitations of Capitalism. Chap. 2 and 4. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate. Aldershot, UK: Avebury, 1994.
Scott, W., The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. Vol. VI. Edinburgh, UK: Cadell, 1833.
Spence, J. D., The Search for Modern China. Chap. 7 and 12. New York: Norton, 1990.
SHH! WE'RE WRITING THE CONSTITUTION (1987)
Elaine Fort Weischedel (review date August 1987)
SOURCE: Weischedel, Elaine Fort. School Library Journal 33, no. 11 (August 1987): 68.
Gr 2-5—An informative, interesting, and immensely readable account [Shh! We're Writing the Constitution ] of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Aimed at the same audience as Fritz' well-known series on Revolutionary heroes (Coward), this is every bit as good as those acclaimed titles, although younger children might need to have some terms clarified. Neatly woven into the discussion of what the framers were doing and how they did it are some wonderfully gossipy tidbits that are sure to catch young readers' imagination and make it all come alive for them. The text of the Constitution is included, as well as several pages of notes that expand upon some of the points that the main text touches upon. [Tomie] DePaola's choice of what to illustrate is excellent, as he has selected situations that have great child appeal. His illustrations, many of which are in color, add a further touch of good humor to the proceedings, particularly the sourpuss expressions on some of the founding fathers. This is superior to Marilyn Prolman's Story of the Constitution (1969), which is for the same age group. It is similar in style to Henry Steele Commager's The Great Constitution (1961), which is for an older audience. Fritz' ability to simplify without condescending makes this an excellent choice for introducing young readers to the complexities of the constitution.
CHINA'S LONG MARCH: 6000 MILES OF DANGER (1988)
Mary Mueller (review date May 1988)
SOURCE: Mueller, Mary. School Library Journal 35, no. 8 (May 1988): 116.
Gr6Up—An account of the Chinese Communist Red Army's march for safety and survival in 1934 to 1935 [China's Long March: 6,000 Miles of Danger ], told from the point of view of the common soldier and marchers, some of whom were women. This is a welcome change from most traditional accounts, which focus on the roles of the male leaders and the strategies they used. It is ironic that this focus makes this account rather difficult to follow. Young readers without background or guidance will have difficulty understanding the reasons for the march and some of the events along the way. At times the action bogs down in overly long descriptions of battles, confrontations, and river crossings. In contrast to these flaws, Fritz does an excellent job of characterization, conveying the mood of the march and the incredible dedication of the communists to the revolution. She describes the sacrifices that the marchers made and explains how they won the trust of the Chinese peasants and gained strength, paving the way for their ultimate victory in 1949. Impressionistic black-and-white drawings convey the tone of the narrative. Goldston's The Long March (1971) offers a more complete account of the entire march, with more maps and photos as well as a good amount of historical perspective and analysis. China's Long March will not replace such titles, but does complement them and offers a more personal point of view.
THE GREAT LITTLE MADISON (1989)
Trevelyn Jones, Luann Toth, and Lillian N. Gerhardt (review date December 1989)
SOURCE: Jones, Trevelyn, Luann Toth, and Lillian N. Gerhardt. School Library Journal 35, no. 16 (December 1989): 37.
Gr 5-8 That good things—even great ones—may come in small packages, is as true of this lively biography [The Great Little Madison ] as it is of its commanding subject. A strong sense of immediacy pervades this story of the nation's fourth president as Fritz deftly melds facts with memorable anecdotes.
BULLY FOR YOU, TEDDY ROOSEVELT! (1991)
Publishers Weekly (review date 10 May 1991)
SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 238, no. 21 (10 May 1991): 285.
"On the whole," Theodore Roosevelt once wrote, "I have continued all my life to have a better time year after year." Roosevelt lived his life like the hero of a classic children's late: he was a small, ailing boy who overcame his physical problems—seemingly by sheer enthusiasm and will power—to achieve a career filled with adventure, fun and success. As usual [in Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! ], Fritz (The Double Life of Pocahontas ; Shh! We're Writing the Constitution ) makes the most of her material, as she presents an irresistible portrait of a unique, larger-than-life American. Roosevelt comes alive through such telling details as the clothes he wore (ever the dandy, he strutted through his stint as New York City's Police Commissioner in pink shirts and "a black silk cummerbund with tassels reaching to his knees"), the lively games he played with his children and homely observations: "Teddy couldn't get along without a rocking chair. Even when he sat down to rest, he liked to feel that at least his chair was on the go." Fritz also chronicles T. R.'s political career and his impact on the nation through his work in conservation, legislation and tax reforms. This thoroughly entertaining biography can be summed up in one word: Bully! Ages 10-14.
Mary Mueller (review date July 1991)
SOURCE: Mueller, Mary. School Library Journal 37, no. 7 (July 1991): 79.
Gr 5-8—This very fine biography [Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! ] captures the exuberance and enthusiasm of Teddy Roosevelt without resorting to the fictionalization and unrestrained hero worship that has been so common in biographies for children in the past. It covers Roosevelt's entire life from his sickly childhood through his political career and presidency to his last expedition in the jungles of South America shortly before his death. Fritz discusses both his personal life and public achievements, emphasizing his role in the early conservation movement and his drives for reform in government and industry. She quotes him frequently, using letters, speeches, and memoirs (all documented in notes). She also includes a strong bibliography. The real strength of this book, however, is its look into Roosevelt's spirit. It communicates how his determination and drive changed both politics and the presidency, and how those changes helped create what we know as the modern presidency. Fritz is admiring of Roosevelt, but she also points out his weaknesses and faults. As usual, her writing and organization are excellent. An outstanding portrait of one of America's favorite characters that should have a place in all children's collections. Bully for this book!
Diana Tixier Herald (review date July 1996)
SOURCE: Herald, Diana Tixier. School Library Journal 42, no. 7 (July 1996): 30-1.
Gr 5-8—A frank, evenhanded profile [Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt! ] of our larger-than-life 26th president, portrayed as a man whose grand ideas, flamboyant style, and electric energy were responsible for both his greatest achievements and failings. The "old lion" lives.
Barbara Jo McKee (review date May 1997)
SOURCE: McKee, Barbara Jo. Kliatt 31, no. 3 (May 1997): 21-2.
Part of the Unforgettable American series, this biography [Bully for you, Teddy Roosevelt! ] describes the life of the dynamic Theodore Roosevelt. Mark Twain once called him "an earthquake," and as Jean Fritz tells it, he was! Roosevelt was sickly and nervous as a child, suffering from bouts of asthma, but he built himself up and did everything with gusto in order to live up to the expectations of his father. He had a love of nature and a love of hunting. He was also a super patriot and if there was a war, he wanted to go. When he started in politics he never guessed he would end up in the White House. As President, he worked long hours and kept America at the fore-front of the world. Middle school and younger high school students as well as reluctant readers will enjoy this biography. Fritz has an eye for detail that makes her books fascinating to read. Recommended highly. An ALA Notable Book and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.
GEORGE WASHINGTON'S MOTHER (1992)
Miriam Martinez and Marcia F. Nash (review date September 1994)
SOURCE: Martinez, Miriam, and Marcia F. Nash. "Chapter Books." Language Arts 71, no. 5 (September 1994): 371-72.
Ages 6-10. Everyone has a mother [George Washington's Mother ]—even the "father of our country." For her time, George Washington's mother, Mary, was quite an unusual lady. She hated dressing up and loved to smoke a pipe, so she refused to live in a city where she might be forced to change her ways. Even when George's important foreign guests would call, she entertained them in her gardening clothes. Very early on in George's career, she despaired of his travel and tendency to get involved in wars which she felt had nothing to do with her. And all of her life she worried needlessly about money. Once, she even wrote to the Virginia legislature requesting an allowance because she was George Washington's mother. Jean Fritz tells Mary Washington's story with humor and vitality that makes her come alive. The easy text and humorous supporting illustrations make this historical "character" accessible to young and less able readers.
THE GREAT ADVENTURE OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1992)
Jean H. Zimmerman (review date February 1992)
SOURCE: Zimmerman, Jean H. School Library Journal 38, no. 2 (February 1992): 81.
Gr 2-4—This collaborative work [The Great Adventure of Christopher Columbus ] deserves consideration in spite of being a pop-up. The readable text, printed on fold-over extensions to each page, provides a good brief summary of the reasons Columbus attempted his voyage, a short description of his cargo, the journey, landfall, and his return to Spain. Fritz does not delve into any of the darker aspects of the explorations or their aftermath, but presents the trip as the "great adventure." [Tomie] DePaola's illustrations include a view of the Orient, the royal Spanish court, the ocean voyage and landing, the shipwreck of the Santa Maria, and Columbus's triumphant procession through Barcelona. The paintings are done in deep pastel shades that evoke both the splendor of the court and the natural richness of the New World. The people have the flat, serious-looking faces characteristic of much of the artist's work. Diaz's paper engineering, which is less complicated than that of some of the genre, will provide enough movement to satisfy most readers as they make the ships bob through the waves and Columbus bow to Ferdinand and Isabella. Shorter than Fritz's Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus? (1981), this title is well suited to reading aloud and perfect for classroom use if not for circulation.
Donnarae MacCann and Olga Richard (review date February 1992)
SOURCE: MacCann, Donnarae, and Olga Richard. "Picture Books for Children." Wilson Library Bulletin 66, no. 6 (February 1992): 82-3, 124.
As long as the art of navigation is elevated over the horror of mass extermination, it follows that books on the subject will be designed as toys and entertainments. For example, Jean Fritz's The Great Adventure of Christopher Columbus: A Pop-up Book (with illustrations by Tomie dePaola) is a flippant narrative accompanied by three-dimensional panoramas. With the yank of a lever, Columbus bows to Queen Isabella and his horse nods to the Barcelonans. Both content and tone are entirely jocular:
As they came closer [to the island], Columbus looked for a glint of gold; there were no glints. There were people, but they weren't dressed in gold-embroidered robes. They weren't dressed at all. Stark naked—that's what they were, so this couldn't be Japan.
Fritz makes nakedness (coupled with gold jewelry) a running joke throughout the narrative.
JUST A FEW WORDS, MR. LINCOLN: THE STORY OF THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS (1993)
Leda Schubert (review date October 1993)
SOURCE: Schubert, Leda. School Library Journal 39, no. 10 (October 1993): 118.
Gr 2-3—A book [Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln: The Story of the Gettysburg Address ] that focuses on Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address, providing lively anecdotes about the man's work and responsibilities as president, his special relationship with his son, and about his famous remarks. The text of the speech appears at the end of the book. Fritz's narrative has a strong, fresh appeal. However, there's a lack of specificity in some of the details and a somewhat annoying quantity of sentence fragments. Several archival photographs are interspersed with Robinson's attractive, realistic watercolors. But while it is stated that the crowd is to have numbered 20,000 at Gettysburg, the illustrations give the impression of a much smaller group. A map, which shows the North and South in blue and gray respectively, doesn't include state names. Also, no sources are listed. While readers will certainly enjoy the very human portrayal of Lincoln, it is doubtful whether the larger historical issues will be made clear to them.
AROUND THE WORLD IN A HUNDRED YEARS: FROM HENRY THE NAVIGATOR TO MAGELLAN (1994)
Publishers Weekly (review date 24 January 1994)
SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 241, no. 4 (24 January 1994): 57.
Noted biographer and historian Fritz (Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt ) offers a wickedly funny look [in Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan ] at 10 explorers who, between 1421 and 1522, ventured into what contemporaneous mapmakers called the Unknown. While presenting the salient facts, Fritz approaches them with playful irreverence; accordingly, the frequently traveled material can seem refreshingly new. Discussing Amerigo Vespucci, she writes, "Some give him credit for recognizing a continent when he saw one. Others call [him] an out-and-out faker." This tone proves especially effective when Fritz addresses such problematic issues as the treatment of native people and the often accidental nature of many of the discoveries. Reflecting the humor of Fritz's text, [Anthony Bacon] Venti's lighthearted black-and-white drawings use subtle strokes, as in a picture of Balboa, heavily in debt, stowed away on a ship and peering out from the barrel he'd hidden inside. Readable, attractive maps begin each chapter, providing useful visual references for each voyager's route. Ages 7-11.
Mary Bahr Fritts (review date May-June 1994)
SOURCE: Fritts, Mary Bahr. Five Owls 8, no. 5 (May-June 1994): 108.
Ages 7-11 In a Publishers Weekly article, historian/biographer Jean Fritz remarked on writing her recent China's Long March that "interviewing living people is a whole different experience than figuring out the lives of dead people." Her new title [Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan ] finds her back among those long gone, examining the lives of European navigators (1421-1522) who braved new worlds. Fritz's history gives readers details that stick in the mind (Newfoundland trees from which the masts of ships were built, Madiera fires smoldering for seven years), descriptions that sing (armies on the march, a wilderness of water) and characters with pizazz (King John of Good Memory, Count Fist-in-the-Face), promising readers the person, if not the hero. None of these ten who braved the unknown where "water boiled, people burned black and ships caught fire" fulfills hero requirements. Portraits of brave explorers flawed as the rest of humanity (Prince Henry the Slaver and Balboa the Bankrupt) roll off the pages like the waves that pounded their ships. Despite the page-turner quality, the read is not comfortable. These are not the heroes introduced in history texts. But then, as Fritz has explained elsewhere, "history is a slippery business."
While most biographers choose their subjects, Fritz asserts that her subjects find her. She then squares off with subjects through in-depth research, revealing the story that's already there and suggesting (through the use of such words as perhaps) what research merely infers. Her flat-out message in this book seems to be showing the intent of royalty, clergy, and navigator to discover lands, spice routes, gold and peoples to convert to the ways of God, Spain, and Portugal. But it's her underlying truth, thinly masked by twist of phrase, that breathes life into history: "Prince Henry was always interested in empty islands".…"sometimes a mapmaker hated to change a map that was selling well".…"When Ponce de Leon and his men left Florida's fountain [of youth], they were just as old as when they'd come." Other tidbits too tasty to toss are added in a notes section, followed by bibliography and index.
[Anthony Bacon] Venti's colorful jacket art snares the reader. So do his black and white drawings, oftentimes as irreverent as the text. Illustrated maps of each navigator's world introduce the chapters; their overlapping routes are traced on the endpapers. The maps, however, only indicate major land areas, leaving readers to wonder where might be Prince Henry's Azores or Columbus's Antilles.
Only once does Fritz show when suggesting might be more in order. The question posed in Chapter 1, "Why didn't the Europeans navigate earlier?" is answered too simply. "Christians thought it was sacrilegious to be curious. Anything people wanted to know could be found in the Bible … and Europeans went on thinking like this for over one-thousand years." Undoubtedly there were many "too small" minds, but perhaps these minds were not only God-fearing but also illiterate and fearing the unknown; perhaps there were also too small ships, too primitive technology (no instrument yet measured longitude), and too unwilling royalty (why tie up riches in ships that might be lost at sea?).
Once again, Fritz covers well the subject that has chosen her, showing how Europeans grew to have a sense of the whole world. One can only imagine what size that nudge from the past must have been this time.
Mary M. Burns (review date July-August 1994)
Burns, Mary M. Horn Book Magazine 70, no. 4 (July-August 1994): 471.
No one is better than Jean Fritz at making history interesting as well as comprehensible. She has the ability to define a theme, support it with facts, and transform a collection of data into a synthesis that reads like an adventure story. As the first chapter [in Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan ] makes clear, the fourteenth-century view of the world was, to say the least, misleading; Fritz summarizes this view and also indicates the economic, political, and social factors which stimulated interest in exploration. Succeeding chapters, arranged in chronological succession, examine the voyages of Prince Henry the Navigator, Bartholomew Diaz, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvares Cabral, John Cabot, Amerigo Vespucci, Juan Ponce de Leon, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, and Ferdinand Magellan. As always, Fritz tempers scholarship with humor, as in her description of the introduction of rabbits to the island of Porto Santo, where, lacking natural enemies, they became "armies on the munch." Nor does she minimize European attitudes toward the native peoples they encountered: "Europeans took for granted that other people were inferior because they were different, and so Europeans believed (or persuaded themselves) that they could use natives in whatever way that suited them." Thus, the voyages of exploration may be viewed with mixed emotions. Certainly, the explorers contributed much to general knowledge; unfortunately, that knowledge, gained through "cruelty, arrogance, and greed," was dearly bought. Jean Fritz has effectively captured these complex concepts in a brief volume, once again focusing on her subject with wit and passionate attention. Bibliography and index.
Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst (review date August 1994)
SOURCE: Whitehurst, Lucinda Snyder. School Library Journal 40, no. 8 (August 1994): 162.
Gr 4-7—A look at "the first great wave of European exploration" (1421-1522) through brief portraits of various participants. Fritz does many things well here [in Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan ]. She writes with ease and humor, including details that add color and humanity to historical figures, and skillfully incorporates research into her narrative. She presents the heroic aspects of the voyages, as well as evidence of the arrogance, cruelty, and greed many of these men displayed. Despite all the good attributes, the book suffers because of the complexity of the subject matter. By including so many different individuals, the issue becomes complicated; after a while, the Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese names start to run together. Some of the men's lifetimes and discoveries overlap, which makes it even more difficult to sort out who did what … and when. The illustrations are beautiful, entertaining, Renaissance-inspired pencil drawings. They include many amusing touches, such as the island of Porto Santo being overtaken by rabbits, but because they are in black and white and almost too finely drawn, they do not have a great deal of child appeal. A map at the beginning of each chapter shows the explorer's route. An outline of the continents appears on the end papers, but there aren't enough world maps throughout the book to enable readers to get a more complete picture of how the "discovered" countries fit into the world as a whole. The text is not straightforward enough for reports, but interested readers may enjoy perusing these tales of adventure and scientific discovery.
Evelyn B. Freeman, Barbara A. Lehman, and Patricia L. Scharer (review date November 1995)
SOURCE: Freeman, Evelyn B., Barbara A. Lehman, and Patricia L. Scharer. "Journeys." Reading Teacher 49, no. 3 (November 1995): 248.
Books have the power to take readers on many kinds of journeys. We can travel into the past, explore new places, journey to the other side of the world, or rocket beyond the earth by opening up a book and stepping inside as we read. This month, we offer rides to many intriguing places, times, and situations as we journey through books together. The final stop in this column is a tour through recent holiday books just right for the season. Climb aboard!
Past and present explorations
Books on our first stop widen and sharpened children's experiences as they journey through history.
In Around the World in a Hundred Years, Jean Fritz helps readers journey around the globe from 1421 to 1522 to demonstrate how the boundaries of the Western world were explored and enlarged. Readers learn about the motivations, misconceptions, personalities, accomplishments, and mistakes of great explorers such as Columbus, Diaz, Cabot, and Magellan. Anthony Bacon Venti's pencil collages begin each chapter with clear maps, dates, names, and explorer portraits to enhance readers' understanding of each explorer and his contribution. Ages 8+.
Reading Teacher (review date November 1995)
SOURCE: Reading Teacher 49, no. 3 (November 1995): 240.
Fritz [in Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan] makes early explorers like Columbus, Vespucci, and Magellan come alive in the reader's mind with tales that are not forgotten. As their ships sailed for the unknown, sailors were not sure if they would be lost forever in a world of doom or come home to their families. But their explorations of unknown lands (at least from the European perspectives) gave the world more accurate maps. [Anthony Bacon] Venti's illustrations help the reader travel with these brave men. CU: History becomes more realistic as students enjoy the perspective of Fritz's humorous tales. As students examine early maps and notes from the author, they can discuss geography and early explorations with more specificity. Especially good for comparison of maps from the 1400s with today's versions (from space perhaps).
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE AND THE BEECHER PREACHERS (1994)
Mary M. Burns (review date fall 1994)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Horn Book Guide 5, no. 2 (fall 1994): 383.
4-6 Although he preferred sons to daughters—boys could be raised to be preachers—Stowe's famous preacher father had an influence on her life, which manifested itself in her intense desire to convince people of the evils of slavery. Written with vivacity and insight, this readable and engrossing biography [Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers ] is an important contribution to women's history as well as the history of American letters.
Hazel Rochman (review date August 1994)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Booklist 90, no. 22 (August 1994): 2036.
Gr. 5-9. Uncle Tom's Cabin was America's first protest novel, "the first book written against a law" and a runaway best-seller in its time. This biography [Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers ] is less about Stowe's famous book than it is about her life and times as a woman in an eminent family in the mid-nineteenth century. Fritz writes with verve and wit, admiring but never fulsome, creating a sense of her subject's complicated personality. We feel the young woman's ongoing struggle between her domestic and public roles (Would she seem "unwomanly" writing about politics? Would she embarrass her brothers?), and we see how she changed her definition of the feminine role, telling women that in a time of slavery, it was no longer appropriate for them to be silent and "genteel." Fritz writes with quiet irony about the extremes of this bossy, preachy family ("Like all the Beechers, she enjoyed telling people what to do"). The research is unobtrusive; in fact, although there's a bibliography, it's frustrating at times to have no source notes. How can we find out more about particular incidents? Where can we read about Stowe's legendary interview with Lincoln, for example? Many kids will be stimulated to go on from here to find out more about the famous novel; how it was read then, the controversy surrounding it now, especially with regard to the caricature of Uncle Tom. Fritz quietly dramatizes a momentous truth: this woman wrote a book that, for all its flaws, changed the world.
Publishers Weekly (review date 8 August 1994)
SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 241, no. 32 (8 August 1994): 450.
Fritz (Around the World in a Hundred Years ) is justly celebrated for her ability to combine wry humor with the salient stories about the subjects of her many biographies. She scores another success with this lively book [Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers ] about the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Fritz's picture of Stowe, however, isn't so much that of an influential writer as it is of a woman struggling to make her voice heard in a family where boys were seen as assets and girls as, simply, not boys. The Beechers, headed by the prominent, iron-willed preacher Lyman Beecher, were both an influential and a tragic family, and they shaped many areas of American thinking and politics. Fritz captures their public and private careers magnificently, in the process unfolding the major events of the Civil War. At the same time, Stowe remains firmly at the center of this well-researched book, and her transformation—from a restless young woman too shy to use her own name in print to a confident speaker whom Lincoln once called "the little lady who started the great big war"—shines through. Illustrations not seen by PW. Ages 10-14.
Elizabeth Stumpf (review date March 1995)
SOURCE: Stumpf, Elizabeth. Book Report 13, no. 5 (March 1995): 46.
Grades 6-12. Fritz has written a lively story [Harriet Beecher Stowe & the Beecher Preachers ]of an interesting, determined woman. Harriet's father, Lyman Beecher, was a famous preacher who cherished his seven sons because he desired to be the patriarch of a large family of preachers. He felt his three daughters had a limited future since they were females. The book is a collective biography of the entire Beecher family with focus on the family's abolitionist views and Harriet's writing opposing slavery. The book provides a glimpse of family life and a woman's role in the 1800s. Harriet's fame after Uncle Tom's Cabin was published made her a celebrity across the United States and in Europe, but she came home to household drudgery and financial distress. She continued to write throughout most of her life, selling her works to pay the family's bills. Fritz provides a genealogical chart of the Beecher family and a summary of the life of each of the Beechers. The book will be of use to students looking for an interesting biography or seeking material for reports about pre-Civil War America and the abolitionist movement. Highly Recommended.
YOU WANT WOMEN TO VOTE, LIZZIE STANTON? (1995)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 August 1995)
SOURCE: Kirkus Reviews 63, no. 15 (1 August 1995): 1109.
The early women's rights and suffrage advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton is the focus of a readable, accessible biography [You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? ]. She comes alive for middle graders in a narrative with almost novelistic pacing, a dose of humor, and an affectionate point of view. Fritz (Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers, 1994) vividly relates how Stanton, early on, felt the sting of injustice in being a girl, and that even her own father was sorry she was not a boy. As an adult, she was drawn into an iconoclastic circle of friends that included Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony. By making clear that many of the early supporters of rights for women were also strongly anti-slavery, Fritz leads readers almost effortlessly through such important events as the Seneca Falls (New York) Convention in 1848, the impact of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, and Reconstruction and the post-Civil War 19th century.
Lively, enjoyable fare from a reliable and expert storyteller. (10-14)
Publishers Weekly (review date 28 August 1995)
SOURCE: Publishers Weekly 242, no. 35 (28 August 1995): 114.
Fritz maintains her reputation for fresh and lively historical writing with this biography [You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? ] of the 19th-century American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), imparting to her readers not just a sense of Stanton's accomplishments but a picture of the greater society Stanton strove to change. Stanton is first introduced in girlhood, mastering task after task in a futile effort to prove to her father that she was "just as good as any boy." Brightly told anecdotes tell of the adult Stanton's excitement in rousing audiences to concern for women's rights; Fritz sets the background by outlining the prevailing social sanctions against women speaking in public. She explores Stanton's responsibilities in raising seven children; her unconventional marriage; her long collaboration with Susan B. Anthony; her attempts to cope with dissension within the women's rights movement. Throughout, the author stresses Stanton's pluck and verve, quoting Stanton's sharp comebacks to "apple-headed" men or showing Stanton during the statewide celebration of her 80th birthday, using the attention to excoriate the church for its backwardness ("Susan must have groaned," Fritz conjectures). Highly entertaining and enlightening. Ages 10-14.
Rebecca O'Connell (review date September 1995)
SOURCE: O'Connell, Rebecca. School Library Journal 41, no. 9 (September 1995): 208.
Gr 3-6—Fritz applies her gift for creating engaging, thorough historical literature to a larger-than-life historical figure [in You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? ]. Stanton was a radical among radicals, and this objective depiction of her life and times, as well as her work for women's rights, makes readers feel invested in her struggle. An appealing, full-page black-and-white drawing illustrates each chapter. For students who need a biography, this title should fly off the shelves with a minimum of booktalking. And it is so lively that it is equally suitable for leisure reading.
Mary M. Burns (review date January-February 1996)
Burns, Mary M. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 1 (January-February 1996): 89-90.
As Jean Fritz demonstrates in her inimitable style [You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton? ], Lizzie Stanton not only wanted women to vote but, in her passion to secure that right, helped to change history as well as make it. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, the subject of an earlier biography by Fritz, Elizabeth Cady realized early in life that "girls didn't count for much." Unable to wring praise from her father, despite her efforts to be as capable as any boy, she challenged the establishment again and again during her long life until, finally, at eighty-five, she was hailed as the "Grand Old Woman of America." But her triumph was not easy, as Fritz's telling selection of details shows. She eloped with the romantic abolitionist Henry Stanton but altered the wedding ceremony to eliminate the phrase "to obey"; she was one of the prime movers in the famous Seneca Falls convention of 1848 but also made it a point to publicly celebrate the births of her children; shy at first about public speaking, she soon became a dynamic presence on any platform. Despite opposition from her husband as well as society, she attempted to realize her full potential as a person. With remarkable clarity, sensitivity, and momentum, Fritz has captured—but never imprisoned—her spirit in an accessible, fascinating portrait. With notes and a selective bibliography.
WHY NOT, LAFAYETTE? (1999)
Randy Meyer (review date 15 September 1999)
SOURCE: Meyer, Randy. Booklist 96, no. 2 (15 September 1999): 253.
Gr. 5-8. Fritz returns with another of her lively biographies [Why Not, Lafayette? ], chock-full of quotes, anecdotes, and wry humor. This time she examines the life of General Lafayette, the young French leader who was an instrumental figure in the American Revolution. After the briefest mention of his childhood, she jumps straight to 1777, when the 20-year-old marquis set sail for the colonies to offer his military services. Fritz does a solid job of documenting his role fighting for democracy both in the U.S. and in France, and she is a master at bringing the small moments to life. Less successful are her attempts at condensing events of the Revolution: descriptions of Benedict Arnold's treason and Lafayette's victory in Yorktown are sketchy and undramatic, and they may confuse readers without much prior knowledge of the events. The biography hits its highest point in the closing chapters, as Lafayette returns to America for a final visit. Her portrait of the aging general welcomed by cheering crowds and old friends is an emotional climax to an account well told. Illustrations by Ronald Himler add to the atmosphere, and notes and a bibliography are appended.
Margaret A. Bush (review date 15 November 1999)
SOURCE: Bush, Margaret A. Horn Book Magazine 75, no. 6 (15 November 1999): 756.
(Intermediate) In this lively account of Lafayette's lifelong championing of the principles of democracy [Why Not, Lafayette? ], Jean Fritz depicts a man of intelligence, enthusiasm, leadership, and a great capacity for friendship and love. The phrase "Why not?" representing Lafayette's willingness to venture, was a motto he had adopted for his family crest from an ancestor who had fought alongside Joan of Arc. Fritz uses the question adroitly to punctuate moments of decision throughout her chronological account of Lafayette's long military and political career in America and in France. She also develops a useful theme about dreams of glory, carefully expanding this idea to suggest idealism rather than ambition. A quick sketch of Lafayette's aristocratic upbringing moves into his journey to America at the age of nineteen, his rapid assumption of military leadership, and his special friendship with Washington that was to last a lifetime. The war years are the longest, most absorbing part of the story, and the culminating account of Lafayette's widely celebrated two-year tour of America near the end of his life punctuates the vitality of this uncommon individual and the great fame he achieved in his adopted country. The long intervening years of imprisonment and political ups and downs in France nicely reveal the maturing of the man, though the events make for less interesting reading. Ronald Himler's full-page drawings provide helpful views of the important players and of time and place, and a brief set of author's notes and a bibliography are included.
Elizabeth Bush (review date December 1999)
SOURCE: Bush, Elizabeth. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 53, no. 4 (December 1999): 128.
Gr. 3-6—Once again Fritz musters her considerable gifts of wit and verve to resuscitate a Revolutionary War hero in danger of death-by-textbook-prose [in Why Not, Lafayette? ]. In her capable hands, the Marquis de Lafayette emerges as a nineteen-year-old stifled by three years of marriage, bubbling with enthusiasm for the heady eighteenth-century concept of republican government, and aching for a life of action with the promise of personal glory. Never resorting to speculative dialogue or similar trappings of fictionalized history, Fritz manages to convey the ardor of Lafayette's admiration for General Washington, his rivalries with fellow officers, the outspoken temperament and noisy convictions that imperiled his life during the French Revolution, his late-blooming love for his devoted wife, and his humble gratitude and childlike delight over his American tour at the fiftieth anniversary of the American Revolution. [Ronald] Himler's black-and-white full-page sketches impart the dignity due a hero while eschewing the reverence of traditional portraiture that so often fossilizes the Founders. Vive Lafayette. Vive Fritz.
Marlene Gawron (review date December 1999)
SOURCE: Gawron, Marlene. School Library Journal 45, no. 12 (December 1999): 149-50.
Gr 5-8—In an informal yet informative narrative [Why Not, Lafayette? ], Fritz presents the life of the French nobleman who came to espouse the democratic cause and worked toward achieving it. He not only fought successfully in the American Revolution, and proved himself as a leader of men, but also participated in advancing freedom in his own country and freed slaves in French territories. The author recounts the Marquis's full and honorable life, which spanned many important events in history including the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon. There is a lot of history contained in a little over 70 pages but despite its brevity, the book provides a great deal of information. A background knowledge of the time is useful to understanding some of the events fully. A well-executed, full-page pencil drawing appears in every chapter and serves to enliven the presentation. This competently written and documented title will not disappoint Fritz's many fans.
Gary Schmidt (review date March-April 2000)
SOURCE: Schmidt, Gary. Five Owls 14, no. 4 (March-April 2000): 98-9.
Ages 8-12 The distinctive biographies of Jean Fritz have changed the face of biography for children through their narrative voice, their acute perception, their strict and interpretive focus, their rigorous attention to researched detail. In Why Not, Lafayette? Fritz brings those very same qualities to bear, yielding yet another biography of a figure who, though not American in terms of citizenship, saw himself as American in spirit. This is a biography whose brisk narrative pace keeps the reader turning the pages, whose clear structure makes sense of a rather complicated life, and whose organizing theme presents a fascinating interpretation of a man.
As with so many of her books, the title of this one suggests Fritz's interpretation. Lafayette is a man who is willing to try just about anything—and so he leaves for America to become a general when he is nineteen years old and performs daring feats during the battles in support of George Washington. But even more important, Fritz paints him as a man who is devoted to the cause of liberty, a devotion that is born in America, which he brings back to France, and for which he fights both during and after the French Revolution, despite numerous betrayals and disappointments.
As always, Fritz's eye for the apt historical detail dazzles, particularly during her description of the year Lafayette spent touring America, feted and honored by all. She picks the tiny details to suggest much about the man and his relationships: the elderly Thomas Jefferson hobbling to meet and embrace him at Monticello; his first bowl of ice cream in Wiscasset, Maine; his little white dog lost overboard in the Mississippi; the veteran of the Revolution who opens his shirt to show Lafayette the scar he received, and Lafayette's immediate tears in response. These are the kinds of documented details Fritz has always used to show broader understanding of the subject of her work.
Lafayette's is a complicated life, and the revolutionary situations in America and France even more complicated contexts for that life. But Fritz handles these with adeptness, shifting setting as Lafayette shifted it and establishing enough context to help the reader perceive the meaning of Lafayette's participation. And always she returns to the central perception of Lafayette as a man who will dare anything, particularly in the cause of liberty. In a culture that has lost the notion of heroes, here is a man universally recognized as a hero in his own time and whom Fritz holds out to us as someone who should still be honored for his role in attaining America's independence.
Reading Teacher (review date November 2000)
SOURCE: "Voices." Reading Teacher 54, no. 3 (November 2000): 339.
As a writer seeking lively material for stories and poems, Ralph Fletcher has discovered "the past has a way of reverberating in the present" (1996, p. 47). When readers make connections between what they read and their own lives, a bridge between past and present is built. This connection is more accessible when books capture the voices of history through memorable characters. Literature that keeps alive long-ago events, stirs up strong feelings, and pays tribute to the echo of that time, lingers in readers' minds and venerates the past.
Jean Fritz is known for her colorful and interesting biographies of figures in U.S. history. Why Not, Lafayette? relates a Revolutionary War hero's story. Lafayette was bored with his life as a court nobleman and longed for glory. At the age of 19, he bought a ship and sailed to join the American colonists in their fight against Britain. Upon arriving in the colonies, the young man became a dedicated admirer of George Washington and gained a leadership role in the Continental Army. When Lafayette returned to France, he continued his passion for politics and was imprisoned for 5 years when he attempted to instill his ideals of liberty in his native country. Pencil drawings by Ronald Himler highlight each chapter's events, while endnotes and a bibliography document resources.
LEONARDO'S HORSE (2001)
Anne Chapman Callaghan (review date September 2001)
SOURCE: Callaghan, Anne Chapman. School Library Journal 47, no. 9 (September 2001): 214.
Gr 3-6—At times sad, silly, and telling, this is a wholly entertaining book [Leonardo's Horse ]. Not only a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, it also introduces another artist/dreamer—Charlie Dent. Although separated by centuries, the two men had a common dream—to create a giant horse for Milan. War and rain helped to ruin Leonardo's original clay work, and he died mourning what might have been. By the 1990s, Dent's efforts to create the horse paid off and the statue, a huge wonder, was presented to Italy. Biographical details of Leonardo's life are mentioned and much of his work is shown throughout the volume, including sketches of the statue. [Hudson] Talbott's mixed-media artwork enhances the engaging text. The Duke of Milan is portrayed gaping at Leonardo's clay model, scarcely able to believe the greatness of it, and there is an informative page of pictures detailing the creation of the statue in eight steps. In one illustration, the artist appears in the center of his Last Supper, attempting to draw Judas, while humorous caricatures fill the bottom of the page. Although there are quite a few books about Leonardo, none delve so deeply into the history of the statue. Even the design of the book is unique. A title that is sure to create a lot of interest among young art, history, and horse lovers.
Joanna Rudge Long (review date September-October 2001)
Long, Joanna Rudge. Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 5 (September-October 2001): 609-10.
In 1482, Leonardo da Vinci began work on a mammoth bronze horse. But though he completed a twenty-four-foot clay model, it was never cast, and the invading French destroyed it in 1499. Meanwhile, the artist's patron, the Duke of Milan, commandeered the bronze for armaments. Half a millennium later, retired pilot Charles Dent dedicated himself to recreating Leonardo's dream, a venture eventually realized with the help of sculptor Nina Akamu. Fritz relates all this in her signature forthright style [Leonardo's Horse]; unfortunately, her narrative, while engaging, begs several questions-notably, how much of Leonardo's original conception survived and how this twentieth-century homage was extrapolated from it. (The book does list a website that states that the completed sculpture is "faithful to Leonardo da Vinci's drawings," but there are otherwise no notes.) Nor does Fritz ever mention the original statue's role as a symbol of political power, or Leonardo's fascination with an engineering problem-casting such a massive figure-that may have been insoluble with technology available to him. Talbott's handsome illustrations are beautifully set off by the book's diecut shape, which echoes both the dome that dominated fifteenth-century Florence and the one Dent constructed to house his project. But the art is no more forthcoming than the text. Talbott segues between Leonardo's sketches and his own impressionistic watercolors without a word of explanation. What is the reader to make of Talbott's Last Supper, in grisaille save for Leonardo himself, sitting in for Jesus as he tosses about his rejected sketches of Judas? Why is there no photograph of the finished horse? "At last Leonardo's horse was home," Fritz concludes. But what exactly makes it Leonardo's? That question is never addressed here.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 September 2001)
SOURCE: Kirkus Reviews 69, no. 18 (15 September 2001): 1357-358.
A veteran writer of lively biographies has turned her attention to quite an engaging story [in Leonardo's Horse ]: the biography of an equine sculpture. She starts with Leonardo da Vinci and his fascination with everything—drawing, sketching, writing, and musing—and with making: sculpture, weapons, even party tricks. He made a 24-foot-high clay model of a horse for the Duke of Milan, but before it could be cast, French archers and rain destroyed it. This haunted Leonardo for the rest of his life. It haunted American Charles Dent in the 1970s, also, and he vowed to produce Leonardo's horse as a gift from the American people to the people of Italy. He died in 1994, but sculptor Nina Akamu and a host of others kept his promise. In typical Fritz (Why Not, Lafayette?, 1999) fashion, her story is filled with engaging details of Leonardo's personality and his world. Likewise, the contemporary process by which the horse was created and cast is described with enough detail to fascinate but not to bore. [Hudson] Talbott (Forging Freedom, 2000) uses mixed media and collage to create his illustrations, which range from utterly recognizable scenes of Florence to the ghostly horses at Leonardo's deathbed. The contemporary images are drawn with as much spirit and vitality as the Renaissance ones. An unusual biography for young people, and one well worth poring over, its format is also noteworthy. It has a rounded top, giving the artist ample opportunity for the dome under which the horse was built as well as a chance to explore a unique way of picturing a unique world. Together, Fritz and Talbott have forged an extraordinary tribute to two dreamers 500 years apart. (7-12)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton (review date 17 September 2001)
Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton. Publishers Weekly 248 no. 38 (17 September 2001): 80.
Fritz (And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? ) again calls upon her informal yet informative style to spotlight a scintillating sliver of history, recounted in two related tales. Her narrative [Leonardo's Horse] opens as the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, earns a commission from the duke of Milan to create a sculpture to honor the duke's father—a bronze horse three times larger than life. Though this creative genius spent years on the project, he died without realizing his dream and, writes Fritz, "It was said that even on his deathbed, Leonardo wept for his horse." The author then fast-forwards to 1977: an American named Charles Dent vows to create the sculpture and make it a gift from the American people to the residents of Italy. How his goal was accomplished (alas, posthumously) makes for an intriguing tale that Fritz deftly relays. Talbott's (Forging Freedom) diverse multimedia artwork includes reproductions of da Vinci's notebooks, panoramas revealing the Renaissance in lavish detail and majestic renderings of the final equine sculpture. Talbott makes creative use of the book's format-a rectangle topped by a semi-circle: the rounded space by turns becomes a window through which da Vinci views a cloud shaped like a flying horse; the domed building that was Dent's studio and gallery; and a globe depicting the route the bronze horse travels on its way from the U.S. to Italy: An inventive introduction to the Renaissance and one of its masters.
Deborah Stevenson (essay date October 2001)
SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 55, no. 2 (October 2001): 55-6.
Gr. 4-7 Though this starts with a brisk and spirited overview of Leonardo's life, this isn't a biography [Leonardo's Horse ]; it's an examination of one of Leonardo's projects, which took five centuries for fulfillment. Leonardo studied and planned for the creation of a huge bronze horse "three times larger than life," analyzing the technical problems ("No one had tried a single pouring of anything this large") and completing the clay model—but never achieving the actual bronze casting. Come the twentieth century, an art lover named Charlie Dent decided that Leonardo's horse deserved completion, planning a model and creating a dome that would house the finished object; when he died of ALS just before completion, the Dome supporters brought in a talented sculptor who realized that the horse needed redesign from scratch and who completed the task in time for Leonardo's horse finally to be delivered to the people of Milan 500 years to the day of the destruction of Leonardo's original clay model. This is an unusual and surprisingly touching story of a cumulative collaboration ("On the pupil of one eye of the horse, Nina had written in tiny letters Leonardo da Vinci. On the other eye she had written Charles Dent. She had put her own name in the curly mane of the horse"), and it also raises some interesting questions for discussion (how much, for instance, is it still Leonardo's horse?). [Hudson] Talbott's mixed-media art takes advantage of the book's arched shape (echoing the horse's Dome home), and it adds information as well as beauty, with diagrams and maps inserted where appropriate and a plethora of equestrian studies and models trotting through the pages. He's fair about the drawbacks in Charlie Dent's rendition, but he's also effective at capturing the spirit throughout all the horse's incarnations. For art lovers or just fans of quixotic dreams, this will be an off-beat and intriguing read. An author's note and appended information gives more detail on benefactors, the process, and the website of the organization behind the sculpture.
Carolyn Phelan (review date 15 October 2001)
SOURCE: Phelan, Carolyn. Booklist 98, no. 4 (15 October 2001): 394.
Gr. 4-7. The first part of this unusual book [Leonardo's Horse ] presents the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci, highlighting his work on a monumental statue of a horse, which, despite many sketches and the making, in 1493, of a 24-foot-high clay model, was never cast in bronze as planned. The story begins again in 1977, when American art lover Charles Dent read about Leonardo's horse. He dreamed of completing the statue and presenting it to the people of Italy from the people of America. Although Dent died in 1994, the work went on until sculptor Nina Akamu completed the statue, which was unveiled in Milan in 1999, 500 years after the destruction of the original clay sculpture. Combining biography, history, and art, Fritz's absorbing text is both a lively introduction to Leonardo and a tribute to Dent. The curious shape of the book—rectangular at the bottom and rounded at the top—is reminiscent of the silhouette of a domed building, and illustrator [Hudson] Talbott makes good use of the irregularly shaped pages in his pleasing and occasionally dramatic illustrations, which are done in watercolor, pen-and-ink, colored pencils, and collage. A memorable choice for reading aloud.
Heather Vogel Frederick (essay date 22 October 2001)
SOURCE: Frederick, Heather Vogel. "Leonardo's Horse." Publishers Weekly 248, no. 43 (22 October 2001): 25-6.
[In the following essay, Frederick recounts how Fritz became interested in writing about da Vinci's dream of casting a magnificent horse for Milan.]
This story begins with a Sunday drive and a phone call.
No, wait, back up—it really begins some 400 years ago, with Leonardo da Vinci's dream of a magnificent horse cast in bronze, a dream that was never realized. Fast-forward to 1977, when art lover Charles Dent read about the Renaissance artist's life-long passion and decided to use da Vinci's sketches to bring it to fruition, which he did in 1999.
Author Jean Fritz, who lives in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., not too far from the Tallix Foundry where the larger-than-life statue was cast, had a house guest that June. "My interest in writing about it wasn't intentional at all," she notes. "I was working on another project at the time." But looking around for something to do with her friend one Sunday afternoon, she learned that, prior to being shipped to its permanent home in Milan, the completed statue would be on display at the foundry.
"From the top of the hill as we drove down, I saw this horse in the meadow in front of the foundry," she recalls. "It was so majestic, so wonderful—it looked like a mythological horse ready to fly away. I said, 'Oh my gosh, that belongs in a book.'"
Fritz searched the crowd to find who was in charge, and spotted Charles Dent's son Peter answering questions. "I went up to him and said, 'This horse belongs in a picture book, and I'd like to put it there!'"
Dent greeted her request with polite skepticism. "He said, 'Well, I'll send my children to school tomorrow to see if they have any of your books at the library.'" Fritz pauses, then laughs. "They came back with about 30, so I guess he decided I'd be all right."
Fritz's longtime editor Margaret Frith was "immediately enthusiastic," says Fritz, and Leonardo's Horse was off and running. Meanwhile, the hunt for an illustrator began.
Coincidentally, artist Hudson Talbott was traveling overseas at the time. "I had a layover in Milan," he recalls, "and tried to figure out a way to see this monumental horse, but there wasn't enough time." When he returned home, a phone message from Frith was waiting for him, asking whether he'd be interested in collaborating on a picture book about Leonardo's horse. "It was Kismet," he says, "and of course I jumped at it."
For acclaimed biographer Fritz, the project offered an opportunity to get to know yet another historical figure. She immersed herself in research ("I knew Leonardo, but not well enough yet") and ultimately traveled to Milan, where she attended the unveiling of the statue. "I had never been to Italy, so it was a marvelous adventure," she says.
Fritz says she is particularly fond of the illustration in the book that shows Leonardo's discarded sketches for Judas for his painting The Last Supper. "Hudson actually went to Leonardo's notebooks, and used the pictures of the ugly men he sketched when he was trying to paint Judas."
Leonardo never did find his Judas, it turns out. "And I didn't see him either," quips Fritz, who says she kept a sharp lookout when she was in Milan.
For Italophile Talbott, who was raised in Kentucky and attended the Tyler School of Art in Rome, the project "brought my two big loves together, horses and art." It also marked the first time he illustrated someone else's text. "It was a new thing for me, and it was fun," he says.
The process, he continues, "is not necessarily easier, but you do have the great advantage of responding and reacting to material rather than just purely pulling something out of the ether."
Collaborating can be a little tricky, too, he discovered—especially when he got the idea of using a diecut to turn the top third of the book into an arch (to echo Italian Renaissance architecture, as well as the dome Dent built to accommodate the horse's creation). "Margaret was the liaison between Jean and me when I started coming in with these odd ideas." he says, "particularly the die-cut, which meant trimming Jean's manuscript to accommodate the shape of the book. Fortunately, I have a great editor and a great art director [Cecilia Yung], who were willing to listen to whatever wacky ideas I came in with. And from what I understand, Jean was excited about what I was conceptualizing, too."
Indeed. From the book's unusual shape to the bronze endpapers and bronze foil letters on the cover (another Talbott innovation), Fritz is equally delighted with the end result. "Hudson and I are clearly on the same wavelength, and I just love it," she says of the finished book. "It exceeds all of my hopes."
Fritz, Jean. "Meet the Author/Illustrator: Jean Fritz," February 2000. <http://www.cbcbooks.org/html/jeanfritz.html.
Fritz explains why she writes about history.
Beauregard, Sue-Ellen. Booklist 96, no. 16 (15 April 2000): 1558.
Favorable review of Who's That Stepping on Plymouth Rock?
Burns, Mary M. Horn Book Magazine 70, no. 5 (September-October 1994): 606-07.
Complimentary review of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers.
Bush, Margaret A. Horn Book Magazine 11, no. 1 (spring 2000): 156.
Positive review of Why Not, Lafayette?
Kirkus Reviews 67, no. 19 (1 October 1999): 1579.
Favorable review of Why Not, Lafayette?
Lawrence, Rachel. Kliatt 35, no. 2 (March 2001): 5.
Favorable review of The Double Life of Pocahontas.
Margolis, Sally. School Library Journal 40, no. 9 (September 1994): 227.
Complimentary review of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers.
Phelan, Carolyn. Booklist 90, no. 18 (15 May 1994): 1676.
Favorable review of Around the World in a Hundred Years: From Henry the Navigator to Magellan.
Publishers Weekly 240, no. 38 (20 September 1993): 72-3.
Favorable review of Just a Few Words, Mr. Lincoln: The Story of the Gettysburg Address.
Publishers Weekly 245, no. 39 (28 September 1998): 52.
Brief review of Who's That Stepping on Plymouth Rock?
Savage, Marsha K., and Tom V. Savage. "Children's Literature in Middle School Social Studies." Social Studies 84, no. 1 (January 1993): 32-6.
Savage illustrates how Fritz's Homesick: My Own Story can be utilized to teach cultural studies, geographical skills, history and economic concepts.
Sherman, Gale W. School Library Journal 38, no. 10 (October 1992): 103.
Favorable review of George Washington's Mother.
Thomas, Kristi L. School Library Journal 28, no. 9 (May 1982): 52.
Unfavorable review of The Good Giants and the Bad Pukwudgies.
Tunnell, Michael O. "Books in the Classroom: Columbus and Historical Perspective." Horn Book Magazine 68, no. 2 (March 1992): 244-47.
Brief mention of Where Do You Think You're Going, Christopher Columbus?
Additional coverage of Fritz's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 3, 14; Children's Literature Review, Vols.2,14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 5, 16, 37, 97; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 52; Junior DISCovering Authors ; Literature Resource Center ; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 29, 72, 119, 122; and Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 2.