Local History and Family Stories

This month we are shamelessly self-promoting.
We are thrilled to announce the publication of Carol Hurst's first two books for children.

Through the Lock
Historical Novel
"Part historical fiction, part survival adventure, this story will grab readers from the first page. Etta and Walter's terse conversations, anguished and funny, are the best part of the book, and the history is fascinating, including what the canal means to the community."
- - Booklist starred review
Find out more at http://www.carolhurst.com/titles/throughthelock.html

Rocks in His Head
Historical Picture Book illustrated by James Stevenson
Leo loves rock collecting much to everyone's consternation. During the Depression we find that Leo's passion becomes the start of a successful career. "A big-hearted true story of a man with rocks in his head (and in his pocket), nourished by the deep humanity in Stevenson's watercolors."
-- Kirkus Reviews
Find out more at http://www.carolhurst.com/titles/rocksinhishead.html

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I've been telling the story of my father's lifelong joy in rock collecting for years. He collected rocks and minerals from the time he was a small boy and kept at it through his lifetime, not caring that others (including my mother) thought it was a waste of time. When the Great Depression brought an end to his gas station business, it was those rocks that presented him with a new and far more fulfilling career. It is, I think, an inspiring story and I told it to my own kids because they never knew my father but they tripped over rocks in boxes all over the place - souvenirs of his lifetime's passion.

I started telling audiences at my workshops about my father as a sort of introduction to books about rocks and then to books about following the dream. With those frequent retellings, the story began to take on a set form. That was the point at which I wrote it down for my grandchildren and then realized that, with a little tinkering, it could become the text for a picture book. Rocks in His Head will be released by Greenwillow Press this month with wonderful illustrations by James Stevenson (Order Info.). More about Rocks in His Head.

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My Grandmother Clark seldom told her story although she told a lot of others. When pushed for details about her own childhood, she'd say, "Oh, that was a sad time. Let's talk about something else." We knew that this wonderful woman who brought such joy to her grandchildren had had a rough beginning. She'd been an orphan and ward of the state, separated from her brother and sisters, one of whom was a child laborer in the mills, another raised in an orphanage. Very occasionally she'd talk about being shuffled from one foster home to another - always hoping for a way to get her family back together again.

Grandfather Otis was far more voluble about his childhood - at least some of it. He'd walked (not run, he insisted) away from his large family at the tender age of nine. Why he left was not to be discussed but - the adventures he had, the practical jokes he'd played, the jobs he'd undertaken - were fair game, much to the delight of his many audiences over the years.

I took those fragments of my grandparents' lives and pushed them back in time a bit so that I could use the canal that once ran through my backyard as a setting. I did a lot of research into local history about the canal and the reasons for its construction and ultimate demise. A few twists and turns along the way and the novel Through the Lock was born. That novel will be released this month from Houghton Mifflin (Order Info.). More about Through the Lock.

All that about my family's stories and our local history as sources for my new fiction writing career is by way of introduction to this month's newsletter in which we'll talk about books and activities that lead to or spring from family stories and local history.

Your work on those subjects may not lead to a novel or picture book but can become a way to reach across the curriculum and motivate meaningful research in family and local matters.

Family History

Before sending kids home to dig out their own family's stories, it might be best to start with a few published ones. Lois Lowry's Looking Back: A Book of Memories (Delacorte, 2000 ISBN 0385326998. Order Info.) is an unconventional memoir that uses family photographs to both illustrate and inspire memory. Read aloud the story she tells about finding what she thinks is a sleeping mouse on her way home from school. That should lead to some smiles if not outright laughter as she tries to warm up the dead rat in the oven at home.

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Leave that book on the table for further browsing and pick up Betsy Byars' The Moon and I (Beech Tree, 1996 ISBN 0688137040. Order Info.). Read aloud Betsy's story of her first day of school. Having heard about the wonders of Miss Harriet's room from her big sister, Betsy is sure that she will have an equally glorious time there. When teachers call out the names of the students that will be in their classes and Miss Harriet does not call out Betsy's name, Betsy remedies the situation her way. (The last line in that chapter always makes me cry). More about The Moon and I.

By reading selections from these books and others like them, you can help the kids see the human side of the writer. They can also see that family stories don't have to be dull. What they are going to try to do soon is inspire such memories in the people in their own family that they're going to interview. Ask the kids to start a list of the people they think will have some good stories.

Before you start brainstorming for interview questions to get at such stories, it might be wise to rehearse a bit. Ask the kids to describe one family member or neighbor so that the class gets some sense of the personality. Then role-play an interview with that person, using a classmate as stand-in. When you get to a dead end, get suggestions from other members of the class as to other or better questions and statements to make. Remember that you're looking for pieces, not whole life stories, for the most part. Reverse roles and let the interviewer become the interviewee. Write down what works.

Lois Lowry used photographs to prod her memory for story. Kids may find that avenue of approach will work. Maybe reading one of those chapters aloud to the prospective interviewee is a better approach. A list of questions could work or could make the interview merely a series of questions and short answers - not what they're looking for.

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Sometimes a patterned book can be used to structure an interview or to get people writing and talking. Look at Cynthia Rylant and Diane Goode's When I Was Young in the Mountains (Dutton, 1992 ISBN 0140548750. Order Info.). Invite the families to come to school for a writing night. Share that book as well as Karen Ackerman and Stephen Gammell's Song and Dance Man (Knopf, 1992 ISBN 0679819959. Order Info.). The first book deals with family life and the second concentrates on a grandfather's career. More about When I Was Young in the Mountains and Song and Dance Man. Then suggest that each family put together a story or a book about themselves or about one member of the family but the stipulation is that all family members present must participate.

This may be the time for a mini-lesson on note taking. They'll need to know how to record the important info without needlessly slowing down the interview. Even if they're going to use a tape recorder, sooner or later kids are going to have to transcribe into notes and then make the story whole again.

It may take two or three sessions for the interviews to be complete and, when they are, you need to decide what form the stories collected need to take - a book, a bulletin board display, an annotated time line, a newsletter, an oral history day, a meet the author night?

Local History

It's a short step from family history to local history. Most schools have a social studies curriculum set-up that starts locally and moves outward and using trade books is usually lots more fun than starting such a study with a textbook. James Stevenson has a series of books based on his own childhood memories that step into local history. Don't You Know There's a War On (Greenwillow, 1992 ISBN 0688113842. Order Info.) is a good one to use in the family history part if the kids are interviewing people who were around during World War II. It's also a good one to use for the local history because it brings the huge subject of the war down to its effects on one family.

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Jane Yolen and Barbara Cooney did a terrific job with Letting Swift River Go (Little Brown, 1995 ISBN 0316968609. Order Info.). The picture book tells the story of a WPA project of the 1930s that created the water supply for Boston. In so doing, it wiped out four whole towns. The book is refreshing in part because it assigns no blame; the people of Boston are not made to look like villains because they needed water and the people of the valley are not blamed for selling out. It just happened and this is the result. Although the book deals with a specific location - western Massachusetts - and a specific project - building Quabbin Reservoir, it has implications for any locality. Every area has undergone changes similar to this one and, for each change, a price has been paid. More information including activities, related books and links.

It's a short step from Quabbin Reservoir to your locality. After sharing the book, work with the class to form a list of human made landmarks in their community - anything from reservoirs to shopping malls. Then dig into old newspapers and maps of the area to find out what used to be there and why and how those landmarks came to be. Who paid the prices literally and figuratively?

Another book that looks at a body of water locally is Lynne Cherry's A River Ran Wild: An Environmental History (Harcourt, 1992 ISBN 0152005420. Order Info.). Here the subject is the Nashua River that runs through New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts. It's a wonderful book that uses the river as a microcosm of civilization and, again, the price that is paid for progress. Go from the Nashua to your nearest river and you've got the setting for your own environmental and historical study. More about A River Ran Wild.

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You don't have to stay with the picture books. Share Paul Fleischman's Borning Room (HarperTrophy, 1993 ISBN 0064470997. Order Info.). This episodic novel follows a family's history through one room in an Ohio farmhouse. It shouldn't take too much research to find the oldest house in your community. Make a time line of the major events in the world during the lifetime of that house. Would any of those events have had likely effects on the people living in that house? More about Borning Room. Such a question can lead to a lot of research and to the realization that history is a local as well as a worldwide matter. And that's the whole point, isn't it?


Related Areas of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site