Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What Did the Children Think?

During early 19th century presidential discussions, political tongues wagged about Thomas Jefferson’s rumored relationship with Sally Hemings. Sally was a slave. Was she also the mother of several of Jefferson’s children? And what about those children? What did they think? How did they feel?

JEFFERSON’S SONS: A Founding Father’s Secret Children, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley, Dial Books For Young Readers, 2011

What did Thomas Jefferson’s secret children know? What did they think about the man whom “everyone” knew fathered them, but a man their mother strictly forbade them from calling “Papa” or any other familial name.

Authors of historical fiction don’t make up the history. They read widely and research deeply. Usually an author’s note tells the reader what is real and what is not. Author Bradley studied Jefferson, his house, his family, and visited Monticello several times, picking the brains of historians there. She invites readers to explore the Monticello kid-friendly website. Her own website ­­is also helpful.

That being said, since slaves were prohibited from reading and writing, a written account of thoughts and feelings would be rare. While we probably won’t ever know what Jefferson’s children really thought and felt, Bradley’s fictionalized characters, based on Sally’s children, surely come close. Readers will understand the deep sadness expressed by one son at the gulf between his mother’s children and their biological father. This boy, who receives better care, better clothes, even better work, with never an outward explanation for this favoritism, still wishes he were the child of the blacksmith, a slave who has a warm, loving relationship with his child. 

Sally is a very strong character, keeping her children in line and thereby keeping them safe. She has endured and survived and she is determined that her children will also endure and survive. Although Thomas Jefferson promised her that each child will be set free when he or she turns 21, Sally believes it is better to pass for white than be freed. Freed slaves must carry papers subject to loss or destruction. They always remain at risk, at the mercy of greedy, unscrupulous slave catchers.

Instead, Sally works to send Beverly and Harriet, her light skinned children, into the world with new identities, but bearing the heavy burden of keeping their past a secret. She is adamant that their own children will have a much better future because they will never know--and must never know--they were born to former slaves passing as white.

Jefferson’s Sons is told from three points of view, two boys who are sons and one who is a close
friend. All three are slaves. Their lives and their liberty or their lack of liberty give rise to the question: just what did Thomas Jefferson mean when he wrote, “all men are created equal”?

And what do your children think?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Sky's the Limit

In the great city of New York, I hear a parade is planned today. Something about a football game. However, my mind is on another event in the Big Apple, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This annual festive celebration is made possible by one man’s quest to make things move.

BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY, the True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, by Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin, 2011

For Tony Sarg it may have started when he was six years old and didn’t want to get out of bed to feed the chickens. He analyzed the problem, made a plan, and rigged up a pulley system that worked so well Tony stayed in his warm bed, the chickens were well fed, and reportedly, his amazed father never asked him to do another chore.

From London to New York to Broadway where Tony Sarg’s Marionettes performed, to Macy’s holiday windows where Tony entertained hordes of jostling shoppers with his mechanical marionettes, to a parade of street carnivals from around the world, Tony Sarg was always looking for the next step toward making his puppets look and move like actors on a stage.

Author/illustrator Sweet also loves to figure out how to make things move. Her characters on the page of this charming book have a light airy movement of their own. Sweet's well researched text flows easily along a timeline that is easy for young readers to grasp. This is a biography of Tony Sarg and a brief mini-biography of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The first Thanksgiving Day parade was held in 1924, from Harlem to Harold Square. Do you suppose Tony Sarg ever dreamed his creative genius would result in today’s annual extravaganza watched by thousands on the streets and hundreds of thousands more on TV?

In the recent frenzy of award ceremonies, this charming, fun biography of Tony Sarg which is also a mini-biography of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade won both the Sibert Award and the Orbis Pictus Award. As a result, there may be a waiting list at your library or the book may be back ordered at your favorite independent book store. It’s worth the wait.

In the meantime, for more about these whimsical puppets, take a look at the author’s web site. This could open up a new path of expression for your young readers.

Or you.

Hillview School Library