Roundtable: Making Teen Girls into Women’s Historians

Welcome to Founding Fiction, The Junto’s first roundtable exploring how children’s literature and young adult fiction depicts early American history. Between posts, we’ll compile a shelf of favorites to (re)read. Tweet us at #FoundingFiction or comment with your recommendations for Very Early Americanists. Happy summer, let’s dive in!

Today’s post is by Laura Ansley, Ph.D. candidate in history at the College of William & Mary, and managing editor of the Nursing Clio blog. Her dissertation is titled, “Life Problems: Sex Education in the United States, 1890-1930.” Follow her .

Phillis Wheatley and Abigail Adams and Peggy Shippen and Harriet Hemings: all early American women whom I learned about from Ann Rinaldi’s young adult fiction. I have been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember, but Rinaldi was one of many authors who helped me to better understand what the best kind of historical study is. While school classes covering the Civil War may have talked about generals and battles, Rinaldi introduced me to characters like Osceola, stepdaughter of Wilmer McLean, who moved his family away from Manassas when the war came to the quieter Appomattox Courthouse—meaning the war started and ended on their doorstep. With her focus on teenage heroines, Rinaldi showed that history wasn’t only about important men. Young women experienced these historical events too, and their stories were also worth telling.

Rinaldi began publishing historical fiction for young adults in the mid-1980s, just as young adult fiction was really blossoming. Though books about teens date much farther back—Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Outsiders (1967) come to mind—Rinaldi entered the field during the “golden age” of YA, when authors were pushing the boundaries of the topics they covered. According to her publisher Scholastic, “her first historical novel, Time Enough for Drums, was turned down by ten publishers, all of whom claimed that children wouldn’t read history. When the book was finally published, it became an ALA Best Book.” Publishing at least a book a year from 1986 forward, Rinaldi explored major moments in American history from the colonial era to the Civil War, always through the eyes of a young woman involved in the events. Daughters of men like Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, and John Brown gave young female readers like myself a glimpse at what it would be like to grow up in the midst of history.

I have too many favorite Rinaldi books to choose just a few. A Break with Charity introduced me to a fuller story of the Salem Witch Trials than I had learned about in school. While I probably saw Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre in textbooks, The Fifth of March brought me inside the Adams’ family home while John was defending the soldiers who shot into the mob on that fateful night. As someone who spent some of my school years in Virginia, I knew a LOT about Thomas Jefferson’s place in American history as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as our third president. But, long before I read Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, I met Jefferson’s enslaved daughter Harriet Hemings as the narrator of Wolf By the Ears. In Time Enough for Drums, I learned about the Revolutionary War in New Jersey; growing up through adolescence in Ohio, I was thrilled to read The Second Bend in the River about Tecumseh’s visits to a young woman and her family in Chillicothe; and I had never been introduced to Phillis Wheatley before reading Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons.

What I now appreciate most about Rinaldi’s books, as someone who has spent years studying American women’s history, is that she is one of the children’s and young adult authors who introduced me to the idea. I wouldn’t encounter Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale until my sophomore year of college, but by that point I had already learned that individual women’s lives mattered and that the daily work of women was important to society. Rinaldi didn’t just write about elite white women. Several books are from the perspectives of enslaved women or white servant women. In one trilogy, an elite white girl from New England is kidnapped by Indians in Ohio country; like some real women at the time, she became a member of the community and rejected the opportunity to return to her birth family. This complicated the picture of settlers vs. Indians that so often gets taught in schools. I recognize now that Rinaldi helped open my eyes to the idea that common people’s lives were important in studying history. We don’t just need to know the stories of Thomas Jefferson or John Adams when we can also know about Harriet Hemings or Adams’ (fictional) nursemaid.

I haven’t gone back to read one of Ann Rinaldi’s books in a while, but I believe that even with my graduate-school-trained critical eye I would still enjoy their stories. They were my first encounter with many events in early American history and helped me understand the human experience of war, slavery, westward migration, and other topics. And I believe that she primed me well for that first women’s history classroom, when reading scholarship like Ulrich’s and primary sources like Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe got me so excited to study women’s lives. Speaking with other female academics around my age, I know that I’m not the only one who read and loved these books. If you have a history-loving young teen in your life, put one of Ann Rinaldi’s books in their hands. I hope it will open their eyes, too.

11 responses

  1. I read all of Ann Rinaldi’s books as well, and Time Enough for Drums was my favorite. The book that really got me into the Early American period was Ann Finlayson’s Rebecca’s War about a fourteen year old living in occupied Philadelphia during the Revolution. I reread it when I first began teaching and she does a great job with depicting the messy nuances of living in an occupied city- I often use passages from it when teaching my US History to 1877 survey.

  2. Anyone looking for a Master’s thesis topic could examine the tension between nostalgia for the historical fiction of our childhood, and the modern need to reconcile what we now know are historical inaccuracies, particularly in the way that marginalized groups are portrayed.

    To that end, I recommend the work of Debbie Reese, a scholar who examines the representation of indigenous peoples in children’s literature. She has posted several critiques of Rinaldi’s work on her blog:

  3. I was taken aback by the author’s choice of the name Osceola for a Southern girl and, since I’m unfamiliar with Ronaldo’s work I did a quick search to see how her work has been received by scholars of American Indians in children’s literature. Turns out not well. I encourage Junto readers to take a look at Debbie Reese’s blog for young adult (and children’s) literature reviews and recommendations. As a scholar of Native American history and an early Americanist, much of the work I do in the classroom requires working against the stereotypes, appropriation, and misrepresentation that Ronaldo (according to reviews) seems to traffic in. And as early Americanists who have read James Merrell’s 2012 article about vocabulary choices, of course we recognize that as scholars this is something few among us are immune to.

  4. Thanks, all, for your comments and suggestions! This really is a topic rich for further research, since issues clearly abound regarding depictions of race, gender, class, and empire in vast early America. I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance of the high tide of production of the books (1950s-2000s) as well as the producers (mostly women), with respect to the rise of social history. And of course, I’m here to second Debbie Reese’s blog as a resource. Thanks, all, for weighing in here.

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  7. I am really old, and now I know these books are not even close to politically correct in any manner, but I loved the Williamsburg series by Elswyth Thane. I hope I spelled her first name correctly–it was a nom de plume for the wife of William Beebe. She was pretty interesting herself, and I excuse her point of view as being simply indicative of the times in which she lived.

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