Roundtable: Telling the Story of the Declaration

Today’s Founding Fiction post is by Emily Sneff, Research Manager of the Declaration Resources Project at Harvard University. The mission of the Declaration Resources Project is to create innovative and informative resources about the Declaration of Independence. To learn more, follow @declarationres.

How do we get kids to read and comprehend the Declaration of Independence? Great authors and illustrators can transform the characters, events, and text of the Declaration (which, as you may expect, registers at about a 12th grade reading level) into true stories that are both entertaining and educational for younger readers. On the Declaration Resources Project’s blog, Course of Human Events, we recently interviewed authors Barbara Kerley (Those Rebels, John & Tom), Steve Sheinkin (King George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution), and Gretchen Woelfle (Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution). Their books, and a few other favorites, form an exciting non-fiction reading list for children and young adults.

Any basic history of the American Revolution presents the major players in the story of declaring independence — John Hancock, King George III, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and so on. But some of the best books for younger readers take these preeminent individuals and make them approachable. In Those Rebels, John & Tom, “short and stout” Adams and “tall and lean” Jefferson are given an “opposites-attract” treatment in both the text and the illustrations. As author Barbara Kerley remarked, “I watched our modern-day Congress get stalled unable to compromise or collaborate on much of anything. I hoped that by framing the story of two opposites coming together in a common purpose, kids could learn about a time when Congress worked together for the good of the country.” Similarly, two books by award-winning author Jean Fritz give personality to John Hancock and George III. In Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? and Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George?, the President of the Continental Congress and the British King are presented as relatable men who faced with tough decisions. Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? begins, “Before King George the Third was either king or the Third, he was just plain George, a bashful boy who blushed easily”; Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? claims that “what John Hancock wanted most was for people to like him.” Kerley hopes that true accounts of these individuals can motivate any reader: “Learning about what people before us have accomplished can hopefully inspire us to accomplish something, as well.”

Other authors take a different path, introducing younger readers to the overshadowed or forgotten stories in early American history. Gretchen Woelfle’s work on Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren led her to Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, who filed and won a suit for her freedom. After writing Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, Woelfle expanded her scope to create Answering the Cry for Freedom, which explores the stories of thirteen African Americans, including Freeman. “Reading about African Americans in the Revolutionary era,” Woelfle recalled, “I came across all sorts of amazing life stories — men and women, enslaved and free, northern and southern. Some people are well-known, others obscure. I thought that writing a collective biography would bring to light the people in the shadows and illustrate the enormous impact the Declaration of Independence had on these very different lives.” Encouraging younger readers to look beyond the 56 white men who signed the Declaration of Independence, to consider how women, minorities, and even slaves would have reacted to the Declaration’s key phrases such as “all men are created equal,” provides important and helpful context.

Humor is also a great tactic for bringing the story of the Declaration of Independence to life. Steve Sheinkin started out writing history textbooks, and King George: What Was His Problem? and his other books are an attempt “to make amends by writing history books that kids and teens might actually want to read.” He accomplishes this through clever comics and rewording; for example, King George boils down the Declaration of Independence to three basic points: “1. People are born with certain rights. 2. King George has taken those rights from us. 3. So we’re forming our own country,” before noting, “Of course, Jefferson’s words are a little better. Okay, a lot better.” In The Journey of the One and Only Declaration of Independence, Judith St. George tracks the physical history of the engrossed and signed parchment, expertly navigating the many custodians and homes of the parchment in language that kids will actually follow. She and illustrator Will Hillenbrand imbue the “one and only Declaration of Independence” itself with life; in recounting the parchment’s stay in Fort Knox during World War II, for example, the book says, “Right away the Declaration had a physical. At 165 years old, the Declaration almost flunked.” And St. George embraces the often-comical path the engrossed and signed parchment took from Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 to its current home at the National Archives; seemingly every stage of the document’s journey ends with the hope of a safe, permanent home, but when the reader turns the page, the text nearly always says “Wrong!” A nice reminder to readers — whether they’re able to visit the engrossed parchment display in the National Archives or not — that “old, torn, faded, admired, neglected, loved or criticized, the Declaration’s home has always been in the heart of the American people.”

As for enhancing the text itself? Sam Fink’s The Declaration of Independence: The Words that Made America can’t be beat. Short, digestible segments of the text combine with helpful visuals; for example, “it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” pairs with scissors cutting through a ribbon with the British and American flags at either end. Fink’s whimsical approach to the Declaration is rooted in approachability; as the book’s introduction notes, “The words that made America can now be shared with people of all ages; and they can help us understand what the Founding Fathers created for all of us who have followed.”

In a January 1777 letter accompanying copies of Mary Katherine Goddard’s broadside of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock wrote, “there is not a more distinguished Event in the History of America, than the Declaration of her Independence-nor any that in all Probability, will so much excite the Attention of future Ages…” One of the best ways to excite those future Ages and engage younger readers in the Declaration of Independence is through these and other terrific books!

Reading List

  • Sam Fink (ill.), The Declaration of Independence: The Words that Made America (New York: Scholastic, 2002).
  • Jean Fritz and Margot Tomes (ill.), Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (New York: Puffin Books, 1997).
  • Jean Fritz, Margot Tomes and Tomie DePaola (ill.), Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? (New York: Puffin Books, 1996).
  • Barbara Kerley and Edward Fotheringham (ill.), Those Rebels, John & Tom  (New York: Scholastic, 2012).
  • Judith St. George and Will Hillenbrand (ill.), The Journey of the One and Only Declaration of Independence (New York: Puffin Books, 2014).
  • Steve Sheinkin, King George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution (2005; repr., New York: Square Fish, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC, 2015).
  • Gretchen Woelfle, Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution (Honesdale, PA: Calkins Creek, an Imprint of Highlights, 2016).

One comment on “Roundtable: Telling the Story of the Declaration

  1. Nap Director says:

    This is great for kids but many times by the time they get to college they have been bored to tears with the history that is taught. I have found that telling interesting stories about their lives and what led to their momentous vote helps a great deal with regard to college age students without making it sound little kiddish but then again I will also show them Liberty kids for dramatic effect.

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