A Conversation with Authors Barbara Kerley, Steve Sheinkin, and Gretchen Woelfle

ConversationsDo you remember how you first learned about the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence? Perhaps in the classroom, or on a visit to a historic site. Or, perhaps, through a book. Jean Fritz, who recently passed away, authored Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? and Can't You Make Them Behave, King George?, among many others. Illustrator Sam Fink put his own spin on the text of the Declaration to make it more readable (and entertaining) than the engrossed and signed parchment, remarking, "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." 

Emily Sneff talked to three authors of recent children’s/young adult books related to the story of the Declaration of Independence to discover their inspirations, their approaches, and their views on the importance of young readers learning about early American history.

Barbara Kerley, author of Those Rebels, John & Tom, was first introduced to John (Adams) & Tom (Jefferson) through her father’s love for a familiar musical, 1776: “He’d put the record on in the living room and turn the volume up enough that I could hear it in my bedroom upstairs. Many times, I fell asleep listening to the incredible lyrics.” Kerley took her interests in reading and storytelling and focused on writing for kids, explaining, “I love how young kids are curious about the world and how they feel that anything is possible... I especially love writing biographies as it allows me to share stories of people who have done amazing things.” As the introduction of the book phrases it, Those Rebels, John & Tom is “the true story of how one gentleman—short and stout—and another—tall and lean—formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch a new nation.” Kerley began work on the book in 2008, and her opposites-attract treatment of Adams and Jefferson was inspired by modern political gridlock: “as I researched and wrote and revised, 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.” Illustrations by Edwin Fotheringham emphasize the differences between Adams and Jefferson, and bring analogies to life; particularly memorable visuals include Congress sitting on the back of a snail (Adams described the business of the First Continental Congress as “Slow, as Snails.”), and Jefferson lunging at King George III with a quill dripping in ink. “I love finding just the right quote to capture the spirit of a moment in time,” Kerley remarked, “and Edwin has a wonderful ability to bring abstract concepts into the art in a humorous way.”

Those Rebels, John and Tom

Steve Sheinkin, author of King George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution, started out writing history textbooks. “Ever since,” he remarked, “I’ve been trying to make amends by writing history books that kids and teens might actually want to read.” From the provocative title to the chapter called “Declare Independence, Already!”, Sheinkin accomplished his goal. The book 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.” King George was Sheinkin’s first book, and as he explains, he “wanted to get across all the information we want kids to know, but through stories, and where possible, with humor and comics.” For example, after quoting Washington’s general orders from July 2nd, 1776 (“We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die”), the book remarks, “No pressure, guys. Just save your country—or die trying.” King George: What Was His Problem? concludes with a section asking another important question, “Whatever happened to...?” Sheinkin explains, “I always like knowing what happened to folks after the story is over.” He includes the famous (John and Samuel Adams, for example), the infamous (Benedict Arnold), and the lesser-known (Deborah Sampson).

King George: What Was His Problem?

Gretchen Woelfle has written several books on lesser-known stories from the American Revolution, including Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren, Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, and most recently, Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution. Woelfle was a scriptwriter and picture researcher for an interactive educational multimedia company before she started writing historical fiction for children, and says historical fiction “and biography are my favorite genres to read and write.” The story of Mercy Otis Warren led her to Elizabeth ‘Mumbet’ Freeman: “How could I resist? She was passionate, courageous, and virtually unknown in children’s literature.” In turn, research for Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence led to the thirteen stories included in Answering the Cry for Freedom. Woelfle recalls, “Reading about African Americans in the Revolutionary era, 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.” By using actual quotes by or about African Americans wherever possible, Woelfle further enhanced their stories: “I always try to find the ‘voice’ of my subjects in their own words and add this to my narrative.” And she used primary sources to dictate the subjects of Answering the Cry for Freedom. Four wrote autobiographies, others wrote letters, petitions, speeches, and poems; people whose stories rely on anecdotes or imagined scenes didn’t make the cut. In the story of Mumbet Freeman (told in both Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence and Answering the Cry for Freedom), Woelfle reminds younger readers that African Americans “heard the claim that all people are free and equal... and they believed it.”

Answering the Cry for Freedom

All three of these authors believe the story of the founding is a story worth telling and worth reading, especially for younger readers. Sheinkin takes pride in telling the “origin story” of the United States: “It was a unique moment in history, and has inspired freedom movements ever since... I think the principles written into our founding documents set the bar really high – we’re still trying to get there. But the journey, the ongoing struggle to reach those ideals, to me that’s what American history is about.” For Woelfle, telling the hidden or overlooked stories provides important context for that journey. She explains, “If we want to understand both the progress and problems, we need to study the men and women who have created our history. What were their strengths and their failings?” As Kerley elaborates, “History is stories – true stories – about the things people have done. Learning about what people before us have accomplished can hopefully inspire us to accomplish something, as well.”

For More:

  • Barbara Kerley and Edward Fotheringham (ill.), Those Rebels, John & Tom, Scholastic Press, 2012 (Grades 1-5)
  • Steve Sheinkin, King George: What Was His Problem? The Whole Hilarious Story of the American Revolution, Square Fish (an Imprint of Macmillan), 2005/2015 reprint (Grades 3-8)
  • Gretchen Woelfle, Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution, Calkins Creek (an Imprint of Highlights), 2016 (Grades 4-7)

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