of the Center for Children's Books:
|Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books..
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By the time I was born in 1972, Jean Fritz had already written eleven picture books, two nonfiction titles, and seven novels for children, as well as a biography for adults. Besides being an author, she was also a wife and mother and had been a research assistant for Silver Burdett, a children's librarian, a founder and instructor of writing workshops, a teacher, and a book reviewer. By 1973, Jean Fritz had written her first children's biography, entitled And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? It was also the first of her books featuring "question titles" and it has been followed by thirty-one additional titles for children, nearly all of them biographical (or autobiographical) and many with a focus on American history.
Twenty years after the publication of And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?, as an undergraduate student in elementary education and shelver at the Urbana Free Library, I finally encountered Fritz's work. Always a fan of biographies, I started reading all the "question title" books, especially enjoying Paul Revere and What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?, then moved on to longer, more in-depth biographies, like The Great Little Madison. As a reader and a budding young teacher, I appreciated the enthusiasm, curiosity, and gleeful presentation of piquant personal details that mark Fritz's portraits of famous historical figures. A few years later, when I found myself teaching Early American history to second and third graders, I drew heavily upon her books as resources for lessons. I read them aloud and encouraged students to read them on their own. Many of my students responded to her books much as I did, delighting in the knowledge that Paul Revere (en route to Lexington) sent his dog home to fetch his spurs (which the dog obediently did), and that King George personally supervised the making of his wife's wedding dress. Fritz inspired me to find the "story" in American history and to make it "come alive" for my students. I'm certain that countless children and adults have likewise become history buffs thanks to her books.
With fifty-one titles for children to her credit (many of which have received awards and honors) she has had a long and illustrious career in the field of children's literature. Why is this? It's simple. She's very good at what she does. Few authors (let alone nonfiction authors) have produced as many consistently exemplary books for children as she. Her books connect with children because, like children, they are inquisitive, honest, humorous, and smart. She never preaches or talks down to her audience and is truthful about her biographical subjects. She consults primary sources in her extensive research of these subjects and when a piece of the story is unknown or in question, she admits it to her readers. Throughout her books, she always conveys her own excitement about history and about the research process, and she invites children to share in her discoveries. "Only when a book is written out of passion," she says in her entry in Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children, "is there much hope of it being read with passion. Children above all need to feel that they are partners in the quest."
On November 16, Jean Fritz will be 86 years old. Her latest book, published this year, demonstrates her continued expertise as a historian and storyteller. Leonardo's Horse (BCCB 10/01) describes the completion of Leonardo da Vinci's plan for an enormous bronze horse nearly 500 years after his death (thanks largely to the vision and determination in the 20th century of art lover Charlie Dent). Though the book contains biographical elements, it is more a story of the continuation of a project, the pursuit of a dream, and in that regard it is surprisingly moving. As usual, Fritz doesn't sentimentalize her tale, but rather lets the story speak for itself. She explains how, as Leonardo ages, other projects take precedence over his horse, and he eventually regrets that the horse was never finished during his lifetime: " . . . he became depressed. What had he achieved? he asked himself. He complained to his notebook: 'Tell me,' he asked, 'if anything has been achieved by me. Tell me. Tell me.' . . . It was said that even on his deathbed, Leonardo wept for his horse." Finally, Fritz tells us, in 1999, Leonardo's plans for his horse became a reality through the work of Charlie Dent and his legacy.
Like Leonardo's horse, Fritz's works for children are a lasting legacy. "Every person is a story," she says, as she continues to show us that in studying the past and the lives of others, we can better understand ourselves. Few can tell those personal stories as well as Fritz, and we hope she has many more yet to tell us.
--Jeannette Hulick, Editorial Assistant and Reviewer
Books for Children
This page was last updated on November 1, 2001.