J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Speaking Words of Wisdom: John, Paul, George & Ben

Lane Smith's new John, Paul, George & Ben shows how "founders' chic" has come to picture-book publishing. In a lively mix of text and art, it tells young readers that John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, and Ben Franklin (and Thomas Jefferson, thrown in as the George Martin of this Fab Four) were once lively kids just like you guys. Or at least just like the Peanuts gang.

The book has received a monumental reception: editors at both The Horn Book and the New York Times Book Review listed it among the top children's books of 2006. A local librarian spontaneously told me that she thought it might win a Caldecott Medal. (Smith has the advantage of having already earned a Caldecott Honor for The Stinky Cheese Man, one of my favorite picture books of the past two decades. Though each year's committee denies it, I firmly believe that most judges prefer to name winners who have proven themselves by making the short list before.)

John, Paul, George & Ben is funny. The art is energetic and stylish (and Smith used Minuteman Printshop, a favorite at Boston 1775). The only thing that bothers me about the book is seeing it labeled as Nonfiction. Smith acknowledges that a great many of his wild colonial boys' antics are untrue. How can young readers tell the facts from what's in there for the sake of a joke? Well, there's a "True/False" page at the back to explain.

If only that page were more accurate.

The first incident in the book shows John Hancock signing his name too large on a classroom blackboard. The back of the book acknowledges that blackboards didn't show up in classrooms until many decades later. In fact, the whole classroom is an anachronism. Smith's artwork shows a large map of North America (a man who attended the same school as Hancock later wrote, "I never saw a map, except in Caesar’s Commentaries, and did not know what that meant”). The teacher is female. The class is even integrated.

And all those misleading details are in service of another myth: that Hancock signed his name on the Declaration of Independence large enough for King George to read it. ("Reportedly," the back page says, which in this case may mean "actually not, but I've already written the book.") The American infatuation with the Declaration as a handwritten document dates from fifty years after its signing, when the first copies were made. The Declaration was originally circulated in printed form, so the size of Hancock's signature didn't matter.

Smith writes of Paul Revere's boyhood activity of ringing the bells in Old North Church. This is one of the few documented facts about Revere's childhood, and it does hold significance for his Revolutionary role. But not because bell-ringing affected young Paul's hearing, so he ended up speaking too loudly about underwear and Redcoats. Rather, throughout his life Revere formed and joined groups, from those youthful bell-ringers to the St. Andrew's Lodge of Freemasons to the postwar Society of Mechanics. As David H. Fischer documented in Paul Revere's Ride, Revere appears on more lists of Patriot activists than any other individual but Dr. Joseph Warren. His personal network was the key to his success, and thus to the Boston Whigs' success in April 1775. Revere was a Revolutionary organizer, not just a loudmouth. (Okay, he was also a loudmouth.)

The George Washington anecdote is built around the cherry tree legend, a defining part of American heritage because (a) everyone knows it, and (b) everyone knows it isn't true. Smith's punchline for this episode is less original than the rest of the book, but his visual exuberance carries it off.

The book's portrait of Benjamin Franklin rests on his supposed penchant for sharing sayings and advice, using the mottos from Poor Richard's Almanack. American culture doesn't like to acknowledge that our model innovator Franklin actually cribbed most of those sayings—in order—from James Howell’s Lexicon Tetraglotton (1660) and Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia (1732). He used them to fill space. Smith, like many other authors, gives Franklin credit for sayings he didn't create and didn't really care about.

Am I asking too much of a book that sets out to provide "a totally fresh and funny way to learn about the Founding Fathers of our country—with just a few liberties mixed in"? I don't think so because it would be quite possible to write a funny picture book about Ben Franklin's childhood. His Autobiography and letters contain more anecdotes about his youth than we have for anyone else in this group. And he was a caution. We can see the future man in anecdotes like this:

There was a salt-marsh that bounded part of the mill-pond, on the edge of which, at high water, we used to stand to fish for minnows. By much trampling, we had made it a mere quagmire.

My proposal was to build a wharff there fit for us to stand upon, and I showed my comrades a large heap of stones, which were intended for a new house near the marsh, and which would very well suit our purpose. Accordingly, in the evening, when the workmen were gone, I assembled a number of my play-fellows, and working with them diligently like so many emmets, sometimes two or three to a stone, we brought them all away and built our little wharff.

The next morning the workmen were surprised at missing the stones, which were found in our wharff. Inquiry was made after the removers; we were discovered and complained of; several of us were corrected by our fathers; and though I pleaded the usefulness of the work, mine convinced me that nothing was useful which was not honest.
Leave off the moralizing last clause, and this is a great little story of an enterprising boy who was a natural organizer and didn't let anything stand in his way. Maybe this tale could show up in the Love remix.

2 comments:

Lane Smith said...

Howdy,

Love your site! And am flattered for your review of my book. However it is in no way meant to be a nonfiction work (though some reviews have erroneously labeled it as such). No, it is merely meant as a MAD Magazine-style parody of American history and folktales much like The Stinky Cheese Man was a parody of fairy tales.

Keep up the good work. I'll return to your site often I'm sure.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the kind words about Boston 1775, and thanks for the books.

After I posted my essay, I realized I should simply have categorized the book as part of a long tradition of tall tales about our founders—in this case, tall tales about when they were short.

Though some best-of-the-year lists have classified John, Paul, George, and Ben as Nonfiction, that librarian with gold stickers in her eyes had it filed properly as Fiction.