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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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nonfiction Recommendations for Kids

Earlier this month a Boston 1775 reader asked me if I had any recommendations for a boy who wanted to learn more about the life of a typical New England boy of the Revolutionary period—i.e., a boy growing up on a farm.

The most authentic, unvarnished source that I could think of is a manuscript held at the Massachusetts Historical Society: the diary of Quincy Thaxter of Hingham. It’s little more than a long list of chores and (when it was too rainy for farmwork) visits to school. Quincy’s handwriting, spelling, and punctuation (or lack thereof) suggest that he could have benefited from more hours in school. Here are some typical entries.

15 June 1774: “my self Jacob went to trai lect M lectter Mr Gay preached the Sermon Uncle Smith the prayer Mr Gays text in axts the 12 Chapter 20 verse my self went training and Jacob up in the plain in the aftenoon Catons pasten Captins Ba Barker Captin Lincoln Captin Cushing Captin Whittin Captin Lads Lastrop train.”

16 June: “myself Went to school all the day to Jacob weaded the loar Garding in the forenoon and in the aftenoon Cato and Jacob hoed behind the house after Sch School was done Fathe Fa FATHER and my self went dowon to the Worldend to see the cattle an get some strawberries.”

17 June: “my self Went to school all the day Jacob Worked over to the shop all the day Cato staid at home and thrased out corne all the day fowl fowl Weater all the day.”
But since that’s unpublished and hard to read even you have a copy, I recommended Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake, 1805, filled out and illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985). This comes from the generation after the Revolution, of course, but farm life hadn’t changed that much. Sloane used his talents as a draftsman and his knowledge of farming technology of the period to fill out Blake’s terse record of a few months—also mostly a litany of chores.

I’ve long wondered whether Diary of an Early American Boy was based on a real diary, as Sloane described. I’m pleased to report that, with enough Googling, I found a footnote in another book saying the manuscript is in the collection of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

For folks more interested in Eric Sloane, his work forms part of the Sloane Stanley Museum in Kent, Connecticut.

And for more non-fiction books on the American Revolution written expressly for young readers, here’s a list of recommended titles for different grade levels from The Horn Book magazine. I’ve read some of these, and praised Marc Aronson’s The Real Revolution a while back.

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