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.

Follow by Email


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Looking at Ben’s Revolution

This spring brought us a new book from Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Bunker Hill and Valiant Ambition, and Wendell Minor, jacket designer for John Adams and 1776. Unlike those books, Ben’s Revolution is written for young readers.

In its format, Ben’s Revolution is a rarity among recent children’s books, almost a unicorn. It’s a “picture storybook.” At sixty-four pages it’s twice the length of a typical picture book today (through a lot of picture books used to be that length). That means the publisher invested in about twice as many illustrations, and paid twice the printing and paper costs. The book’s word count is similarly supersized, far above the 500 words aspiring picture-book authors are told to limit themselves to.

Penguin was no doubt willing to go beyond the normal parameters of a modern picture book because of the names involved: Philbrick, a bestselling author; Minor, a highly respected artist; and the Revolutionary War, a staple of American school curricula. In fact, that probably wasn’t a difficult calculation at all. But picture-book authors without such a track record shouldn’t take Ben’s Revolution as a model.

In content, Philbrick built this book around the experiences of Benjamin Russell, subject of several Boston 1775 postings. Young Ben starts the book as a schoolboy in Boston, serves time as an off-the-books clerk for a provincial military company in the first months of the war, and finishes as an apprentice to printer Isaiah Thomas. Russell actually witnessed some of the fighting on 19 April and 17 June 1775, and those stories provide the backbone of the book.

Philbrick also uses two anecdotes of unnamed boys from this time, casting Ben Russell as the protagonist. He becomes one of the boys who demanded that Gen. Frederick Haldimand preserve their coasting run down School Street. He’s the boy who hears Col. Percy’s musicians playing “Yankee Doodle” and tells the earl that he’ll dance to that tune by sundown. In addition, the book gives us a look at such events as the Tea Party, the shots on Lexington common, and the British evacuation of Boston without straining to put Ben on the scene.

All those moments are handsomely painted by Minor, who in addition to designing iconic jackets has also illustrated many children’s books, specializing in Americana and nature. A few years back Minor illustrated a biography of Henry Knox which I found beautiful but riddled with errors. This time my only big quibble about the art is that Minor depicts Ben and his young friends with the haircuts of today’s boys—a fairly common approach to portraying the period, whenever an artist works. As I’ve noted, the fashion for boys in the 1770s was suspiciously close to a mullet.

The nature of Ben Russell’s actions, and of how he and others through Philbrick and Minor chose to tell his story, means there are no female characters in the story. Even Ben’s mother is mentioned only from afar. And there are very few females visible in the art. Likewise, Russell didn’t say anything about the black or Native soldiers in the provincial camp, and I spotted only two darker faces in the pictures’ backgrounds, one in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill.

I should note that Nat Philbrick and I have shared conversations and manuscripts about Revolutionary Boston for a while. Ben’s Revolution therefore reflects the argument I made in The Road to Concord that Gen. Thomas Gage triggered the war by sending troops “on a secret mission to seize the cannon that the patriots had hidden in Concord.” I now have hopes that the next generation of Americans will grow up with that story instead of the assumption that the British were hunting John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

No comments: