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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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Comics and Crispus Attucks

I learned about an upcoming Revolutionary War comic book from Publishers Weekly today. It’s part of a push at Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin paperbacks imprint into comics, led by editors Ginee Seo and Liesa Abrams.

My hopes weren’t raised by the news that one wing of this advance will be “fictionalized” comics-style adaptations of the Childhood of Famous Americans series. I devoured those books when I was in third grade, but at the time I was living in Bakersfield, California, and there really was nothing else to do. All the volumes have about ten chapters on their subjects’ childhood, the various episodes prefiguring their adult careers, and a final chapter showing them doing whatever has made them famous. The series includes volumes about Abigail Adams, Paul Revere, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Franklin, Molly Pitcher, &c.

Dharathula Millender’s biography of Crispus Attucks is a most interesting example from the C.O.F.A. series. Millender was a teacher and librarian active in the civil rights movement in Indiana, the home state of Bobbs-Merrill, which then published the series. In 1965 she convinced the firm to add a book about Attucks, one of the first (if not the first) about an African-American.

Like all the other authors contributing to the series at the time, Millender filled out the historical record with anecdotes, conversations, and other details that have no basis in documented history. She had to describe Attucks’s childhood, of course, so she described his mother and father and gave them the names of Prince and Nancy. Her final chapter cast Attucks as a political activist, orating from a platform before the Boston Massacre. (He was at the head of the crowd that approached the soldiers at the height of the confrontation, but there were no public speeches of that sort.)

Because there’s so little solid information about Attucks, and the C.O.F.A. books weren’t labeled as “fictionalized” until about a decade ago, some people have taken Millender’s story as factual. The Wikipedia entry on Attucks puts those details in a section headed “Folklore,” but NNDB.com treats them as accurate. The statements have even shown up in a recent Dublin Seminar volume. So far as I can find, those details go back no earlier than 1965.

Alongside the new C.O.F.A. books, Simon & Schuster plans another series of comics called Turning Points, “placing fictional kids in adventure stories set in the midst of important and well-researched historical events.” The idea for the series came from agent Bob Mecoy. [Peek inside.] “It’s historical fiction that places kids in the center of big events,” editor Liesa Abrams told Publishers Weekly.

That series will launch with Sons of Liberty, “a story introducing the reader to the major battles of the Revolutionary War”—which was a span of seven years, longer than most children’s stories cover. The writer of record is historian Marshall Poe, who wrote some interesting articles for The Atlantic but, as far as I can tell, nothing about the Revolutionary War. The art is by Leland Purvis. The book hits the shelves in June.


Anonymous said...

Bakersfield, California? There's not much to brag about there, is there? I, too, am a Bakersfield native now living in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.

It's amusing to discover this connection and if I ever see your work mention the work of Buck Owens, I won't be disappointed.

Thank you again for your wonderful blog. I'm a daily devotee.

J. L. Bell said...

My time in Bakersfield lasted only a few months, and I can’t say I enjoyed it. But in hindsight it was valuable in getting me out of New England. (I’d been born in Riverside, California, but have no memory of life there.) Just knowing that people could do things and think so differently—the schools didn’t even have hallways!—was probably a useful lesson in growing up.

And, thanks to the Childhood of Famous Americans books in the school library there, I still have vivid memories of completely fictional episodes in the lives of such people as Elias Howe and Ethan Allen!