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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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Reviewing Unite or Die

As the new school year begins, I’m going to discuss a few books about the Revolutionary era for kids. First off is the picture book Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation, by Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj.

Unite or Die tackles a challenging subject: the constitutional convention of 1787, and the document it produced. That’s a complex historical development involving many people, abstract concepts, and unresolved questions. Imagine trying to summarize that history for elementary-school kids in only 48 pages, most filled with pictures.

Jules’s solution is to depict the developments symbolically by showing an elementary-school class acting out the constitutional process as a school play. Each kid plays one of the original states, and other roles as needed. (The cast list on the back cover shows how their initials match the postal abbreviations of the states.)

The students come from both sexes (seven girls, six boys) and many ethnic groups (five of the thirteen appear to be children of color). An African-American boy plays not only Connecticut and its delegate Roger Sherman, but also George Washington. The art style is cartoony, and I can’t tell you why one girl wears a flowerpot on her head.

By taking on various roles, the kids can thus voice many different positions in the disputes at the constitutional convention. The book’s crucial turning point is when the delegates find a compromise that provided for popular election of Representatives in the House while allotting each state two Senators. Addressing that issue takes up eight central pages.

Another six pages at the end are devoted to the afterword and notes, an unusually large number for a picture book. That backmatter adds more detailed explanations on issues that arise in the text, our historical sources on the convention (James Madison’s notes), and other matters.

Ultimately, however, Unite or Die gives a one-sided picture of America’s national debate in the late 1780s.

TOMORROW: A Federalist picture book.


EM said...

She's New Jersey -- the Garden State. :) Thanks for the review!

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the tip!

Good thing Missouri, the Show Me State, wasn’t around for the convention. Then one of the kids might not be wearing any costume at all!

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve now learned that credit for the idea of depicting the creation of the Constitution through a school pageant should go to illustrator Jef Czekaj, who saw that potential in Jacqueline Jules’s manuscript.