Is This History Necessary?

The Coming of the Civil War

by Robert Goldston
Macmillan, 117 pp., $4.95

Reconstruction: The Great Experiment

by Allen W. Trelease
Harper & Row, 224 pp., $4.95

Great Gettin’ Up Morning: A Biography of Denmark Vesey

by John Oliver Killens
Doubleday, 138 pp., $3.95

Challenge to Become a Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

by Leah Lurie Heyn
The Feminist Press, 60 pp., $1.50 (paper)

Steal Away: Stories of the Runaway Slaves

edited by Abraham Chapman
Praeger, 196 pp., $6.95

To Be a Slave

by Julius Lester
Dell, 158 pp., $.75 (paper)

Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History

by Julius Lester
Dial, 176 pp., $4.95

All the books under review deal largely with the experience of American blacks or women, and all are the products of commercial publishers who sense a new market. Not merely—perhaps not even primarily—a market among young readers interested in history, but among teachers and librarians who want children to read books on these subjects, and who will be vulnerable to criticism if their schools and libraries fail to acquire them.

Ostensibly, the audience for these books consists of “young readers” between the ages, roughly, of ten and sixteen. In fact far more of these books will be bought by the education industry itself—schools and libraries—than by children or their parents. So the books show us as much about what adults think should interest young readers as about what does interest them. These educators and publishers, moreover, seem not to have considered whether young people between ten and sixteen need a special historical literature at all.

No doubt most younger children want to read books written especially for them, but by the time they reach the age for which these eight books are intended, they should be able to read any thoughtful, well-written book. Of course, while an older audience with a particular interest in history may tolerate overspecialization, ponderous prose, and triviality of subject matter (all words for what kids call boring) as the price of erudition, the tolerance of youth is likely to be considerably lower. But this merely emphasizes the need for clearer, more imaginative writing by all historians, rather than for the creation of a historical literature for “young readers.”

Nevertheless, so long as they believe a profitable market exists, publishers will continue to produce historical literature for older children. The seven authors represented here have different ideas of what constitutes history for the young. Some have written traditional texts, stressing facts, dates, and major events. They differ from college texts mainly in their use of simpler language and in the lack of footnotes and long quotations. Others have written biographies, obviously designed to encourage a young reader to “identify” with “relevant” figures of the past. And some have attempted to re-create the social life of the past through the documents or folk tales of the period.

These books, then, seem to have as little in common as would eight “adult” history books taking similar approaches to teaching the past. But they all share explicitly or implicitly another purpose—not merely to impart historical information but to teach moral and political lessons. The books all reflect an assumption that they are to serve as what are now called “modes of socialization,” as sources of values, aspirations, and models to follow whose influence lasts far beyond childhood. Whether they will have this effect is a different matter. But all seven writers, including the academic historians Allen Trelease and Abraham Chapman and the well-known black writers Julius Lester and John O. Killens, have the view that young readers, especially those from minority groups whose history …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.