“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” – Abraham Lincoln
In honor of Independence Day, a list of books about ten people who have brought dignity and honor to our country. In different ways, through words or actions, they exemplify the best of the American spirit. A child interested in learning about people who truly made America great, could begin here. There are numerous omissions, but it’s not meant to be complete. Rather it’s a subjective list of people who have given shape to the way I think about our country:
I recently listened to Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations by John Avlon, and my biggest take away was that George Washington was the right man at the right time. The “united” part of this great experiment was truly hanging by a thread, and it was the steady hand of Washington that guided us through those early days. For children, Roslyn Schanzer’s book, George vs. George: The American Revolution As Seen From Both Sides is a good place to begin understanding the American Revolution.
One thought that sticks with me from the book about George Washington is that Washington’s Farewell Address is this nation’s “Old Testament.” And that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is our “New Testament.” That idea gave me a framework for thinking about our country’s values and principles. For kids ready to dive into the world of Abraham Lincoln, the absolute best book is Russell Freedman’s 1988 Newbery Award winning biography, Lincoln: A Photobiography.
Douglass’s story of sheer determination – rising from slave to social reformer – makes him essential to understanding this country’s complex history. For teachers who want an example of the power of words to make change, Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers is the perfect book.
Could there have been anyone as personally courageous as Harriet Tubman? One trip to escape slavery is dangerous, but nineteen trips! The conductor of the Underground Railroad risked her life to save over 300 people. Kids will be inspired by Thomas Allen’s Harriet Tubman: Secret Agent.
No conversation about great Americans is complete without understanding the legacy of John Muir. A good place to start is Kathryn Lasky’s picture book biography of the famous naturalist, writer, and founder of the Sierra Club. Pair your reading about Muir with learning about the national parks, a movement that Muir initiated with his commitment to protecting the environment.
Wilbur and Orville Wright
We turn to Russell Freedman again to learn the story of the two brothers from Dayton whose dogged determination led to the invention of the airplane. I’ve read a lot about them (hometown pride of course!), and their most striking characteristic is how hard working they were. They did not have fancy educations or access to the scientific community, but from their bicycle shop in Dayton they overcame tremendous challenges and ultimately succeeded.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The history of race in this country is hard and important and absolutely essential to understanding the very nature of our founding, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is a good gateway. And here, I recommend focusing on his words, his “Big Words” to be exact: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport. From here, a conversation about the Civil Rights Movement can branch out to include Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, John Lewis and countless others.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
I know – two people here, but the Wright Brothers were counted as one so I’m standing by my decision. The relationship between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, their mutual commitment to women’s suffrage, is what led to the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Two of the books I like are: Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins and Elizabeth Leads the Way by Tanya Lee Stone.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt
So great were both of their contributions, that it just felt wrong to leave either Roosevelt off of this list. Like George Washington, President Roosevelt was the right man at the right time. Eleanor’s political activism and her commitment to equal rights are equally inspiring. To dip your toe into the world of FDR and Eleanor (and add Theodore too!), return to Russell Freedman’s stellar biographies for young readers.
Finally….I saw this boat during my walk this morning:
It seems only appropriate to end this post with a quote from one of the great American novels:
A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention. It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. . . . Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive. Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog. Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him. Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.
Happy Fourth of July!