Books for Bloodthirsty Children
I was lucky. I learned to read during the 1950s, which was, at least in my memory, a sort of Golden Age for children’s literature. Around third or fourth grade, I starting reading a lot of nonfiction. Random House was publishing its Landmark series of books on American history; they had a distinctive cover style, and I learned to scan the library shelves for interesting titles. And what titles they had!
I was a bloodthirsty little boy, watching TV westerns with my Dad most evenings, with pretty much every episode ending in a gunfight. So I was eager to read about the Old West. The Landmark series had books about trappers, scouts, Pony Express riders, buffalo hunters, Indian warriors, and frontier lawmen–all thrilling topics featuring danger, bravery, and shooting. I soon branched out to books about wars–the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II–that offered similar thrills on a bigger scale.
When my sons started to read, I looked for comparable books and discovered that–like the Old West itself–they’d vanished. Priorities had changed. The characters in the books I’d been allowed to read were mostly white guys; the new generation would be raised on stories featuring greater ethnic and gender diversity. And while I’d reveled in stories about battles and shootouts, the new children’s literature sought to minimize references to violence.
Thus, as a parent, I found the current biographies aimed at children peculiar. I opened one about Michael Jordan and found a paragraph about his first MVP season, the number of points he scored, and such. The next paragraph gave the stats for the next year, and so on. I couldn’t get through two paragraphs–and I had trouble imagining many little boys making the effort. (To be fair, if I had found Landmark books, I suspect my sons would have spurned them, too. They had no interest in any story featuring someone riding a horse; they wanted spaceships and laser cannons.)
Most of the Landmark books were biographies, and they presented narratives–this happened first, then this occurred, and so on. It was a standard, easily grasped way of telling a tale. However, I remember the first time I read Henry Castor’s America’s First World War: General Pershing and the Yanks (1957). The first few chapters followed the familiar formula–Pershing’s boyhood, his years at West Point, his early postings. But then things got strange. Chapter 9 was about technology. Its key sentence was: “Six costly weapons came of age during World War I: the machine gun, the tank, the automobile, the submarine, poison gas, and the airplane” (p. 48). The chapter went on to discuss each of these innovations in turn. I remember thinking that this was something different–not a story, but a list. It was, I think, the first time I consciously thought about how a book I was reading had been written, my first foray into critical thinking as a reader.
Not long after that, it occurred to me that many of the biographies I was reading–stories about Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Crazy Horse, and the like–featured the same scene. The adolescent hero ventured into the forest where he encountered a bear (usually a mother trying to defend her cub). The bear attacked, and the hero grappled with it, eventually killing the bear with his trusty hunting knife. It was gripping stuff, but I started wondering whether all of those guys had each managed to kill a bear in hand-to-hand combat, or whether this was just a bit of added drama. I was becoming a skeptical reader.
The Landmark books were important to me. They exposed me to the joys of reading nonfiction, and they made me especially interested in my social studies classes, which would steer my later studies and my career in particular directions. By junior high, I’d graduated to popular histories aimed at adult readers, such as Bruce Catton’s books about the Civil War. Those books had lots of chapters about battles, but they also covered the North’s advantages in miles of railway, manufacturing capacity, and the like. My earlier reading gave me tools for understanding the importance of that information.
I don’t think reading the Landmark books I preferred–the ones about violent white guys–did me any harm. In fact, as I look back, they did me a lot of good. In the intervening decades, there have been a lot of concerned reformers dedicated to making children’s literature more appropriate, but I wonder whether they haven’t manage to discourage kids from reading nonfiction. I admire the Harry Potter novels–thick books that reward readers for paying close attention. But where are the nonfiction titles that can compete, not just with Hogwarts, but with the now out-of-print books I read as a boy?
Joel Best is a Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. His most recent book, with Kathleen A. Bogle, is Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex (New York University Press, 2015).
The image used at the beginning of this post features Joel Best in the 1950s and is copyright of the author.