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1. A Q&A with John Ferling on the American Revolution

John Ferling is one of the premier historians on the American Revolution. He has written numerous books on the battles, historical figures, and events that led to American independence, most recently with contributions to The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook. Here, he answers questions and discusses some of the lesser-known aspects of the American Revolution.

What was the greatest consequence of the American Revolution?

The greatest consequence of the American Revolution stemmed from Jefferson’s master stroke in the Declaration of Independence. His ringing declaration that “all men are created equal” and all possess the natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has inspired generations hopeful of realizing the meaning of the American Revolution.

What was the most underrated battle of the Revolutionary War?

King’s Mountain often gets lost in the shuffle, but if Washington’s brilliant Trenton-Princeton campaign was crucially important, King’s Mountain was no less pivotal. Washington’s victory was America’s first in nearly a year, King’s Mountain the first of significance in three years. Trenton-Princeton was vital for recruiting a new army in 1777; King’s Mountain stopped Britain’s recruitment of southern Tories in its tracks. Enemy losses were nearly identical at Trenton-Princeton and King’s Mountain. Finally, Sir Henry Clinton thought the defeat at King’s Mountain was pivotal, and soon thereafter he told one of his generals that with the setback “all his Dreams of Conquest quite vanish’d.”

Sketch of the Battle of Trenton by Andreas Wiederholt (b. 1752?). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Sketch of the Battle of Trenton by Andreas Wiederholt (b. 1752?). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the one unanswered question about the American Revolution you’d most like answered?

The war in the South in 1780 and 1781 is shot through with mysteries. Why did Benjamin Lincoln stay put in Charleston in 1780? He might have withdrawn to the interior, as did those defending against Burgoyne’s invasion, or he might have made a stand behind the Ashley River — as Washington did on the Brandywine — and then retreated to the interior.

Why in the summer that followed did Horatio Gates immediately take the field when his army was so unprepared and he faced no immediate threat? Why did Gates in August at Camden position his men so that the militia faced Cornwallis’s regulars?

Why in 1781 did not Sir Henry Clinton order General Cornwallis back to the Carolinas or summon him and most of his army to New York?

With all the mistakes, maybe the biggest mystery of the war is how anyone won.

What is your favorite quote by a Revolutionary?

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Aside from the egalitarian and natural rights portions of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, I have two favorite quotations from revolutionaries. One is that of Captain Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts. When asked why he had soldiered on the first day of the war, he responded: “[W]hat we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” My second favorite is Washington’s remark on learning of Lexington and Concord: a “Brother’s Sword has been sheathed in a Brother’s breast.”

Aside from John and Abigail, what was the best husband-wife duo of the Revolution?

If “best” means the duo that best aided the American Revolution, I am sure there must have been countless nameless men who bore arms while their spouses at home made bullets. But of those with whom I am familiar, I opt for Joseph and Esther Reed. He played an important role in Pennsylvania’s insurgency, served in the army and as Washington’s secretary, played a crucial role in the Continental Army’s escape after the Second Battle of Trenton, sat in the Continental Congress, and was the chief executive of his state for three years. She organized the Ladies Organization in Philadelphia in 1780 and published a broadside urging women not to purchase unnecessary consumer items, but instead to donate the money that they saved to aid the soldiery in the Continental army. Altogether, her campaign raised nearly $50,000 in four states.

What was the most important diplomatic action of the war?

The greatest consequence of the American Revolution stemmed from Jefferson’s master stroke in the Declaration of Independence. His ringing declaration that “all men are created equal” and all possess the natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has inspired generations hopeful of realizing the meaning of the American Revolution.

What is your favorite Revolutionary War site (battlefield, home, museum, etc.) to visit today?

If limited to choosing only one site, it would be Mount Vernon. For one thing, George Washington seemed to have a hand in almost everything that occurred in America from 1753 until his death in 1799. In addition, he was a farmer, a pursuit that is alien to most of us today. Mount Vernon includes an informative museum, a functioning distillery and mill, farm land, animals, gardens, and of course the mansion, which opens a window onto the life of a wealthy Virginia planter. Those who lived there as slaves are not overlooked and slavery at Mount Vernon is not whitewashed. Nearly a full day is required to take in everything and at day’s end a visitor who comes without much understanding of the man and his time will leave having received a decent and illuminating introduction to Washington and eighteenth century life and culture.

Mount Vernon by Ad Meskens. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Mount Vernon by Ad Meskens. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Propaganda was important during the Revolution. What is your favorite propaganda item?

Had there been an Abraham Zapruder armed with a motion picture camera on Lexington Green on 19 April 1775, we might know precisely what occurred when the first shot was fired in the Revolutionary War. But we will never know if that shot was fired accidentally, whether it was fired by British soldiers following orders, or as some alleged if it was fired by a colonist in hiding. What is known is that soon after that historic day the Massachusetts Committee of Safety deposed witnesses of the bloody event, from which it cobbled together an account showing that the regulars opened fire after being commanded to “Fire, by God, Fire.” That account circulated before the official British report was published. In a day when knowledge of who fired the first shot to launch a war was still important, the Massachusetts radicals had scored a propaganda master stroke.

If you could time travel and visit any American city, colony, or state for one year between 1763 and 1783, which would you choose?

I would choose to be living in Boston in 1763. I would like to know what people in the city were thinking about Anglo-America prior to the Sugar and Stamp Acts and how many had ever heard of The Independent Whig. I would like to visit grog shops to discover whether there was a hint of rebellion among the workers and whether they thought Samuel Adams would ever amount to anything. While there, perhaps I could catch a game at Fenway when the St. Louis Browns come to town.

In your opinion, what was George Washington’s biggest blunder of the war?

A book about Washington’s blunders would be large, but his most baffling mistake occurred in September and October 1776. Although fully aware that he was soon to be trapped in Harlem Heights by a superior British army and utterly dominant Royal Navy, Washington made no attempt to escape his snare. His letters at the time indicate an awareness of his dilemma. They also suggest that in addition to his customary indecisiveness, Washington was not just thoroughly exhausted, but in the throes of a black depression. These assorted factors likely explain his potentially fatal torpor. He and the American cause were saved from the looming disaster by the arrival of General Charles Lee, whose advice Washington still respected. Lee took one look and urged Washington to get the army out of the trap. Washington listened, and escaped.

In your opinion, who was the most overrated revolutionary?

Franklin is the most overrated. He was not unimportant – indeed, I think he was a very great man – but as he was abroad for years, he played a minor role in the insurgency between 1765 and 1775. Furthermore, while Franklin was popular in France, Vergennes was a realist who acted in the interest of his country. It is ludicrous to think that Franklin pulled his strings.

Who was the most underrated revolutionary?

General Nathanael Greene is so underrated that many today are unaware of him. But he was the general that Washington turned to for good advice, made personal sacrifices to try to straighten out the quartermaster corps, and waged an absolutely brilliant campaign in the Carolinas between January and March 1781. It was his heroics in the South that helped drive Cornwallis to take his fateful step into Virginia, and to his doom. Had it not been for Greene, it is difficult to envision a pivotal allied victory on the scale of Yorktown in 1781, and without Yorktown the war would have had a different ending, possibly one that did not include American independence.

Was American independence inevitable?

Chatham and Burke knew how independence could be avoided, but it involved surrendering much of Parliament’s power over the colonists. Burke also glimpsed the possibility of using proffered concessions to play on the divisions in the Continental Congress, which included many delegates who opposed a break with Britain. Burke’s notion might have worked. But from the beginning the great majority in Parliament thought that in a worst case scenario the use of force would bring the colonists to heel. Given the political realities of the day, war appears to have been virtually inevitable. Even so, independence very likely would have been prevented had Britain had an adequate number of troops in America in April 1775 or a capable general to lead the campaign for New York in 1776, someone like Earl Cornwallis.

A version of this Q&A first appeared on the Journal of the American Revolution.

John Ferling is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of West Georgia. He is a leading authority on late 18th and early 19th century American history. His latest book, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, was published in October 2013. He is the author of many books, including Independence, The Ascent of George Washington, Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of IndependenceSetting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, John Adams: A Life, and A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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2. Rhetorical fireworks for the Fourth of July

By Russ Castronovo


Ever since 4 July 1777 when citizens of Philadelphia celebrated the first anniversary of American independence with a fireworks display, the “rockets’ red glare” has lent a military tinge to this national holiday. But the explosive aspect of the patriots’ resistance was the incendiary propaganda that they spread across the thirteen colonies.

Sam Adams understood the need for a lively barrage of public relations and spin. “We cannot make Events; Our Business is merely to improve them,” he said. Exaggeration was just one of the tricks in the rhetorical arsenal that rebel publicists used to “improve” events. Their satires, lampoons, and exposés amounted to a guerilla war—waged in print—against the Crown.

Cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While Independence Day is about commemorating the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence, the path toward separation from England relied on a steady stream of lies, rumor, and accusation. As Philip Freneau, the foremost poet-propagandist of the Revolution put it, if an American “prints some lies, his lies excuse” because the important consideration, indeed perhaps the final consideration, was not veracity but the dissemination of inflammatory material.

In place of measured discourse and rational debate, the pyrotechnics of the moment suited “the American crisis”—to invoke the title of Tom Paine’s follow-up to Common Sense—that left little time for polite expression or logical proofs. Propaganda requires speed, not reflection.

Writing became a rushed job. Pamphlets such as Tom Paine’s had an intentionally short fuse. Common Sense says little that’s new about natural rights or government. But what was innovative was the popular rhetorical strategy Paine used to convey those ideas. “As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murders of Britain,” he wrote, playing upon the sensational language found in popular seduction novels of the day.

The tenor of patriotic discourse regularly ran toward ribald phrasing. When composing newspaper verses about King George, Freneau took particular delight in rhyming “despot” with “pisspot.” Hardly the lofty stuff associated with reason and powdered wigs, this language better evokes the juvenile humor of The Daily Show.

The skyrockets that will be “bursting in air” this Fourth of July are a vivid reminder of the rhetorical fireworks that galvanized support for the colonists’ bid for independence. The spread of political ideas, whether in a yellowing pamphlet or on Comedy Central, remains a vital part of our national heritage.

Russ Castronovo teaches English and American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His most recent book is Propaganda 1776: Secrets, Leaks, and Revolutionary Communications.

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3. Mapping the American Revolution

By Frances H. Kennedy


From the rocky coast of Maine to the shores of northern Florida to the cornfields of Indiana, there are hundreds of sites and landmarks in the eastern United States that are connected to the American Revolution. Some of these sites, such as Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, are better known, and others are more obscure, but all are integral to learning about where and how American independence was fought for, and eventually secured. Beginning with the Boston Common, first occupied by British troops in 1768, and closing with Fraunces Tavern in New York, where George Washington bid farewell to his officers on 4 December 1783, this map plots the locations of these sites and uses The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook to explain why they were important.

Frances H. Kennedy is a conservationist and historian. Her books include The Civil War Battlefield Guide, American Indian Places, and, most recently, The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook.

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4. Sophia's War: A Tale of the Revolution by Avi

Avi has always been a favorite in our house and his latest book, Sophia's War, is another addition to his oeuvre of historical fiction that doesn't fail to satisfy.  This time Avi takes the reader back to the American Revolution.

For 12 year old Sophia Calderwood, the revolutionary war is personal.  Forced to flee with her mother and father when the British attack and seize lower Manhattan, on her return, Sophia and her mother witness, first, the hanging of Nathan Hale by the British for being a spy and second, the burnt remains of part of their lower New York settlement.  Fortunately, the Calderwood house, though ransacked, is still standing.

Sophia's father had thought it wise to remain at a friend's house in northern Manhattan, but he soon shows up at home with a gunshot in him arm.  It is decided that he will remain sequestered at home for now, since he is a known patriot and needs to recover.  As for Sophia's brother William, a soldier fighting under General Washington, there has been no news of him for a while.

On top of all this, with the British now in charge, the Calderwoods are forced to billet a soldier.  Lieutenant John André, handsome, cultured and kind, arrives at their door and Sophia is immediately taken in by his attention and many charms.
"In short, having never met so well bred and civilized a man as John André, I was greatly flattered by the attention.  Indeed, I was nothing less than enthralled." (pg 56)
When Sophia lets slip to John André the her brother is a patriot, he lets her know that he will keep the information to himself, and that he will do whatever he can to help her family.  So naturally, when Sophia discovers her brother seriously ill and starving in one of the British prisons known for their deplorable conditions,  she is sure John André will help him.

The news that John André has been ordered to go to Staten Island immediately, prompts the Calderwoods to ask if he will help William.  When Sophia confronts him about this, he tells her he cannot do anything, that his honor as a British officer is the most important thing in the world to him.  But when Sophia reminds him that he had promised that, if needed, he would anything he could for her, he responds that a promise to a 12 year old is not like a pledge to a lady, and that she is not yet a lady.

Shaken to her core by this, Sophia vows to save William.

Fast forward to 1780, the war is still being fought.  Sophia is now 15, working in a print shop to help her family out.  There, because she can read, she is recruited as a spy for the Americans.  Placed in the home of British General Clinton as a housemaid, she is asked to report any information she finds.  But just as she discovers a plot of treasonous proportions involving an American general and her old friends John André, the person she reports to has disappeared for safety reasons.

What to do with all this information?  Here is Sophia's opportunity to get revenge on John André for failing to help William by exposing the plot she has uncovered.  Can a young 15 year old succeed against all odds and possibly change the tide of the war?

Sophia's War was an exciting book to read.  Avi has taken a real event of the American Revolution that has many aspects to it that have never been explained and offers a cogent explanation.  And why not?  This is what historical fiction is all about.  All the places and events, as well as most of the characters in Sophia's War are real and you will probably recognize them from history lessons.  It is told in the voice of  self-conscious narrator Sophia, who directly addresses her readers in several places, making it sound plausible, while at the same time reminding us she is a fiction.

I thought this was one of Avi's best novels and I have loved all of them.  My one reservation about Sophia's War was the revenge aspect of her motivation.  But, of course, in the end, there is much to learn from Sophia's motivations.  Do read this novel is you enjoy good historical fiction.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from Webster Branch of the NYPL

Simon & Schuster offer a reading guide for Sophia's War including Common Core Standards here.

This is book 1 of my 2013 American Revolution Reading Challenge hosted by War Through the Generations.
This is book 3 of my 2013 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry

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5. My John and Tom (Part 3)


In January, in My John And Tom (Part 2), I shared a bit about what made Adams and Jefferson so different. In this third and final segment on Those Rebels, John and Tom, I wanted to share a bit about the themes that brought them together—and drive the narrative: commitment and compromise.

The whole time I’ve worked on the book, our current Congress has been…stalled. (OK, I must admit I debated which word to use here—there are so many to choose from! I read recently that the majority of Americans would prefer to have the current members of Congress replaced by names drawn randomly from the phone book.)

The state of today’s Congress is the perfect backdrop to appreciate all that the Continental Congress achieved.

They started in 1774—with nothing.

They had to decide everything. How would voting take place. Would voting be based on population or would each colony have one vote?

And that was just the start. In addition to the hours spent debating in Congress, there was all the committee work. In June of 1776, while Tom was busy writing the Declaration—in the hopes that Congress would vote yea—Adams himself was serving on 26 committees, prompting him to write to a friend, “I am weary, thoroughly weary.” Among his many duties, he chaired the Board of War—for while America had not yet declared independence, Americans under General George Washington were already fighting British troops.

This sense of commitment was epitomized by what Adams called “the greatest debate of all”—the life-or-death decision that Congress had to make. And I mean that literally—when the members of Congress voted for independence, they committed treason. If America had lost the Revolutionary War, the British could have hanged them all.

The men of the Continental Congress had such commitment to their cause that they were willing to die for it.

And yet, they engaged in this life-or-death debate in the spirit of compromise.

Sure, they didn’t have the two-party system with have now—there weren’t Democrats and Republicans back then.

But the delegates came from all over the colonies, and each colony had its own concerns. A lot of the delegates had never even met when they first arrived in Philadelphia. And yet, when it came time to decide the biggest questions, they set aside regional concerns and sought out compromises to answer those questions—for the good of the whole.

Those Rebels, John and Tom is an example of when Congress worked. It’s a timely reminder of how our government can and should work: not perfectly, not always easily, but always with our elected officials working together to move the country forward.

Commitment. Compromise. These are the themes of Those Rebels, John and Tom. (PS. A shout-out to Edwin Fotheringham, the illustrator of the book--aren't the illustrations great?!)




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6. My John and Tom (Part Almost 3)

I was all set to post the third installment of my FoundingFathersPalooza—an exploration into how I conceived, researched, and wrote Those Rebels, John and Tom, my book about Adams and Jefferson. And I’ll post the final installment next month.

But something wonderful happened a few days ago that fits in so nicely, I couldn’t resist talking about it. You see, in a couple of weeks, I get to meet John and Tom.

In person.

I’ll be participating in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s “Presidents’ Day Family Festival” at the JFK Library in Boston, on February 21st.

And John and Tom are going to be there!

OK, technically, John Adams will be played by Thomas Macy and Thomas Jefferson will be played by Bill Barker – but take a look at the links. Don’t they look fabulous?! Both men are real history buffs and I know will do Adams and Jefferson proud.

We’ve been doing a bit of emailing, setting things up. Under the signature line for Thomas Macy’s emails are the quotes:

"Querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams."
- Benjamin Franklin Bache
"I'm not crippled." - John Adams


And Bill Barker signs his emails:

Yr' hm'bl sr'vt,
Thos. Jefferson


I think this is going to be fun…

I am geeky excited. For someone who spent over a year working on the book, this is the next best thing to a time machine.

If you will be in Boston on Feb 21st, please join us, won’t you?

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7. Notorious Benedict Arnold

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery Steve Sheinkin

I think that Sheinkin gets nominated every year, and I know he’s made it through to the short list at least once. There’s a reason why-- he’s just that good. Sheinkin has a way of telling a story, even one you think you’ve heard before and making it completely riveting. In this book he takes on Benedict Arnold, American hero and traitor. It’s a rip-roaring yarn of fierce battles, crazy stunts, and incredible bravery that then goes completely wrong when Arnold does the unthinkable. Although we’re still unsure as to WHY he did it, we get a much more complete picture of the man than we usually do. Sheinkin can really bring history alive.

I hope he takes on Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys soon!

Book Provided by... my local library

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8. My John and Tom (Part 1)

I thought I’d do something a little different for the next few months, and spend a bit more time talking about a single project: where I got the idea, how I developed it, and what I hoped the story would accomplish. A beginning-middle-end, if you will.

It wasn’t hard to choose the topic, as my latest book is a story I’ve been waiting most of my life to tell.


So today, I’m beginning the first of a three-part discussion of my latest book. But first, let me introduce my dear friends, John and Tom.


I was first drawn to the story of Adams and Jefferson because I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. My father worked at the State Department, and so I think I was more aware of government than a kid living somewhere else might have been. I went in to DC and saw places like the Capitol and the National Mall pretty often.

I turned sixteen the summer of the country’s bicentennial, and I remember going downtown: it seemed like there were a gazillion tourists and even more of those sidewalk stands selling little American flags and patriotic t-shirts.

But even before then, I was tuned in to celebrating America’s independence, and that was because my mom and dad were big musical theater buffs. They had a whole cabinet full of Broadway recordings, and they listened to them almost every night. The musical “1776” was one of their favorites.

“1776” is the often funny and often quite moving story of the Continental Congress as they grappled with the enormous question of whether to remain a British colony or to declare independence—committing treason in the process.

The musical premiered on Broadway in 1969, and I think my parents must have bought the record shortly thereafter—when I was about ten years old. Many nights at bedtime *it* was the album I’d ask my dad to put on in the living room downstairs, so I could listen to it upstairs. I fell asleep listening to John urging Congress to “Vote YES” and to Tom wooing his wife on the violin.

I fell in love with the musical “1776.” It was my first glimpse that history could be just as exciting and engaging as any novel or movie.

So, in a sense, I grew up with John and Tom, and it’s not surprising that one day I would tell *my* version of their lives: Those Rebels, John and Tom.

Next month, I share a bit about researching and writing the book.

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9. Giveaway and Nonfiction Monday Book Review: Thomas Jefferson for Kids: His Life and Times with 21 Activities, by Brandon Marie Miller (Chicago Review Press, 2011)

Recommended for ages 9-14.

This new release from Chicago Review Press about Thomas Jefferson, one of the most venerated of our founding fathers, is a great addition to any school or public library, as well as ideally suited for  use by home schoolers.  Although many biographies of Jefferson are available for young people, this one is unique in including a variety of hands-on activities to enhance learning, from how to organize your library like Jefferson, how to observe the weather, grow a plant from a cutting, or paint a buffalo robe.  Although I did not try any of the activities, they include copious instructions, and are well suited for upper elementary and/or middle school students.

Organized chronologically, this book begins with some background on Jefferson's father, Peter, and his wife Jane.  Thomas was the first of their eight children, and showed himself to have a quick mind from his earliest childhood.  Jefferson went on to be a brilliant college student, often studying 15 hours a day (and without a tiger mother!), and then studied law.  We learn about Jefferson's immersion in radical politics, his family life, and his drafting of the Declaration of Independence.  Later chapters explore his presidency and his founding of the University of Virginia, as well as recounting the incredible story of his death on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence--the same day as his friend and rival, John Adams, also breathed his last.

Miller's volume is clearly written, and provides a fascinating look at this complex individual and his wide range of accomplishments and interests.  I particularly appreciated that she does not shirk from analyzing Jefferson's many contradictions, which she summarizes as follows:  "A man who believed in frugal government yet lived his own life burdened by debt.  A man who hated kings and privileged nobles yet lived as an aristocrat himself.  A man who believed passionately in freedom and liberty yet owned slaves who toiled for his comfort."

It is the last of these contradictions which is most difficult for us in the 21st century to come to terms with.  Although Jefferson recognized the evils of slavery and even condemned slavery in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, these remarks were removed in one of 86 changes made by Congress.  Slavery, though, was deeply engrained in Jefferson's consciousness; he grew up in a slave-owning household, and inherited his first slaves when he turned 21.  Miller includes in her book an advertisement Jefferson placed to recover a runaway slave, describes what is known of his relationship with Sally Hemmings, including discussing the many children she bore him (a new historical fiction novel for young people, Jefferson's Sons, by Kimberly Bradley, comes out in mid-September, and will be reviewed here at The Fourth Musketeer later this fall).

This volume is greatly enhanced by an abundant use of illustrations, including many full page reproductions of paintings, photographs, maps, and drawings.  The large format of the book and generous use of white space make the text easy to follow, and the author makes good use of many sidebars for further explanations of different topics in Jefferson's life, from his slave Jupiter to the Hemming family to political explanations of events such as the Sedition Act.

Back matter includes plac

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10. Book Review: Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom from A to Z, by Alan Schroeder (Holiday House, 2011)

Recommended for ages 7-12. 

While there is no shortage of books available on Ben Franklin and his amazing life, Alan Schroeder’s new picture book biography, written in an unusual almanac format uniquely suited to Franklin’s encyclopedic interests, is an attractive addition to books available for elementary school aged children. Written by Schroeder, author of other notable picture book biographies such as Minty:  A Story of Young Harriet Tubman,  and illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist and children’s book illustrator John O’Brien, this slim volume manages to pack a tremendous amount of information into the traditional 32-page picture book format.  


Each letter of the alphabet is represented by fitting entries related to Franklin and his life and work. For example, A is for Almanac (a brief three paragraph entry explains the popularity of almanacs in Colonial America and how Franklin was responsible for the most popular almanac of all, Poor Richard’s Almanac), Abiah (the name of Franklin’s mother), Apprentice (Franklin apprenticed in his brother’s printing shop), and Armonica (a musical instrument invented by Franklin).  Franklin’s witty sayings, many of which remain popular today, appear on small banners in the detailed ink and watercolor illustrations.  

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11. Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider

It's Nonfiction Monday and I'm back from my vacation to Boston, a wonderful city which lays claim to the title of Birthplace of America.  The role of Boston in the American Revolution cannot be denied, nor can the contributions of Alexander Hamilton, scholar, soldier, politician and statesman. 

Frtiz, Jean. 2011. Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider. New York: Putnam.

In Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider, Jean Fritz follows a theme that ran through all aspects of Hamilton's life - that of outsider.  Born on the island of St. Kitts in the West Indies, Hamilton was often accused of being an interloper in Revolutionary American politics.  Once committed to the ideal of a free and independent America, however, his "outsider" status never dampened his enthusiasm for his country. Fritz recounts his many contributions to the revolutionary cause and to these United States.

Besides serving in the Revolutionary War, he was also an aide-de-camp to then General George Washington.  He served as a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was the architect of the Bank of the United States and the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury.  As a New Jerseyan, I knew that his life ended in Weehawken in the famous duel with Aaron Burr, but I did not know that he founded the city of Paterson.  He was convinced that American should and would be more than an agrarian society. He chose Paterson because its large waterfall could be used to generate electricity for business.  (In 2009, Paterson's Great Falls became a National Park Historic District)

In short, using her customary exactitude, Fritz tells a complete story of a complex man, using only facts and period quotations in this small, slim, 144-page volume.  Archaic language ("poltroon") or long-abandoned customs (anonymous leaflet writing) are explained fully in the author's Notes. Historical reproductions (credited) are scattered throughout. A Bibliography and extensive Index complete the book.

This would make an excellent choice for a school biography report, much better than the formulaic series that students often choose.

The United States Treasury website features a page on Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury, and architect of the National Bank and the US Mint.

Just an aside - Jean Fritz is 95 years old! How wonderful that she's still working and producing great children's books.

Today's Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Telling the Kids the Truth: Writing Nonfiction for Children. Please

2 Comments on Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider, last added: 4/25/2011
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12. The Whole Truth

In my somewhat new Monday slot, more of my posts fall on holidays (duh!) and I have just let them pass. Last month, for example, Valentine’s Day came and went, but my heart wasn't in it.

Today, however, I’d like to celebrate this week’s unofficial holiday that, in my opinion, deserves to become official--the onset of Daylight Saving Time (DST). What an emotionally lifting gift—especially to New Englanders who have been battling the suicidal impulses that accompany a 4:30 sunset. For months we have tried to keep our spirits up as the light inched back a minute at a time. Then PRESTO CHANGO! In just one day, arbitrary magic multiplies the jump times 60. We get a whole new hour of light—and life becomes brighter in every way. If only Zoloft worked so well.

As nonfiction writers we are obligated to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, right? What about the whole truth, though? In this case, I would have to admit that DST causes increased danger of traffic and pedestrian accidents during its first week because of sleep cycle disruption. It was never created to help the farmers or reinstated more recently to save energy. In fact, farmers hate it and many experts believe it increases energy costs: electricity for air conditioning and over $100 million a year for the airlines.

Why did this idea gain purchase? Some British golfer in 1907 realized that if one hour of sunlight was switched from the sunrise side to sunset, he’d have time to get to the back nine. In fact, when the 1986 Congress debated the issue of extending it into March, the golf lobby went to town. According to Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, the golf industry estimated the extension of DST would increase their revenues by 400 million 1986 dollars, the barbecue industry over $100 million. In other words, if you give Americans the chance to go outside at any time, they will spend money.

Telling the whole truth about DST is not a horror. An ironic example of one of America’s worst traits, perhaps, but not a deal-killer. In the unlikely event that I ever wrote a book about DST, I’d “out” its origins with relish.

But what about other times, when telling the whole truth in our books for younger children is a lot more painful? Then how far do we go? I just attended a conference on sustainable energy this week where everyone had already accepted the devastating long range consequences of climate change as inevitable. Nobody was talking about getting better gas mileage or "clean coal." The focus was on how to think about reconfiguring communities in the Brave New World. I'm not considering a book about this subject either; but how do you give kids hope and this kind of information at the same time?

When I wrote See How They Run: Campaign Dreams, Election Schemes, and the Race to the White Hous

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13. The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution

Murphy, Jim.2010. The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution. New York: Scholastic.

The brave young men who first enlisted as soldiers under General George Washington's command were promised
a few happy years in viewing the different parts of this beautiful continent, in the honourable and truly reputable character of a soldier, after which, he may, if he pleases return home to his friends, with his pockets FULL of money and his head COVERED with laurels.
Of course, anyone familiar with the Revolution knows that nothing could have been further from the truth, which is why the choice of this 1775 recruiting poster makes such an excellent place to begin The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution. After the victories at Lexington and Concord, Congress and soldiers were feeling brave and confident.  It seemed that only George Washington understood the gravity of the situation and the enormity of the task ahead. 

Jim Murphy's latest book is not a chronicle of the American Revolution, but rather a close look at the period between June 15, 1775, when Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental army, and January 3, 1777, when the Continental army defeated the British troops at Princeton, following the famous victory at Trenton on December 26, 1777.  This was, Murphy contends, the most crucial period in the American Revolution, the period when the very survival of the nation hung in the balance.

In seven chronological chapters, Murphy carefully recounts the strategy, battles, and general mood of the soldiers and citizens during this period.  Maps, period artwork and quotations help to set the desperate mood of the times. At one point, after George Washington's "humiliating retreat through New Jersey,"
even a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Stockton, gave "his word of honor that he would not meddle in ... American affairs" and swore allegiance to King George III.
(Here I am left to wonder why one of New Jersey's colleges is named after Mr. Stockton, though he apparently did, at a later date, again swear allegiance to the United States.)

During a retreat from Fort Lee in November of 1776, just barely ahead of advancing British troops, Murphy writes that Washington's
desperate soldiers abandoned cooking kettles, muskets, ammunition pouches, and unnecessary clothing as they staggered along.  A New Jersey citizen recalled that these soldiers "looked ragged, some without a shoe to their feet, and most of them wrapped in their blankets."
As always, Jim Murphy's book is thoroughly researched, highly engaging, and exhaustively indexed.   A timeline, list of Revolutionary war sites, and notes and sources are also included.

As a New Jerseyan, an undergrad history major, and  mother who has accompanied the annual 4th graders' class trip to Trenton, I am quite familiar with New Jersey's Revolutionary history, but still found The Crossing to be enlightening and engrossing.  Particularly interesting to me is the lengthy explanation following the final chapter, of the famously inaccurate painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware." Murphy has g

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14. A Historical Thriller: Forge, by Laurie Halse Anderson (Atheneum Books, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.


I was so excited to finally get my hands on Forge, the sequel to Laurie Halse Anderson's acclaimed Chains, which was a National Book Award finalist and the winner of the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.  About the only thing I didn't relish about Chains was the ending, which left the reader with a nail-biting cliffhanger in what felt like the middle of the story.

If by some chance you missed Chains, you'll want to read it before delving into this sequel--the second volume of a planned trilogy.  Chains, set at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, focuses on the story of Isabel, a 13-year old slave owned by a prominent New York City family who support the British.  Isabel meets another slave, Curzon, with ties to the Patriots, and becomes a spy for the Patriot cause--with the hopes of obtaining her freedom.

In Forge, the story begins where Chains ends, with Isabel and Curzon escaping to freedom, but the focus of the story quickly changes from Isabel to Curzon.  The two have separated again, with Isabel running away to try to find her sister and Curzon finding himself in the middle of the Battle of Saratoga, then enlisting in the Patriot army.  The irony of a slave fighting for the freedom of others does not escape Curzon, who attempts to argue his case with his friend and fellow soldier Eben.  Curzon questions whether bad laws deserve to be broken, but Eben is frustrated by Curzon's logic.  "Two slaves running away from their rightful master," he says," is not the same as America wanting to be free of England.  Not the same at all."

But when the army arrives at the winter encampment at Valley Forge, white and black soldiers alike are unprepared to deal with the conditions there:  about 12,000 soldiers with no barracks, bitter cold, and no meat.  The author begins each chapter with a quote from a contemporary source, many of which are increasingly desperate reports from General Washington to the Continental Congress on the need for supplies of all kinds, from food to shoes to clothing.  Most days rations consisted of nothing but firecake, a mix of flour and water that tasted like ashes and dirt, and was "hard enough to break rat's teeth."  Anderson so successfully evokes conditions at the camp that we groan along with the men at their terrible conditions.  But the men manage to find a little humor in their situation..no food means "we've got nothing to fart with."  A special treat for Christmas is a piece of chewy pigskin to chew on (I'm assuming like the pigs ears people buy now for our dogs).

Through all the hardship Curzon manages to keep secret that he is really an escaped slave, but he can't stop thinking about Isabel and what might have become of her.  Fate is to bring them together again at Valley Forge.  While General Washington and Baron von Steuben try to forge the raggedy American volunteers into real troops, Curzon and Isabel try to forge their way to a new relationship...are they more than friends or an ever-bickering brother-sister pair?  And can they in turn forge their way to a life of freedom  0 Comments on A Historical Thriller: Forge, by Laurie Halse Anderson (Atheneum Books, 2010) as of 1/1/1900
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15. A Dear John Letter

Dear John Adams, you've got a birthday coming up, on the 30th of this month, to be exact. On the 19th, by the old reckoning, set aside when you were not quite 18. It will be your 275th. Wait – let me imagine the glorious light of 275 candles, set into a spice cake, and the breath required to extinguish them. Make a wish, I'd hope you would, for this governing machine that you helped to invent, this ongoing experiment in participatory democracy. I'm imagining what an old Braintree lawyer/farmer/orator/public servant such as yourself would make of the republic for which you and your 'Dearest Friend,' – please pardon me the liberty for thus referring to Mrs. Adams – gave so much. I'm imagining what you'd look like now. I'm thinking of Sam Jaffe as the remarkably well-preserved High Lama in the 1937 Frank Capra film, Lost Horizon.
I doubt you'll read this, having other things to do in the Blue Beyond, but you might wish to know that, though there's no great stone monuments or temples to you in Washington, D. C., you've been the subject of many a heartfelt book, including a couple of mine. More about them later. I was introduced to you, your ebullience and stubborn earnestness in a fine work of historic fiction, Irving Stone's Those Who Love (1965; A book club sent it to my folks when I was 14.) and in Catherine Drinker Bowen's 1950 biography, John Adams and the American Revolution, found in a used bookstore. These as well as Jos. J. Ellis's The Passionate Sage (1993) and David McCullough's John Adams (2001), but how about books for young citizens?
There's John and Abigail Adams:An American Love Story, by Judith St. George (2001); certainly Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution, by my friend Natalie S. Bober (1998); and this year's handsome Picture Book of John and Abigail Adams, written by David A. Adler, illus. by Michael S. Adler. But allow me to write a bit about how I went about writing and illustrating the pair of books I did about the Adamses.
In 1994 Bradbury Press published Young John Quincy (Out of print it's been for years, the title being unclear and the world being unfair, as you well know.) It was followed nine years later by The Revolutionary John Adams (National Geographic). The happy problem, in the latter, was distilling your long adventurous life into 48 pages. I pored over said bios along with Esther Forbes' book about Paul Revere - excellent for the feel of your time and place. Not being able to go to your time, I did manage to go to your place, your house, which still sits beside your folks' house, in which you were born.
They were farmhouses in the 1700s. Folks walked or rode their horses or jostled along the country road between Boston and Plymouth. Now they're surrounded by every sort of business, jammed side by side in modern Quincy,

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16. Woods Runner

Paulsen, Gary. 2010.  Woods Runner. New York: Wendy Lamb.

At only thirteen years old, Samuel is already a man in some ways.  Born on the frontier, he is at home in the woods; hunting, tracking and providing for his family.  His parents have taught him to read, to be curious, to enjoy the hard work and simplicity of the frontier, but at heart, they are city-born, content to live at the edge of the great woods. Samuel, though, is perhaps even more at home in the woods than in his family's modest home.

So it is that Samuel is away hunting bear when the war comes to Western Pennsylvania.  Carefully deciphering the tracks and signs near the scorched earth of what was once their settlement, Samuel knows that his parents have been taken captive by British Redcoats and their Native allies.  Others from the settlement were not so lucky.  After burying the dead, Samuel sets out to find his parents - traveling eastward to the Redcoats stronghold, New York.

Like a Cold Mountain for teens and young adults, Woods Runner doesn’t recount the battles of war , but rather, its impact on civilian life.  Samuel, his parents, and his traveling companions do not fight in the war, but neither can they escape it.

     "It is the way of it," Abner put in from the darkness, "of war.  Some get, some don't, some live, some ... don't.  It's the way of it.
     "It's bad."
     "Yes. It is.  But it is our lot now, and we must live it."  Abner sighed. "The best we know how.”
A historical tale of action, suspense, determination and survival.  Single page entries of historical facts (ammunition, orphans, communication, etc.) separate the chapters and add background and perspective to this short, gripping story. History repeats itself every day in some location in the world.  It's good to remind ourselves sometimes of war's less visible consequences.  Highly recommended for grades 6 and up.


Read an excerpt from Woods Runner.

Bookpage has a great interview with Gary Paulsen.

Woods Runner, Three Rivers Rising, One Crazy Summer, The Keening, Countdown ... this has been a great year for historical fiction. I can’t wait to see what wins the Scott O’Dell Award.  It’s hard for me to pick a favorite.

I nominated this book for the Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) in the Young Adult category.  Anyone can nominate books until October 15th.  Just be sure to read the nomination rules first.

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17. Book Review: The Family Greene, by Ann Rinaldi (Harcourt, 2010)

For ages 10 and up.

Ann Rinaldi is one of our most prolific and well-loved writers of historical fiction for young people, particularly well-known for stories set during the American Revolution and the Civil War.  That said, I was disappointed with her newest novel, published in May, which centers around several generations of women in the family of General Nathaniel Greene, second in command to George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Even the cover is disappointing, with its sad-faced model that doesn't seem to fit at all with the themes that emerge in the story (compared to the stunning YA covers that have been coming out lately, what teenager is going to pick this one up?)  The story is told in two parts; the first part is narrated by Katy Littlefield, who is 10 years old when our story starts.  She is sent to live with her worldly Aunt Catharine, whose husband is a prominent patriot.  Her aunt is a notorious flirt and good friends (or perhaps more?) with Benjamin Franklin.  Her aunt is supposed to teach her how to be a "lady," with lessons such as this:
You should know this, Caty Littlefield...we women have the right to flirt.  If it is kept a harmless pastime.  Men expect it from us. Done properly, it gives us power, and Lord knows we have litle of that...But it must be learned to be done properly.  
When Katy grows up, she marries a cousin of Uncle Greene, Nathaniel, 12 years older than she is. War breaks out soon after their marriage.  Her husband is quickly promoted to brigadier general, and she goes with him, as did Martha Washington, to live at Valley Forge, where she entertains all the gentlemen with her lively spirits, and becomes a "belle of the camp."

Rinaldi then cuts off this story and switches narrators to Caty's daughter, Cornelia, some years later on the family plantation in Georgia.  Cornelia is concerned with her mother's reputation when she witnesses her exchanging kisses with their schoolteacher, but Cornelia's problems escalate when her nasty older sister tells her that Nathaniel Greene is not really her father, but rather that her father was a lover of her mother's.  Cornelia becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about her parentage.

This would have been a more appealing novel if Rinaldi had stuck with the first part of the narrative, perhaps enlarging on the section in which the young married Greenes are at Valley Forge.  In the second half of the novel, the character of Caty suddenly changes, without explanation, to a mean-spirited flirt who can be cruel to her children and disrespectful to her husband by her actions, which to my view go beyond most people's definition of flirting.   While some of Rinaldi's fans may enjoy this book, it definitely was not one of her best.

1 Comments on Book Review: The Family Greene, by Ann Rinaldi (Harcourt, 2010), last added: 9/11/2010
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18. A History of US: Part I

Julio Torres, Intern

A History of US is the James Michener Prize-winning collection of  books written by Joy Hakim, a former teacher and editor. The series tells the story of the nation through its ten volumes.  For the next six weeks, starting Sunday, the History Channel will air their ambitious chronological series, America: The Story of Us.

Since A History of US and America: The Story of Us, follow the same timeline we thought it would be fun to share some of American history’s  lesser-know facts found along the margins of the books.  Make your way through the nation’s history as we enlighten you with facts and challenge you with trivia questions inspired Hakim’s volumes.

First up, trivia questions from books 2 and 3, Making Thirteen Colonies and From Colonies to Country, corresponding to the History Channel’s first week of the series (premiering April 25th) dedicated to the colonies and the Revolutionary war.  Don’t be discouraged if most of these feel obscure, chances are they were bonus questions back in Middle School. The answers are at the bottom of the post. Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for more fun content related to our nation’s great history.  Read an original post by Hakim here.

What state was its own nation from 1777 to 1791 and became the first state to outlaw slavery?

Which Shakespeare play was inspired by the wreck of the colonist ship, the Sea Venture?

What state name means “at the big hill” in Algonquian?

Which treaty officially ended the French and Indian War?

What famous, brave soldier switched sides from the Patriots to the British in 1780? (He captured Fort Ticonderoga)


Answers: Vermont, The Tempest, Massachusetts, The Treaty of Paris, Benedict Arnold

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19. Happy Fourth!



Greetings, guys, and Happy Fourth of July. OK, the Fourth is actually tomorrow, but we're closed then, so I'll do it today. Are any of you going to see some good fireworks? Where will you go? Where are the best fireworks in your area?

We're celebrating our independence this weekend, not only from England but from all forms of tyranny and oppression. Sure, our country's not perfect, but we have a lot of freedoms that many places in world don't. One of them is the right to read. Dictators don't like it when their people can read and are free to read. It undermines their ability to oppress. Frederick Douglas certainly knew it. He told a story about how his master's wife started teaching him to read. The master made her stop because reading would make "unfit" to be a slave. He'd learn new things and become "unsatisfied" with his life. And it was true. Frederick Douglas continued to learn anyway, eventually found his freedom, and became a nationally-famous speaker against slavery. READING IS IMPORTANT, GUYS! Don't ever forget it.




Enough talk--let's put this into practice. Here are a couple of really good books for the Fourth or any time:

DK Eyewitness Books--American Revolution The cover says, "Discover how a few brave patriots battled a great empire." It's true. The American Revolution was an amazing story--a nation of farmers and shopkeepers, a country that was just a strip of land between the mountains and the sea, took on and beat the greatest military power in the world. Of course, we had some help with people like LaFayette and countries like France, but, still, we came awfully close to losing and it's amazing that we won. This book, like all the DK Eyewitness books, gives you lots of good pictures, interesting facts, and makes a good introduction to this fascinating story.


The Journey of the One and Only Declaration of Independence by Judith St. George
What a story!! Can you believe we still have the original Declaration? A piece of parchment over 200 years old? It's amazing to think of that--especially when I often can't find the piece of paper I printed 30 minutes ago! The original document of the Declaration of Independence is on display in Washington D. C. but it went through a lot to get there--it had to sneaked away from the British (twice!!), shrank in the hot and humid Washington summers, endured years of chimney and cigar smoke, and was both neglected and fought over many times before finding a place in its permanent display. This book told me a very exciting story that I never knew about. Judith St. George (who wrote the award-winning book So You Want to Be President?) for making history come alive and interesting and fun to read. And Will Hillenbrand's great illustrations really add to the story.

Enjoy the weekend. Liberty forever!

Carl and Bill

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20. Nonfiction Wednesday--1775-style

Today, we return to our regular book reviewing! These are both adult non-fiction titles that were recieved as part as Mini Book Expo for Bloggers, which if you are a book blogger and don't know about, you should totally check out.

Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution Tony Williams

In September of 1775, when the American colonies were preparing for war, a hurricane struck its way up the East Coast, affecting many of the revolutionary players. The hurricane, while taking many lives where it first hit in North Carolina's Outer Banks, did not have much effect on history. Williams uses it as a window in which to view the beginning of the war. Sadly, the window is not big enough to do what he wants to do and, overall, the book lacks cohesion and focus. More than anything, the storm serves as an excuse for an extended metaphor about the brewing political tempest. The book ends with a chapter on a second hurricane that struck Newfoundland shortly after the first struck the East Coast. Where Williams's conclusions that this was a different storm are interesting and new, one must question why they are included on the book of ostensibly about the American Revolution.

Although the premise is weak, and much of the material has been covered before, Williams's writing style is very engaging. For readers who have not yet read their way through the plethora of books on the Revolution, Hurricane of Independence is highly readable and interesting. I'm not just saying that! This book had some organization issues, but really, an excellent writing style and I look forward to reading more by the author.

Williams has a knack for writing about the weather and I wish he would have done a history of eighteenth century North American hurricanes. I firmly believe Williams could write a fascinating account, both due to his writing style and the fact that in this title, that is where he really added to the field.

Published by Sourcebooks.



A Treatise of Mathematical Instruments John Robertson

This is a reprint of the third edition of this title, which came out in 1775. Already I know you're asking, "Jennie, why on EARTH did you ask for this book?" Well... science history is pretty cool.

The parts of this book that I understood were really interesting. It's not an easy book to understand--first off, the font is based on the original, when they used s's that looked like f's. Plus, um... math tools I've never seen. And... math.

It starts off with a publishing history about the Sector Compass, which is what math people used before the slide rule. Now, this might sound dull, but there was much intellectual theft! And Galileo suing people for intellectual theft! Even though maybe he didn't invent the thing after all! Intrigue!

The treatise then discusses basic math tools. After a lengthly explanation of each, and how it might be used, there are several practice problems with long explanations on how to solve the problem using the tool in question. I totally understood the part on how to use a protractor, but when we got to the sector compass? And there were logs and trig functions? I really tried, but my eyes glazed over.

However! There are great discussions on how to make your own carbon paper, eighteenth century style, as well as a ton of information on British naval theory (and a mathematical proof on the most space-efficient way to store ones cannon balls), architecture, and how to draw using perspective. PLUS! When discussing the gunners callipers, Robertson is explaining how to use the conversion tables that are printed on the side. One of the example questions was the following: How long with 33 butts of beer serve a crew of 324 men, allowing to each man 3 wine quarts a day?. Talk about real life examples! This shows how important beer was to the navy (because it's sanitary to drink?) and is just a very practical question because there are a several conversions that need to be done to answer the question.

Also, the lack of standardization! A beer gallon was different than a wine gallon! One of the charts on the callipers was converting English feet to French feet (the measurement, not the body part.)

But, overall, there were many pages of computations I did not understand. The parts of this book I did get were fascinating. The other parts made me feel dumb.

Published by Invisible College Press.















*hee hee* butts of beer *hee hee*

We've already established that I'm 10.

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21. Early American Journalists: A Quiz

Megan Branch, Intern

In a time where newspapers are folding and cutting delivery days left and right, it’s easy to forget that the newspaper was once the favorite, and maybe only, way for people to get information. During the American Revolution, journalists were similar to modern-day bloggers. Everyone, it seemed, was starting a newspaper to bring his opinions to the public, including some people who might surprise you. In Scandal & Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy, Marcus Daniel, associate professor of American History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, offers a new perspective on the most influential, partisan journalists of the 1790s. Daniel reminds us that journalists’ rejection of civility and their criticism of  the early American government were essential to the creation of modern-day politics.  Check back tomorrow for the answers.

1. What early American journalist studied epidemics while taking a break from politics and his newspaper?

2. What grandson of a certain Founding Father used his inheritance to start a newspaper?

3. Which former public-school student, after failing to successfully run a dry-goods shop, decided to “try his luck” at journalism?

4. What Princeton alumnus and early journalist wore homemade clothes to his commencement ceremony?

5. What journalist scandalized Philadelphia with the window dressing in his printing shop and bookstore?

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22. Books for Nerds

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves M. T. Anderson

Octavian's not everyone's cup of tea. We know that right? This is not a book with mass teen, or general reader appeal. This is a book for your readers. Your nerdier types. You know who they are.

Sometimes, I think we get too hung up on "appeal." We're always asking who the audience is and if they will like it. We deal in buzz and word of mouth and everyone's trying to be the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

We don't have room for the odd book like Octavian. We wonder if, when books like this get awards, if the awards have lost touch with "what kids are reading today" even if the award is about quality and not appeal.

In our desire to get everyone reading and everyone into libraries we forget the nerds. The ones who've always sought refuge in our stacks. And I always wonder, in our quests to make everything appeal to everyone, if we're pushing away our core audience--the misfit geek crew.

Or, in my snarkier days, I'm wondering if we're just trying to make libraries cool so that the fact we spent every lunch period in our youth in the library will now be cool, and not nerdy, because we obviously still have some unresolved issues from our childhoods.

Anyway, Octavian is for the type who comes to the library even if it's not cool. Octavian is for, well, ME.

You should read the first one first. If you liked it, you should read the second. This one finds Octavian and Dr. Trefusis in British-occupied Boston, and then escaping to British-occupied Virginia, where the governor has promised escaped slaves their freedom if they fight for the Crown.

Octavian is taught harsh truths about the freedom is not equality, and no longer being a slave doesn't mean respect, or that people will value your life as much as they value their own. We see war, gritty horrifying war. We watch Norfolk burn. We hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait.

And I cried as I came to see the type of man Dr. Trefusis really was and lost all respect for him.

This book will be less shocking to readers than the first. While Anderson writes powerful and moving accounts of plantation slavery and war, readers are familiar with these themes, unlike the shock of the twisted ways of the College of Lucidity. But, if you liked the first, pick this one up and slip it to your bookworms.

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23. The Fiddler's Gun (YA)


Peterson, A.S. 2009. The Fiddler's Gun. Rabbit Room Press. 293 pages.

The trouble with Phineas Michael Button began the moment she was born.

It continues,

"She had the expected two ears, two eyes, one nose, and dimpled cheeks, but in her father's mind there was a problem. He had twelve children, daughters all, and was convinced that number thirteen would be his long-awaited son. So on the twenty-fifth of September, 1755, when he drew another baby girl from the womb of his long-suffering wife, he declared the discovery of an unacceptable mistake."


Abandoned by her parents, left in an orphanage in Ebenezer, Georgia, Fin, our young heroine has no problem being tough and staying strong. She's needed to be her whole life. But she is not the person the Baab Sisters--especially Hilde--would have her to be. She's not ladylike enough. She's too manly, too strong, too wild in their minds. Maybe a little kitchen duty will do the trick...

At first Fin is angry that she's been thrust into the kitchen, and forced into apprenticing with the orphanage's cook, Bartimaeus. (She's jealous that her best friend, her would-be-could-be husband, Peter, gets the better deal, the better job. He gets apprenticed to a carpenter.) But she soon realizes that this may just be the best thing that ever happened to her. For Bartimaeus --though not a simple man or a perfect man--loves her like she's his own child, his own daughter. He's a man with a past, a history--a dark and tangled mess of a past. But he's a good man, a changed man*.

With increasing hostilities between the colonies and England, it's not an easy time for Fin to come of age. Not with Fin's temperament. Her quick temper leads to...well...a great big dangerous adventure**.

Historical fiction. Action. Adventure. Pirates. Orphans. And a little old war.

What did I enjoy about this one? So very much! I love historical fiction. Usually. And this was no exception. A bit violent at times, yes, but what else would you expect in a sea-adventure filled with pirates?! It was exciting, compelling, hard to put down. It's anything but boring! I cared about Fin from the start. And her companions--especially Jack, Knut, and Tan--became important to me as well. The characters definitely felt human--felt flawed--which is a good thing. I would definitely recommend this one. (Especially if you enjoyed The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.)

The story will conclude in a second book, Fiddler's Green. (I want it now!)

You can order a copy of The Fiddler's Gun book through Rabbit Room Press.

*I will say this part of the story was just awesome for me. Peterson was able to connect the story with George Whitefield. True, it's a very small--very tiny--part of the overall story. But still, it made me happy.
**It probably helped that I love films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Blood, and The Sea Hawk. I think having this background helped me visualize the fighting-at-sea scenes.

© Becky Laney of

4 Comments on The Fiddler's Gun (YA), last added: 12/30/2009
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24. Crossroads of the Revolution

I've posted several times in the past on picture books about the American Revolution (Selene Castrovilla's By the Sword and Upon Secrecy, Anne Rockwell's They Called Her Molly Pitcher, and several versions of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere). And yet, I continue to get requests for more!

New Jersey teachers, especially, have a keen interest in this topic, and not just because it's required in the Core Content Curriculum standards. New Jersey is known as the Garden State, but ask any 4th grader in the state for a second claim to fame, and they'll tell you that New Jersey is also called The Crossroads of the Revolution. Situated between the strategic colonial cities of New York and Philadelphia, New Jersey witnessed over 100 battles during the War for Independence, as many battles as all other colonies combined.

Lynne Cheney's When Washington Crossed the Delaware: A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots tells how an event in Trenton, New Jersey would later be called a turning point in the War for Independenc. Readers are provided just enough historical context to set the scene for Washington’s bold attack on Trenton. With his army depleted to just ten percent of its original strength and half his troops’ enlistments about to expire, General George Washington is desperate for a victory. The hope of the new nation rests upon an impossible winter attack on an intimidating foe who has already crushed the Americans in New York and chased them across New Jersey and the Delaware River itself. The rich text and saturated illustrations recount the battles of Trenton as well as Princeton, and accurately depict the resounding effect that these two victories had upon the morale of the Continental Army. Cheney's book is filled not only with beautiful illustrations, but also with numerous quotations from those who lived the events described within the book's covers.

A great extension for this book? Let students pretend that they're colonial soldiers under Washington's command and have them write letters "home" explaining why they're continuing to fight. (An interesting note: following the Batlle of Trenton, the majority of enlistments in Washington's army were up. When the soldiers were promised additional pay, not one stepped forward. Washington then appealed to their loyalty to a noble cause, and then, and only then, because of their trust in and respect for their general, did the men step forward).

1 Comments on Crossroads of the Revolution, last added: 2/22/2010
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25. Murder and the Boston Massacre

By Lana Goldsmith, Intern

Richard Archer is Professor of History Emeritus at Whittier College.  Current events in Iraq have caused him to hark back to an earlier time in American history when ours was the occupied country. In this post, he uses an excerpt from his book, As If an Enemy’s Country, to discuss the Boston Massacre and his theory on the soldiers’ actual intentions.  The Boston Massacre occurred on the night of March 5, 1770, read more about it here.

One of the joys of historical research is the unexpected discovery. Sometimes a new understanding of seemingly familiar material comes from events in our own lives. In 2003, for example, when I was well into studying why Boston was in the forefront of the movement toward the American Revolution, the United States went to war with Iraq. I immediately was sensitized to the importance of an occupation and old documents suddenly had new meanings.

A similar experience came while I was investigating the Boston Massacre. Previous accounts gave the impression that the soldiers had mindlessly fired their weapons. Whether there was an order to fire or not (I conclude not), the standard story simply stated that the soldiers discharged their muskets and five people died and another six were wounded. Much to my surprise as I read depositions and trial testimonies, several witnesses charged that some soldiers fired at specific individuals. The evidence isn’t definitive, but it certainly opens the possibility of murder, as the following excerpt from As If An Enemy’s Country demonstrates:

There looms the possibility that some of the soldiers killed or attempted to kill particular people deliberately. Sailors and soldiers had fought with each other nearly from the first day of the occupation, and Friday’s ropewalk fray still was fresh in the minds of soldiers of the 29th Regiment. Even in the moonlight, the sailors’ attire distinguished them from the rest of the population. Two of the five men who died in the massacre were sailors, and one was a ropemaker who had fought with British troops on March 2. Another sailor was among the six who were wounded but recovered. It is equally possible that the victims were shot randomly. After all, the proportion of sailors and the ropemaker who died approximated the proportion of sailors and ropemakers in the crowd. Most of those who were killed or wounded were shot from a distance where visibility, even with moonlight, was limited and the accuracy of muskets was imperfect.

The deaths of Attucks and Gray, however, require special attention. Both of those men stood in close proximity to the grenadiers, and they would have been recognized as a sailor and a ropemaker. The unusually tall, dark Crispus Attucks stood out still more, particularly at a distance of no more than fifteen feet. Two bullets, from one or two muskets, simultaneously struck him in the chest. Whether the responsible soldier or soldiers intended to kill him may never be known, but there can be little doubt that one or two aimed at him. Perhaps it is only a coincidence, but the only other victims who received two bullets were the sailors James Caldwell and Robert Patterson.

The evidence that Samuel Gray was intentionally killed is stronger still. In a deposition Charles Hobby claimed that one of the grenadiers ‘at the distance of about four or five yards, pointed his piece directly for the said Gray’s head and fired. Mr. Gray, after struggling, turned himself right round upon his heel and fell dead.’ Edward Gambett Langford, in his testimony at the soldiers’ trial, identified the shooter as Matthew Kilroy, one of the grenadiers fro

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