kellyrfineman (kellyrfineman) wrote,

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Independent Dames by Laurie Halse Anderson

I have recently been fortunate to read a folded-and-gathered version (F&G) of Laurie Halse Anderson's forthcoming nonfiction picture book, Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution, illustrated by Matt Faulkner (the same illustrator who did the art for her prior nonfiction picture book, Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving. The book will be available in stores on Tuesday, June 3rd. But I need to tell you about it before then, not just so you can preorder it, but also so you'll understand Monday's post a bit better. Because come Monday, this is your destination for an interview with the lovely and talented Laurie Halse Anderson, with a focus on this year's forthcoming titles and on her work on nonfiction and historical fiction titles for kids and teens. But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet - first the book review.

Now, how best to review this book: as a totality, or piece by piece? I think I'll start with piece by piece, and then sum up at the end.

Why, you ask, is this an issue? Well, let's just say that the book has a few more words than your average picture book. As in, at least 10,000 more words than most picture books on the market today. And they fit into four separate categories (no, not nouns, verbs, adjectives and, uh, something else (adverbs, articles, prepositions, etc.)). The book accomplishes a lot in 40 pages.

First, there's the framing story/narrative, which is fixed in a box on the left-hand side of every two-page spread. Within this box, Anderson's narrator speaks directly to the reader, using a somewhat exasperated voice. You see, the narrator feels, as I do, that women's roles in history don't get enough credit. Here's the opening text from the first text box:

  Look, another school play about the heroes of the American Revolution. How sweet.
  We've got George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Paine. Famous guys who did important things.
  Wonderful. Just wonderful.
  Of course, you're missing part of the story.
  In fact, you're missing about half of it.

Also on that two-page spread:
1. Matt Faulkner's illustration showing kids getting ready to put on a play. The kids are in really great period costumes, with a good set, in some sort of auditiorium.
2. On the left-hand page at the bottom, a 1-1/4 inch text box labelled "Who's Who", which defines some collective noun that will be used throughout the book: Patriots, Continental Army, Militia, Continental Congress, Parliament, British army, and Loyalists (aka Tories).
3. On the right-hand page at the bottom, the start of the Timeline, which continues across the bottom of the rest of the pages of the book. On its first page (page 5), it's 13/16" high (yes, I measured, geek that I am). The timeline, which Laurie refers to as a "crawl", begins in 1763 and ends its consecutive run in 1791, although four additional years appear in the back of the book to cover further progress in human rights, including the abolition of slavery in 1865 by passage of the 13th amendment, and the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, allowing women to vote.

The following pages through page 33 contain narrative text boxes, Faulkner's illustrations (including dialogue bubbles, most of which inject humor into the pictures), the timeline/crawl (which includes not just dates and data, but also profiles of additional women and girls who contributed to the Revolution), and oval bubbles giving short biographies of individual girls and women (and of groups as well) who were Patriots.

Here's a short example from page 7, in which two females are profiled within a single bubble:

Sybil Ludington was sixteen years old when she rode forthy miles through a rainy night to spread the news of a British attack and round up four hundred militiamen to fight back. (Remember Paul Rever? His ride was only sixteen miles long.) Deborah Champion smuggled messages and money to George Washington—a two-day ride through enemy territory. When stopped by the British, she fooled them into thinking she was an old lady on her way to visit friends.

Here's a photo of page 23, ganked from Laurie's blog post dated May 9, 2008:

As you might have deduced from the first two individuals profiled in the book, Anderson isn't satisfied with mentioning only the wives of the Founding Fathers: indeed, while Martha Washington and Abigail Adams are in the book, they play a small role compared to the scores of individuals profiled. Nor does Anderson devote much time to such time-honored heroines as Molly Pitcher and Betsy Ross (both of whom are, in fact, debunked on page 36 in a text-based section labelled "Fact or Fiction"). At the bottom of page 17, Anderson notes in the crawl: "Molly Pitcher was not a real woman. She is a legend, a symbol of the brave women who carried water, food, and ammunition to soldiers in the middle of battle."

All told, 89 women and girls are profiled in the book, including African American and Native American women who fought for the Patriot's cause, whether in word or deed. Pages 34-35 (labelled "Even More Dames") categorizes additional female patriots who didn't all make it into the earlier pages. The aforementioned "Fact or Fiction" (pages 35-36) addresses stories of women and girls that can't be completely verified. And "The Other Americans" (pages 36-37) discusses Loyalists, African Americans and Native Americans in a bit more detail. Page 38 contains author's and illustrator's notes, and has as its banner a quote from John Adams that will be familiar to anyone who watched the John Adams miniseries on HBO: "The history of the revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other." Page 39 contains a lengthy bibliography (break out the reading glasses - the print is small so as to fit everything on one page), and page 40 is every geek's and teacher's dream: an alphabetized index to the "dames."

This book contains a tremendous amount of information, and it has quite a bit going on in it, but the genius of its set-up is that it never feels heavy or pedantic. Information is doled out in bite-sized morsels, and kid readers will be free to read as much (or as little) of the information as they feel up to. History buffs will thrill at the timeline crawl and endnotes; kids interested in getting the general information without as much detail will enjoy the narrative text boxes, biography bubbles and illustrations (with their dialogue).

A must-have for libraries everywhere, and for anyone interested in the real history of the U.S., as opposed to the myths involving cherry trees and Paul Revere as a solo hero. Oh, and for everyone interested in women's history and the rights of women. Which is pretty much everybody. I hope.

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Tags: anderson, book reviews, faulkner, nonfiction, picture books

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