I hope you all have seen the interesting thread on McCarthyism that grew around Betsy’s last work in progress post. After I added my thought to that strand, I realized that it — in conjunction with Diane’s it-would-be-funny-if-it-were-not-so-sad story of the teacher who covered her ears when Diane told her the Washington and the Cherry Tree story was a myth — points to two distinct ways of looking at history. One view of history is that our job is to research, in as great detail as possible, the event, person, time, movement, social force we are studying. Whatever we happen to find is the history we recount. But another view is that we look back into history to answer some present need. We are looking for a "usable past."
The danger of the first form of history is antiquarianism — in other worlds, the history makes no claim to any special importance, other than the exhaustive labor of the author to get it right. Think of some local authority spending endless time to find out whether the old Jones farm had three buildings, or two with a connected outbuilding. That kind of history does not assume it has any audience — any role in the present. The danger of the second form of history is that it becomes propaganda. The author selects a sequence of bits from the past to add up to the message or moral he already has in mind. He is not letting the past speak for itself, he is using it to speak for him.
I think we in kids books are in a blurry place between these two views. We stress "accuracy" and "research" yet we keep looking for books about the past to have some meaning, some moral, today. So lets talk about that — how do you see the balance of the "pastness of the past" and the "usable past" — how do we make the past meaningful without turning it into a sermon? How do we model letting the past correct us, prove us wrong, not matching our present view in books for young readers?