Valley Forge National Park http://www.nps.gov/vafo/ was our mini family trip this weekend. We were drawn by the advertised activities on Monday — George Washington was to be there, with Martha, kids could make hats, and eat a special GW birthday cake. But the highlight of the trip turned out to be on Sunday — a regular Sunday at VFNP — where the reenactors showed how troops loaded and fired cannon and rifles, how their wives cooked for them and sewed and cleaned their uniforms, how the doctors dealt with their medical needs (mainly disease). The men and women were very knowledgable, and all of us learned a lot. I have studied the Revolution in some depth in graduate school, but I never needed to know the level of detail of military matters that these people have mastered.
The reenactors again made me think about what books dealing with history should be. Just as Google is giving kids a way to get any fact or date that they need, reenactors are providing thoroughly researched historical experiences, with the added benefit of a live people in interesting clothes. And while a kid in Hawaii is probably not going to visit Valley Forge often, and some families just cannot afford to dash off to visit a National Park and stay at a hotel, those limitations are surely temporary. Even today a company was showcasing a podcast they are developing based around Valley Forge. Soon enough, I bet, any classroom, or any motivated kid at a library, will be able to go visit reenactors digitally — perhaps at first watching a tape, but soon enough, sending questions to be answered in real time.
I think we have to develop our books in the assumption that they are part of a spectrum of ways kids are getting information, and that, thus, what we do as writers must change. What would be the point of writing a book about what it was like to be a soldier at VF, when the reenactors already do a better job of presenting that information? I don’t think this means books are in trouble. Just the opposite. We must think about what it is that books do best, and do that, so that that book experience fits in nicely with the web search, the visit, the podcast, and the game.
So fellow authors, reviewers, librarians, critics, teachers, parents: what do NF books do best, and what should they be in the future?