Cecillia’s comment about Disney mths and kids happened to come just as my Rutgers class was reading the two book on the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak — Laurie Anderson’s novel Fever, 1793 and Jim Murphy’s nonfiction book An American Plague. One of the debates in class was how to think of those elementary/young middle school series, such as American Girl or Dear America which girls like, which introduce them to places and times and attitudes and experiences they might otherwise not explore, but which place essentially the same modern girl anachronistically in a historical setting. Is the hook worth the inaccuracy? Is the inaccuracy so bad that the apparent gain is outweighed. In a sense that is the same question as the Disney films — what is the value of broadly sharing a kids version of a costume drama, designed to appeal to them, if it fundamentally blurs the past?
I don’t have a slam dunk answer. But one thing we’ve been noticing with our boys, now 6 and 10, is that the steady diet of nonfiction I’ve made available to them (along with whatever else they want to read) has paid off. Sasha has a lot of bits of information about colonial America, about WWII, about the Cold War — which he trying to piece together, and which serve as a filter when he reads novels set in those periods. Rafi has been avidly collecting information about the planets, the body, geography, which serve a similar function. And so in a way I’d say the answer about popular culture is like our view of Nutella. The boys love Nutella — they each get it once a day (a useful carrot and stick when there are fights). Bu they get it because they also have fruit and vegetables, cheese and meat. So maybe the question is not, do we give kids pop culture versions of semi history, but, rather, lets be sure we are also giving them a diet of nonfiction — not necessarily one to one — here is Jim’s The Alamo to go with your Girl of the West book — but, rather, as part of their ongoing reading.
Nonfiction information is like putting stamps in an album — slowly the pages start to fill; slowly you have a picture of some time in the past; here you have one piece of information; there, another. This reading is not a course, not a lesson plan. It is just adding mental furniture — filling in mental maps — giving 7ou some grounding in truth, in reality, in what is known of the past the the world. Then, as you read fiction, you can begin to compare and contrast, to evaluate, to question. So the problem may not be the Girl Books, but rather if we feed them to eager readers without ever challenging them to read nonfiction. Then we are giving kids a diet of Nutella instead of a Nutella treat.