Last year, I reviewed a copy of Russell Freedman's, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). The story of their friendship and the "back story," was so interesting, that I thought it might make a good topic for a Black History Month program for younger children. I began searching for a way to communicate to a young library audience the connection between the history of African Americans and these two great men. In researching, I found that the founder of African American History Month (it was originally called Negro History Week), Dr. Carter G. Woodson, initiated this cultural celebration in 1926, and chose February because the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are both celebrated in February. (1) I then discovered an earlier book, Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship (Henry Holt, 2008), that recounts the friendship but targets a younger audience. Even better, it has a companion DVD. So, I planned a Lincoln and Douglass birthday celebration, featuring the Lincoln and Douglass picture book and an explanation of the founding of Black History Month. Perfect, right?
Well, not quite. In reading Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship, I found several discrepancies. As it turns out, the timeline included in the picture book's back matter is correct, but some dates within the book's narrative are not. For example, Freedman's thoroughly researched book has the initial meeting of Lincoln and Douglass as a central theme. The picture book gets the date wrong. Though the picture book still has merit and will be useful to introduce Douglass and Lincoln to a young audience, I can also use it as a teaching moment. Always check to see that a book has been properly researched if you plan to use it as a representation of factual material.
Oddly, the same thing happened to me last year. I sketch out my programs many months in advance to satisfy printing and publicity deadlines. I fill the details in later. Last year, I offered a Black History Month program on Follow the Drinking Gourd (Knopf, 1988). While investigating resources, I found that the story, while well-known and generally accepted, is more folk legend than truth. (2) Again, the story is not without merit and I was again able to use it as a teaching moment. Besides the obvious lesson, we looked at ways in which to read the stars without a compass.
I understand narrative license. I understand that it's particularly useful in treatments of difficult topics for younger children. I also understand, however, that there is a concerted effort by our nation's leaders to raise a new generation of critical thinkers, and to achieve that end, the use of nonfiction books will rise dramatically. It is up to us as librarians, teachers, caregivers and parents to discern fact from fiction, even when the line between them may be indistinct. In doing so, we will help children to navigate a world where information is everywhere for the taking, but truth must be mined.
Nonfiction Monday roundup is at Apples with Many Seeds.
The Brown Bookshelf; each day in February will feature a different artist in this annual celebration of Black History Month and children's literature.
(1) Library of Congress, "African American History Month"http://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/african-american.php (Douglass' actual birthdate is not known conclusively)
(2) Follow the Drinking Gourd