Friday, March 14, 2008

When a Subject Finds You and He's Smoking a Big Cigar

My daughter and I were having one of our usual conversations about the sorry state of her school’s social studies curriculum. She was frustrated that, by 9th grade, they had yet to touch on the 20th century and it didn’t look like this year would be any different.

“I mentioned something about Winston Churchill to my friend J,” she said, “and she didn’t know who he was.”

She'd never heard of Churchill? Never heard his inspirational speeches, spoken with a lisp, of never surrendering to the Nazis? Never seen pictures of him in his blue coveralls, smoking his omnipresent cigar, giving his V for Victory sign? My mind started racing over our trip to England, the Churchill biographies I had read as a result, and the pages I had marked just recently when reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s NO ORDINARY TIME. After a long pause I said, “I just might have to do something about that.” My daughter gave me a big smile. She knew I had just met my next project.

Churchill had captured my attention a few years ago when I had convinced my family that a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms, where Churchill and his staff hunkered down during WWII, was a worthwhile way to spend our last morning in London. As they waved goodbye to their cousins who were off on a more lighthearted tour of Buckingham Palace, I tried to reassure them that they wouldn’t be disappointed. Luckily, I was right.

The self-guided tour was fascinating and we were all pulled right in. We learned a bit about the Blitz, how they made use of the different colored telephones, and how they charted everything out with paper and pins in the map room. It was a morning well spent, topped off by some chocolate cigars from the gift shop.

Is it possible to draw a kid into a book in the same way as that hands on experience? I think so.

In the official brochure of the Imperial War Museum, the photo of Churchill’s bedroom looks like this:

When I visited, I snapped a few photos, despite the darkness. The photo I took of Churchill's bedroom gives a slightly different view.

Notice anything in the bottom of my photo? Yes, I would definitely want the chamber pot included. Not only is it a visual kids would love but it reveals a lot about the time, place and circumstances. They were in a bunker because those were real bombs flying above; the closest bathroom was a up a floor or two. It would make a good contrast to talking about the conditions that FDR lived under at the same time and a great way to talk about the situation in Britain and the United States.

If done with the right approach, I'm confident kids would be interested. Books on Franklin D. Roosevelt certainly do well. What about a book that explores their relationship? But then why is there only one book on Churchill in the children’s section of my local library? Is it a gold mine waiting to be explored or a subject purposefully passed over? And there is the ever-present curriculum problem. If it is not a subject kids will study in school, the editors don’t think it will sell. Does this always need to be the first consideration regardless of a writer's knowledge or enthusiasm for a subject? More on this in another post.


Loreen Leedy said...

Churchill sounds like a great subject for a book, and including FDR might well resolve any sales potential concerns. I can imagine an editor thinking, "Churchill was English, why would American kids be interested in him?" Well, his mother was American, shouldn’t that count for something?

Here's a quote from:
The Churchill Centre

Winston Churchill was half American by birth - a fact of which he was deeply proud. In his first address to a joint session of the United States Congress, on 26 December 1941, he teased the assembled Senators and Representatives with the mischievous suggestion, "If my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way 'round, I might have got here on my own!"

Alison Ashley Formento said...

An excellent post! I agree that subjects covered in school history is quite limiting. I also realize that there just aren't enough hours in the daily schedule for history teachers to cover everything.

It sounds like you're already on your way with this book idea, which is intriguing. I believe you can find both, American and British publishers who would enjoy reading about the different challenges Churchill and Roosevelt faced while running a war.

robin said...

Great post -- and I definitely think that this is a subject worth exploring. I love the pictures and the small details that show the differences between America during the war and Britain during the war. I think most kids would love to learn about the differences between the leaders' lives, as well.

Dot said...

Wow. American kids don't learn about Churchill? That is so wrong. And I would think he'd be a wonderful non-fic subject, so larger-than-life, plus funny.

Verrrry interesting post, Linda.

mrspilkington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna M. Lewis said...

What a great experience for your kids (and you).
Last summer a friend was going to Paris so I gave her a disposable camera to take snapspots of the Impressionists haunts. Her sisters wound up taking all their photos for me... there was quite a collection. They even went in the Hotel Louvre and tried to sneak into the Pissarro room for me! I guess I'll have to go myself to get that one.

Looking forward to your book!

mrspilkington said...

Great post! Don't you just love those idea moments? I think Churchill is fascinating, and would love a book about the relationship that he had with Roosevelt; I think kids would love it too. It's the sort of thing that can work across the curriculum -- history, global studies, language arts, etc.

Kathleen Krull said...

I think the MOST important consideration here is your passion for the idea -- which you clearly have!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Your idea for a book about Churchill and FDR would find an audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Go for it!
You've hooked me -- I'm going to visit the war rooms next month when I'm in London!

Kelly Fineman said...

I love the idea of more kids knowing about Churchill - what a great topic. And the chamber pot is an excellent thing to include!

lizzy_lyn said...

I would read it. Go for it!