Lively books that meet the challenge of telling U.S. history, warts and all


October 07, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

Teachers of American history often are the most memorable and the least memorable of any student's middle school and high school years.

The good ones make an impression that lasts decades. Instead PTC of sticking to middle-of-the-road textbooks, they encourage students to explore detours. Instead of asking for definitions of manifest destiny and reconstruction, they expect students to form an opinion about those subjects.

The forgettable teachers go by the book, asking students to spit back dates and names and events. Just memorize enough to pass the multiple-choice test, and you're home free.

If you or someone you know is stuck with a teacher who fits the second description, here are two books that show history can be entertaining, enlightening and full of opportunities for debate.

* "America Alive: A History" by Jean Karl, with illustrations by Ian Schoenherr (Philomel, $22.95, 128 pages, ages 10-14), is a narrative account of everything that's happened from the time the first Americans crossed the land bridge from Siberia into Alaska, to Bill Clinton's election and the growing problems of pollution, drugs, homelessness and crime.

Ms. Karl, one of the most respected editors in the children's book business, established the Atheneum Books for Children imprint and ran it for 24 years before moving to her current position as a field editor for Atheneum Publishing. She has also written several books, including "The Turning Place" and "The Search for the Ten-Winged Dragon."

In "America Alive," Ms. Karl presents an overview that moves quickly and ties lots of loose facts and figures together into a thought-provoking whole. She does it with the thread of one theme: change.

And she does it with a point of view -- Republicans would probably call it an agenda. She writes positively of presidents with the courage to take risks and try to change the status quo -- from Teddy Roosevelt's cracking down on the huge business monopolies to Lyndon Johnson's alienating Southern voters by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Ms. Karl doesn't shy away from criticisms. She writes that Ronald Reagan reduced taxes and increased defense spending. The rest of his activities fell into a familiar pattern: little money for schools, the poor, the environment; lots of money for businesses (which got not just enormous but colossal) and for the rich; and people encouraged to be more content with the way things were -- good for some and not for others -- than with the idea of change."

She details Watergate, says Warren G. Harding let big business run government and nails Joe McCarthy for ruining innocent lives with his witch hunt for Communists. She writes that Christopher Columbus was "not kind" to the Native Americans he encountered. After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson "thought that former slaves, now called freedmen, were not as good as white people."

If your politics lean to the right, you'll want to pick a fight with some of Ms. Karl's interpretations. Such a debate is what spices up the best history lessons.

* The title doesn't do justice to "Scholastic Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times" by David Rubel (Scholastic, $16.95, 216 pages, ages 9 and up). It's an incredibly expansive look at American History, with one page devoted to each year from 1789, George Washington's first in office, to 1994.

Each president is introduced with a fact box with his birthplace, party, vice president, family and his nickname -- including several I'd never heard of: James Buchanan (Ten-Cent Jimmy), Rutherford B. Hayes (His Fraudulency), Grover Cleveland (Uncle Jumbo), Warren G. Harding (Wobbly Warren), Jimmy Carter (Hot) and, of course, Bill Clinton (Bubba).

But the book goes way beyond biographies of our 42 chief executives. Each presidential entry is accompanied by one of the biggest news stories of his term, written as if the Teapot Dome Scandal and Custer's Last Stand happened yesterday. They're quick hits that lend a sense of urgency to the history.

There are other items on important events that can be cross-referenced (look up isolationism in the index and you'll find five mentions, the last during Dwight Eisenhower's first term). Biographical sketches of newsmakers of the time range from Booker T. Washington and Mark Twain to Malcolm X and the Beatles.

The narrative is well-written, but it can be hard to follow because the news items and quick hits draw readers' attention away from the main text. Still, it provides an objective look at the events that have shaped our country, and like "America Alive," it doesn't shy away from negative or controversial events such as Watergate, Roe vs. Wade and the Iranian hostage crisis.

Mr. Rubel doesn't equate history with drudgery. There's a two-paragraph blurb on how Mad magazine began printing on glossy paper in 1954 so it could skirt the new Comics Code that banned violence and sexuality in comics. And the page devoted to 1982 features a photo of Ronald Reagan with the chimp in "Bedtime for Bonzo."

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