How Children’s History Books Teach Kids Whose Lives Really Matter


Going to the library and picking up some history books for your kids seems like a wholesome activity, right? Be careful, it’s actually very treacherous terrain! The books you give your kids might be teaching them to be racist. You won’t know it if you’re only on the lookout for overtly offensive passages. You have to pay attention to what’s not there.

Yesterday we went to Valley Forge National Park. In advance of our trip, we picked up the Magic Tree House nonfiction book on the American Revolution. I started reading it to my kids. Whoooo boy.

The book begins by explaining what colonies were and how people got there:

People often sailed from Europe and Britain to begin new lives in the colonies. Some came for freedom to worship as they pleased. Others came for land. Still others came for work.

Red flags. Alarm bells. Why is it only describing why Europeans came? A page after describing what the trip was like, there is a brief aside:

The colonies also had slaves, who were brought over from West Africa. Most slaves lived on large farms called plantations in the southern colonies. They worked in the fields or as house servants.

There were also American Indians in the colonies. They were there long before the colonists arrived. Many lost their lands as the colonies grew larger.

This is a master class in passive voice and obfuscation. “slaves…were brought…” by who knows who. Indians “lost their lands as the colonies grew larger” because this was inexorable and there was somehow losing without taking. Worse, by putting this material in a separate section after describing why and how people came to the colonies, the authors have made the curious decision to explain what it was like for Europeans to come to America while not describing the same for Africans. They’re reinscribing the hierarchy rather than explaining it.

The next chapter is titled, “Life in the Colonies.” It describes technology, material culture, work, food, education, dress, and the gendered experience of children. It does not mention the experiences of enslaved people or Native Americans. Not. One. Time. After this chapter the groundwork is laid and the rest of the book is a narrative of the Revolution. The whole chapter on “Life in the Colonies” is actually about European life in the colonies.

It is a particular narrative masquerading as a universal one. Instead of trying to describe what colonial society was like, it affirms its exclusions. When your narrative omits vast numbers of people, you’re just reproducing the racist logic of the time: these people don’t belong in the same way; these people don’t matter as much.

These stories are extremely destructive. They teach young minds who belongs, who is important, who has a history. These narratives are racist.

I must emphasize that I’m not talking here about the difficult question of how to craft age-appropriate narratives of traumatic pasts. Good luck telling your 6-year old about the Holocaust! That is a real discussion worth having, and it’s not easy. But this is something else. It’s a deliberate decision to prevent kids from knowing, in a general and age appropriate way, what life in the colonies was like!

It would not have been even a little bit difficult for the authors to at least write a transition sentence like, “For enslaved people, life was much harder.” Then you write a few sentences about what daily life was like for them. Likewise, you mention the diverse approaches different Indian nations took to the expansion of the colonies. This is not rocket science.

I can imagine a certain kind of reader saying that my concerns smack of political correctness. This is not so. If the racism of these narratives doesn’t concern you, can I bother you with the fact that they’re false? At the time of the first census in 1790, African Americans were nearly 20% of the population. There is no good historical reason to decide not to tell kids about 20% of the people in your story. So the political correctness runs in the opposite direction. The story sacrifices historical accuracy to protect white feelings and promote a brittle kind of patriotism that can’t acknowledge the complexity of the nation’s past.

So, go ahead and get those history books from the library. But read them with your kids. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert. You only need to be able to ask some basic questions: what’s not here? Is the story doing what it is claiming to do? What is the author’s goal? What or who is being left out? I went ahead and read that awful chapter on life in the colonies to my kids. But then we debriefed.

Was the American Revolution Worth It?


I took advantage of the holiday to take my two oldest boys to the new Museum of the American Revolution today. It is visually very impressive. I’m less able to judge its interpretive lens because of my general ignorance of the revolution and because I had a four-year-old with me who wasn’t down for reading everything. Understandable! But the boys had fun.

With the caveat that my stroll through the museum was far from comprehensive, I got the impression that African Americans and Native Americans figure fairly prominently in the story, but loyalists are slighted. Does this ring true to others who have visited? I saw one small section that superficially discussed loyalist motivations but I don’t get the sense that visitors would come away from the museum seriously grappling with loyalism as a viable choice in colonial America.

It seemed to me the museum has a heavy teleological bent, encouraging the viewer to understand past events in light of futures the historical actors could not and did not imagine. Seen from this perspective, the revolution was great because growing numbers of people would claim its fruits in the centuries to come. The focus on futures makes African Americans a natural part of the story but comes with a cost. It can obscure the actual decisions people at the time had to make without the benefit of foreknowledge.

Without the light of foreknowledge, was the patriot cause just? It’s a question patriotic sense tells us we shouldn’t even be asking. But it’s a historically and morally useful question.

I asked my son John if he thinks he would have been a patriot or a loyalist. He said neither because he would have been afraid to fight. In that answer he demonstrated more serious historical reflection and honest evaluation of human behavior than most of us. And he’s seven!

I just finished reading Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions, where the loyalists appear as real people making understandable decisions. The patriot leaders often appear acquisitive, suspicious of the common people, and jealous in the defense of their prerogatives. Taylor joins the historiographical trend of seeing the Constitution as an attempt to tamp down democracy in the states and preserve the advantages of creditors, landowners, and enslavers.

In such a narrative, the genius of the United States is found in successive generations of Americans who had the audacity to claim that the rhetorical flights of fancy of a wartime messaging tool (the Declaration of Independence) should be made real in society. In other words, the founders accidentally set in motion the emergence of a society that most of them would have found repugnant.

Was the Revolution worth it? The freedoms won for ordinary white men pale in comparison to the other fruits of the Revolution: the intensification of conquest and enslavement in the west. At the Museum of the American Revolution, the patriot cause is vindicated because of the abolition of slavery in the Civil War and the great civil rights campaigns of the twentieth century. But do these victories for freedom really belong to the Revolution? It is not unreasonable to wonder if the cause of freedom would have been better served within the British Empire.

Really, I’m just stirring the pot. When you think about the American Revolution, are your sympathies more with the patriots or loyalists? Or does patriotism prevent us from even considering the question?