By Esther Forbes
Happy Birthday Jeanne DuPrau (The City of Ember).
It’s the birth date of Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849), Moral Tales for Young People; J. D. Salinger (1919–2010), The Catcher in the Rye; and E. M. Forster (1879–1970), A Room with a View, A Passage to India.
It’s also the birth date of Betsy Ross (1752–1836), credited with crafting the first American flag for the fledgling United States. Read Betsy Ross by Alexandra Wallner.
In 1788 The Times, London’s oldest running newspaper, published its first edition.
On this day in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the Confederacy.
It’s National Soup Month. Read Soup by Robert Newton Peck, Mouse Soup by Arnold Lobel, Stone Soup by Marcia Brown, and Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak.
It’s National Book Blitz Month, an opportunity to promote books we love.
On January 1, 1735, Paul Revere, patriot, silversmith, and engraver, was baptized in Boston’s North End. Although made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” Revere’s story has attracted many fine writers over the years, including one of the descendants of Samuel Adams, the organizer of the Sons of Liberty: Esther Forbes.
Although Esther Forbes would become a brilliant writer for both adults and young people, she suffered from a type of dyslexia. She could not spell words and used the dash as her only form of punctuation. These problems did not deter her from writing a biography of Paul Revere, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, that won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1943. An editor suggested that Forbes try her hand at writing history for young readers. Because American soldiers were going into World War II, Forbes reflected on how in peacetime adolescents are protected but in wartime they are asked to fight and die. Remembering the story of a young boy who delivered a critical message to Paul Revere, she produced the first draft of Johnny Tremain.
Normally, publishing a great story by a Pulitzer Prize winner would have been a “no brainer” for an editor—but Grace Hogarth at Houghton could not help but notice Forbes’s issues with spelling and punctuation. Hogarth gathered her courage to tell Forbes that although she loved the book, she would have to standardize the spelling! Forbes merely said, “My editors always do that!” So a very messy manuscript got transformed into the greatest work of historical fiction for children in the first part of the twentieth century. According to editors on staff at the time, Forbes drove two aging proofreaders almost out of their minds in the process.
This complex and brilliant novel spans two years in the life of Johnny Tremain, an orphan and silversmith apprentice. While casting a sugar basin for John Hancock, he burns his right hand and must abandon his position. But he finds work as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty, becoming swept up in the American Revolution. Forbes brought an amazing amount of historical detail to life and takes young readers behind the scenes as the colonists decide to rebel against the British. As the New York Times said of her, she was “a novelist who wrote like a historian and a historian who wrote like a novelist.”
I can think of no better way to begin a new year than rereading Johnny Tremain. It reminds all of us just how great fiction for young readers can be.
Text copyright © 2012 by Anita Silvey