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My Favorite Portsmouth History Books for Kids

boy reading book
HISTORY MATTERS

A New Hampshire historian shares his fears and favorite local history books for children. Includes a list at the end of two dozen vintage-to-modern books for parents and kids. (Click title to read more)

 

I'm a little worried. When I give my history lectures across New England, the audience is predominantly gray. The occasional young face among the crowd always comes as a surprise.

"Did your parents make you come here?" I once asked a 10-year old in the front row.

"No," he said with confidence. "I like history. I made them bring me."

If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that from a youngster, I couldn't make change for a dime.  The older we get, of course, the more we think about legacy, genealogy, and nostalgia. We wonder how we will be remembered when we're gone.

But I'm worried, in a world of distraction, whether upcoming generations will share the same connection to the past.  Will they keep our house museums open or turn them into B&Bs? Will they preserve our documents and photos or be satisfied with digital versions?

children Portsmouth books

 

The printed portal

Admittedly, I didn't attend grown-up history lectures when I was a kid. History was my least favorite subject in school, if you don't count math, science, foreign languages, and gym. But I was a voracious reader. I spent summers reading books about dinosaurs and detectives, Indians and inventors, presidents and pirates. I didn't think these were history books, but they were. So was the dog-eared paperback copy of Ripley's Believe It or Not  that I carried in my back pants pocket. I was being honed for a career as a history writer -- and I didn't even know it.

I don't believe the sky is falling. But kids are easily distracted. There is so much to do and see today, so many flashes of Internet genius, that I worry, just a little. Will our kids lock in to an appreciation for local history, or will that critical period pass them by? Is the past, the real past, getting drowned out amid all the fascinating noise of the 21st century?

A national educational publisher recently stopped doing biographies of historical figures. School libraries were not buying enough history books to make them profitable to print, I was told. The kid's book market has moved to super heroes, zombies, Navy Seals, sports personalities, rock stars, and graphic novels.

Okay, that's not entirely true. Publisher's are still putting out history books for kids, but they are struggling to make them more interesting to a new media-savvy audience. Kids no longer see the past as a sacred and immutable thing. History now has to compete for its market share. The result are titles like  You Wouldn't Want to be at the Boston Tea Party. Then there's The Foul, Filthy American Frontier and,  The Dreadful, Smelly Colonies,  books that reveal the "disgusting details" of the days Americans ate moldy bread and maggoty meat, and washed their clothes in urine.

The good news is that these "revisionist" books for kids often bring them closer to historical reality by demystifying the past and turning heroes into authentic humans. The downside is that kids may be left thinking that our ancestors were dumber, less resourceful, less evolved, and even less important than we "superior" beings living today.

CONTINUE to next page of KID's HISTORY BOOKS


 

children Jackson House Cat

 

Portsmouth for kids

When it comes to books of local history for kids, Thomas Bailey Aldrich got the ball rolling in 1869. His  Story of a Bad Boy was a game-changer for young readers. Although not exactly a history book, the novel about a rascally Tom Bailey played out against a backdrop of authentic Portsmouth scenery and history. What Aldrich and his friend Mark Twain did, was to write books about boys that boys actually wanted to read. Their protagonists broke the rules, got into trouble, made fun of adults, and rarely got caught.

Portsmouth's own BP Shillaber followed suit with his "plaguey" and mischievous hero Ike Partington.  Portsmouth-born Celia Thaxter, however, was more traditional, intending to educate as well as entertain young readers. Her many stories and poems for children were moralistic and romantic, more fairy tale than history.

Local amateur author Edith Gilman Brewster tried to distill the region's founding history in adventure stories for children. Her patriotic collection of tales, published at the city's 300th anniversary in 1923, was designed, in her own words, to make boys and girls "love the more our Granite State."

When I write about an unfamiliar topic, I often begin by reading a children's book to get my bearings. One of my favorites about Portsmouth is a little volume published in 1941 by Marcelle Laval Duffe, an author I've been unable to track down. Duffe's New England Colonial Days is a surprisingly accurate and readable narrative of early Portsmouth in the 1690s.

My favorite, however, has to be Portsmouth: The Life of a Town (1966) by Ola Elizabeth Winslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. From Martin Pring in 1603 to the planned opening of Strawbery Banke in the 20th century, Winslow paints a "deep-felt" picture of the city. Having clearly fallen in love with the region, Winslow describes Portsmouth on the brink of its economic revival as "an American city that has always played a leading role in our nation's development."

children  Indian Fort

Portsmouth's storybook revival

My library contains over two dozen biographies of John Paul Jones written for children and young adults. The Scottish-born naval hero is undoubtedly our most famous temporary resident. There are kids' books galore on famous city visitors like George Washington, Paul Revere, Daniel Webster, Robert Rogers, and Capt. John Smith. Oney (Ona) Judge Staines, who was enslaved by Martha Washington and escaped to Portsmouth, is the topic of a number of new juvenile history books.   

But until recently, youth-oriented books about local characters and events were scarce. Then came Celia's Lighthouse by Anne Molloy Howells. This lively tale of a young Celia Thaxter at the Isles of Shoals remains the most popular of Molloy's 22 books for juveniles.Molloy, who lived in Portsmouth from 1976 until her death in 1999 at age 92, wrote her books in longhand and transcribed each manuscript on her husband’s Underwood typewriter. 

The rise of affordable printing and the boom in self-publishing now allows authors to mine the rich heritage of the "Old Town by the Sea." Recent paperback history books for kids focus on the 1774 raid on Fort William and Mary, the rescue of a sunken tugboat, an enslaved African girl at the Warner House, a cat's-eye tour of Strawbery Banke Museum, and the life of the submarine USS Albacore.

I bet this is just the beginning. And I hope these volumes will inspire more boys and girls to explore the history of the Seacoast region. Here are sample books from my collection. and my apologies to any fellow authors I have missed.

 

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of 12 books including history books for children on Lord Baltimore, Jesse James, and child labor exploitation. His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See SmuttynoseMurders.com) It is available in local stores and in narrated form by Audible.com. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . 

 

OUR LIST OF CHILDREN'S HISTORY BOOKS
FOR PORTSMOUTH -- see next page


Colonial childrens book

OUR FAVORITE PORTSMOUTH HISTORY BOOKS FOR KIDS
Compiled by J. Dennis Robinson 2015

 POEMS FOR CHILDREN
by Celia Thaxter (1864)

STORY OF A BAD BOY
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1869)

THE OLD TOWN BY THE SEA
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1875)

CRUISES WITH CAPTAIN BOB

& THE DOUBLE RUNNER CLUB
by BP Shillaber (1880, 1882)

THE HEROIC LIFE OF CAPT. JOHN PAUL JONES
by Eldredge S. Brooks (1902)

BRENDA’S WARD

by Helen Leah Reed (1906)

POEMS ABOUT PORTSMOUTH
by Clara A. Lynn (1929)

SOME THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO
by Edith Gilman Brewster (1922)

NEW ENGLAND COLONIAL DAYS
by Marcelle Laval Duffe (1941)

CELIA’S LIGHTHOUSE
by Anne Molloy Howells (1949, reprinted 1976)

UP & DOWN NEW HAMPSHIRE
by Lillian Bailey (1960)

HOME ON STAR ISLAND

& A BOY OF THE SHOALS
by Christina M. Welch (1962, 1975)

BECKY: GRANDMOTHER OF NH
by Alice Clark Haubrich (1966)

PORTSMOUTH: THE LIFE OF A TOWN
by Ola Elizabeth Winslow (1966)

MYSTERY AT THE SHOALS
by Diane Bradley (1976)

THE FORT & THE FLAG
by Louise Grant (1977)

OX-CART MAN
by Donald Hall (1979)

LADY GHOST OF THE ISLES OF SHOALS
by Peter Paul Jesep (1992)

VANISHED AS SHE SANG
by Clayton Emery (2000)

A CHILD OUT OF PLACE
by Patricia Q. Wall (2004)

THE ESCAPE OF ONEY JUDGE

by Emily Arnold McCully (2006)

A PRIMARY SOURCE HISTORY OF THE COLONY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
by Fletcher Hautley (2006)

NEW HAMPSHIRE: 1603-1776
by Alan Taylor (2007)

GOOD MORNING, STRAWBERY BANKE
by Wickie Rowland (2010)

TUGBOAT RIVER RESCUE!
by Crystal Ward Kent (2012)

THE PORTSMOUTH ALARM
by Terri A. DeMitchell (2013)

USS ALBACORE SUBMARINE: WELCOME ABOARD
by Denise Brown (2015)

 

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