Tag Archives: nonfiction for children

Let My People Go (on Holiday): The Magic School Bus does Ancient Egypt


Would Ms. Frizzle teach history as well as she taught science?

Nearly twenty years ago (!), I wrote a book on children’s science fiction series with my friend Marietta Frank, Back in the Spaceship Again (Greenwood, 1999). One of the series that I discussed, and liked very much, was Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen’s Magic School Bus series. After complaining that “In picture-book science fiction series, scientific concepts are both presumed and presented incorrectly” (65), I go on to praise Magic School Bus for being “accurate and simple” (66). So when I was looking for children’s nonfiction texts on Ancient Egypt recently, and saw that Cole and Degen had produced a book on Ancient Egypt in their Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures series (Ms. Frizzle is the teacher who took children into scientific adventures on the Magic School Bus), I ordered it straight away. I wanted to see how the book would depict Ancient Egyptians in terms of both their appearance and in terms of their labor system, as both aspects of Egyptian society have been important to people of African descent. In both cases, Cole and Degen’s book seems to avoid issues rather than confront them in ways that the scientific adventures in the Magic School Bus series do not.


The Magic School Bus series teaches science in a simple but accurate way.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures differ from the Magic School Bus books in several ways. First, the Magic School Bus books take place within a classroom setting; Ms. Frizzle takes her class on field trips on the eponymous bus that doesn’t have to follow the laws of physics—so the class goes inside the human body, out into space, and back in time to the era of the dinosaurs. The children write reports on what they learn, which the reader can see and evaluate. Student learning is therefore the focus, even though the books contain fantasy, adventure and humor as well. But in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt, the teacher is not in her classroom. “It was the first day of school vacation. I had said goodbye to my class. I had packed my bags and locked my door. Now I, Ms. Frizzle, was on the move!” (n.p.). In the Magic School Bus books, the story is part of the school curriculum, and is focalized through the adventures and school reports of the students. The Ancient Egypt book, on the other hand, is from the point of view of Ms. Frizzle, acting not as a teacher but as a tourist, and it is definitely extra-curricular. This says, I think, a lot about the attitude toward primary school history, and also about who history matters (or should matter) to; the group of tourists that Ms. Frizzle joins is made up of more adults than children. There are no school reports.


Rasheeda, seated in the bottom right-hand corner, writes in her diary about what she sees. Her vision of a single marketplace becomes the truth of all Ancient Egyptian marketplaces.

In place of the school reports, however, Cole and Degen have depicted pages from one child’s travel diary. This might at first seem like a fairly equal substitute; both are child accounts of knowledge gained through their adventures. But the Magic School Bus school reports include reference to the work of scientists, and also make room for alternative theories. For example, in The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System (Scholastic 1990), one child writes in a report on asteroids, “Scientists think they are the building blocks of a planet that never formed” (24). This technique teaches child readers both about current theories and about the idea of theory itself, recognizing that ideas about science change as new knowledge becomes available. History, as depicted in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures, however, is fixed. Rasheeda’s travel diary does not refer to historians, only describes what she sees. Diary entries begin with definitive phrases: “In the marketplace we saw” (n.p.) and “What farmers grew” (n.p.). Scientific knowledge has the potential to change over time, but history, in these books, is known and knowable. This makes the illustrations of Ancient Egyptians matter, because here again, a “truth” about history is depicted. Degen’s illustrations show Egyptians as orangey-brown in skin color, to random degrees, with Rasheeda—the African-American visitor from modern times—as considerably darker than all of them. Modern Egyptians are tan-colored. Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures leaves no room for the idea that Egyptians may have included some people who had more “African” features.


Sarah Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery does not paint a pretty picture of slavery (although it doesn’t say the slaves built the pyramids either).

Another reason that this difference between Cole and Degen’s depictions of science and of history matters so much (particularly for a blogger concerned with ideas of race and diversity) becomes clear on a single page of the narrative, the page about who built the pyramids. I have written before about how books on slavery often begin with Ancient Egypt—see, for example, Sarah Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery (Usborne 2007).


“People” are wrong about slavery. These Ancient Egyptians are perfectly happy to be dragged from their farms and do hard manual labor–as long as there is beer.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures also mentions slavery, but in quite a different way. “People often think the pyramids were made by slaves,” Cole and Degen write, “but that isn’t true. Pyramid builders were paid in bread and beer, just like other workers” (n.p.). The language that Cole and Degen use in this passage is extremely important, because it removes authority (historians did not think that the pyramids were built by slaves, people did—and they were wrong), suggests that slavery did not exist in Ancient Egypt (and, whatever the truth about who built the pyramids, historians are pretty sure that slavery existed), and defines not-enslavement as being paid in bread and beer, as if slavery couldn’t have existed if the workers were fed. Rasheeda’s diary entry adds, “Many farmers worked on the pyramid during the flood, when their farms were underwater” (n.p.), suggesting that the farmers were glad of some off-season work (and beer and bread). Both the box about what “people often think” and Rasheeda’s diary entry present history generally as factual, and these facts specifically as the correct and only interpretation. However, even historians who think that the pyramids were not built by slaves (at least not in the way that we think of slavery now), do not think the workers were part of a labor market of free individuals. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, with the University of Chicago, put it this way in an interview with the PBS show Nova: “the King’s men come, and it may not have been entirely coercion, but it seems that everybody owed a labor tax. We don’t know if it was entirely coercive, or if, in fact, part of it was a natural community donation”  (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/who-built-the-pyramids.html). The key words there: we don’t know. Teaching kids about history should open them up to the same kind of questions and possibilities that teaching them about science does, not just offer them half-truths and surface-level observation. Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt lets kids go into the past, but only as temporary tourists who are kept away from history’s wrong side of the tracks.

Becoming (and Unbecoming) Humans: Slavery and dehumanization in children’s books

It’s nonfiction November, a good excuse to think about the idea of nonfiction as it relates to Black British children’s literature. Many literary scholars (myself included) will go on for days about the “real truths” of fiction vs. the “truth claims” of nonfiction, but I think a lot more about nonfiction now than I ever did before I had my daughter—because in the ultimate act of rebellion against her literature professor mother, my daughter doesn’t really like to read fiction. However, when she was little, I could always give her a DK Eyewitness book or a Horrible Histories and she would gobble them up like . . . well, like I used to consume Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books. Which, now that I think of it, were shelved in the nonfiction section of the library.

But DK Eyewitness books and Horrible Histories and Andrew Lang’s colour fairy books all come from a particular point of view, and this shows when you read them through. Most of these books center on European versions of history, science, myth and so on (Lang did include African, American Indian, Asian and South American fairy tales, but as I’ve written about elsewhere, he revised them for English reading audiences). Nonfiction (like fiction) is usually a version of the truth, but it is not always the truth that a book sets out to tell.



This may be a pictured geography, but Wiese avoids picturing slavery, and Henry moves quickly to naps in the sun.

Take nonfiction on slavery for example. There isn’t much available for a young reading audience; slavery is one of those topics that is meant to be too unhappy for children to read about. General histories for young children typically give slavery very little space (if any at all), and then hurry on to something happier or less controversial. A 1943 Picture Geography: West Indies in Story and Pictures by Marguerite Henry and Kurt Wiese gives only the following paragraph:

“Then the Spaniards brought shiploads of slaves from Africa. That’s why there are so many Negroes on the islands. But today they are not slaves. They work in the fields, they fish and they laugh, and they doze in the sun.” (n.p.)

Note the slippages and elisions in the paragraph. Only the Spanish are blamed, and not the British, French, or Dutch colonizers in the region. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because first of all, “they” are all happy-go-lucky and have time to lie around napping in the sunshine. Second of all, “they” are never called people in the paragraph.

This may seem a petty point—you might say, this is a book from 1943; or, the author refers to Negroes which is the same thing (is it? Ask people in the Jim Crow south). But calling people, people or human beings means that readers, no matter what their racial background, have something in common with slaves. And most children’s books work very hard to ensure that there is distance between the child reader and the person who is a slave.


They were people . . . in Africa.

This doesn’t always have to be through avoiding the word “people” either. Usborne is a company that produces history for all ages, and to be fair to them, they often try much harder than other nonfiction publishers to include slavery and the role that white British/Europeans played in enslaving African people. And they do use the word “people”. But they are still careful in their phraseology to distance the story of slavery from modern day readers. A lift-the-flap See Inside the History of Britain (2014) puts slavery underneath a flap, and gives it two sentences: “Some British merchants grew rich from the slave trade—capturing people from villages in West Africa and forcing them onto ships. The slaves were treated dreadfully during long voyages to the West Indies, where they were sold like animals to work on sugar plantations” (9). British merchants are blamed for slavery, but the Africans go from being people to being slaves to being (like) animals. And, because there is no further mention of the African people brought to the West Indies, nor of their descendants coming to Britain in the post-emancipation period, the reader could quickly close up the flap and make them disappear entirely.

Usborne did produce an Usborne Young Reading The Story of Slavery in 2007 (written by Sarah Courtauld). 2007 was the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, but the anniversary tended to be marked by an increase in biographies of post-emancipation West Indians (such as Mary Seacole) rather than histories of slavery, so Usborne is to be commended for that. However, in this book too the presentation is interesting. Compare the first page of Chapter 1, discussing ancient Egyptian slavery:


The first slaves in Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery were people–three times on this page alone.

. . . with the first page of the chapter about people arriving to enslavement in the West Indies.


Enslaved Africans are slaves, then animals, and apparently-mysterious forces strip, clean, and cover them with palm oil.

The Ancient Egyptians are people, even after being compared to cattle being sold in a market; the African people brought to the West Indies are slaves, and then animals. Slave masters in ancient Egypt beat the slaves, but the use of the passive voice in the second passage allows no one to have to take responsibility: “As soon as they left the ship, they were stripped, cleaned, and covered in palm oil” (but by whom?). There are good passages in the Courtauld text, but the way that the book dehumanizes people involved in the plantation slavery system allows the reader to deny their own connection to these people (slaves or slave owners).

I’ll end, for comparison, with an older book that puts the humanity of enslaved people front and center, Anne Terry White’s Human Cargo: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1972). Below is the first page of that text:


The first page in Anne Terry White’s 1972 Human Cargo.

It is horrible to look back. But all our children have a right to know their history.

Let’s Find out About Indians—or not, as the case may be

In the past week, several Navajo actors walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s film, commissioned by Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six.” The film, meant to be a parody of cowboy movies such as “The Magnificent Seven,” contains characters named “Beaver Breath” and “Wears no Bra” and takes broad liberties with costumes and traditions of the Native people who, in the film, are supposed to be Apache. The Native actors were told that the film would not be racist, but when they complained, they were told that it was a comedy and that “If you are overly sensitive about it, then you should probably leave” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3058283/New-footage-shows-producer-Adam-Sandler-comedy-tell-Native-American-actors-leave-movie-set-overly-sensitive-racist-jokes.html). The actors did leave, not because they were “overly sensitive” but because they were tired, as one actor put it, of being treated like “Hollywood Indians” again.

It is not news to hear that Hollywood depicts Indians in a racist manner. They have been doing so since Hollywood was Hollywood. But (perhaps naively), I was surprised that it was someone from my generation (Sandler is a couple of years older than me) who still thought that having any Indian smoking a peace pipe (whether urinating while doing it or not) was funny . . . and not racist. Sandler makes many of the same choices that earlier directors do—conflating different tribes, using stereotypical images, and belittling Native women. What’s funny about Indians, according to Sandler, is their inherent drunkenness, ridiculous customs and hair styles, and their inability to communicate with white people.

The fact that Indians in Sandler’s film are being seen through the eyes of white Americans, however, is the very crux of the problem. It is why Sandler does not see his film as racist, because he is starting with the “norm” or “status quo” as a white male and highlighting and exaggerating the differences between the “normal” culture and that of Indians. This is comedy—but it is also popular culture, or at least it certainly was during the time period that Sandler and I were growing up. In the 1970s, the only time I encountered living Indians was at the state fair or in a commercial about pollution which was replayed constantly during afternoon cartoons. We knew it as the One-Tear Indian commercial. (You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7OHG7tHrNM.) Children’s books about Indians were similarly not for Indians, but for white readers. Some were “informational” and some were fiction (always historical fiction, never contemporary), but almost all replayed the stereotypes of Hollywood movies, even when trying to be sincere. Two books, both published within ten years of Sandler’s birth, can showcase the attitudes toward Indians in children’s books of the time.

The first is an informational book for beginning readers, Let’s Find Out About Indians (1962), part of the “Let’s Find Out” series by Martha and Charles Shapp which used limited vocabularies to introduce various nonfiction topics to children. Just the title of this book tells a lot about attitudes toward Indians at the time. Other books in the series talked about scientific topics, such as the sun or electricity; if they focused on people, it was in terms of their jobs, such as Let’s Find out About Policemen (1962) or because they were famous, as in Let’s Find out About Christopher Columbus (1964). “Indians” fit into neither of these “people” categories; they are not individualized, and nor is it a profession to be an Indian. They are therefore, presumably, to be classed in the nature of scientific topic. Reading the book confirms this, as it is an anthropological look at the generalized “Indian” of the past. Although the Shapps’ text does suggest that “There were many different Indian tribes” (4) and note some of the different customs and traditions of a few (difference in housing styles, for example), no individual tribes are named. The book does attempt not to entirely exoticize the Indian by showing similarities between the reader and the Indian (“Indian girls played with dolls”), but the fact that the intended reader is a white, middle-class child is emphasized by the book’s final pages. “No matter where you live,” the text suggests, “Indians lived there before you” (40). The illustration accompanying the page, by Peter Constanza, shows two children standing hand-in-hand in front of a picket fence, behind which is a suburban house and the outline of an Indian woman with her baby in front of a tipi. The children appear somewhat startled, but they should be reassured by the fading outline of the Indian and her home: Indians are part of the past.

Have no fear, kids--your forefathers did the ethnic cleansing for you.

Have no fear, kids–your forefathers did the ethnic cleansing for you.

Most if not all fiction of the time about Indians was historical fiction, and generally was set not only in the past, but in a specific past: the period of Euro-American westward expansion. In other words, like the informational books, it was really about white perceptions of Indians rather than about or for Indians. These books were not just published, but promoted to (white) children as examples of good ways to learn about history. In 1975, for example, the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club made a story by Evelyn Sibley Lampman a club selection. The author’s note for the book stresses that Lampman grew up around Indians, and that her father “was very sympathetic with the Indians and their problems, a rare thing in those days” (133). But the title and cover for the book tell a very different story:

A good history lesson?

A good history lesson?

Lampman may have been taught sympathy for the Indians and their “problems,” but the focus of her book is the terror of “innocent” white girls and the brutal violence they face among the Apaches and later Mohaves who capture and “enslave” them. The book is based on the diary of one of the captives, though Lampman changed events to suit her narrative. When Olive Oatman’s family first encounters the Indians, there is not even a discussion (as there is in the Little House books, for example) about who owns the land. “‘They must be Apaches,’ said Lorenzo. ‘Shall I get the gun?’” (White Captives 10).

As long as we teach children that Indians are historical subjects to be studied rather than individuals who live now—maybe somewhere near you!—then there will continue to be Adam Sandlers who do not see it as offensive to belittle them. Let’s find out about Indians—but let’s do it in a way that respects them.