A couple of notable new history series for grades 4-8 have recently hit the market, so I chose one title from each series for review.
The Mayflower, by Kate Messner
This chapter book of about 200 pages uses prose, generous black and white illustrations, photographs, and the occasional comic panel to bring kids a comprehensive understanding of the Pilgrims and the early settlements in Massachusetts. Messner goes beyond the basic understanding of people who fled England for religious freedom, landed at Plymouth Rock, and had Thanksgiving with the local “Indians.” She gives the backstory of the Separatists’ flight to the Netherlands, the dangerous voyage, and the struggles the English settlers had to survive for the first couple of years. She also spends a good deal of time correcting traditional misunderstandings. Although she is very fair to the English, she does not gloss over the injustices they inflicted on the Wampanoag tribe who lived in the area. The Pilgrims stole native inhabitants’ corn stores and even robbed their graves soon after they landed. Although there were years of cooperation, particularly with the help of Tisquantum (Squanto), it did not end well.
Messner’s writing is engaging, and young people will learn about early attempts at government, the first contracts in America, the typical menu of the settlers, and the layout of their small homes. They will also gain an understanding of native tribes and the differences between native and European worldviews that made peace agreements so difficult. She brings in quotes from primary sources and historical paintings to help kids to think critically about history.
I enjoyed this book very much, and even learned a few things about this well-trodden piece of our history. There is another volume in this series that is already published, Women’s Right to Vote, sporting the same bright, cartoonish cover. May there be many more to come. Highly recommended; do not miss it.
The Roanoke Colony: American’s First Mystery, by Chris Schweizer
This 120-page graphic novel tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I’s foray into the New World in order to gather booty. During Elizabeth’s reign, the Spanish were making a fortune in the Americas by conquest and discovery, and their ships were constantly coming and going across the Atlantic, bringing treasure home to Spain. Rather than working on their own, the English thought that it would be much easier to get rich by intercepting the Spanish ships and stealing their cargo. Sailors did this under contract with the queen, so they were called privateers, because that sounds so much better than “pirates.” Sir Walter Raleigh, namesake of my closest city, thought that a port on Roanoke Island would be a perfect way to send ships out through the barrier islands to surprise the Spanish passing by. How wrong he was.
The large warships that the English were using could not pass through the shallow waters between the barrier islands and repeatedly foundered and wrecked, beginning what would be called “the graveyard of the Atlantic,” named for all of the sunken ships in the waters around Hatteras Island. For some reason, not least of which was pride, the English kept trying. After a while, they even brought families to Roanoke to start a real settlement. This settlement relied on England for supplies, however, and when a supply ship was delayed for three years, the would-be rescuers found the settlement on Roanoke completely abandoned. The fate of the Roanoke colony is the oldest mystery in America.
Schweizer uses two Native Americans, Wanchese and Manteo, to guide the reader through the story. They were real people, and their divergent views of the English allow the author to tell different sides of the historical record. Although he uses sarcastic humor to help the story along, the graphic panels are dense, and Schweizer conveys an enormous amount of information.
The legacy of the Virginia colonies is darker than that of the Pilgrims. Their goal was financial gain, and they had no regard whatsoever for the original inhabitants of the land. Some of the privateers were vicious, while others were more likely to desire peace with the local Secotans. None of them, however, viewed the natives as equals. Their disdain of the inhabitants as savages and heathens was upheld and encouraged by both their sovereign and the church, so when they had depleted their stores and were starving, they were foolish to turn to the Secotans for help.
Schweizer’s story pivots from America to England and occasionally Spain, using caricatures of proud Europeans and starving settlers to convey meaning and emotion. I learned from this book, as well. For example, I did not realize that Sir Francis Drake rescued 300 slaves from the Caribbean and brought them to safety in North Carolina (then Virginia). Unfortunately, that added 300 more starving souls to Roanoke, but it was a noble endeavor. Graphic novel enthusiasts will enjoy this series, produced by the excellent First Second, which also publishes the phenomenally popular Graphic Science series. Both series are recommended.
Disclaimer: I read library copies of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not represent those of my employer or anyone else.