Sunday, March 23, 2014

"I Survived: The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863"

                There are more books about the Civil War than you could possibly count.  There are hundreds of books written about Abraham Lincoln alone.  Whenever a new book comes out, we need to carefully evaluate this book for many things—authenticity, accuracy, and especially when it’s a children’s book, accessibility.  After reading Lauren Tarshis’s I Survived: The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863, I feel that there are many winning qualities about this book, but that we must also be very careful.

  I Survived: The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 (Published 2013) is an historical fiction novel that focuses on a young boy named Thomas.  He and his little sister, Birdie, are slaves in Virginia while the Civil War is happening.  One day men come to their plantation, and Birdie overhears them talking about selling Thomas to the south.  Thomas knows that they can’t be sold to the south like their friend Clem, because the farther south you go, the more backbreaking the labor.  Instead, he and Birdie run off and risk their chance for freedom.  After a scuffle with some union and rebel forces, where Thomas helps out the union men by a well-timed skunk, Birdie and Thomas join up with the union forces.  A man named Henry takes Thomas and Birdie under his wing, and they discover that not everyone supports slavery.  Staying with the union army, Birdie and Thomas find out that there are actually people who are fighting so that they don’t have to be slaves.  After staying with the army, their regiment gets orders to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where they hear a big battle against the rebels is brewing.  In one of the bloodiest wars of the entire Civil War, Lauren Tarshis takes inside of 1863 to see who will survive the Battle of Gettysburg.

                I will say right now that this book will never win a Newbery Medal.  It is not a book of the highest literary merit, with deep and complex characters.  The plot was very easy to understand and extremely predictable.  All the characters are pretty one-dimensional, with the union men portrayed as the good guys and the rebels portrayed as the bad guys.  The one rebel soldier that Thomas encounters twice goes to him and say, “”Thought you were so smart!’ he growled. ‘I’ll show you how smart you are!’  He reached around and took his pistol from his belt”(p.56-57).  All of the characters are like this, with Thomas being a naïve, but smart young boy and Birdie as an innocent little girl that makes everyone smile.  There is one incident of real depth to the characters, and that is when Birdie gets kidnapped by a band of rebel forces.  They have their orders to march to Gettysburg, and Corporal Henry Green refuses to go after her. Of course, he eventually does, but it is good that Lauren Tarshis gave at least one character some kind of depth.

                Another thing that we need to be careful of is how authentically the Civil War is represented in this novel.  As mentioned before, there is not much depth to the characters.  I highly doubt that there were very many little boys and girls who ran away on their own in the middle of the day, with zero planning, who were able to have as fortunate an ending as Thomas and Birdie.  As far as the war is concerned, the northern army is good, while the southern army is bad.  I think that this is a serious flaw in the book.  Lauren Tarshis fails to show children in this story that the world is very rarely so black and white.  In war, there are good people on both sides.  During the Civil War, it was a time of us fighting our own countrymen, and there were many people who fought for the south that did not necessarily agree with slavery.  One thing that I did appreciate about Lauren Tarshis’s book was her notes at the end where she talks about the Battle of Gettysburg and says “There were thousands and thousands of dead bodies in the grass by the last day, each one someone’s son or husband or brother or best friend”(p.93).  In a world where children are already desensitized to violence, we need to make sure that the past is presented in a real, but appropriate way.

                Despite the fact that I think the characters were flat and history was not presented as well as it could have been, I still think that this is an appropriate book for children.  As a fourth grade teacher, I think that this book is actually perfect for my students.  Not only do we teach about the Civil War in Virginia Studies, but the readability of the text makes it very accessible to your average fourth-grade reader.  Historical fiction is a hard genre to get students excited about, and I really feel that this book could help them get excited about the genre.  For the readers in the middle-grade, sometimes the depth of character stories are lost to them.  Especially because this is a difficult genre, I think that Lauren Tarshis’s decision to keep the characters a little less complicated was a very good one.  I can also forgive her for not giving us every bit of information we might need or want to know about the Civil War.  As mentioned before, this is just one book of many about the Civil War.  We need to teach our children that historical fiction is not always completely accurate, and show them ways that they can supplement their historical fiction readings with nonfiction texts about the same subject.

                In addition to being a great book for students to read on their own, I think a teacher could easily use this book as a read-aloud or as a book in a guided reading group.  The end of each chapter leaves us with cliff-hangers that are perfect for predicting and discussing.  At the end of Chapter 3, when Birdie and Thomas have run away, the chapter ends with a man finding them and saying “’Come out now,’ another voice snarled. ‘Or we’ll shoot you’”(p.14).  What a perfect ending to talk about predicting!  You could easily talk about how you know that this is not a friendly man, because he has a pistol and he is snarling.  The children could discuss who they think the voice is and what they think he wants from them.  Almost every chapter ends with a great talking point for you and your students.
            The I Survived series is published by Scholastic, so you know that they have some great resources to go alone with the series.  If you go to their website for the series, there is a quiz that you can take to see how good you are at surviving.  Apparently, after taking the quiz, I am a survivor.  Along with the quiz, you can also read excerpts from the book and find out true information that accompanies each of the books in the series.  A great resource to keep on hand!

                This book is just one in a series of eight I Survived books.  Each of the stories is an historical fiction story centered on a real event.  She has books on things like the Japanese Tsunami in 2011, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the attack on September 11, 2001.  It is very smart that she has written historical fiction books where some of the events took place while the children were alive.  I think it helps to ground children in reality when they see that these are books about things that actually took place in the past and that they might even vaguely remember some of the things that they are reading about.  A great kick-off point for our children might be to read one of the books aloud to them so that their interest would be piqued.

                Overall, like with many books, I support this book with caution.  We have got to be smart about what our children read.  I’ll never forget when, after reading an historical fiction book to my children about Jamestown, they all thought that it was nonfiction.  Despite having talked a lot about the elements of the story, they assumed that because it was based on true events, everything about the story was true.  We have to do a lot of modeling and scaffolding for our children for historical fiction novels, and I Survived: The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 is no different.
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