Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Meet Felicity"

In 1607, Jamestown was founded.  The three capitals of Virginia were Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Richmond, in that order.  When Lord Dunmore was kicked out of Norfolk, he was the last royal governor in Virginia.  Maggie L. Walker was the first female African American bank owner.  I can name fact after fact about Virginia, because I’ve taught Virginia Studies to my fourth graders for three years.  There is just so much information, and so many facts like the kind that I have listed above, that it makes it difficult for my students to internalize the information, to find any traction to make it meaningful.  The American Girl books, dolls, and accessories are a great (albeit ridiculously expensive) way for young girls to learn about history in a way that gives it meaning and makes it interesting.  Lucky for us Virginia teachers, the Felicity series is set right here in Virginia and goes along with our curriculum.

                Meet Felicity (published 1991) by Valerie Tripp, introduces us to Felicity Merriman.  Felicity is a nine-year-old girl living in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1774.  Her father owns a general store and has recently taken on a new apprentice, Ben.  Ben is a shy boy that has come from Williamsburg to learn from Felicity’s father.  Until Ben came around, Felicity’s father used to let her help out in the store.  Girls are supposed to stay inside, learning stitchery, cooking, and handwriting, but Felicity just can’t sit still!  One day, Felicity is helping Ben find the tanner, where the mean old man Jiggy Nye lives.  Jiggy has gotten himself a new horse, and he does not treat her well at all.  Felicity loves her copper color and decides to name her Penny.  Morning after morning, Felicity sneaks out of her house and shows Penny that she loves her, slowly gaining her trust until one day when Penny lets Felicity ride her.  When Jiggy Nye finds out, he is furious, and Felicity has to make some difficult choices about what she feels is best for the horse she feels is hers.

                This novel would be a great read-aloud during a unit on colonial life in Williamsburg.  We have to teach students about the different aspects of colonial life in Virginia, and this would be one great resource.  Felicity is living in the heart of a city right before the Revolutionary War.  The book gives us information on what a town would be like during those days.  Felicity’s father owns a general store, and we are given quite a list of the things that one would find during those days.  Felicity says, “The shelves were crowded with bolts of cloth, bowls, bottles, kettles, and coffee pots.  Fat-bellied sacks of rice, flour, and salt leaned against barrels of nails.  Everywhere Felicity looked, she saw something useful of pleasing.  There were aprons, nightcaps, combs, spices, sponges, rakes, fishing hooks, tin whistles, and books”(p.3)  I could certainly list with my students the different things one might find in a general store or plan some activities around it, but I think that this scene adds another layer as we see a general store through the eyes of a child.  I think it is important to note, however, that Felicity’s life is not the normal life for someone during that time.  Felicity’s family owns a store and has a fair amount of money.  Most Virginians during that time lived in very small, one-or two-room houses with dirt floors.  It is important for us to explore all perspectives of life during this time.

Another useful aspect of this book that helps children to understand the time period is the small pictures on the side of the pages.  When studying a time period that is not your own, there are bound to be some words that are oddities.  On one page, Felicity laments “Oh, I wish I could wear breeches… Gowns and petticoats are so bothersome.  I’m forever stepping on my hem and tripping unless I take little baby steps”(p.14).  To the right of this phrase is a picture of breeches and a caption to help get a picture in your mind of what they are.  Later, when Felicity’s mother complains about her stockings and garters getting all wet, we are similarly given another picture and caption of stockings and garters.  The book is full of information about colonial life that is presented in a way that is a good introduction for students in the upper elementary years.  After the story, there is a short nonfiction sections that gives more information and pictures about life in 1774.

                Felicity is a “spirited” and “independent” girl for her time because, let’s face it, no one would want to read a story about a girl who spends hours getting her stitching done.  The author does, however, give us hints as to how Felicity should be acting to be a proper girl of the time.  In the beginning, a woman comes into the store and asks Felicity, “Are you ready for the lads to come a-courting, Miss Felicity?  Are you working on your sampler of stitches to show them how well you sew”(p.6).  Let’s stop and think about that for a second.  A lady just asked a nine-year-old if she was working on her sewing because the boys are going to start looking at her as a potential wife here soon, and these sewing samples will apparently have some pull as to whether or not someone wants you.  It’s kind of disturbing, but I appreciate that the author doesn’t shy away from the fact that girls were expected to be dutiful, well-mannered, useful little ladies even at such a young age.

                One aspect that I absolutely did not like about this book is Marcus.  Before the story begins, there are pictures and descriptions of the main characters in the story.  Marcus, an African American, is described as “the man who helps Mr. Merriman at home and at the store.”  It is not until the additional information, 69 pages in, that the author even admits that Marcus is actually slave.  She says, “Half the people who lived in the town were African America slaves like Marcus.  They were forced to work long and hard for the person who owned them”(p.69).  The Marcus in the book is presented as a man who just sort of helps out around the house.  I think it is a disservice and a misrepresentation of early colonial life to not admit forthright, even if it is not a central part of the story, that this is not a life Marcus chose for himself.

                Overall, Meet Felicity is a good resource for teachers, and an entertaining read for students.  I remember being a young girl and loving my Molly doll and all of her stories.  Who knows, maybe it is why I grew to have such a love for learning about World War II.  Meet Felicity could be a great book to introduce a young girl, or your entire class as they learn about colonial life.  If reading this to an entire class, I think it would be great to have conversations about how this is not how all Virginia lived.  Teachers could compare Felicity’s life to the life of everyday Virginians and even slaves.  It would be interesting, too, to talk to your students about why they think the author omitted the fact that Marcus was a slave, and what it does to the story.  Like any book, what students get out of it is all up to the teacher.  I think this story has the potential to get a lot of return for your students!  At the very least, it will make all those facts you have to learn just a little bit more bearable.

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