Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Trailblazer Books: Great Historical Fiction for Children

The Trailblazer Series introduces young readers (ages 8 to 12) to many interesting historical figures, through stories in which children of the past interact with Christian heroes. Over thirty books by Dave & Neta Jackson bring the past to life, telling of well-known people such as Martin Luther and John Bunyan, along with "forgotten" heroes, missionaries and preachers who ministered to orphans. Two recent Trailblazer books, Roundup of the Street Rovers and Sinking the Dayspring, tell of mid-nineteenth century children involved with historical figures largely forgotten today.

Roundup of the Street Rovers features inner-city children, the street kids of New York City in 1854. Rev. Charles Loring Brace here began his work with the "Orphan Trains," a program in which thousands of homeless city children were placed in farm families in the Midwest, resulting in many productive, successful lives. Thirteen-year-old Kip O'Reilly is a likeable boy who makes his living by selling newspapers on street corners -- and occasional theft -- to help him and his younger friends get by. Lauren and Lena, ages ten and eight, have wealthy parents who have abandoned them. The Conner children come from a poor family, but soon find themselves orphaned when their mother dies and a stepfather abandons them. These and other children soon come under the care of the Children's Aid Society, which offers a hot meal, bed, and bath for ten cents a day, and helps the children find work to cover these basic costs. The Society also provides 'night school' classes, the only way that impoverished 19th century children could get an education, and job training workshops. Yet Reverend Brace felt that what these children needed most was a family; and as the story relates, an opportunity finally opens up to send the children to farm families in Michigan.

The hardships of street life are related in a light manner, as appropriate for children's literature, with entertaining dialogue and friendship among the children, while still relating the child's desire for a family, acceptance and love. The children's roles are realistic, too, unlike many of today's juvenile historical fiction stories that have children joining up with pirates and saving the world. Instead, children face real-life problems that they can solve, along with a moral lesson. Kip carves a wooden animal to cheer up a younger child; later he applies his knowledge of leather shoe-making, from Brace's workshop, to build something to help out an injured adult. Along the way Kip also faces the consequences of stealing, when he is caught and spends some time in jail. With Reverend Brace's help, Kip learns to tell the truth, quit stealing, and make amends for past theft.

Sinking the Dayspring tells of Christian missionaries in the South Sea Islands in the 1860s and 1870s. Scottish missionary John Paton raised money, through "stocks" of ownership, to build a missionary ship which would travel amongst the islands bringing needed supplies to the missionaries in the region. Australian Kevin Gilmore, thirteen, remembers the shares his mother purchased two years ago, and hopes to redeem them for money, to help his dying mother. He works on the docks, and when his mother dies finds himself living there. Imagine Kevin's excitement when he sees the Dayspring, which he is part owner, arrive at the dock. Kevin soon finds a job on the ship, though he fears the water and doesn't know how to swim. He meets adventure on board ship as well as on the islands, where he meets cannibalistic natives. Much like the situation with primitive tribes today, the natives of the South Sea Islands (then known as the New Hebrides) believe in the dark powers of witchcraft and demons. The real question is one of power, which God is more powerful.

Through these two books, the latest in the Trailblazers series, children learn history through well-written historical fiction stories. Notes at the beginning and end of each book give further information about the true story and the featured Christian hero, including a list of books "for further reading." Adults too can appreciate these books for a light, enjoyable read, plus a great way to introduce their children to historical fiction.

Additional sources:

Trailblazer books web site

A few "for further reading" items mentioned in the above books:

About Charles Brace and the Orphan Trains:
  • Brace, Charles Loring. The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them. Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1967 (reprint).
  • Fry, Annette R. The Orphan Trains. New York: New Discovery Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994.

About John Paton, from Sinking the Dayspring:
  • Bell, Ralph. John G. Paton. Butler, Indiana: Higley Press, 1957
  • Unseth, Benjamin. John Paton. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996.

No comments: