Beyond Pilgrim Hats and Cherry Trees

Kate Messner
(photo: Andy Duback)

I grew up celebrating Thanksgiving with a construction-paper Pilgrim hat. I parroted that fake story about George Washington and the cherry tree. And I remember how betrayed I felt when I finally read a less whitewashed version of history. Why hadn't anyone told me? This was the spark behind the History Smashers series, which aims to undo some of the lies and myths we teach kids about history, and to portray heroes in a more honest light.

Last winter, I was having lunch with some second graders at a school. One boy told me how he loves the historical picture books his librarian shares, so I suggested one of my recent favorites, Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons by Gwendolyn Hooks and Simone Agoussoye.

"It's about a woman who was enslaved by George Washington but escaped and never got caught," I explained.

"Wait..." he said. "George Washington had slaves?"

I nodded. "He enslaved hundreds of people on his plantation in Virginia."

His eyes got big. "I thought George Washington was a good guy!"

"It's true that George Washington played a big role in the founding of America. He's honored for that," I said. "It's also true that he enslaved people. Lots of famous people from history did bad things as well as good things." I told him about History Smashers and the myths it would be deconstructing.

"Wow." He turned to his librarian. "Can you get us that series? And the book about the lady who escaped from George Washington?"

She nodded. "I already wrote them down."

I'm grateful that curious kid has a librarian who understands both young people and history. He deserves better than a construction-paper Pilgrim hat. All of our kids do. The true stories are important, and more interesting than cherry trees, anyway. --Kate Messner

Messner is the author of the History Smashers series, which launched with The Mayflower (reviewed below) and Women's Right to Vote (Random House, $7.99 each) this week.

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