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'This Author's Life': Amy's Blog

How to Cultivate a Love of History in Your Child: 7 Tips

Many parents complain that their child finds history boring, and yet the development of a love of history will make his or her life far richer. A person who finds history fascinating will have an enhanced view of the world and will be a better citizen. He or she will understand that to be fully alive in the present, it is imperative to know what life was like in the past.


Exploring historical topics can be an exhilarating experience. This has happened to me in my career many times but one of the most memorable moments occurred in lower Manhattan when I successfully retraced the steps of a black schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings, who was the Rosa Parks of old New York. Most of the buildings were gone, several streets were re-named, and indeed the shape of Manhattan island itself was different than it had been that fateful day in 1854 when Miss Jennings refused to leave a segregated streetcar and was physically assaulted. She went to court, and the result was the first significant step in the fight to desegregate New York City's public transportation. As I was re-tracing her steps I came across a small patch of old cobblestones with streetcar tracks still visible. From my reaction, passersby might have thought I had struck gold.


But, indeed, that is the point. It was gold! It was a tiny piece of the past that ignited my determination to tell the Elizabeth Jennings story to the world. She deserved a book, so I wrote one.


Where does this determination and joy come from? Parents, teachers, and librarians ask me if I was born with a love of history or if I acquired it. The good news is that it is learned behavior! Here are some suggestions that I can share with you:


1. START EARLY. My parents took my siblings and me to historical sites and museums from a very young age. A particular favorite that I remember was Fort Ticonderoga on the upper reaches of Lake George, N.Y. Another memorable place – which wasn't even a developed as a landmark yet – was Cowpens, a Revolutionary Battle site in South Carolina.

 

2. SHOW YOUR OWN ENTHUSIASM. My dad loved history and his enthusiasm was contagious. I remember other kids at museums or historic sites who seemed bored and I recall their parents acting bored, too. If you act like it is a chore, your child will follow your example.


3. STEP ASIDE. My dad had a way of (sometimes) overselling his own interests, but my mom would listen and watch carefully to see what caught each of our imaginations. Then she supported and built on that interest.

 

4. RESEARCH apps and games that tie in to places you'll visit. In my day we didn't have such things but we did have an encyclopedia, World Book, and Dad would read aloud before we went on an excursion. Today, there are more books than ever and for all ages that parents should investigate to help pique the child's interest ahead of time. If you're not sure, ask a librarian.

 

5. ARTIFACTS ARE IMPORTANT. The first historical object that captured my imagination was an artifact my great-great grandpa had brought back from the Civil War: two bullets that had hit head on during a battle, and melted together. That's a pretty spectacular artifact but the reality is that most people have all kinds of objects that could lead to fascinating discussions with a child. Look around you. You may have old tools, horseshoes, paper artifacts such as passports. Even an old typewriter could spark a conversation.


6. ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO RESPECT ELDERS and to listen to their stories. I was lucky to have a number of relatives who lived into their nineties and even past 100. Our old folks were the center of our lives. If great-grandma wanted to eat lunch at noon, that meant we all ate lunch at noon. If you respect your old folks you will be interested in their stories. (Tip: If you don't know how to start asking an elder about the past, start by looking at an old photo album together.)

 
7. EVERYONE HAS A STORY: That is an old saying worth teaching your child. Reach out to your community to hear other people's stories. If a Holocaust survivor, for example, is speaking at your local library, by all means go, and bring your child. Search your neighborhood, visit a local nursing home, ask at your church, synagogue, or other place of worship, and you will find older people, many of them lonely, who have stories to share of the old days.


In sum, to love history is to enjoy a richer life, yet many Americans have lost sight of the past. How can we make decisions for the future if we don't know what happened before our time? History is not "over" nor is it dead, as some would say. Rather, it is the foundation of all things here and now.

 

Amy Hill Hearth is the author, most recently, of STREETCAR TO JUSTICE: HOW ELIZABETH JENNINGS WON THE RIGHT TO RIDE IN NEW YORK, written for middle-grade to adult readers. She has written nine other books including HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS' FIRST 100 YEARS. Find out more at www.amyhillhearth.com

 

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Special Podcast on Elizabeth Jennings this Fall

I spent the morning of July 16 visiting the precise locations where the dramatic Elizabeth Jennings story unfolded in Lower Manhattan. Why July 16? Because that is the anniversary of the date in 1854 when she was assaulted and removed from a segregated streetcar. While walking from place to place, and trying not to get run over, I was being interviewed by a Famous Person and his recording team for his new podcast. Famous Person was a swell guy and a good sport. In fact, he carried my purse so that I could juggle my map and a bottle of water. (We were all desperately drinking water. It was 90-plus degrees which meant that on the pavement it must have been closer to 100.) Despite the challenges, I believe the podcast may turn out well! I'm very grateful for the opportunity. Stay tuned! I'll let you know when I can share more about it.   

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Middle-Grade Readers Captivated by the “Yuck” Factor

If you think Manhattan is dirty now, consider what it was like in 1854. That was the year Elizabeth Jennings, the Rosa Parks of New York, had her fateful encounter on a segregated streetcar, as I wrote in my book Streetcar to Justice, the first biography of the all-but-forgotten civil rights hero.

Dirt roads that reverted to marshland every time it rained, no sanitary sewer system, tons of horse manure (and even the occasional dead horse), packs of stray dogs and wild hogs  Read More 
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Where does prejudice come from?

Whenever I hear of someone acting with prejudice toward another person, and after I get over my shock and disgust, the lyrics of an old song come to mind. It’s not a song that many people know today because it dates to a play (and then a movie) called “South Pacific”  Read More 
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Story of Elizabeth Jennings in “Streetcar to Justice” Is a Shock to Many

Slavery and Jim Crow in the Northern states?

Signs for “Colored” Riders in Manhattan?!

A slave market in New York City?!

That’s just a portion of the back-story I included in my new biography of Elizabeth Jennings, a black schoolteacher who refused to leave a segregated streetcar in Manhattan in 1854, setting into motion  Read More 
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New Book on Elizabeth Jennings, “Streetcar to Justice,” Tells Her Full Story for the First Time

My tenth book, published last month, is a biography of an all-but-forgotten American woman named Elizabeth Jennings who was the Rosa Parks of Old New York.

Why a book on Miss Jennings? Because, frankly, she needed one. She was 164 years overdue.

I had stumbled across her story and started researching it as a hobby  Read More 
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"Streetcar to Justice" Was Inspired by Friendship with the Delany Sisters

When you’ve had friends like the late Sadie and Bessie Delany, with whom I created the 1993 oral history Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, you find that you see life in a different way. The daughters of a man born into slavery and a mother who was mixed race and born  Read More 
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How an Old, Abandoned House Led Me to My New Book Topic

Every book has a “back story,” or the-story-behind-the-story of how the book came about.

My new book, Streetcar to Justice, has an especially good one. I learned of the topic thanks to an old, abandoned Victorian house.

From 1987 to 1996 my husband and I lived in Ossining, New York, a village on the Hudson River about  Read More 
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Why Middle-grade?

My tenth book, Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York, will be my first for middle-grade readers. Other than one picture book back in 2003, all of my books have been for adults (although, interestingly, they are appropriate for YA - young adults - and have won awards in that category.)

Why middle-grade for Streetcar to Justice? Because it’s the right audience. Read More 
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Making Room in My Heart

I had to say goodbye to my little canine writing companion recently. She was (we think) eleven and a half years old. Her name was Dot, and she was a tiny Boston Terrier.

If you’ve ever had a pet, you know the pain I am feeling. I miss her so.

Dot had a  Read More 
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