This piece, by longtime Booklist columnist and contributor Pat Scales, appeared in the January 2011 issue of Book Links, on the occasion of legendary children’s-book author Jean Fritz’s 95th birthday. We can think of no better way to celebrate Fritz’s 100th birthday, November 16, 2015, than by reprinting Pat’s tribute. As she says, “Then along came Jean Fritz, and everything in the genre of biography for children changed.” —Bill Ott
I have two shelves of books in my office by Jean Fritz. I wish these were books from my childhood, because I was drawn to biography as a young reader. But I grew up in the 1950s when the popular biographies for children were from the Childhood of Famous Americans series. By the end of third grade, I had read every title in the series that my library owned. These biographies were highly fictionalized and written to formula, but for some reason they captivated me. I read about Jane Addams and Hull House, Clara Barton and the Red Cross, Florence Nightingale and the field of nursing. Then there was Betsy Ross, who sewed all those stars on the American flag. There was no book about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and as a result, I knew nothing about the woman’s suffrage movement. I think I was in college before I learned that Jane Addams was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Then along came Jean Fritz, and everything in the genre of biography for children changed. Known for her impeccable research, Fritz writes about subjects she really admires, and she unveils them with such wit. One young reader once told me, “She makes history so much fun.” That she does!
Turn an American historical figure over to Jean Fritz, and sparks go off with such glare that there’s a celebration worthy of a Fourth of July parade. She is especially fond of the American Revolutionary War period and has written a number of books about the men responsible for the birth of this nation: What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?; The Great Little Madison; Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May?; Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?; Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?; and Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution. Yet there was a slight axe to grind with those men. When they wrote the Constitution, they gave plenty of rights to themselves but few to women. Fritz dealt with the battle that took another century and a half to win when she wrote You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton?
In a biography on one of her publisher’s websites, Fritz says that she doesn’t find her ideas. They find her. “A character in history will suddenly step right out of the past and demand a book. Generally people don’t bother to speak to me unless there’s a good chance that I’ll take them on.” That’s exactly what Pocahontas did, and Fritz wrote The Double Life of Pocahontas. When Harriet Beecher Stowe got her attention, she wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers. Sam Houston demanded a story, and she wrote Make Way for Sam Houston. Teddy Roosevelt bullied his way right into her life, and she penned Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt!
In 1982, Fritz wrote an entirely different kind of book. This time she turned to her own childhood. Born in 1915 to American missionaries in Hankow, China, Jean often felt like an outsider and was homesick for the America she knew only through letters she received from her grandmother. Jean’s family returned to the United States when she was 13, but for all of her longing to be a “real American,” she found that she was an outsider here as well. Homesick: My Own Story was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1983. Perhaps it was Fritz’s desire to be a “true blue American” that made her care so deeply for our country’s past. Fritz later returned to China with her husband, Michael, and wrote China Homecoming, a poignant account of that visit.
At the age of 95, Jean Fritz published Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider, her forty-fifth book, on January 6, 2011. From a girl in China who once felt like an outsider, Jean Fritz has become a true insider in the world of children’s books. In 1986, she was awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award by the Association for Library Service to Children for her substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. And in 1976, she delivered the prestigious May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture. The title of Fritz’s lecture, “The Education of an American,” was fitting then, and it is fitting now. She has been the ultimate history teacher to generations of young readers. How do we say thank you, Jean Fritz?