On November 16, 2010, Jean Fritz celebrates her 95th birthday, and on January 6, 2011, we will publish Alexander Hamilton, The Outsider, Jean’s 45th book for Putnam. It is our 29th book together and each one has been an amazing experience, filled with distinct and very warm memories.
I’m not sure when the phrase “The Outsider” came to Jean, but I remember her trying it out on me early on. I suspect it surfaced from her subconscious when she began researching Hamilton’s childhood in the British West Indies, where he lived until he traveled to New York in his midteens. Jean was born in China far away “on the wrong side of the globe” and lived there until she was almost 13. Jean had used the term “outsider” to describe how she felt as a young girl in China, and later, to her surprise when she returned to America.
Jean and Alexander shared more as children than Jean probably realized until she started reading about him. The Hamilton family was looked down on for various reasons, and Alexander felt apart from his schoolmates on Nevis. Even when he became a loyal patriot in the country he came to love, he still felt the “outsider” at times, especially when his critics attacked him as one.
Jean often felt apart from her schoolmates in the British School she went to, particularly when provoked by Ian Forbes, a bully who loved to torment her. Her one solace was to sing “My country ‘tis of thee…” quietly when Forbes and the other children sang “God Save the King.”
Jean longed to be a “real” American. She remembers asking her mother just before her 12th birthday if she would suddenly become a “true blue, authentic American.” Impatiently her mother answered, “Don’t be silly Jean. You have always been a real American.” Yet when the family returned to Pennsylvania and Jean went to school, she often felt like a stranger among her classmates, just as she had felt in China.
Jean began writing for children in the 1950s. She started with picture books, but soon turned to history for the first time in The Cabin Faced West, published in 1958. The story is based on a true incident handed down in Jean’s family when Anne Hamilton, her great-great-grandmother, met George Washington in the woods near their Pennsylvania cabin and took him home for supper. The anecdote was recorded in Washington’s diary, and in searching for the facts, Jean realized how much she enjoyed unraveling questions from the past.
Jean was working on Early Thunder, about a Tory family living in Salem, Massachusetts, in the face of the approaching revolution, when I joined Coward-McCann, an imprint at Putnam, in 1964. Alice Torrey was the editor-in-chief and had published Jean’s first book, Fish Head, illustrated by Marc Simont. It was always a big moment when Jean Fritz came to the office. She walked in smiling, eager to share an idea or talk about a manuscript. I watched Jean and Alice work together, an experience I will never forget. They were both dynamic women with strong points of view, and I listened to them spark ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but always coming to enthusiastic conclusions. As an aspiring editor, I was getting a priceless education.
I got to know Jean even better that fall when Alice sent me traveling with her to the midwest for what was a kind of “dog and pony show” sponsored by newspapers in Chicago and Cleveland. A diverse group of authors presented programs to children who filled large auditoriums. I saw a wonderfully curious, lively, fun person engage her young audience. She enjoyed good-humored sparring with the authors and artists who shared the stage with her. She loved talking to the parents, teachers and librarians who came to these book festivals and wanted to talk to her as much as the children who got in line to meet her.
Traveling with Jean was a joyful experience. I quickly found out that it was not only people from the past who piqued her curiosity, but living people too. They gravitated to Jean, often confiding in her some secret of theirs. Jean said that she has always had an overwhelming interest in people. “I’m always trying to figure them out, and I am a talented eavesdropper,” she confesses mischievously
Coward-McCann had published two earlier novels by Jean, Brady and I, Adam, both set in America’s past. When we began working together, Jean told me how much she loved the reading she did before ever putting pen to paper. She said that it was these novels and Early Thunder that led her to nonfiction. She loved the discoveries she made as she did the research. “The facts were more exciting to me than my own stories,” she said.
I remember the day that Jean came in to talk to Ferd Monjo, who had taken over from Alice when she retired. Jean and Ferd shared a love of history and Ferd was also an author. Many of his children’s books were based on incidents in history. Not only had Jean come to talk about her new idea, she had brought with her two manuscripts—And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? and Why Don’t You Get A Horse, Sam Adams? Jean wanted to write books for younger readers about prominent men who lived during revolutionary times.
What a great idea! The timing was perfect. America was planning its Bicentennial anniversary. There would be many events around the country in the year leading up to the final celebration on July 4th, l976.
Of course other historical biographies were available to young readers. Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and the others were all well-known figures that children studied in school. But Jean offered a unique approach, making each one come alive with her original, lively style and her knack for finding interesting, often humorous details to flesh out their personalities and lives in a way that made readers feel they knew them personally. Fans began calling the books Jean’s “Question Books.”
A frequent question that all authors get is “Where do you get your ideas?” There is no one answer from Jean. Early on she told me that she has to see something in the person, a character trait that fascinates or attracts her interest—either why they succeeded or why they failed. She starts reading, always looking for a fresh approach she might take. She hopes for that sudden discovery that raises a new question so that she can delve deeper, looking for an answer. Of course sometimes the answer isn’t there, but Jean finds all the possibilities and lets readers share the mystery and come to their own conclusions. This was particularly true when Jean explored the lost colony of Roanoke, unsolved to this day. There are clues that suggest “maybes,” but no clear answers.
The research for one book often suggests ideas that Jean files away for future books. However when she met shy, small-in-stature James Madison in Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution, she never dreamed she would write a whole book about him, even though she admired him. He had little adventure in his life (except for Dolly). But that squeaky little voice of his wouldn’t keep quiet. She told me that he kept whispering in her ear until she finally gave in, and The Great Little Madison went on to win the Boston Horn-Book Award for nonfiction that year.
Sometimes Jean finds her subject in unexpected places. For years, Jean and husband Michael went to Tortola in the Caribbean every winter. One rainy afternoon Jean was poking around the bookshelves in their bungalow when she came across a musty old Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. She leafed through it and came upon some wonderful illustrations of Teddy Roosevelt. In one of them there was Teddy, swimming across a river with all his clothes on his head, a group of men on the bank watching in dismay because they were going to have to follow him. Jean looked at that picture and knew she had found her man.
Alice Torrey always hoped that one day Jean would write about her childhood in China. Jean would mention it from time to time, but for whatever reason, the impetus wasn’t there. Then in 1981 Jean’s father died at the age of 96, and Jean realized that now she had no one to remember those times in China with her.
Not long after, Jean and I were having lunch with Ruth Gordon, a librarian and devoted student of American history, who wanted to meet Jean. Artist Margot Tomes, who had illustrated the first “Question” book, was with us. During lunch, the fact that Jean had grown up in China came up. Margot’s ears perked up. Endlessly curious about people and their backgrounds, Margot was intrigued and plied Jean with questions. Anecdote after anecdote started to come out, and I think Jean began to remember stories she had not thought of for years. The next day, Jean called. “Well, Margaret, I think I see a way to do my China book. And Margot must illustrate it.”
I called Margot right away, and Jean set to work to write what she thought would be a short book, really a picture book. But as she got into it, another phone call came from Jean. The book was not exactly as she had expected. It would be longer. The final version, Homesick, My Own Story, published in 1982, went on to win a Newbery Honor, the American Book Award for children’s book fiction, a Christopher Award winner, and more.
Not so many years later, China opened up to outsiders and Jean and Michael were able to go, not in an organized tourist group, but on a trip just for them with Jean planning the itinerary. Can you imagine going back to the place where you grew up in a foreign country 55 years later and finding the house you lived in still there, or the church where your father preached, now a school for acrobatics because of its vaulted ceilings? From that trip came China Homecoming.
Once Jean finishes the research for a book, she likes to go to the scene and soak in all she can with her keen, observant eyes. It might take her up to Boston or out to Plymouth Rock or to Philadelphia where the Constitution was written. Or farther afield to London to find out more about King George the Third, to Ireland where Brendan the Navigator set out on his journey, or to Italy with her daughter, Andrea, to see Leonardo da Vinci’s horse, a magnificent 24-foot bronze statue unveiled in Milan. (Jean had followed his progress from the moment she read about him in the New York Times in 1998, and told his story in Leonardo’s Horse, illustrated by Hudson Talbott.)
In 1994, surgery landed Jean in a wheelchair. I worried for her. It wouldn’t stop her writing, but I knew she would miss the traveling, tracing the steps in her stories, or going off to speak to teachers and librarians around the country. I should have known better. Jean figured out how to get where she needed to go, once persuading a flight attendant carry her up the small flight of stairs into the cabin of a commuter airline.
One of Jean’s most rewarding adventures was when she was traveling with a young anthropologist friend, Sabra, who lived in Washington, D.C. They were driving through Virginia to see the countryside where the mysterious Roanoke might have been for her book The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Suddenly Jean spotted what looked like an archeological dig with people at work in the fields below. They stopped and Sabra went down to inquire. When they heard that Jean was writing about Roanoke, up the men came to carry Jean in her wheelchair down to the site. There the archeologist explained that they too were looking for clues from Roanoke’s past. As he sifted through the sand, he uncovered a gold ring, obviously very old. He placed it in Jean’s hand. She couldn't keep it, of course, but she felt “sure” that it had been a part of the Roanoke colony.
My visits to work with Jean in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where she and Michael lived for over 50 years, gave me an amazing picture of the life of Jean Fritz. On a wall of shelves were leatherbound volumes of her children’s books. A handsome ginger jar stood on the mantel over the fireplace. It was one of a pair that had been given to a young Chinese couple at their wedding. The husband, Mr. Hu, was a colleague and friend of Jean’s father. When it was time for the family to go home to America, Mr. Hu wanted them to have one of the jars to put on their mantel. Each would look at their ginger jar and remember good friends. Nearby was a framed black cutout silhouette of Jean with her mother and father, created when they lived in China. The walls leading upstairs were filled with original illustrations by Margot Tomes, Tomie dePaola, Trina Schart Hyman, Hudson Talbott and others. On one visit Jean put in my hands a red brick she had just brought home from John Hancock’s house in Boston.
Today Jean lives in a retirement complex overlooking the Hudson River, where many of those original illustrations and mementos have moved with her. The silhouette of her family hangs over Jean’s bed.
When I went to visit Jean for the first time in her new home four years ago, I walked in and saw that look of excited anticipation when Jean has something wonderful to tell me. She had found the subject for her next book. “Who?” I asked. “Alexander Hamilton,” she said, smiling. “Do you like him?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” she answered and I knew Alexander had already found a friend.
Jean spent many months reading and making notes. She couldn’t go to the library as she normally would, but Andrea was always there to find the book she needed or to type up new pages every week. Jean still writes her first draft in longhand just as she always has.
Jean began sending me a few chapters at a time. An exciting narrative unfolded starring a brilliant, complex young man “of great contradictions,” whose life revolved around the country’s fight for independence and the founding of a republic. As I read, I felt as if I were watching a dramatic and exciting series and I couldn’t wait for the next “installment.” I knew that Hamilton’s story would end with his duel with Aaron Burr, killing him at the young age of 49. It didn’t take away from the suspense. As always, Jean knew just the right stories to tell that would keep young people turning the pages.
As I think back to glorious moments in Jean’s career, many of which I had the good fortune to share, I see, in my mind’s eye, Jean, sitting in the oval office of the White House in November 2003, as the Fritz family and I watched the President of the United States place a National Humanities Medal around Jean’s neck. Our country doesn’t have a tradition, as a handful of countries do, of designating living people from different walks of life as a “Living National Treasure.” I wish we did, for Jean would surely be one of them. But this day came close.
That evening, when we sat down to dinner to celebrate the medal and Jean’s birthday, we asked what the President had said when he leaned over to speak just to her. “Jean, are you ready? Shall we do it?” he had asked, smiling. “Yes, Mr. President,” she had answered. “After all,” she told us with a twinkle in her eye,” when would I ever get to say those words?” And so began a long evening of toasts and laughter with our “living national treasure.”
Happy birthday, Jean Fritz!