If young readers come away from Cokie Roberts’s first children’s book, Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies, thinking that Martha Washington, Deborah Read Franklin, and other early American women all too often slighted by history were actually tough cookies, then mission accomplished. PW reached Roberts as she was getting Thanksgiving preparations underway, but she was eager to take time to discuss everything from the state of history pedagogy to the gifts of her collaborator, illustrator Diane Goode, whom she has yet to meet in person. Roberts laughed out loud recalling one of her favorite Goode images, which depicts Deborah Franklin giving Lord Loudon a piece of her mind and literally cutting him down to size. Below, the author and broadcast journalist goes into detail about her campaign to – as Abigail Adams put it – “remember the ladies.”
Do you think it’s difficult for children to appreciate the value of women on the home front during the Revolutionary War, especially in an age when women can be soldiers?
No, I don’t. I have granddaughters who are 8 and almost 13 and grandsons in between those ages, and they totally get it. I think it’s kind of just the opposite, actually. There’s been so little about women in that period doing anything except pouring tea, so they’re fascinated. They learn about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but they can also learn that women were doing important things, too – they just have different titles. The kids understand olden times.
In addition to highlighting women whom readers may not be familiar with, you shed new light on more familiar figures like Martha Washington and Deborah Read Franklin. Can you talk about that?
I think that cap [the ruffled “mob cap” popular with women of the Colonial era] does Martha Washington a disservice (laughs). I’m at Mount Vernon often and they have wonderful programs for teachers. I do a lecture or a panel. And I’m always asking them about Martha Washington, because everything out there is George Washington – even the logo is “George Washington’s Mount Vernon.” Really, did he do it all about himself? When 400 people came to visit did he manage it all himself? And even after he died – the way a politician punched his ticket back then was he’d go out to Mount Vernon and pay homage to her. She hated it. She said the worst day of her life was when Washington died – and the second was when Jefferson came to visit.
Walter Isaacson [author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life] and I have a running routine that we do on Benjamin Franklin. He lionizes him, but [Franklin] was so awful to his wife and daughter. It just makes me crazy. And his letters to them are just horrendous!
These stories deal with slavery and with feminism. How did you decide to handle these topics for younger audiences?
They had to be addressed. I didn’t get into Martha Washington’s views on slavery, but Phillis Wheatley was a good entry point – and a way of pointing out that it existed around the country, not just in the South. There was no kind of glossing over it. And in terms of women’s history, it’s important for children to understand it. What makes me crazy about history books – there’s many things that make me crazy about history books, but what really makes me crazy is when you’re reading some kind of sweeping look at history, and then it’s “Women got the right to vote” – without any sense of struggle or the time it took, from 1776 to 1920. I wanted to give [readers] a sense of what it was like for women of the time, because it contextualizes what that they’re experiencing now.
Do you think children understand just how hard life was for these women?
It’s very hard to convey how hard it was. When kids go to the reenactment places, they get some sense of it. The actors there work very hard to give them some sense. [Women of the era] kept losing babies! The letters would break you heart: a ten-year-old and six-year-old would both die of diphtheria.
In your acknowledgements, you mention that your six grandchildren had suggestions for you for the book. Can you give an example?
My oldest granddaughter is a really gifted artist, so as the publisher was suggesting illustrators, she and I sat on the computer and went through their Web sites. She was very, very high on Diane Goode, who’s just fabulous – I can’t get over it. For Christmas last year, my daughter gave me framed endpapers from [our book], and they’re hanging in the hall where I can’t miss them as I go down the steps.
[Goode] does incredible research. She got very intrigued with the women’s writing, and not just the content of their writing but the appearance of their writing, so right toward the end she said, “Do you think it’s possible to get their signatures?” And this isn’t easy because people don’t save women’s work. So I got in touch with the universities where their husbands’ works were and we were able to find every single of one of their signatures. [Goode] is an excellent counterfeiter.
When was the decision made to adapt Founding Mothers as a children’s book?
Pretty soon after it came out. And then the question was, how to turn a great big book into a children’s book. But the children’s book editors at HarperCollins knew what they were doing. One of the things that happened in the course of writing was the [Common Core curriculum, and this was right up that alley. So we made sure to add contextual stuff and references in the back so people could get to other resources that are accessible to children.
Does writing this give you any insights into how history can be made more interesting for children? Are you doing any work with history educators?
Get me off my soapbox! History is stories. That’s what history is. And so it’s fascinating. Everybody loves a good story. It’s a bunch of good stories – it’s not dates and the war of this and the charter of that. Those things need to be there, but they’re not the whole story, they’re not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s the story of the Declaration of Independence that’s interesting. It’s the story of why America felt the need to break away from Great Britain. It’s one story after another. Children are so engaged when you tell them the story. When you throw a bunch of unadorned dates and facts at them, it’s boring.
I don’t consult on textbooks, but I do spend time with history educators in various ways. I’ve been engaged with historical societies and the National Council on History Education. I care about this stuff. I actually wrote both [the original] Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty to be accessible to girls. I think that as young as middle school, and certainly high school, you can read those books. I did that very consciously.
You were very close to Eden Ross Lipson, longtime children’s book editor of the New York Times [who died in 2009]. Did you speak with her about doing a book for children?
She knew I was doing this book because I’ve had a contract for it for about 10 years. After Founding Mothers came out [in 2004], they wanted me to do a children’s book and I was delighted to do it, and then it was an illustrator issue. Eden and I did talk about it, she kept saying don’t worry about, they’ll find an illustrator and it will be fine.
[Eden] wrote a wonderful children’s book, Applesauce Season, and the illustrator was so dear, he made sure she saw it before she died. And when she was in hospice, and I didn’t know what else to do, I just read her book to her. It was a very comforting thing to do.
Do you have plans to write another children’s book?
I don’t have plans to do it. Perhaps the publisher will ask me to. This was a fun experience – I enjoyed it a lot. I thought it would impossible to write such short vignettes about these women but it really wasn’t. I suppose broadcast journalism helps with that. I’d love to do it again.
Did you ever think of writing an alternative history where women’s talents were recognized from the very start of the Republic?
You mean fiction? (Laughs) I’m not a fiction writer. I’m a reporter.
Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies by Cokie Roberts, illus. by Diane Goode. Harper, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-06-078002-9