Enjoy this in-depth New York book club interview with Dr. Ellen about her children's book, and about the thinking that went into its development.
QUESTION: Dr. Ellen, can you tell us about your reasons for writing WILLI GETS A HISTORY LESSON ?
I have lived in Virginia’s Historic Triangle region for a great many years, and I photographed the area professionally for most of those years. I wanted children to have a way to experience this important region even if they were not able to visit it in person.
Elementary school-aged children (for which the book is geared) study Virginia’s role in the birth of our nation, but rarely with photo-driven books like the WILLI book that uses more than 70 of my own photo illustrations. I selected photos that would resonate with children while building a heartwarming story of friendship around them.
Heavily illustrated books are expensive to publish, but I wanted to do this kind of book anyway because I know the power of images to facilitate learning.
QUESTION: Is your book is a history book, then?
No, it is classified as fiction because it is about a small dog that becomes lost in the Historic Triangle region and embarks on a search to find her owner. Along the way the dog, Willi, encounters many Virginia animals and historic figures who come to her assistance, and help direct her to the Yorktown Battlefields where she reunites with her owner after some exciting adventures.
But because the story is set in a very important region historically, the photographic plates themselves have considerable educational value in exposing the young reader to significant sites in Colonial history.
In tracing history from Jamestown to Yorktown, the book is structured in a way that makes it memorable and easy to follow, even using maps and local travel guides. In fact, many children insist on retracing Willi's exact steps with their parents in tow!
Willi’s journey starts in Jamestown, VA and continues through Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary campus where Thomas Jefferson went to school; and it ends in Yorktown where the war for Independence was won. The Colonial Parkway, a historic Byway, connects all three areas.
The book includes a 23-page appendix of reference material to help parents and teachers answer all those questions that children love to ask. Many adults, including local residents, have told me that they learned things by reading the appendix that they had not known before!
The appendix also allows older children to conduct their own historical research while reading the book.
After the book was published I brought the dog, Willi, with me to the Rawls Byrd Elementary School in Williamsburg to talk with children from several grades about the book and their reactions to it. Two main characters from the book also joined us there; Colonial Williamsburg’s Thomas Jefferson, and the Drum Major of Colonial Williamsburg’s famous Fifes and Drum Corps.
They came in their colonial-era clothing, which totally thrilled the children. Also, the opportunity to touch and talk with major characters in the book helped bring the story alive. The children were also thrilled to be able to meet the dog, WILLI, in real life!
That visit was filmed for the school and also for my use as a book promotional tool. It is available for viewing on my web site. Do go there to meet WILLI in person!
QUESTION: Can you elaborate on the significance of Virginia’s Historic Triangle for our audience?
Well, for starters:
(1) The Historic Triangle gave birth to the United States; (2) Ideas of revolution were fanned at Williamsburg; (3) Our independence was won in the final victory at Yorktown; (4) Our Representative form of government has its very origins in the Historic Triangle; (5) Virginia colonists convened at Jamestown in 1619 in the first representative assembly ever held in the New World, which was a very long time before Williamsburg was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye!
And consider this: had the revolutionaries in Williamsburg been less decisive, or if the French had in fact won at Yorktown, what kind of nation might we have become instead?
These are compelling questions because 400 years later we are still trying to deal with the struggles between Europeans, American Indians, and Africans as they were played out in the Historic Triangle region.
This is also important: When the early English settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607 they were expecting to easily subdue “this land of plenty” and found, instead, rugged and harrowing conditions that caused the death of many of them.
This raises even more questions for inquiring young minds: (6) How did that first representative assembly at Jamestown work? (7) How does it compare to the structure and form of government we have today?
My concern is that children are not getting sufficient grounding in early American history. In thinking back to my own elementary school days in the early 50's, I had to memorize all those historical names and dates, along with the preambles to various Liberty documents; things like ”Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
And while memorizing that preamble may be important in some respects, exactly what I don't know, overall I think the exercise fails to cultivate a sense of excitement and interest in our early American origins. In other words, it fails to transport us there emotionally. I wanted to play a part in bringing that history alive for children in a way that also touched their hearts.
FACT: The lesson for all of us at every age is that we cannot make good decisions for our country without knowing what came before us in history. A collective ignorance (or nonchalance?) about this country's past allows patterns to repeat without our even questioning them.
In truth, I have asked auditoriums full of young people about what subjects they like best in school - and least - and history is clearly in the least liked category. We need to fix that.
Even I was not so keen about history until I took a freshman class at the University from a professor who made me feel that all those historic figures were right there in the room with us! My own father did that, as well, with his many stories about World War II and America's role in it. Those stories peaked my curiousity to learn more.
QUESTION: I guess then you are still a great fan of history?
I find it increasingly important for me as an informed citizen to know what really happened in America’s past. It helps me to better comprehend the dire challenges to our Republic that come both from within and from without.
Our founding fathers in Virginia promoted the notion that less government is the ideal in a free society, not more government. I am a strong believer in that. I want young children today to understand that, and to know why it is such an important concept in our evolution as a Republic and as a force in the world.
I have found that many textbooks are seriously biased, not just in history but even in fields like psychology -- where they leave out important things that don’t ‘fit’ well with the particular lesson at hand or prevailing political ideology. If not that, they end up seriously distorting history by virtue of focusing on the wrong things for the sake of the conventional wisdom. None of this is good.
There are major discussions going on today in School Boards across the country about what to include (or not) in their social studies and history curriculums. Think COMMON CORE as an example. This legislative process bears close scrutiny by parents because the end result may not be the most favorable for our children, or the future of our Republic.
QUESTION: This leads me to your notion of ‘character development’ that you discuss in some of your writings. Can you tell us more about that?
One of the most important things we can do for our children is to give them experiences in character building. I am speaking now as a mental health professional. People with good character are wonderful models for our children.
An over-riding interest of mine as a writer of children’s books is to evoke awareness of the natural history of (in this case) the Historic Triangle region, along with any regional and people history. Why? This is the STUFF of character building!
Character building promotes an upbeat attitude about life. It fosters good will between people. It fosters a nurturing environment where getting lost (in Willi’s case) is not necessarily the end of the world. And character building fosters a reverence for all living things.
The Willi story, then, is not just about an endearing little dog, or even just about exposure to early American history. It is also about the evolution of thinking in children that encourages discovery and interactivity with others in a respectful and positive way.
That said, character education is sorely lacking in this era of SOL’s (Standards of Learning) and NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND federal legislation, and now in COMMON CORE legislation as well. These kinds of curriculum mandates do not leave much if any time for character building or why it is even important for us to think about that.
But we all know that a child’s wider community models many things, some of them good things like character building experiences; and some of them not so good, like cutoffness, family and marital discord, deceptive or violent behavior – to name but a few problematic things in our society.
Adults with strength of character and strong values tend to raise children who grow up to have similar attributes themselves. Certain experiences can and do intervene to change this but, for the most part, this is how family dynamics work.
QUESTION: In your opinion, what are the core values that make up character building, Dr. Ellen?
Core values like caring for others, honesty, fairness, a sense of self-responsibility, and a respect for others follow from true character building experiences. They affirm basic human dignity and promote the development of self-directed individuals.
The development of a strong sense of self is the thing that keeps us from being engulfed by the forces of anxiety around us. [You can read more about such things in my BLOG and also in my free online book, HOW FAMILIES WORK.
Children with solid character-building experiences go out into the world with potent tools at their disposal.
With these tools they can fight off the hapless forces that only want to drag them down or lead them astray. A self-directed child who has learned how to properly evaluate the world around them clearly can see who possesses self-respect and who does not, and who harbors good-will towards others or not. That alone is vital, self-preserving information.
Children learn core values through discussion of such values with trusted adults. They also learn by observing good models that successfully resolve problems using these values.
Willi’s experience of being lost and then found helps promote this kind of understanding.
It’s all about empathy and a sense of community, and about forming caring relationships that do not degrade SELF in the process.
It interests me that schools have academic curriculums and extra-curricular programs, but rarely do they have more specialized curriculums to address character development. As a result, schools routinely ignore expansive dialogue about such things as:
1-natural consequences for one’s behavior
We need to be spending more time on such things, and on open and frank analysis of what goes wrong in our society that allows such things to occur. This effort, though, takes time, thoughtfulness, introspection, and thinking out loud together; things that otherwise fast-paced curriculums do not have time to promote.
That said, if and when such things are promoted, boring stories do not work. Boring, endless strings of unintelligible paragraphs do not work, either; nor do boring lectures work. Dictatorial, coercive teaching methods do not work. Government dictums do not work. Memorization exercises do not work.
The process of character building evolves over time as opportunities for dialogue and character analysis arise in a child’s life with trusted adults [including teachers] who take the time necessary to genuinely engage with them.
QUESTION: How can such things be applied to reading your WILLI book?
Parents and teachers interested in character development most certainly will want to discuss Willi’s lost and found experiences with their young readers. They will also want to think about the dog’s owner, Mr. V, who initially leaves Willi in a parked car on a hot summer day while visiting a living museum in Jamestown.
They will certainly also want to discuss how Mr. V. redeemed himself later on by doing everything in his power to find his dog, no matter what it took.
‘Character’ can be described as doing the right thing when no one is looking. For example, a person with character will not run a red light because it is the right thing to do to stop at the red light, not only out of self-preservation but out of respect for others.
A person with character will not just pocket a $100 bill found on the street. They will first try to find its owner if possible; or they may turn the $100 bill into the local police department with information about when it was found and where.
A person with character will pocket his or her trash rather than dumping it indiscriminately on the ground or throwing it out of the car window. They will vote in political elections because they see it as their civic responsibility to do so. They will take classes in school and study for them in a way that will help them understand the material, not just to get a passing grade on a test. And they will read much more than the required number of books.
There are a great many other examples of what constitutes ‘character’ but underlying all of them is a self-responsible person acting on their own accord after thinking through a dilemma and then responding appropriately to it.
You can see some of this as our heroine, Willi, walks along the Colonial Parkway expressing feelings of loneliness and abandonment, and moments of self-doubt.
Such moments occur in everyone’s life and they offer invaluable opportunities for children to evaluate and analyze how they might respond under similar circumstances. Using the dog, Willi, to evoke such parent-child discussions is very helpful, and it is not as anxiety-provoking as using more dire examples from a child’s own life.
QUESTION: In other words, young people benefit from reflections on moral matters, even in children’s books.
Exactly! Parents and teachers should be considering what children can gain from Willi’s adventures in the way of character development. They should be thinking out loud with their children, wondering along with them what is going on and why as they travel with WILLI through history.
They might ask: Does Willi respond appropriately? What other things might have happened to her in her lost state? How do they feel about Willi’s animal friends?
Whether we are mindful of it or not, a child’s wider-community experiences offer up countless experiences that are potentially character-building if only we know to draw the child’s attention to them.
We also know that some communities – and some families – make us feel more a part of the community than others. Some don’t allow for community building in any sense of the word; in fact, they work against community building efforts. We also know that those communities and families that do not promote character development end up creating unhappy children who grow up to be unhappy adults.
The very best we can do is point the child in the direction of good models and then be there for them when they have questions.
QUESTION: Please share some summary comments about all of this, Dr. Ellen?
Helping children to learn how to think, rather than teaching them what to think, builds character.
We need to seize upon every possible opportunity to make character-building experiences available to them.
I would rather our schools dispense with rote memorization and focus, instead, on giving children expansive opportunities to learn from doing, and to learn by engaging in extended dialogue with each other and adults about the puzzles that life poses.
I would encourage our schools to build strong, credible curriculums in American History beginning in the elementary grades, apart from the usual boring civics course.
I also encourage other children’s authors to combine history learning with character development experiences in their books, so that their young readers will walk away with increased self-knowledge, not just with a fanciful story in their heads.
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