I never considered myself a great history student. I wasn’t bad at it—my grades were okay enough and I even enjoyed the lectures most of the time, but it wasn’t really my thing. I could tell because the finer details of what we’d learned always fled my brain about a week after taking the appropriate test. Sometimes I fell asleep in class. I could never keep track of the Presidents’ years in office. It wasn’t a big deal, I decided. History just wasn’t my best subject.
I realized in 2013 that I have always absolutely loved history. I realized this while going through my childhood bookcase, as I sifted through the drifts of Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl. I noticed that I was sitting among dozens and dozens of Dear America books, and I remembered explaining to my mom that Anetka was sent to the US to marry this guy, but he was way older than her and he died and she had to take care of his kids! And this one’s Hattie, one of her friends died on the trail because he ate hemlock. And this one’s Clotee, and this one’s Maria and on and on and on because it was just! So! Interesting! All these things that had happened to these girls had actually happened in real life. Sometimes even to girls like me, whose families had just immigrated, or who liked to read, or who lived near Virginia!Victory gardens! Votes for women! The underground railroad! Holy shit, history: it’s like worldbuilding that actually happened! That was how I felt reading those books—but not how I often felt about history as it was taught in class.
I used what I learned from Dear America books on everything from my fourth grade Oregon Trail project to my AP US History test. I’ve handed them down to my youngest sister, who just turned 12—A Coal Miner’s Bride is her favorite. And I’ve revisited them myself, to discover that they were just as good as I remember. These books gave emotion and identity to events I’d often never heard of: the Lattimer Massacre, the Long Walk of the Navajo, the Great Migration. And these heroines were genuine individuals, not the generic Good Role Models for Girls I was used to. I struggle to find their like in modern adult media—where might I find a heroine like Nellie Lee Love, rebelling against colorism and the world’s indignation at a black girl who loves math? Or Remember Patience Whipple, chasing the boys who tried to peek up her skirt amidst illness and fear on the Mayflower ? Or Anetka Kaminska, 14 and suddenly a widowed mother of three?
It took me years to recognize my own interest in history because so little of it, as it is taught, involves women. Oh sure, we have a scattering of Susan B. Anthonys and Harriet Tubmans, but they’re rare enough that we can recall the handful of them we learned by name—and moreover, we sure as hell aren’t learning about struggling prairie teachers in the 1870s or teenage Jewish girls on the Lower East Side. Maybe we get The House on Mango Street squeezed into the curriculum between Johnny Tremain, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Great Expectations, but women’s stories never threaten to to achieve true parity (though god knows the boys in class will moan endlessly about Dumb Books Full of Girl Emotions anyway). So thank god for the Dear America series, and all books like them (what up, American Girl), for lending me a hand that wasn’t afraid to be in a dress. Today, I read a lot of history and am even engaging in my own independent research—but I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for stories like Nellie’s and Remember’s and Anetka’s. I’d have gone on thinking history wasn’t my thing. Because nobody bothered to let me know how much I—a mixed race, bookish, lonely little American girl—had a stake in it.