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Awards & Honors: 2003 National Humanities Medalist

Jean Fritz

"History isn't boring, once you get to know the people," says children's author Jean Fritz. "In my writing, I give people their place." In the last fifty years Fritz has written about many of the major figures in U.S. history, from Benjamin Franklin to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Teddy Roosevelt.

Fritz worries that children do not find history interesting because there is too much emphasis on memorizing facts. "You have to learn it all factually," she says, "but you have to feel it, too. So you teach about how Mrs. Madison took down a portrait of Washington, cut it out of the frame and saved it before the British burned the White House."

These are the kinds of stories Fritz includes in her biographies and histories. Shh, We're Writing the Constitution captures the personalities of the Founding Fathers and the difficulties they faced as they met in Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1786 to draft the constitution. In And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?, Fritz helps readers to visualize a blueprint of Boston as it existed in 1775, and takes them along with the patriot from the beginning to the end of his famous ride.

In The Cabin Faced West, Fritz uses a family story about her great-great-grandmother, Ann Hamilton. "I always knew it was a good story," she says. The story is set in 1784 and tells of young Anne, whose family has just moved to the isolation of western Pennsylvania. Anne is feeling lonely and yearns for her old home in Gettysburg when George Washington comes riding down the road, stops by, and stays for supper.

Fritz knows something about childhood isolation. She was born in China and lived there for the first thirteen years of her life, the daughter of missionary parents. She was often lonely and out of place in the international community that surrounded her. Books helped her through her solitude. She read the classics such as The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. At age five she announced she was going to be a writer.

"I never felt truly American," she says. "When I finally got to America I wanted to put down roots, and did it through history."

She graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1937 and also studied at Columbia University in New York City. She worked as a research assistant, a children's librarian, and a teacher before publishing her first book in 1954--a picture book about cats titled Fishhead. She has not stopped writing since, and has won many awards and honors, including the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association.

The research is what Fritz likes best: uncovering unknown facts about her subjects. She visited each of Patrick Henry's four homes and visited England and France for her biographies of King George III and the Marquis de Lafayette. An octogenarian confined to a wheelchair, Fritz still goes out pursuing her stories, most recently participating in a dig in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, searching for clues about what befell the lost colony at Roanoke, the subject of her next book.

"The question I am most often asked, is how do I find my ideas?" Fritz writes. "The answer is: I don't. Ideas find me. 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."

History is her life's work. "It's important to learn the ideals of the country, and not forget them," she says. When asked who is her favorite figure in history, Fritz replies, "Washington. He was the soul of integrity and he was there when we needed him."

By MR