Rebecca Ripperton

Author Archives: Rebecca Ripperton

“A History for Peter” Shows Us What It Means To Be American

by Rebecca Ripperton
April 15, 2019

The A History for Peter series is a set of three narrative books that cover American history from the mid-fifteenth century through the beginning of the Cold War. These books are dedicated to author Gerald W. Johnson’s grandson, Peter. Each includes a touching forward addressed specifically to Peter. All throughout the series, Johnson retains this same style – that of a kindly grandfather recounting history lessons to his grandchildren.

These books were first published in 1959 and 1960. Two of them had the distinction of being named Newbery Honor Books in 1960 and 1961. The three individual books in the series are America Is Born, America Grows Up, and America Moves Forward. America Is Born covers the discovery of the New World through the Revolutionary War. America Grows Up begins with the Constitutional Convention then goes all the way until World War I. Lastly, America Moves Forward covers both World Wars and concludes in the early 1950s with the end of President Truman's tenure in office.

These books are intended for children ages 13-18 for independent reading. Slightly younger children could also listen to them as read-alouds in families that wish to read and discuss these books together.

America Is Born

​The first volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the discovery of the New World to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.
Ages 13-18

Focusing on the arc of American history

Gerald W. Johnson pairs his retelling of events with reflections about the ideas that stood behind them. This, to me, is one of the best aspects of the series. Johnson chooses the details he includes carefully and focuses more on the trajectory of American history and its broader themes than on the many particulars of one era or event. For that reason, this series serves as an excellent complement to a less narrative and more dates and facts driven history book.

What does it mean to be an American?

Johnson, particularly in America Is Born, also discusses the origin of several essentially American ideas as well as the preconditions that led to their genesis. In doing so, he invites the reader to consider “what does it mean to be an American? How do the people of America differ from the people of other nations?”

He himself posits that being a citizen of the United States means something more than simply being born on American soil. In fact, he argues that being born in America by no means indicates that a man or woman is a true American, citing examples of American-born men who were more British than American, as well as examples of men born abroad who shaped America into the country we know today.

This same idea reappears in America Moves Forward during the World Wars, where Johnson depicts the fierce loyalty of immigrants who moved to America from Europe. Johnson believes that devotion to the ideals and government of the United States should bear much more weight than one's nationality at birth.

America Grows Up

The second volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the writing of the U.S. Constitution to America's declaration of war on Germany in World War I. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.
Ages 13-18

An assumption of positive intent

Throughout the series, Johnson does his best to depict both sides of conflicts and to emphasize that each man was doing what he believed to be right at that time. He does not avoid or shy away from making moral judgements, but he also writes under the assumption that all men desire and work toward the good as they understand it. Whenever possible, he extends charity toward his subjects and encourages his readers to do the same. This assumption of positive intent is an important lesson for all of us, and for children in particular.

Six Presidents as the anchors of American history

Many history books focus on wars or notable eras to create divisions and chapters in their narrative. Some American history books even devote a chapter to each administration. Johnson, however, takes an alternative route.

To anchor his narrative, Johnson relies on six presidents: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He spends considerable time talking about how each shaped America and brought about substantial and lasting changes. Of course Johnson mentions the other presidents, as well, but he does dwell predominantly on the individual contributions that these six made in establishing and developing our nation. 

Democracy as an on-going project and the United States as a global force

Another idea that Johnson addresses directly in this trilogy is that of American democracy as an on-going project. By design, the work of democracy will never be finished, and Johnson devotes considerable time to discussing this idea. And throughout all three books, he draws attention to changes in the American government that correspond to changes in the American people. He also encourages his readers to be active participants in the political process.

On the same topic of democracy as on-going and dynamic, Johnson does a particularly good job of addressing how America transitioned from being a relatively detached independent nation to its current status as a global force for democracy. Of course his books end in the mid-twentieth century, but in his lengthy treatment of Woodrow Wilson, Johnson illustrates just how the global political climate in the early twentieth century made it impossible for America to do anything but assume a position of leadership in the civilized world. To me, this transition is one of the most fascinating eras of American history and Johnson definitely does it justice.

America Moves Forward

The third volume in the A History for Peter series, covering the period from the middle of World War I to the end of the Truman presidency. This edition contains the complete text of the original volume, but it does not include the illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.
Ages 13-18

American citizenship's responsibilities and privileges

Lastly, Johnson constantly underscores the strong connection between the American government and the American people. Over and over he emphasizes the twin ideas that the government is an extension of the people and that United States citizens are responsible for their government on account of this symbiotic relationship. However, Johnson emphasizes these ideas in a way that is engaging, rather than moralizing. In stressing the responsibilities and privileges that are unique to our nation, he makes democratic involvement feel exciting. As a result, this series could be a great introduction for young people to American citizenship and all that it entails.

Where to find these books

​After being out of print for ​decades, ​these three titles are now available for sale, only at the Yesterday's Classics website, by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Purchase Gerald W. Johnson's books
from Yesterday's Classics


How To Introduce Your Children to Shakespeare

by Rebecca Ripperton
April 8, 2019

Shakespeare is a topic near and dear to our family’s heart. We all love reading Shakespeare, seeing plays performed lived, staging or even acting in plays, and talking to each other about Shakespeare. This sustained passion is in large part due to the way that our parents introduced the topic to us. So today we wanted to revisit just how our family began to introduce Shakespeare in hopes of helping other families have similarly positive experiences. This post is part one of two; the second post will follow in two weeks, on April 22, 2019.

Introduce the stories before the plays

It's always a good idea to introduce children to the stories well before they read or even watch the plays. There are a number of ways of doing this. The first is by reading literary adaptations, such as Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare or Tales from Shakespeare. (We read both books years ago as a family, and recommend them highly!) One advantage of following this method is that these stories all have literary merit in their own right and make excellent family read alouds, even if you aren't preparing to see them performed.

Another good way to introduce Shakespeare’s stories is to have a parent or older sibling tell the story aloud, perhaps in the car on the way to see a play for the first time. The storyteller doesn’t necessarily need to recount the entire plot (maybe you want to leave the ending as a surprise), but it is definitely worth providing some context for the story and a sense of familiarity with the primary characters ahead of time. Children are likely to be much more engaged if they have a good foothold into what’s happening at the very beginning.

Begin with the comedies

On a related note – we suggest beginning with the comedies! Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Taming of the Shrew all make great introductory plays. I would recommend postponing introducing the romances (Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) until after a child has seen at least a comedy or two first. The Tempest, however, is one exception to that rule and would be an excellent first play. Lastly, although Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are technically comedies, they do deal with more mature content and are best reserved for older audiences.

Shakespeare live

Next, take your children to see as many Shakespeare productions as you can. Nothing beats seeing Shakespeare's plays performed live!

Here I would encourage you to take advantage of the resources in your community such as free Shakespeare in the Park events or other low-cost community theatre. Venues that specifically welcome and even cater to children are great, because these performances tend to be a bit higher energy. Your children will be freer to engage with the play and you won’t have to worry as much about keeping them quiet or still throughout the performance. Sometimes, too, community theatre productions can be creative in unexpected ways due to limited resources, and this can be a lot of fun to see. Besides, having a more minimal set or costumes can often give your child’s imagination room to play more freely.

Another excellent thing to do is to take your children to plays where they know at least one cast member. It’s so exciting as a child to see your older sibling, a family friend, or even a teacher in a play!

Returning to the same plays over and over again

Lastly, we've found tremendous value in returning to Shakespeare’s plays over and over again. Seeing and reading the same plays many different times affords a richer understanding of the play as a whole, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the characters and their language. These plays are so bountiful that the more time we spend with them, the more they yield to us (not unlike Cleopatra!)

"Other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies."

— Antony and Cleopatra, Act II scene 2

All audiences, but children in particular, will discover new elements of a play each time they're exposed to it, which can be both exciting and rewarding. It's also a great lesson in the value of re-reading texts.

More on this same topic in 2 weeks! But in the meantime ...

Share your experience!

Do you remember your first exposure to Shakespeare or the first time you took your own children to a Shakespeare performance? What went well? What — if anything — do you wish you had done differently?  Please let us know in a comment below!

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