by Mike Henry | Dec 8, 2011
What is it about genealogy that makes people choke? I used to see it all the time - the shifting in their seats, the yawns, and the glazed look in their eyes - when I tried to tell my children stories about their ancestors. (Of course, that was before I got the knack.) If there's one thing I've learned from raising four kids, it's this: Lists of data are dull. They will put kids to sleep faster than a Brahms lullaby.
I cannot forget this lesson when I write biographies for them. When they read, they do the same things they do when they are listening to a boring story; the only difference is they put the book down when they have had enough. So how do you get them to keep turning the pages? How do you get children to own it, to cherish it?
Here are a few things I like to keep in mind when I write for children:
The first thing you need to do is to figure out how you are going to get their attention. This is History Teaching 101. Statistics are not usually important to kids unless they are attached to something more meaningful. If you have a child who cares about your ancestor's land or their birth and death dates, you have a unique treasure. Most kids find meaning in what is the latest trendy item, what scares them, or what makes them laugh.
My first genealogy activity book was designed for my own children, who were six and nine at the time. Inside the book were biographies of three of their ancestors: John Andrew Smith, John Henry, and John Andrew Smith, Jr. The cover page piqued their interest with a picture of three old-fashioned outhouses lined up next to each other and the title of the book: "A Story about Three Johns." The outhouses were not relevant to the stories; but they were relevant in the minds of two elementary-school-age girls who were more concerned about where John Henry went potty than anything else.
Whether you like it or not, kids are tuned in to what meets their immediate needs or peculiar interest. Keep in mind: The absurd always wins out. That's what makes something news (and it is why newspapers don't print stories about Average Joe who doesn't do anything unusual). Nobody wants to read that somebody was born on a certain date; everybody was born on a certain date. They want to read that somebody fought against the Confederate army at Gettysburg. A parcel of land described as the N/2 NW/4 of Section 22 is boring to a child; but a virgin forest on the frontier puts a thrilling image in a child's mind.
Think about what is news to your child. Fashion? Music? Sports? Technology? Pick two or three meaningful things and research your ancestor's take on them. It may not be easy; but it will put flesh and blood on otherwise dry bones. Find the nugget of relevance, spark their interest; and once you have it, keep it focused on what interests them - not necessarily on what interests you.
One of the reasons history is so boring is that it is often taught outside the context of real life. We say, "They fought in the Civil War, bought a farm in Illinois in 1873, and died in 1897;" and our children say, "So what?" Don't let this shock anybody: Our children are children. They can't relate to the Civil War, buying a farm, or dying in 1897; but they can relate to having dreams, goals, happiness, and loss.
When I began researching the book Jedediah Riggs: Portraits and Legacy, I started with one page of data about my subject. Half the page was a list of his children; the other half was data taken from censuses and a little bit about his two wives. It was dry as a bone. Between 1998 and 2000, I traveled to every spot he owned land and visited every archive with records about him, eventually reconstructing the life of a man who had forethought, values, and life experiences. Today, his biography is 25 pages long and includes stories of success, joy, and terrible loss. The book is a favorite at family reunions.
A story paints a picture; and a picture paints a thousand words. But if all you know about your ancestors is their vital statistics, you don't have enough information to paint a white stripe. Pay close attention to every detail in the items you find. Profile your subject carefully. That death record contains a wealth of information the untrained eye will miss. It may also create some questions in your mind that could lead you to any number of other research areas.
That's not all: As you analyze the documents and start answering questions, put your subject under the microscope of social science. Think in terms of how they formed relationships with others or how they viewed God and the universe. What can you learn about their personality based on the decisions they made? Don't make a claim if you don't have substantial proof; but make sure you do not write a biography until you can authoritatively write about the personality of the subject. It's easy to crank out a cookie-cutter kids story about a pioneer who chops wood, builds a log cabin, and eats wild game; but a real reflection of the person's heart takes dedicated research - and it pays off. If your children can relate to their ancestors, they will want to read about them.
Once you think you have enough to write a substantial biography, trim it down. If you want to keep the documentation, put it in the end notes; but don't bog down the story with a bunch of N/2 SW/4, T16N-R3E, or Line 23, Vol. 3, Page 373s. Stuff like that will kill your kids' enthusiasm like a pencil poke in the eye. Resist the urge to show your children the process of how you found the information - unless your set of biographies is big enough to include an introduction. Better yet, tack a final chapter at the end called "About the Research." You are trying to capture your children's enthusiasm - not scare them away from it.
Turning it into a real story will help you keep it short and simple. Figure out what your ancestor was about. Take a step back and think about one clear life lesson and let that be the theme of the biography. Start out by creating a "need to know," that is, a mystery that your child will want to solve. Follow their lives as they journey to reach that Holy Grail. Create a real plot and finish up with the punch line - either the realization of their goal or the pain of utter loss. Everything else - everything that does not contribute to the story - should be reserved for introductions and end notes.
Every child learns at different speeds and in different ways. Some prefer pictures; some stories; and some hands-on activities. Not many children are capable of staying focused on one topic for a long period of time. An activity book is an ideal remedy for all of these challenges. It gives children a way to experience family history at their own speed, function in their own learning style, and stay connected to the topic despite a short attention span.
One activity book I designed was for a family reunion in 2010. Copies of the book were given to all of the nine grandchildren at the event, ranging in ages from 6 to 21. Though the stories and activities were created with 12 year olds in mind, the four oldest loved them too and worked on them as diligently as the younger ones. In fact, the energy shown by the older kids created interest in the others; the younger kids gathered around the older ones with the books, sat on their laps, and asked them to read to them, too.
As you write the biographies for your kids, be careful of highfalutin' words; they may be straight-shooting to you, but they may also shroud your family history in mystery. Indeed, using college words is a sign you're not using your creative juices. In the radio industry, deejays are told to use vocabulary a seventh-grader understands because it guarantees a majority of the listening audience. The same is true of biographies. If you write your stories with a seventh grader in mind, you are likely to appeal to people of all ages.
Enrich your biographies by cutting and pasting maps and images into the document. I use Windows' Paint or Adobe PhotoDeluxe programs to make my own pictures; but you can use the one that's best for you. Use those pictures to produce a coloring page section in your book. Download a free crossword puzzle program online and create brain-teasers for your kids. You may also want to create your own word searches or crypto-quotes based on words and phrases in your biographies.
Above all, take time to understand your child. When you understand your child, you will have the power to overcome their obstacles. Understanding your child helps you to see what is meaningful to them, to know how to reach their level of experience, to gain the insight to know how much is just enough, and to give them a biography they will read and never put down.
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