April 2013 Archives

What Benjamin Franklin Believed (Part Three)

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            Up until the Reverend Hemphill debacle, Ben Franklin wrote quite a bit on religion, even if he never fully answered the question of what he believed. With the city of Philadelphia bordering on hostility toward his outspoken views against Presbyterianism, however, Franklin swore to keep his discussions of religion limited to private letters. Of these, one letter stands above most others in disclosing his religious views once and for all.

            In 1781, Franklin wrote to Madame Brillon, one of his many French lady-friends (1). This letter tells us quite a bit about his views on religion and serves to put much of the rest of his writings in perspective. In the letter, he offers five characteristics essential to religion in general:

1st. That there is a God who made the World, & who Governs it by his Providence.

2nd. That he should be adored, & served.

3rd. That the best service to God is doing good to Men.

4th. That the human soul is immortal &

5th. That in a future Life if not in the present one, vice will be punished, & Virtue rewarded (2).

These five points are important for a few reasons. They bring Franklin's views all together in one place, but they also provide a sort of general definition of religion that tells us what Franklin's views on spiritual life really meant.

            First, Franklin states that he believes in a providential creator God. This much we have known already. Second, he believes in service to God. We might have guessed this after Franklin's shift from the deistic First Cause to the more personal, approachable God, so this is hardly news either. The fourth and fifth points are fairly standard in describing most religions, so it comes as no surprise that these aspects would be included in his list. But let's go back to the third point.

            "The best service to God is doing good to Men." In this simple sentence, Ben Franklin encapsulates the vast majority of his life into a religious perspective. Much of Franklin's fame comes from his public service--his inventions, his civic virtue and governmental participation (1). Now that we understand that he viewed service to others as a form of worship, everything falls into place. Religion was the driving force behind who Ben Franklin was as a person. By serving his fellow man, Franklin was serving God.

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           In answering the question of Benjamin Franklin's religious views, we know a few things. He believed in a God that cares for us and helps us. He believed that organized religion was not necessarily the way to reach this God. He believed that service was the highest form of worship (3). While these ideas were gleaned from a variety of sources--Christianity, deism, humanism--they are all important beliefs that we can learn from.

Some people believe in a god and some don't. As Franklin stated in his Articles, the reality of a god or gods is not the primary focus (4). The important thing is to believe in something that makes you a better person. Franklin can't be lumped entirely into any mainstream religious group, but that's all right. He was a complex man with complex ideas that still hold true today. Doing service to others? That's something we can all agree with.

In one of his later letters, written in 1786 to an unknown recipient, Benjamin Franklin offers the following: "If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be without it?" (2). From this and the rest of his writings, it is clear that Franklin respected and encouraged religious belief. Religion was important to him because it offers humans a chance to connect with something higher than themselves, a chance to be better. As a religious figure, Franklin has quite a bit to say, but in the end, categorizing his beliefs into one religious view or another is not all that important. What is important can be drawn from the totality of his writings. It doesn't matter what you believe. It matters what you do.

References

1. Campbell, James. Recovering Benjamin Franklin: An Exploration of a Life of Science and Service. Chicago: Open Court, 1999. Print.

2. Walters, Kerry S. Benjamin Franklin and His Gods. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Print.

3. Glazener, Nancy. "Benjamin Franklin and the Limits of Secular Civil Society." American Literature. 80.2 (2008): 203-31. Print.

4. Walters, Kerry S. "A Note on Benjamin Franklin and Gods." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. 31.4 (1995): 793-805. Print.

Further Down the Road to God (Part Two)

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                By age 26, Benjamin Franklin's writings tell us two things: he was not a deist and he believed in one god rather than many. This isn't much, but it's a start. Franklin, at this point, has basically told us that he believes in one god that we can speak to through other, smaller gods, but this view of religion is shared by hundreds of millions of people across the world. In other words, Franklin's view up to this point was nothing special.

            In order to find out more, we need to look further down the timeline of Franklin's life. He was a prolific writer, after all, and such prolific writers rarely publish only two documents on such an important topic as religion. Ben Franklin was no exception to this, and in 1732, his next major writing surfaced.

            Just a few years after publishing the Articles, Franklin composed On the Providence of God in the Government of the World, written as an address to the Junto, his intellectual club. In On the Providence, Franklin expresses a deeply divided loyalty between his childhood Calvinism and the Enlightenment-era ethos he came to adopt in his teens and young adulthood (1). In this address, Franklin offers four possibilities regarding the nature of God:

1. Either he unchangeably decreed and appointed every Thing that comes to pass; and left nothing to the Course [of] Nature, nor allow'd any Creature free agency. or

2. Without decreeing any thing, he left all to general Nature and the Events of Free Agency in his Creatures, which he never alters or interrupts. or

3. He decreed some Things unchangeably, and left others to general Nature and the Events of Free agency, which also he never interrupts; or

4. He sometimes interferes by his particular Providence and sets aside the Effects which would otherwise have been produced by any of the Above Causes.

The first three propositions are reminiscent of absolute predestination, borderline atheism, and pseudo-deism, respectively. He dismisses each of them, thereby implicitly accepting the fourth. This is important because it marks a shift in his view of God from impersonal to personal; he begins to accept that not only can we interact with God, but God interacts with us. This is clearly a borrowed concept of Presbyterianism in that Franklin is asserting that God does care about human affairs and sometimes intervenes in them. It also underscored how miserable the world would be if we did not believe God to be benevolent and involved in our lives (1). This is highly reminiscent of Christianity, but as we'll soon find out, Franklin was far from a born-again believer.

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           Ben Franklin's next major publication on religion was his four-part defense of Reverend Samuel Hemphill. In these, some of his most wrathful religious pieces, he defends Hemphill against charges of plagiarism brought about by rival minister Jedediah Andrews while simultaneously tearing the Presbyterian doctrine to shreds using arguments reminiscent of his deistic phase. Given the religious demographics of Philadelphia at the time, this proved to be a mistake. Public outcry was massive, and Franklin then resolved to limit his religious thoughts to more private forums (2).

            The Hemphill defenses were also significant because of their open hostility towards the idea of institutionalized religion as a whole. This was a sentiment echoed later in his 1772 treatise, Toleration in New and Old England: the tragedy of every religion and Christianity in particular was that "every sect believing itself possessed of all truth, and that every tenet differing from theirs was error, conceived that when the power was in their hands, persecution was a duty required by them that God whom they supposed to be offended with heresy"(3).

            So far, most of Franklin's religious writings have offered mixed messages. We still do not have a definitive answer as to what specific religion, if any, he practiced. But perhaps this is the wrong way to approach the problem. Franklin's early life was characterized by ideals of deism mixed with pragmatic theology. In subsequent years, he took into consideration some elements of Presbyterianism before denying the Institution vehemently in a tirade half-against organized religion and half-for religious tolerance. So perhaps Franklin was neither a deist nor a Christian, neither a polytheist nor an atheist. Maybe the question of Franklin's religion is more complicated than the simple, one-word answer we might have expected.

References

1. Walters, Kerry S. Benjamin Franklin and His Gods. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Print.

2. Christensen, Merton A. "Franklin on the Hemphill Trial: Deism Versus Presbyterian Orthodoxy." William & Mary Quarterly. 10.3 (1953): 422-40. Print.

3. Mabee, Charles. "Benjamin Franklin's Literary Response to Dogmatic Religion." American Journal of Theology and Philosophy. 3.2 (1982): 60-8. Print.

Benjamin Franklin on the Path to Enlightenment (Part One)

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            Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prolific writers of his time, or any time for that matter. From his writings, we know about nearly every aspect of his life from his childhood to his family life, even his eating habits and his intimate relationships. There are still some parts of Franklin that are still shrouded in uncertainty, however. One of these is his spiritual life, a topic he rarely cared to talk about definitively.

Some scholars claim him to be a Calvinist or Presbyterian. Others call him a deist, and still others place him in the category of atheist. Some of his writings even suggest a more mystical approach to God and the universe (1). So what exactly did Franklin believe? There is no simple answer to this question, but the best way to start to answer it is to look to the beginning of his life.

Franklin grew up in Boston, across the street from a Presbyterian church. Both parents were active in the church, particularly his father, who was a staunch Calvinist. These views were imposed on Ben from an early age, but by the time he turned 15, the love of books he would become so famous for later in life had manifested itself. Franklin read the works of Joseph Addison, Antoine Arnaud, and Pierre Nicole, which taught him the formal elements of reason and logic (2). This would prove important because around that same time, he proclaimed himself a deist.

So Franklin was a deist? Not quite. He did profess it as a metaphysical philosophy, but what teenager hasn't thrown out their parents' gods at one point or another? Franklin's religious path was just beginning. When he was 18, he published his first major philosophical work, A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. This treatise cast God as an unapproachable First Cause, impersonal and distant. It began with the assumptions that God exists and is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. This is where things get tricky, because through the reasoning Ben learned from his books, he soon realized that if a good and all knowing God created the world, everything in it must be good. In other words, evil does not exist. Although the Dissertation was meant as a purely intellectual look at religion, there were obvious problems with the implications it provided. Ben soon realized that he had made a grievous mistake, but luckily he had only printed 100 copies. He collected as many as he could and destroyed them, considering it a major erratum (3).

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            So Franklin did go through a deist stage, but this is far from the whole story. A purely intellectual approach to religion couldn't satisfy his needs, and at age 26, he published his next major religious text: Articles of Belief & Acts of Religion.

This would prove to be Benjamin Franklin's most famous religious publication. Compared to his previous writings, the Articles took on a much more poetic and flowery tone, far from the logical, axiomatic writings of his early years. According to the Articles, the "Supremely Perfect" is the "Author and Father of the Gods themselves." Yes, that's gods in the plural sense.

Was Franklin a polytheist then? Hardly. What he meant by "gods" was more like "intermediaries" to the capital-G God. Franklin's intermediary gods were the avenues that humans could go through in order to reach the One True God, a convenient solution to the impersonality he posited in his Dissertation. The importance of these gods was not in their actual existence, but in their functional truth-value. In order, Franklin did not necessarily believe in his "gods" as supernatural beings, but rather symbols for the things we already worship (2). To a teacher, god might be knowledge. To a drunk, god might be a cold mug of beer. What was important to Franklin was that people used their created gods to live virtuous lives. This pragmatic view permeated most of his life, and is now remembered as one of his defining characteristics (4, 5).

Created gods seem like a bit of a cop out, though, don't they? The idea that people connect to a higher good simply through the things they already love is less about religion and more about morality.

So Ben Franklin was not a deist (at least not entirely), nor was he a polytheist. These early writings show this clearly, but like many young men, his views on spirituality had not yet solidified. As a 26-year-old, Franklin had not yet decided what he did believe, but he had eliminated a few possibilities, and that was the first step in his path to enlightenment.

References

1. Walters, Kerry S. "A Note on Benjamin Franklin and Gods." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. 31.4 (1995): 793-805. Print.

2. Walters, Kerry S. Benjamin Franklin and His Gods. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Print.

3. Weinberg, Jerry. Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious and Political Thought. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005. Print.

4. Glazener, Nancy. "Benjamin Franklin and the Limits of Secular Civil Society." American Literature. 80.2 (2008): 203-31. Print.

5. Pangle, Lorraine Smith, and Thomas L Pangle. The Learning of Liberty. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1993. Print.



Benjamin Franklin and Slavery

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Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History?

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How accurate is the information children receive about Franklin via picture biographies? You won't read about Franklin's rumored affairs in biographies geared toward children, but you also shouldn't accept everything as fact. I found that the majority of the five books I studied accurately depicted Franklin's life. However, a few overextended their reach and made conclusions about Franklin's feelings or inserted words into his mouth that he could not have felt or said. This could just be the flaw of the genre's form. Children's biographies "contain few details and are most useful as an introduction to important people in history, although some argue that their very simplification amounts to distortion" (Cullinan, 240).

Jean Fritz, author of What's the Big Idea, Benjamin Franklin?, says that the 48 page length of children's books is a "challenge" (Fritz, 126). A biographer begins with the entirety of a life, tasked with cropping out the boring bits and hemming in the edges to package a story and an overarching message. No person's story is so easily encapsulated, making biography-writing an inherently flawed and biased art form -- and an especially difficult challenge when the books most be short enough to sustain and child's attention and clear enough to accurately portray historical events that often require background information.

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Photo from http://www.writerscenter.org/fritz_jamestown.html

 

I found the Fritz best summarized Franklin's life, meshing small details about Franklin's time period (the fact that many streets were still unnamed in Boston when Franklin was born) while providing accurate overviews of Franklin's major ventures. In an essay Fritz wrote about the challenges of translating historical events into children's books, Fritz said that she does not insert any dialogue into a book that her subject was not known to have said. Several of the other authors I read did not follow this rule. For example, Eve Merriam, author of The Story of Ben Franklin creates dialogue between Franklin and his older brother about the Silence Dogood letters that oversimplifies the issue.

[James is speaking] "Her name is Silence Dogood. And that is a good name indeed. Silence Dogood will do good from now on not to keep her silence, but to keep on writing clever letters for our paper. Here, set this in type. I hope she will send in many more to us."

"Oh," said Ben. "Somehow I think she will."

In his own autobiography, Franklin does not detail the reaction's to the Silence Dogood letters other than to write that his brother "read it, commented on it in my hearing and I had the exquisite pleasure of finding it me with their approbation, and that in there different guesses at the author, none were named by men of some character..." (Franklin, 20). Merriam's made-up dialogue sounds cheesy and doesn't add much to the story. I think Fritz follows a sound rule in only using quotes that can definitively be attributed to a subject, especially when the subject is one as wordy and prolific as Franklin.

Other picture biographies circumvent these awkward and fake-sounding conversations by drawing on Franklin's own writings. Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom From A-Z quotes snippets of Franklin's writings. Most of the books also include excerpts from Poor Richard's Almanac.


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Another inaccuracy in many of the books was that they drew conclusions about Franklin's state of mind.  Alan Schroeder, author of Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom From A-Z, writes that signing the Declaration of Independence was one of the proudest days of Franklin's life. Without a direct quote saying as much, how could Schroeder know this? I think Schroeder's assumption reflects the time period in which he writes rather than his subject's own time period. Today, we are much more likely to recognize Franklin for his role in the founding of the United States and likely to assume Franklin felt that was his biggest contribution as well. 

Walter Isaacson, author of the adult biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,

"He has been vilified in romantic periods and lionized in entrepreneurial ones. Each era appraises him anew, and in doing so reveals some assessments of itself" (Isaacson, 3).

Equally important to examining what is included in picture biographies is asking why other things were left out. Only one of the texts (The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin) mentions that the identity of William's mother has been a mystery. In notes at the end of the book, Fritz adds that Franklin's oldest son was born before he and Deborah married and that no one is sure who William's mother is. All the other books ignore this facet of Franklin's life. Most, in fact, ignore that fact that Franklin was a flawed human being and instead focus on his contributions and brilliance in various spheres. This is not unusual for the genre, as "some biographers, intent on their moral, have reduced their subject's life to an implausible ideal, an image of ghostly perfection quite literally too good to be true" (Marcus, 1).

For biographers, Franklin is a "moralist's dream" (Marcus, 6). Marcus specifically critiques the d'Aulaires for painting too kind of a picture of Franklin, but I thought their portrait was the harshest - and therefore, more accurate. Benjamin Franklin recounted the story of paying too much for his whistle and his struggle to stay humble. It even mentions Franklin being spanked by his father for the mischief he and his friends created by stealing stones to build a wharf. There is great harm in presenting historical figures as perfect men. Because we want our children to emulate great men like Benjamin Franklin, we need to illustrate that these heroes also struggled and worked hard to get to a state of acclaim. Failing to portray this struggle does "great harm both in distorting history and breeding cynicism; the great men are all gone, the implication is" (Fritz, 125).

 

-          Megan Rogers

 

 

1.      Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: P.F. Collier and Son, 1909. Print.

2.      Galda, Lee, and Bernice E. Cullinan. Cullinan and Galda's Literature and the Child. N.p.: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print.

3.      Merriam, Eve, and Brinton Turkle. The Story of Ben Franklin. New York: Four Winds, 1965. Print.

4.      Marcus, Leonard S. "Life Drawings: Some Notes on Children's Picture Book Biographies." The Lion and the Unicorn 4.1 (1980): 15-31. Web.

5.      Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.


Gender in Picture Biographies of Benjamin Franklin

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By the time children are five, some studies estimate, they can articulate cultural stereotypes about gender. Namely, that "boys do: girls are."

 

Books are just one medium that perpetuate these rigid stereotypes. Historical non-fiction for children teaches where people came from, what obstacles they overcame and what values are important for creating change in the future. Less directly, these texts can also inadvertently define standards for masculine and feminine behavior. How do you teach young girls that they belong in politics if all historically significant role models are male? After all, it's the founding fathers, not the founding mothers of whom we speak so highly.

 

 

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Photo from http://memegenerator.net/instance/20503436

 

A study that examined award-winning children's literature in the early '70s found that books had a ratio of three male characters for every one female character. And the female characters were often seen in illustrations looking out doorways or windows. One of the study's authors concluded that boys are in more active roles; females, passive.

"In a picture book, illustrations have an equal responsibility for telling the story. Pictures of characters in a story enable children to establish feelings, emotions, and reactions by observing the facial expressions, bodily stances, etc. When text is too complex for a young reader to comprehend, pictures serve the purpose in conveying the story. The dependency on imagery carries with it the responsibility to portray gender roles accurately" (Narahara, 8)

An examination of picture biographies on Benjamin Franklin illustrates the steps our society has taken in recent decades toward gender parity.  In the one book, published in 1950, Deborah is called dumb; 60 years later she is referred to as Franklin's partner. Portrayals of gender in these children's books reflect popular gender stereotypes at the time each book was published. Here are my observations about how gender was portrayed in each book, looking closely at how Franklin's wife Deborah is described in each book:

 

n  Benjamin Franklin by Ingri & Edgar Parin d'Aulaire (published 1950)

o   Paints the most quaint version of Deborah

o   "Her name was Deborah Read. She did not care much about reading or writing, but she admired Benjamin above all and she made him a good wife."

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n  What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? By Jean Fritz (published 1976)

o   Fritz notes that "Debbie and Benjamin ran a store in the front of their house," giving Deborah a more active role.

n   The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin by Cheryl Harness (published 2005)

o   Refers to Deborah as a partner; has the most images of women. Women are pictured during celebrations after the signing of the constitution and the end of the war.

o   "They set up housekeeping and became good partners in their printing and stationary business and in their family...'

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n  Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom From A - Z by Alan Schroeder (published 2011)

o   Provides the most context, by explaining the status of women and education in Franklin's life

o    "Like many women in the colonies, Debbie could barely read or write. Nevertheless, she was of great help to Ben. She kept house, raised the children, and for many years worked with her husband in the general store. "She was a good and faithful helpmate," Ben later said of his wife."

In "Life Drawings: Some Notes on Children's Picture Book Biographies," Leonard Marcus notes in 1980, that biographies "change constantly with shifts in social awareness: many more children's biographies of women, black people, and American Indians have, for instance, appeared in the last few years than ever before" (Marcus, 1). Children's literature on Benjamin Franklin before and after 1980 has reflected this shift.

 

It's hard to be overly critical of children's picture biographies when we raise children in a world where they are constantly bombarded with images of what it means to be feminine or masculine.

 

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Photo from http://americanphoto.tumblr.com/post/21654937085/girls-pink-boys-blue-jeongmee-yoons-the

 

However, it's still worth asking: should we modify historical fiction and insert female heroines to reflect our changed, less rigid gender stereotypes?

Children's book authors have struggled with these questions when writing historical biographies for young children. After all, it's undeniable that men were shaping society in Franklin's period. Of course, today there are women shaping public policy and within politics and across all other sectors. So, should children's literature reflect our sensibilities or those of the time period they depict?

Fictionalized, commercial historical fiction has already done so. I was raised on a steady diet of strong female characters via Little Women and Caddie Woodlawn, among others. These books were all completely fictionalized, unlike books about Benjamin Franklin. Would it be ethical to fictionalize women's roles in children's books about Benjamin Franklin to boost the self-confidence of girls today? In historical fiction, many authors have chosen this route.

            "The strong, active male heroes of the traditional historical novel are today joined by equally strong and active females who often resist the tyrannical dictates that define female behavior at the time of the story." (Brown)

            But for books that relay a true story, it's unethical to fictionalize the role of women. That's where context is of the utmost important. Teachers, parents or anyone sharing biographical books with young children must address the context that created gender roles. It's important to illustrate how women have always made contributions, but that their contributions may be less significant than their male counterparts because of the social context in which they lived.

 

-          Megan Rogers

 

Sources:  

 

 

1.      1. Brown, Joanne. "Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults." The Alan Review 26.1 (1998): n. pag. Web.

2.    2.   D'Aulaire, Ingri, and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire. Benjamin Franklin. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950. Print.

3.     3. Fritz, Jean, and Margot Tomes. What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1976. Print.

4.      4. Harness, Cheryl. The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2005. Print.

 

5.    5.   Marcus, Leonard S. "Life Drawings: Some Notes on Children's Picture Book Biographies."

 

6.      6. Narahara, May. "Gender Stereotypes in Children's Picture Books." (1998): n. pag. Web.

7.      7. Schroeder, Alan, and John O'Brien. Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom from A to Z. New York: Holiday House, 2011. Print.


Representations of Franklin in Children's Literature: Why do Picture Biographies Matter?

 

My friends and I didn't play house in elementary school; we played pioneers, and I was always Laura Ingalls Wilder, complete with a calico dress and a bonnet. The Little House on the Prairie section of my book collection had overtaken an entire shelf by the end of middle school and had expanded to included books about all of Half-Pint's relatives. I chose to blog about representations of Benjamin Franklin in children's books because I know firsthand the sway books we read at an early age have over us (Check out a great essay on this topic here: bit.ly/YeHypx). Also, it seemed straightforward. Children's books are nothing more than colorful drawings, simplified life stories and a happily ever after between two covers. Nothing too hefty to analyze, right?

Not exactly. Children's books may be short, but they carry a lot of weight, introducing young readers to historical concepts, figures and time periods and creating a foundation for further exploration into these topics.  As I read picture biographies about Benjamin Franklin, I stumbled upon a few questions that didn't have simple answers. Does it really matter if we study picture biographies? How does reading biographies about historical figures affect girls since all prominent important historical figures are male? And are these biographies really accurate? I read five books, published from 1950 to 2011. You can get an overview of all of the books I read by watching this Prezi (bit.ly/151Kucj).

            Does it really matter if we study picture biographies? In short, yes.  And what about Benjamin Franklin? Does the founding father bring anything special to the world of children's literature? In one study, students read biographies about Franklin, as well as some of Franklin's own writings. They were asked to write a response to what they had read and many of the students were able to relate Franklin's sayings from Poor Richard's Almanac, his experience paying too much for his whistle or other aspects of his life to their own.  An academic reflection on an elementary school's two-week unit on Franklin concludes Franklin is a particularly influential character in children's literature:

"...He was extremely hard working; he perfected his reading and writing skills through extensive practice, using his own original methods; he was a risk-taker not dissuaded easily; when things did not go the way he hoped, Franklin sought alternative means to achieve his goals; he was curious about his world; he constantly strove to learn more and to apply his knowledge in ways beneficial to the world and people around him; and he took great pains to develop noble character traits" (Koller, 329).


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Photo from http://www.daniellesplace.com/MOsite/MObejamincrafts.cfm#bennypenny


Children's biographies are important because they set the foundation for later education about a historical figure, time or topic. Early on in the semester, we discussed several widespread rumors about Franklin (for example, that he is on the 100 dollar bill because he had 100 children and that he was a ladies man). Accurate biographies can dispel these rumors and provide the important facts about a life. But children's biographies are also flawed in their form. As I will discuss later, many gloss over hardships in a life or oversimplify historical events. After all, how do you par down a life in 20 pages or less? That task becomes even more difficult when the subject's influence spans across science, government, media, education and philosophy.

 Even when a biographer is unable to succinctly tell the story of a life, readers can still benefit from the biography through critical engagement with the text. "And as we and our students engage with the "problems" of historical fiction," says writer Joanne Brown, "we can come to understand how the genre provides us with a lens not only upon our collective past but also upon a "here and now" that defines our individual lives." Reading about historical figures brings perspective for young readers, "showing them how people of their age lived in early times and how they solved problems, particularly those relating to teaching maturity, dealing with authority and finding appropriate goals in life. Through historical fiction, a young reader should realize that life today is a result of the behavior of people in the past and that this behavior also has a role in determining the future" (Gillespie, 2).

Implementing picture biographies in a classroom can explore more than just an individual's life. It's important to be able to examine our own lives in comparison to those of the past. As I devoured Little House on the Prairie books, I thought about how I was glad that girls today don't have to complete as many chores as Laura Ingalls Wilder, jealous that she travelled across the country in a wagon and inspired by her desire to become a writer. Books serve to teach us about others, but also about ourselves:

"Children who read biographies learn that all people have the same basic needs and desires. They begin to see their lives in relation to those of the past, learn a vast amount of social detail about the past, and consider the human problems and relationships of the present in the light of those in the past" (Cullinan, 241)."

 books break.jpg

Photo from http://pinterest.com/pin/101190322850019141/


Educators have concluded that having young readers examine historical picture biographies can help foster critical engagement with all academic texts. Specifically, Brown argues that teaching that historical biographies are a writer's interpretation of what happened and not steadfast truth can lead to building skills like "purposeful research, critical analysis, and synthesis of information." She writes, "this focus is likely to encourage our students to think critically not only about the literary texts, but about their responses to the texts, and thus about their own attitudes and assumptions" (Brown). One area of historical biographies ripe for critical examination is gender representation.

 

-          Megan Rogers

 

Sources:

 

1.      Brown, Joanne. "Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults." The Alan Review 26.1 (1998): n. pag. Web.

2.      Gillespie, John T. Historical Fiction for Young Readers. N.p.: Libraries Unlimited, 2008. Print.

3.      Koeller, Shirley (01/01/1997). "From Ben's Story to Your Story: Encouraging Young Writers, Authentic Voices, and Learning Engagement". The Reading teacher (0034-0561), 50 (4), p. 328.

 

 


These are some of the questions that we are now ready to answer about Benjamin Franklin, then and now.

These are some of the questions that we are now ready to answer about Benjamin Franklin, then and now: What are the problems encountered when working in "founder's history"?  What assumptions do people seem to bring to the study of Benjamin Franklin?  Why do such assumptions emerge?  What is the best method for writing biography when the subject is as famous as Benjamin Franklin?  In thinking about these questions, we'll gain an understanding of the particular stories of Franklin that have emerged across time while also discerning why some stories (and not others) seem to capture the imaginations of reading and viewing audiences.

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