Steamboat School is a story which serves as a great example of why learning about history is so important. I shared this picture book several weeks ago because I loved the way author Deborah Hopkinson found the heart of the story in a child and small acts of courage. Many thanks to Deborah for sharing her process of finding the heart of this story.
I’m delighted to be invited to write here about Steamboat School, a historical fiction picture book about Reverend John Berry Meachum (1789-1854), a creative educator, entrepreneur, and civil rights activist in St. Louis, MO in the years before the Civil War. The book was published in 2016 and was recently named an ALA Notable. I like to think this honor was, in part, due to Ron Husband’s lovely and evocative illustrations. Ron was one of the first African American animators at Disney, and this is his first picture book. It was truly an honor to work with him.
I often get asked how I decide to write a story as nonfiction or historical fiction. It’s not always an easy or straightforward decision. I might try a story in various ways – and sometimes I fail entirely! (People might be surprised by how many rejections I get each year.) In the end, I think the basic challenge is to find the best way to tell a story. While I love to write nonfiction, sometimes there is simply not enough information to craft a story compelling to young readers.
That’s what happened with Steamboat School. I had the opportunity to visit the St. Louis Historical Society, and while there I tried to search for additional information on Reverend Meachum, a former enslaved man and educator. In 1847 he moved his school to a steamboat in the Mississippi River in response to a law in Missouri that abolished schools for all African Americans.
When I was unable to find any primary sources or memoirs or first person accounts from actual students, I decided it would be best to tell the story as fiction, inventing characters who might have been young students at the time.
Historical fiction does offer a lot more flexibility when telling a story. When I present in schools, I always remind young readers that when we put words in someone’s mouth, we are writing fiction. I know that some feel that a book based on real people and an actual historical event is “informational,” but I feel that it is important to model academic standards of nonfiction in children’s literature. After all, students in high school and college will be required to write research papers and cite sources.
John Berry Meachum is a somewhat obscure historical figure in our time, but that does not lessen the impact of the innovative and creative activist approach he took in 1847 when after a law that prohibited schools for African Americans he moved his school to a steamboat in the Mississippi River, which was under federal jurisdiction, rather than close it. For that reason, I decided to focus on the emotional impact that this inspiring educator might have had on students.
I chose a pencil and a candle to symbolize his activism and the fact that, even in our own time, education can illuminate truth – and sometimes speaking out is an act of courage.