May 13, 2007

New books for kids excavate facts about Pocahontas, Jamestown colony


AUTHOR: Karen MacPherson

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, the British colony in Virginia. Two new children’s books offer fascinating insights into both the British colonists and the American Indians on whose lands they settled.

‘Pocahontas’ was only a nickname

Her real name was Matoaka, but she’s known by her nickname, Pocahontas. When the British arrived in Jamestown in 1607, she was about 11 years old, the lively daughter of the powerful Chief Powhatan, who ruled 30 tribes in eastern Virginia. By the time she died in 1617, Pocahontas had won international fame as the person who acted as a peacemaker between the American Indians and the British settlers.

In her intriguing picture-book biography, “Pocahontas: Princess of the New World,” author Kathleen Krull combs the latest scholarship to show readers the true story of Pocahontas. It’s quite different from the highly romanticized 1995 Disney movie, yet Pocahontas’ life really was filled with adventure, tragedy and romance.

As Krull points out, there’s one major problem in writing about Pocahontas: The only information about her comes from English sources; there is nothing from Pocahontas’ perspective. Despite this difficulty, Krull has crafted a biography that reads like a novel. While the outline of the story may be familiar, Krull imbues it with details that help readers identify with this girl who was brave enough to apparently stop her father from killing colonist John Smith.

From that moment on, Pocahontas’ life was inextricably entwined with those of the British who were trying — with great difficulty — to create an English outpost in the New World. Krull notes that Smith praised Pocahontas’ “wit and spirit,” and that she saved his life a second time when she warned him that her father was planning to attack the Jamestown settlement.

Smith, for reasons unknown, failed to say goodbye to Pocahontas when he left Jamestown; she was told he was dead. Her visits to the English settlers ceased, and the peace that had reigned when she and Smith were friends evaporated. A few years later, the British kidnapped Pocahontas, believing that her father would do anything to get her back. Chief Powhatan merely urged the British to treat her with respect.

Angry with her father, Pocahontas married John Rolfe

John Rolfe’s abilities as a tobacco farmer helped save the Jamestown settlement. Their marriage sparked another “Pocahontas Peace” between the settlers and the American Indians. Pocahontas became Anglicized, wearing British-style dresses, converting to Christianity and even sailing to England to meet the king and queen. But it all proved too much, and she died in England in 1617.

Krull’s riveting story is well-matched by the luminous art of Caldecott Medalist David Diaz. Using mixed media, Diaz has created illustrations that sparkle with color. Overall, “Pocahontas” is further proof that Diaz and Krull, who last collaborated on the wonderful “Wilma Unlimited,” are a stellar picture-book-biography team. (Ages 5-8)

Thirteen years ago, archaeologists made an astounding discovery:

They uncovered the fort built in 1607 by the British who first settled in Jamestown. Experts thought the fort had disappeared into the James River in the 18th century. Since then, more than 1 million artifacts have been excavated from the site, providing important evidence that has forced historians to rethink the story of Jamestown.

In “1607: A New Look At Jamestown,” author Karen Lange ably pulls together the newly unearthed information into a well-written narrative that easily moves back and forth between past and present.

As Lange shows, the recent discoveries at Jamestown have included the fact that the first settlers faced a severe, years-long drought. In addition, the new evidence indicates that the settlers had a flourishing copper trade with the American Indians and that some native women married settlers and lived at the fort.

Lange works these facts into her story of Jamestown’s first years, spotlighting the arduous, often-deadly conditions faced by the settlers.

Lange also looks at how the American Indians were living when the settlers first arrived, helping young readers to see what a disruption the British caused when they arrived in Jamestown. And Lange points out that the settlement of Jamestown marked the beginning of the end of the American Indians’ way of life, and that, for those in Virginia, this year’s 400th anniversary isn’t a celebration.

Ira Block’s crisp color photographs of men and women in period dress re-enacting the Jamestown story fill in further details and add extra interest for young readers. Lange also provides a helpful chronology, bibliography and index. (Ages 8-12)


Karen MacPherson, a children’s/teen librarian, writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.

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