Kid Lit Review of “50 States: Our America” by Editors of Time for Kids Magazine

This is a handy school or travel companion for kids that provides brief details about the fifty states, from their geographic and political origins to short histories and some state trivia, such as “state tree” and “state bird.” Each state has one page that includes some photos, an illustrated map by Aaron Meshon, and a “fact box.” The information on states is followed by entries on U.S. Territories and Commonwealths and on the sections of the country (South, Midwest, etc.). A list of state government websites is appended at the end.

The authors don’t have much space to provide information, but I think they only do a fair job in picking out facts about the states to include. The content seemed a little “blah” to me, and not necessarily something that would hold my attention.

Take Maryland, for instance. The book has the eyes-glazing-over sentence: “Maryland’s industries expanded in the early 20th century, led by electronics, food products, and chemical manufacturing.” That sounds to me like boring textbook stuff that doesn’t give you a flavor of Maryland at all. More interesting about industry might be that 50 percent of the country’s blue crab harvest comes from Maryland waters, and crab feasts are a Maryland staple. Maryland is also the home of the first railroad, the first battle of the Civil War, and the deadliest battle, at Antietam. Each year in December, 23,100 luminaries are lit at Maryland’s Antietam National Battlefield by volunteers to teach people what that number of dead actually looks like. Kids might be fascinated to learn that the state sport of Maryland is jousting, played there for over 300 years! These are facts about which, it seems to me, that potential travelers to Maryland might want to be aware.

Luminaries at Antietam

There are many other “fun” pieces of information that could have been added to make the book more appealing, such as an indication of the different dialects in the states. In Wisconsin, for example, the natives speak “Scansin” (e.g., bubbler for water fountain, melk for milk, etc.). There is an actual national divide on the use of “soda” versus “pop.” How do different states say “pajamas” or “pecan”? Which states use “traffic circles” instead of “roundabouts” or “rotaries”? Kids might find it entertaining to learn a few of the regionalisms in use in different states. (You can see maps charting some of these dialectical differences here.)

Works of art in states get virtually no coverage. And more “unpleasant” information does not seem to me to be withheld justifiably.

On the Louisiana page we learn “…because of its low elevation, the city will face challenges as a result of rising sea levels caused by global climate change.” Wouldn’t it be more engaging and important to report that Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29, 2005, was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States? Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, and total property damage was estimated at $108 billion in 2005 U.S. dollars. That puts a “face” on the “challenges” caused by climate change.

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico on August 29, 2005.

And New York: no mention of the Statue of Liberty? The World’s Fairs? No mention of 9/11? Really?!!!

For Illinois, more boring sentences like: “Today, Northern Illinois is largely urban and industrial. Chicago, its hub, is a center for iron and steel production and other manufacturing.” Wouldn’t it intrigue kids more in terms of manufacturing to tell them about the famous stockyards? Chicago was once, as Carl Sandburg famously wrote, “Hog Butcher for the World.” The stockyards were considered one of the city’s world-famous wonders, visited by princes and maharajahs. They also inspired Upton Sinclair’s famous exposé of appalling conditions in the meat-packing industry, leading to federal food safety laws. Or why not mention the famous Columbian Exposition of 1893 (“The White City”), which introduced chewing gum, Cracker Jack’s, the dishwasher, zippers, and the Ferris Wheel? The Great Chicago fire is mentioned in passing, but wouldn’t kids like hearing the real story about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow? Or Al Capone’s Valentine’s Day Massacre?

There is some coverage of the fate of Native Americans, but it’s pretty vanilla. Take Connecticut, for instance. In 1637, William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, decided that Connecticut would make a good addition to their colony. But it happened to be occupied by the Pequot Tribe. The Puritans didn’t like the Pequots: they did not exhibit the stringent moral decorum of the Pilgrims, and were “insolent” in that they resisted subjugation and dispossession. No problem: colonial militia burned the Pequot alive in their villages – some 700 men, women, and children. Bradford then led his people in giving “thanks” for the subjugation of the Pequots.” The authentic Thanksgiving Day was born.

William Bradford, who came to the Plymouth Colony on the Mayflower

For South Dakota, there is a mention, sort of as an aside, that “hundreds of Sioux were killed near Wounded Knee,” but no reason what it was or why it happened, and who did the killing, reported in this book in the passive voice. In fact, it was the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army, who killed and then mutilated (for souvenirs) more than 200 women, children, and mostly elderly men (the warriors were out hunting) of the Lakota, and wounded many more. Thus they not only achieved “retribution” for their defeat at Little Bighorn, but could then happily open up the rich Black Hills land for white settlement.

Obviously one could go on and on. These latter facts I brought up are not “happy” aspects of state histories, but I think they are pretty important to understand where we came from and what we are now. The story of the removal and genocide of native peoples, and of the internecine conflicts of greed among the conquerers, is yet woven today into the social and political landscape of the country.

I think if you just give kids bromidic boring recitations of vague information, you are more likely to turn them off of learning than to stimulate their intellects and imaginations. If you are old enough for the prose in this book (ages 8-12), you’re old enough for some actual history. And if you want to stimulate them to seeking out more information on their own, some non-textbook prose and more “fun stuff” would be highly recommended.

Example of “Fun Stuff”

Evaluation: This is a handy guide, but I think it could have benefitted from a more interesting and relevant selection of facts to include. Nevertheless it is a start, and would be useful for kids to have on “road trips.” Kudos to the authors however for including a section on U.S. Territories and Commonwealths, omitted from most state guides.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Time Inc. Books, 2017

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3 Responses to Kid Lit Review of “50 States: Our America” by Editors of Time for Kids Magazine

  1. This looks like a good way for kids to learn.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I had high hopes for this book but found it a little dry too.

  3. Pretty funny about the legos.

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