Jean Fritz. If you know her work, you’ll be smiling at the mere mention of her name. Her humor has wooed and wowed millions of kids into learning American history. I want to be her when (if) I grow up. See that book below? You can get it for $1.49—what are you waiting for? Didn’t you see all those 5-star reviews? This book (the one pictured below) is about King George and it deserves every single one of those stars. Did you know he had pigeon toes? You need to read this book to help you understand the American Revolution and pigeon toes. A book that can do both is rare indeed.
If You Want to Write Nonfiction for Kids, Fritz Out
Even if you don’t want to be funny, studying Jean’s style and selection of material will help you improve your writing. Later I make a list of a few reasons her writing is phenomenal, but I learn best by doing and maybe you do too. So please buy a book and make your own list. If you don’t have $1.49, check her books out of the library—they will be there, I promise. Or use the “Look Inside” feature of Amazon and peek, but then buy them. (If you don’t have $1.49 contact me, and we’ll remedy that.)
What’s the Deal About Questions?
So this one is the first one I read in 1997 when I was home-schooling my daughter, Danielle. (My girl lives in Australia now, and I feel sorry for each and every Australian elementary school student, because Jean Fritz didn’t write books on Australian history.) The first thing I want to note is many of Jean’s books ask a question. For example: What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? and Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus? If the title isn’t a question, then it’s something provocative such as Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt. This makes kids want to read to find out more.
The next thing Jean does is open with kid-friendly information. (Remember the pigeon toes in the King George book?) The Paul Revere book mentions a pickled pirate head on a stick. How can any boy resist that? The John Hancock book opens with a wishing rock.
Jean’s stories are approachable because she has a breezy style. Her sentences can be long, but they flow so nicely along you feel as if you’re wandering down a nice country lane.
I’ll also praise Jean for her vocabulary for kids. For instance: “[Paul Revere’s father] made beads, rings, lockets, bracelets, buttons, medals, pitchers, teapots, spoons, sugar baskets, ewers, porringers, shoe buckles, and candle sticks” (emphasis added). Jean doesn’t mess around with her vocabulary and calls a spade a spade and a jug an ewer, when that’s the word they would have used. But even if you don’t know what a porringer is (a shallow metal dish with a fancy handle), you still get the gist of the sentence. She doesn’t use hifalutin language if it interferes with comprehension. I hold on to this approach when editors challenge me. Recently I wrote a book about a giantess with a bow and arrow. You don’t load an arrow, you nock it. So I nocked, because Jean would have. Didn’t even flinch when the editor suggested I change it.
No Fake News with Fritz
And finally, someone obsessed with research can always win my heart. This is what the NYT says about her books: “Hallmarks of her work, critics agreed, included her fleet, engaging prose and prodigious archival research. (Mrs. Fritz would put no dialogue into her subjects’ mouths unless it was attested in original sources like letters and diaries.)” So you can see why I adore her. You should too.
The A to Z on Fritz
The A is for her autobiography in which she tells about her life in China. F.A.S.C.I.N.A.T.I.N.G. It was the runner-up for the Newbery in 1983, and that rarely happens for nonfiction. (Her parents were missionaries and she attended Wheaton College.) You can buy this literary gem for $1.40.
The Z is for FritZ. Names with the letter Z are memorable and funny. (There’s a Moravian missionary named Count Zinzendorf, and he’s a very serious person but those two Zs in his name make me laugh as well as remember his name.) Anyway, the Z in Fritz now also represents The End. She left us in 2017. It’s kind of okay because she was 101. And she had already written an autobiography so we can find out about her, and she had won so many awards that now the rest of us who write on history have a chance. But even though Jean is “asleep” (as the New Testament calls the in-between stage), I still might get to meet her when we rub our resurrected, renewed elbows in the New Heaven—or will it be on the New Earth? (I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen.) I wish Jean could add to her autobiography and tell us what it’s like. It might even get her that Newbery.
Marianne Hering was a founding editor of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine in 1987. Since then she’s been writing for children and editing Christian books for adults. Find out more about the Imagination Station book series that has sold more than 1 million copies at MarianneHering.com. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram. (P.S. She’s still waiting to hear back from a publisher about the Fiery Furnace manuscript she sent in February 18, 2022. The last she heard was that marketing was going to do a survey to find out if parents really wanted their kids reading her stuff as it’s usually not for the feint of heart.)