Author Jean Fritz has written many books that kids enjoy. They’re often funny and full of adventure and always have great characters. They’re also pretty much absolutely true. Jean specializes in history books, especially people’s life stories. As a biographer, she tries to get to know the people and the times in which they lived through research including reading their own words. Then she takes all that history and turns it around in her mind until it becomes a story her readers will enjoy.
How she became a writer of American history has quite a lot to do with where she was born - not in America. As the daughter of American missionaries living in China, she never really felt that she fit in. Worse, she attended a British school where the teacher and her bullying classmates made her sing “God Save the King!” every morning. She did not want to do it. Even though she had never been to America, she felt that singing that song would be traitorous. Fortunately, her wise father pointed out that the American song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” had the same tune, so she quietly sang that instead.
Coming to America
When the revolution came to China, Westerners were not wanted. Jean’s parents and friends left under very dangerous conditions that she describes in her book, Homesick: My Own Story. When at last they arrived at her grandparents’ farm in Pennsylvania, Jean figured she was home at last. But growing up in China and attending a British school, there were so many things she had not heard of. There was the strange way American kids were expected to write cursive letters. But more disappointing was the way they were supposed to learn history. It was facts and dates all lined up together and not very interesting at all.
The Cabin Faced West
Jean knew that history could be interesting. Hadn’t she lived history being made in China? In America, she heard the family stories dating back to America’s early years. Their part of Pennsylvania was the frontier then, and her farming family worked hard to survive. When Jean was grown and working as a writer, she made her breakthrough by retelling one of those stories in the novel The Cabin Faced West. Set in 1784, ten-year-old Ann Hamilton’s family has moved from the town of Gettysburg to the “The Western Country.” Lonely for her friends in town, Ann has to learn to handle the heavy responsibilities that come with being a pioneer girl.
At the end of The Cabin Faced West, Jean included a real entry from George Washington’s diary where he mentions having supper with the Hamilton family. This detail added truth to the tale, and it was the kind of information that fascinated her. She wrote other storybooks for children, but she returned to history in 1969 with George Washington’s Breakfast, the story of a boy who learns all kinds of odd and interesting things about the first president - including what he had for breakfast.
Soon she was writing entertaining, short biographies of famous Americans just in time for the Bicentennial—the 200th anniversary of the country’s founding celebrated in 1976. Jean also wrote of people who lived before America declared independence, including Pocahontas, whom she described as her favorite character. That was a difficult story to create as Pocahontas left no written records of her own, so she had to go with what other people wrote about her, including John Smith, who set down his last conversation with her when he met her again in England.
Even so, though Jean regretted having to use words such as “perhaps” and “she may have” to tell the story, she thought it was important to do that to give Pocahontas depth and make her more real. As she wrote in “The Voice of One Biographer”*
“I have often said that I don’t pick subjects; they pick me. I hear their voices and I suddenly have an intense desire to record them. If these voices, in turn, have to be filtered through my voice, there is no help for it. All biographers need to accept this. It is the only way the past can speak.”
Born: November 16, 1915 in Hankow, China, to Arthur Minton Guttery (a minister and YMCA missionary) and Myrtle (Chaney) Guttery
Married: Michael Fritz, November 1, 1941
Children: David, Andrea
Education: Wheaton College, A.B., 1937; study at Columbia University
Hobbies: Reading, traveling
Home: Dobbs Ferry, New York
Employment: Silver Burdett Co., research assistant, 1937-41; Dobbs Ferry Library, children's librarian, 1955-57; Jean Fritz Writers Workshops, founder, instructor, 1962-70; Board of Cooperative Educational Service, teacher, 1971-73; Appalachian State University, faculty, 1980-82. Writer.
First book: Bunny Hopwell’s First Spring (1954)
Selected Awards: New York Times outstanding book of the year citations , 1973, for And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?; 1974, for Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?; 1975 for Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May?; 1976, for What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin?; 1981, for Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold; and 1982, for Homesick, My Own Story. Newbery Honor Award, National Book Award, and Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor book, all 1983, all for Homesick: My Own Story. Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, 1986; Orbis Pictus Award, National Council of English Teachers, 1989, for The Great Little Madison. Many have been named notable books by the American Library Association.
Jean Fritz has written dozens of children's nonfiction books, mostly centering around The Revolutionary War and early exploration. Check out some of her top books.
November Author Birthdays: Jean Fritz
Includes a transcript of an interview with the author as well as teacher resources for her books on Paul Revere, Abraham Lincoln, and the Constitution.
“Who Are You Writing about Today, Jean Fritz?”
This Publishers Weekly article from 2010, written by her long-time editor, looks back at their many years of friendship and collaboration.
2003 National Humanities Medalist: Jean Fritz
An engaging profile on Jean Fritz where she talks about her life and her works.
From the CRRL Online Research Collection:
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Biography in Context:
"Jean (Guttery) Fritz." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Biography In Context. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
"Jean (Guttery) Fritz." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Gale, 2002. Biography In Context. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
"Jean Fritz." The Writers Directory. Detroit: St. James Press, 2013. Biography In Context. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
Literature Resource Center:
Alberghene, Janice. "Artful Memory: Jean Fritz, Autobiography, and the Child Reader." The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics. Ed. Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. 362-368. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns and Allison Marion. Vol. 96. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.
*“The Voice of One Biographer,” Jean Fritz. Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns and Allison Marion. Vol. 96. Detroit: Gale, 2004. From Literature Resource Center.