THE BROTHERS CHRISTOPHER AND James Lincoln Collier have been writing historical fiction for young people since the early 1970s and are generally recognized as masters of the genre. Their first collaboration, My Brother Sam Is Dead (Four Winds, 1974), was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1975. Just two years ago it received a Phoenix Award, given to a book over 20 years old that has endured even if it wasn't an award winner when it was first published.
My Brother Sam. . . has both endured and has been recognized by list makers in the teaching and library professions as a readable, entertaining glimpse into a teenager's life in colonial times. It also launched the Collier bothers on a collaborative career that gives middle school and junior high readers fictional young people to remember among the dates and places studied in history classes.
One other indication that the book "endures" is its appearance in the 1990s on the list of titles that have been challenged by would-be book banners. The brothers were born in New York City, where their father was a writer of short stories about the Old West, who also wrote several biographies of western heroes for young adults. Both brothers gravitated toward their father's profession as a writer although their subjects were different.
Christopher, the younger brother shared his father's interest in history. After college he taught social studies in Connecticut Junior and senior high schools. Later he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University and has taught American history at the college level since 1961. In 1985, he was named Connecticut State Historian.
As a professor and historian, Christopher writes scholarly articles, monographs, and books. His book Roger Sherman's Connecticut: Yankee Politics and the American Revolution (Wesleyan University Press, 1971) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
In his separate writing career, James Collier was editing a magazine, writing articles, adult novels, and nonfiction children's books, often about music and musicians, and playing the trombone in a New York City jazz band. His books have been nominated for National Book Awards and the American Book Award. One of his most acclaimed titles is The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History (Houghton Mifflin, 1978).
James's books for children and teenagers range from a photo essay on fire houses to comic novels to books on musical theory: One of his first books for young readers explained military maneuvers in World War II, Battleground (Norton, 1965). He has also written biographies of jazz musicians for both young readers and for an adult audience. His books for adults includes one novel, published in 1960.
Nine novels later, the brothers' collaboration process has evolved into a standard pattern of interaction. Christopher starts the exchange with an idea for teaching a historical period or a concept to their readers. "When I was teaching eighth grade, I thought that kids would learn better and remember more if they learned history through really exciting--but true--novels."
After identifying the event and the general setting, Christopher researches every aspect of the time period, from the terrain and weather to the foods, clothing, and household utensils. He also creates profiles of the characters who might be included in the story. He researches names (to be sure they are authentic for the time), writes descriptions of the characters, fleshes out the details of the setting, and makes notes about everything that might be needed to make the story authentic.
"Almost everything that we put in our books really did happen to someone--though not always to the people who live in our stories," says Christopher. Some of the incidents are made up, but, according to the author, they "are easy to believe," because they are based on the careful research into time and place. Some episodes that are "harder to believe" are true. As an example, he points to one scene in which "two men are swept off an 18th century brigantine-and with the next wave one of them is swept back on again. Amazing, but it really happened."
Once Christopher has done the research, from his home in Connecticut, and outlined the story, he sends the outline to James in New York City. As James writes the first draft, he may need yet more facts from Christopher. For example, if the characters are leaving their home to go to a nearby town, James might need a description of the countryside and a route the characters would likely take. A mealtime scene might require some details about the type of food available in that season or the type of tableware, if any.
The Colliers are meticulous about the facts in their books. A manuscript will be passed back and forth until each is comfortable that it is both accurate in every detail and exciting in plot and action. James says his job is to make the book "very exciting so kids are going to stay with it," and Christopher views the stories as a "better way to teach history." Both keep those points in mind as they review the drafts.
After James produces the final draft Christopher gives it a final, extensive facts check before it goes to the publisher. When the brothers were writing about the decapitation of the slave Ned in My Brother Sam Is Dead, Christopher visited the site and measured distances so that every move and action would be portrayed as accurately as possible. They even used the exact words reportedly said by the British officers.
Their insistence on accuracy sometimes portrays a past that offends popular notions about our forbearers or current "political correctness." Their research shows that the colonial period was characterized by heavy drinking, families broken by death, and the subordination of women, children, and slaves.
The books have been challenged by some groups for profane and derogatory language. The brothers defend their accurate depiction of the attitudes and social mores of the eras they write about by pointing out, for example. that "during the American Revolution, African Americans were referred to as `niggers.'" To have avoided using the term would have rendered their writing less than credible, they believe. In the same vein, empowering their female characters would have created a false picture of the times.
One of the most difficult aspects of writing about a time before sound recordings were possible is determining how people spoke. The characters in their books speak in modern English. That decision was made by the Colliers partly to make the story easier to read and partly because they had no way to verify speech patterns or dialects.
In each book, a feature that should delight history teachers and report writers is the end-of-the-novel section called How Much of This Book Is True? In a page or two, the brothers tell readers which characters are based on real people found in their searching of primary sources (government records, newspapers, and even gravestones) and which characters and events are "their inventions" based on their study of the times.
The first three of the Colliers' novels are set during the American Revolution. Each focuses on a distinct conflict that grew out of the convictions and attitudes held by the people of the times. My Brother Sam Is Dead deals with the divided loyalties within families and among the residents of the colonies. The Bloody Country exposes a conflict between two of the new states--Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The Winter Hero deals with the factors that led to the Shays' Rebellion.
Three more books form a second trilogy that follows the black Arabus family in post-Revolutionary days. These novels describe the perilous line between freedom and slavery for blacks who lived in the North from 1781 to 1790. In War Comes to Willy Freeman, even African Americans who had "bought" their freedom were always dangerously close to being returned to slavery by the greedy and dishonest. Willy's father fought, and died, in the Revolutionary War, which should have ensured the freedom of his daughter. In their novel, the Colliers put Willy at the heart of a real court decision that was the basis to assure the freedom of some 300 African-American soldiers in Connecticut. In Jump Ship to Freedom, slaves are used as bargaining chips in the drafting of the Constitution. Who Is Carrie? portrays the most powerless people in post-revolutionary America--a female slave child.
Both Jump Ship to Freedom and War Comes to Willy Freeman were named a Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies by the National Council for Social Studies and the Children's Book Council.
The next two novels move forward to the industrial revolution and the Civil War. The Clock is set in 1810 Connecticut and deals with the exploitation of workers in the early textile mills. The Colliers' only book set in the Civil War era is also their most recent, With Every Drop of Blood: A Novel of the Civil War (Delacorte). In this tale a 14 year old who is attempting to get food to the Rebel forces in Richmond, Virginia, is captured by a black Union solider.
The brothers have collaborated on one history written for adult readers, which is certainly accessible to and informative for high school readers, Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Conventional of 1787 (Random House, 1986). While co-authoring historical fiction for middle school readers, the Colliers have also continued their own individual pursuits.
Sharron L. McElmeel
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