For years I’ve kicked myself for failing to include Russell Freedman’s Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain on my Best Jewish Children’s Books list for Tablet. Somehow, I missed reading it when it came out in 2013, and it is a doozy. A photographic history of immigration (mostly Chinese, but also Jewish, Japanese and more), it’s a gripping story about “the Ellis Island of the West.”
The book starts in 1970 with newly minted Park Ranger, Alexander Weiss, patrolling Angel Island, which was then closed to the public. Weiss discovers a falling-down wooden shack covered with Chinese graffiti, as well as snippets of writing in Japanese, Korean, German, Russian, Punjabi, Spanish, and English. It turns out to be a former detention center where grieving detainees wrote poems and stories all over the walls. The ranger himself is an immigrant, a Jew who came to America as the child of Austrian parents fleeing the Holocaust. The story then follows Weiss’ efforts to save the shack when the park service resolves to tear it down. Risking his job he enlists historians and Asian-American studies experts in the effort and soon the Asian-American community in California launches a campaign to save the immigration station. They succeed and eventually it becomes a historic landmark. A museum follows in 2009. In 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives apologized for its treatment of Chinese immigrants to California.
Russell Freedman wrote a lot of books like this, reflecting his interest in history, personal bravery, and social justice. We Will Not Be Silent, about the White Rose student resistance movement in Nazi Germany–another book filled with photos and with the words of human beings caught up in the sweep of history—was on my Best Jewish Children’s Book list in 2016. In it, a young freedom fighter named Sophie Scholl tells a Gestapo interrogator who’s trying to get her to betray her fellow anti-fascist agitator brother, “I would do it all over again—because I’m not wrong. You have the wrong worldview.” The book’s message—that even teenagers can fight powerfully against tyranny—is awfully resonant in our post-Parkland era.
Freedman died earlier this year, at 88, after suffering a series of strokes. He was the author of dozens of books, winning the Newbery Medal in 1987 for Lincoln: A Photobiography—it was the first work of nonfiction in over 30 years to win children’s book publishing’s top prize. He was repeatedly drawn to stories of ordinary people tangling with systemic injustice. Freedman told Publishers Weekly in 1993, “I think I’m attracted to subjects who had a strong sense of injustice and felt in a very deep personal sense that there were things that are wrong that have to be fixed. And because of that they’re controversial; they’re stepping on toes and threatening the status quo.”
Over time, he became increasingly determined to amplify voices that hadn’t been sufficiently heard. “Historians today recognize that history doesn’t flow exclusively from the top down,” he wrote in an essay. “It emerges also from the bottom up, when ordinary, often anonymous people fight for their own cause.” And he was determined never, ever to be boring. “With the audience I write for, I want to make sure that the reader is eagerly turning every page,” he told The Horn Book in 2002. “The worst thing that can happen is for a book to have a chilling effect on the reader, to have a kid pick it up and look at a bunch of footnotes and think, ‘No, I’m not going to read this, it’s too intimidating.’ Or even worse. If I thought that I was writing books just so that kids could write classroom reports, I’d quit.”
He also felt fervently that children’s nonfiction could stand with the best children’s novels. “Every kid reads The Diary of Anne Frank,” he told The Chicago Tribune. “If that`s not literature, I don’t know what is.” But like the Diary, quality nonfiction has to tell the truth.
“Condescension used to be the rule in children’s nonfiction,” he said in 1988 after winning the Newbery for Lincoln. “The belief that we needed to dramatize history to make it palatable and keep kids reading. So we lied. We created unbelievable characters—bland stereotypes—and fictionalized their lives. Biographies, almost without exception, were adulatory and reverential … Now, we can’t fool kids anymore. They want the facts. They want to know that history is driven along by human nature, and human nature is what they recognize in their daily lives.”
Freedman is survived by his husband and partner of 32 years, filmmaker Evans Chan. Chan, too, is passionate about human rights; his best-known work, Raise the Umbrellas, is a documentary about the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014.
Freedman’s final book, The Sinking of the Vasa: A Shipwreck of Titanic Proportions, is a fitting epitaph, representing all of his beliefs and virtues as a writer. It’s a picture-book page-turner for a specific kind of kid. (The publisher recommends it for ages 5-9, but I think kids a couple of years older would enjoy it, too.) A starred review in SLJ praised the book’s “drama and suspense,” and Booklist called it “a magnificent tribute to a magnificent folly.”
The book is about the first and only voyage in 1628 of a huge Swedish warship. The King of Sweden at the time, Gustavus Adolphus, wanted a massive, dazzling, ungapatchka symbol to terrify the Prussian army. “The Vasa was almost as long as a city block,” Freedman writes. “Her soaring masts, as tall as a fourteen-story building, could support ten billowing white sails. Gun decks on either side of the ship could hold sixty-four bronze cannons. They could fire a broadside that would blow an enemy ship out of the water.” Gilded and painted decorations covered the hull, he notes: “Angels and devils, warriors and musicians, mermaids, emperors and gods.”
Built by private contractors, the ship sailed out into Stockholm’s harbor to the cheers of crowds. Then came a gust of wind; the ship listed drastically. Then came another. Witnesses screamed. The ship went over and under before it was even a mile from shore. Smaller craft raced to the sailors’ rescue, but 30 seamen drowned.
The king, furious, wanted someone to blame. A whisper campaign started saying that the captain had been drunk. He furiously swore he wasn’t. He’d tested the ship on land and had reported his fears that it was too top-heavy to a vice admiral, who’d murmured, “If only His Majesty were at home.” The king was away with the army; he’d approved the design himself; he wanted the ship to launch now, with as many giant bronze guns as could fit on the deck. Naturally, the king was infallible, so who could be to blame? “’Only God knows,’ said the director of the shipyard.” No one was ever punished.
“The Vasa lay at the bottom of the harbor, her rigging a playground for fish, her sails waving lazily with the currents, her body littered with the skeletons of those who had perished,” Freedman writes. William Low’s gorgeous, color-saturated digital illustrations look like oil paintings; they even have a faint, canvas-like texture. We see the ship on the ocean floor, luminous beams of light piercing many shades of blue all around it, gleaming schools of fish darting in and out.
In the late 1950s, a rescue operation is mounted. Freedman explains the science of raising the waterlogged ship from its grave, and Low’s art, in a foldout section, shows a man in a diving suit floating alongside the ship as cables lift it from its underwater kingdom. Freedman goes on to describe how the ship was restored, preserved, repainted. (“The Vasa’s waterlogged oaken hull was sprayed daily with cold water to clean it and prevent it from shrinking and cracking. Then a preservative was sprayed daily for another seventeen years.”) Today, he writes, it’s one of the most popular attractions in Sweden. “Three of the Vasa’s original bronze cannons were recovered, preserved, and replaced in their gunports,” Freedman writes, “Meant to destroy enemy ships, they instead helped topple and sink the doomed Vasa. To this day, they have never fired a shot. In their silence lies a king’s misguided dream of military might.” Freedman notes that the Nobel Peace Prize was created by a Swedish explosives manufacturer who wished for a different legacy. “And the Vasa, in her restored glory, is herself a testament to peace.” Whoa, it’s like a Space Force cautionary tale!
Will every kid want to read a story like this? No. Will some devour it? Absolutely.
In 1998, Freedman won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.” This year, the award got a new name, reflecting current discomfort with the racism in the Little House on the Prairie books. It seems unlikely that Freedman would object to it being called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. He was more than entitled to win it.