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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Jean Fritz - celebrating 100 years

Happy 100th Birthday - Jean Fritz 

Jean Fritz was born on November 16, 1915, and thus, this year (2015) she is celebrating her 100th birthday.  She was born in Wuhan (Hankow), China while her parents were working there.  She is known for having solidified the notion that biographies for children should be accurate to a word.  Mr. Revere and I (Little Brown, 1953).
Fritz had declined to name Revere's horse in her book And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973).  But she eventually, after the book was published, found that the real name for Paul Revere's horse was "Brown Beauty."  If she had known that when the book was published it is doubtful that picturing Revere's horse on the cover as a gray dapple would not have passed her critical eye.
Any information she included in a book was done so with verification from meticulous research.  She was not shy about expressing her dislike for the fact that Robert Lawson named Paul Revere's horse Scheherazade;  "Sherry" for short in his supposedly historical novel
Jean Fritz is credited for making history interesting. Anyone who has read the biographies she has authored, especially those of her six revolutionary figures, will view some of the people of history in the same light as prior to reading her books.
As I think about Jean Fritz's amazing writing career and her absolute meticulous research in preparing for a book, without thinking about how she must have felt when she discovered an illustration in one of her books that took her book out of the true historic realm.  Various illustrators provided illustrations for the individual books in her books about revolutionary war figures.  And Then What Happened to Paul Revere was illustrated by Margot Tomes as was Where was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? (1975) and What's the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? (1976).  Tomie dePaola illustrated Can't You Make Them Behave, King George? (1977). Trina Schart Hyman illustrated Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? (1974) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (1976). 
 It was this book about John Hancock that became a subject for some discussion shortly after it was published.  To explain the concern, I must share some information about the illustrator, Trina Schart Hyman.
Hyman was known for putting interesting bits and pieces into her illustrations, bits that often slipped right past the art editors and others at the publishing house.  It was as if she was playing a game with the publishers and art director.  Some were quite harmless but often very personal.  For example, she managed to get one of her illustrations published that included her ex-husband as one of the dwarfs in Snow White; and the "engaged" couple on the ornate edge of a table in King Stork. But the one illustrative bit that involved Jean Fritz is the message she put on the tombstone of Will You Sign here, John Hancock?
 It seems that Hyman's edition of Snow White was reviewed in Kirkus Reviews while Hyman was working on the illustrations for Will You Sign here, John Hancock?  The reviewer in Kirkus reviews (then run by the stalwart Virginia Kirkus) panned her edition. That caused Trina to be a little cranky -- well maybe more than cranky.   In the scene where Hancock is walking in the cemetery grieving over his young son's death in an accident -- there are tombstones throughout the cemetery.

One of those tombstones, the one in the lower right hand corner carried this inscription:

Virginia Kirk
us a nasty soul
is its own

After Jean Fritz was made aware of the insertion -- the publisher air brushed out the inscription in all subsequent editions. In following editions and to this day any copies have a completely blank tombstone in the lower right hand corner of that page (43).

Rumor had it that Jean Fritz would not allow Trina Schart Hyman to illustrate another of her books.  However, she did.  Hyman illustrated The Man Who Loved Books (Putnam, 1981).  This book authored by Jean Fritz told the story of Saint Columba, an Irish saint who was known for his missionary work in Scotland and for his love of books.

Jean Fritz has not published a book for several years, but her wealth of contributions to children's literature are a testament to her superb writing and research, and to the respect she garners from readers of all ages.
Fritz's husband Michael passed away in 1995, a year after a botched surgery landed Fritz in a wheelchair.  Fritz has a son David, and a daughter Andrea, and two grandsons: Dan and Mike.  In November 2003, she was presented a National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush, and her family and long time editor Margaret Frith were in the audience. The award is presented annually to 10 Americans. Her medal was embossed with the phrase: ''Expanding our understanding of the world.'' 

Jean Fritz - circa. 1995

For over 50 years Fritz and her husband lived in a house in Dobbs Ferry, New York.  In 2006 she moved to a retirement home overlooking the Hudson -- and she continued to write despite not being able to go to the library as conveniently as she once did.

Andrea Pfleger

Fritz's first drafts are always written in long-hand, and her daughter Andrea Fritz Pfleger, who lives in nearby Monroe, NY, is available to retrieve books she needs and to type up her manuscript pages as needed.

Update: On May 14, 2017 (Sunday) Jean Fritz died leaving behind a legacy of historical writing that continues to be touchstones for biographical and historical writing for children.  Obituary (New York Times 17 May 2017)


Frith, Marjorie (2010 November 11) Who are you writing about today, Jean Fritz? Historian Jean Fritz's longtime editor looks back over their many years of collaboration. Publisher Weekly.  Retrieved from

Jean (Buttery) Fritz (1915-_ Biography - personal, addresses, career, honors awards, writings, sidelights.  Retrieved from

McElmeel, Sharron (various dates).  Miscellanea in Jean Fritz. File: Sharron L. McElmeel Papers.  University of Iowa Special Collections.  University of Iowa: Iowa City, Iowa.  Collection no. MsCO991.


  1. Happy Birthday Jean! I am a librarian at Smithland Elementary in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Each fall for the past several years I have shared excerpts from Homesick, My Own Story and as I read about your experience trying to avoid singing the British National anthem and Ian Forbes, students are totally absorbed in your words. I so love reading it aloud. Then I share excerpts of many of your books throughout the year. I teach Virginia Studies in the library alongside the fourth grade teachers of my school. The Double Life of Pocahontas is also a favorite when reading aloud. Your contributions are invaluable to young students who are having their minds opened to American history. Thank you and I send wishes for this to be a wonderful, wonderful birthday celebration, even though you were born in China. We love you. Andrea Nolley

  2. Fascinating tidbits! I love her books. Warm wishes for a happy birthday and many more!