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Jefferson In Our Times: Children's Literature

Early fiction for a juvenile audience featuring Thomas Jefferson tended to portray a heroic young boy, uncomplicated by personal tragedies or complex social issues; these books also tended to discard historical fact in favor of an entertaining story.  Later publications show more careful attention to history, and shift in point of view from Jefferson himself to other young children – sometimes grandchildren, or other fictional young people whose lives he affected.

In the Days of Jefferson - Hezekiah ButterworthIn the Days of Jefferson (1900): Hezekiah Butterworth, a native of Rhode Island, was a prolific writer of travel and adventure stories and biographies for young audiences; he spent most of his professional life as an editor for the Youth’s Companion.  In this offering, part of the “Creators of Liberty Series” of historical fiction for young readers, Butterworth emphasizes the “truth that [Jefferson] and his boyhood friend had learned together under their favorite oak at Monticello that ‘all men are created equal, and endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”
The Boy Who Loved Freedom - Mary H. Wade

The Boy Who Loved Freedom: The Story of Thomas Jefferson (1930): A simplistic and highly romanticized portrayal of Jefferson’s life.  The book ends on this stirringly patriotic exhortation: “With the thought foremost in our minds, therefore, that above all else Thomas Jefferson sought freedom for his fellows, let us be determined to follow his example in making it more real, more powerful than ever before in this our loved United States of America.”

Young Tom Jefferson's Adventure Chest - Betty Elise Davis

Young Tom Jefferson’s Adventure Chest (1942): A highly anecdotal and imaginative recounting of Thomas Jefferson’s purported youthful escapades, ending with his 21st birthday.  As the author notes, “This is not a history of the life of Thomas Jefferson.  It is an adventure story in which the silver threads of fiction are woven around the golden threads of facts in his early life.”  Kirkus Reviews failed to be impressed by its narrative stylings: “This is one of those books which will appeal to grown-ups who want to give ‘instructive’ books, and will be read by undiscriminating and obedient readers. The stilted dialogue and undistinguished story are not carried by details of early American life and historical background which are just ‘worked in.’”

That Jefferson Boy - Earl Schenck MiersThat Jefferson Boy (1970): Earl Schenk Miers’ story hews somewhat closer to the known facts of Thomas Jefferson’s youth, with some embellishments.  Young Thomas is obsessed with fox-hunting, helps with the tobacco harvest, and attends the horse races with his mentor, George Wythe.  The book culminates with Jefferson’s authoring of the Declaration of Independence, during which he swats many flies.
When Mr. Jefferson Came to Philadelphia - Ann Turner

When Mr. Jefferson Came to Philadelphia (2003): Instead of relating the fictional adventures of a youthful Thomas Jefferson, this book – like several other more recent books in the genre – tells a story about Jefferson from the perspective of a young person.  In When Mr. Jefferson Came to Philadelphia, young Ned is the son of the proprietors of Thomas Jefferson’s boardinghouse, and learns about the Declaration of Independence and the meaning of freedom from conversations with his family’s guest.


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