Monday, October 26, 2009

"A Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Aaron Burr

I was in Troy Saturday night for a performance of A Legend of Sleepy Hollow with the New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI). My son is an intern there and is learning about building, welding, and making theatre sets. He is also painting. If anyone saw the production he is responsible for the Dutch tiles around the stage. (Yes, I am proud!)

I have recently read The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Judith St. George. I am very interested in NYS history, and Alexander Hamilton because of his connection to the Schuyler family here in Albany. Hamilton was married to Eliza Schuyler and lived for a short time in Schuyler Mansion. What does this have to do with A Legend of Sleepy Hollow? The Duel was an eye opener not only about Alexander Hamilton, but Aaron Burr. And Aaron Burr was a major "character" in the new NYSTI production. If I hadn't read The Duel I would have been completely lost watching the play! I was very surprised that there were no background historical notes for this play.

What I learned from The Duel was how vilified Burr was after the duel that ended Hamilton's life; Burr was Thomas Jefferson's first Vice President (this is the election that ended with a tie between Burr and Jefferson and sent the election to the House of Representatives to break the tie); while Vice President, Burr ran for New York Governor as an Independent, which was an insult to his own Republican party. After he lost that election, he finished his term as vice president, but his political life was over. He continued making mischief. After the duel (1804) he was indicted for the murder of Alexander Hamilton in New Jersey. To avoid arrest he fled. Eventually he concocted a scheme to organize an expedition to conquer Louisiana and form a new empire that would include all of the western states. Eventually he was tried for treason, but the guidelines in the Constitution could not be met for a treasonous act, therefore he was acquitted and set free. He died in 1836.

I think Aaron Burr's story, especially how intertwined he and Hamilton were throughout the course of history and their lives, is more interesting than the character (Burr) that was inserted in A Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is important to get history right, especially when young people have such a poor grasp of their own country's history. I hope that NYSTI will add notes to their programs to explain the background stories.

Lastly, I highly recommend The Duel as well as a picture book on the same subject, Duel!: Burr and Hamilton's Deadly War of Words by Dennis Brindell Fradin. I can't get enough of it!

~Joyce Laiosa

Friday, October 16, 2009

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation

As a lover of history, historic landmarks, and tours of houses ("not another dead person's house" is the cry of my youngest) I was surprised that I had forgotten how flexible and unique a document our constitution is. One would think a graphic adaptation might be a silly book, or have a point of view. I don't believe that this applies to author Jonathan Hennessey or illustrator Aaron McConnell. I was very impressed with their knowledge and how they interpreted this document in pictoral form.

The very beginning of the preamble, "We the People" is a broad picture of our fellow citizens. This is followed by a brief history of how our country fought for independence, then the explanation of the preamble into the Articles explaining how the government works. The artwork is wonderful, especially the representations of the three branches of government: legislative (a man in a suit with the Capitol for a head), executive (a man in a suit with the White House for a head), and judicial (a person in a judicial robe with the Supreme Court building for a head).
This book brought new understandings of why articles were written; specifically how population was counted in order to appeal to southern states in order to pass the document and make our federal government. The book explains the Bill of Rights and the amendments that have been passed. The reasons that the Supreme Court still struggles with decisions is easier to understand now that I've "re-read" this U.S. Constitution.

If you have someone taking American History in 8th or 11th grade, do them a favor and make sure they see this book. It will help young people understand their rights and responsibilities. It will be a refresher course for grown-ups !

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


War is scary for everyone, children and adults. Listening to news reports about Afghanistan is difficult. I can't comprehend what our soldiers are going through. It is also difficult to understand how people can even live in this country. As much as we want to shelter our children from the news, perhaps we should embrace the good that happens in terrible places.

Adults have been reading Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea since 2006, when the book was first published. He tells the story of his failed attempt to climb K2. On his way back down he became lost in the mountains of Pakistan. He ended up staying in a poor village where he was overwhelmed by their kindness and vowed to come back and build schools. This happened in 1993, and as of now, he has built over 60 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His book has been adapted by Sarah Thomson for young adults (same title) and in a picture book edition with Susan L. Roth. That edition is called Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea. Roth's collages capture the people of Baltistan and their way of life in the mountains. It is a beautiful story that will shed light on people we know so little about. Learn about Dr. Greg and the great work he is doing.

Another author that will shed light on this area of the world is Deborah Ellis. She is Canadian and has traveled all over the world. I love her book The Breadwinner, and the sequel Parvana's Journey. This is the story of a family living under the tyranny of the Taliban, after the Soviet's have left Afghanistan. Parvana and her family live in Kabul. After her father dies, she must dress like a boy to try and earn money for her family. It is a sad story, a hard story. Ellis has visited Afghan refugee camps and heard many stories like Parvana's. These books can be read by fifth graders and older, more likely middle school students.

Check out these books to learn more about Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will give you and your children a different point of view than one of only war.