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FAMILY

Fictional Series Gives Girls a True-Life Look at Courage

The 'Dear America' books offer youthful, reality-based stories in a diary format that makes history come alive in a personal way.

March 06, 1997|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"With every mile it feels like the sky and trail are moving with us, as if we're walking in place. . . . Only when I look down at my dusty shoes and see that, yes, I am walking forward and the footprints behind are mine, can I believe we are actually moving."

--Hattie Campbell

Diary entry, April 25, 1847

*

The dusty, foot-blistering challenge of the American pioneer push westward is part of what young readers experience through the eyes of the 12-year-old fictional heroine in "Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell" by Kristiana Gregory.

This new book, with its vividly accessible detailing of hardships, joys, tragedies and life observed, is part of Scholastic Inc.'s hot new "Dear America" series for girls ages 8 to 13. Conceived by Scholastic Editor in Chief Jean Feiwel, the series--reality-based fiction by notable writers for juveniles in a handsome diary format--transforms history into "herstory," giving readers a youthful, female view of America's past.

This is Gregory's second book for the series. Her first was "The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart." Gregory, who will be in the Southland for book signings from La Jolla to Los Angeles beginning Tuesday, said she identifies with the series' goal to make history come alive for girls in a personal way.

"Being female and a former girl myself," Gregory said from her Colorado home, "I remember feeling disconnected from history, and [later], I didn't remember anything about it. I either wasn't paying attention or I don't think it was taught [well]. There are a lot of stories out there that can be told from a girl's perspective."

Not necessarily stories about heroic deeds, either, but about how women and girls survived "just the everyday stuff," Gregory said.

In Hattie Campbell's eight-month journey west, she sees marriage, birth, death and injury. She knows loss, hunger, thirst and exhaustion. She also discovers an appreciation for nature's beauty and learns to see beyond thoughtless prejudices.

"That's probably a parallel in my real life," said Gregory, who grew up in Manhattan Beach. "Right now, I live almost on the Navajo reservation. When we moved here, we heard all sorts of stories and prejudices. Writing this book, I was living the same exposure to prejudice and going through the same thought process" as Hattie.

Gregory also points out that readers may relate to Hattie's feelings about leaving all that is familiar for the unknown.

"All over the country, kids are being uprooted to move with their families, and it's a very scary, traumatic experience. I hope there's a message here, that even though we leave behind friends and familiar places, we can and we do make new friends--we can still have a good life."

Although her book is appropriate for younger readers, Gregory doesn't sugarcoat. Hattie's discreetly worded, clear-eyed observations include a natural and realistic curiosity about people who look and behave differently and about "the mysteries of marriage" and childbirth.

Privacy was at a minimum on the trail, Gregory said. "I tried to think what that would have been like. I remember what I was thinking at that age. There were a lot of things from my childhood that I tried to put into Hattie Campbell's mind, because I think those are authentic wonders and concerns."

Tracy Mack, Scholastic's sponsoring editor for the series, said feedback indicates that "what readers like most is that the books were very honest. And they are often very hard-hitting--people are dying, people get hurt and sick. It's real life, and I think that readers appreciate that."

The books are planned to complement the curriculum for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade social studies classes, Mack said. "We are trying to make sure that we have books that are going to be relevant to things kids have some kind of frame of reference for.

"They're all diaries of girls living through or witnessing some critical event in American history."

"Dear America" also includes Kathryn Lasky's "A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple" and "When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson" by Barry Denenberg.

In addition to Gregory's latest book, the series' other March release is "A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl, Belmont Plantation, 1859," by Patricia C. McKissack. Future diaries will be from a freed girl during the Reconstruction Era, an Irish immigrant girl, a Quaker girl captured by Native Americans and a Navajo girl on the Long March.

BE THERE

Kristiana Gregory's book-signing schedule: Tuesday, 10:30 a.m. to noon: the White Rabbit, 7755 Girard Ave., La Jolla. Wednesday, 10 a.m. to noon: Mrs. Nelson's Toys & Books, 1030 Bonita Ave., La Verne; 3:30 to 5 p.m.: Imagine That, 5225 Canyon Crest Drive, #13, Riverside. Next Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to noon: Children's Book World, 10580 1/2 W. Pico, L.A.; 3 to 5 p.m.: Frugal Frigate, 9 N. 6th St., Redlands.

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