Thursday, November 20, 2008

From Yellow Fever to the Sanitation Strike

After Memphis historian Perre Magness visited a class of elementary school students at Christ Methodist Church last year, her next project spoke to her.

"The children were so cute and so eager," she says. "Most schools teach some local history in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. They said, 'Why don't you write a children's book?' They really had the idea."

So she did.

Memphis: A Children's History is Magness' 10th book. Released last week, it is available at Burke's Bookstore, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, Babcock Gifts, and the Pink Palace Museum.

"Children are so bloody," Magness says. "They love things like the Sultana explosion and the Yellow Fever epidemic. You would think you wouldn't want to tell them those stories, but they just love it."

The book also includes stories about the Native Americans who traded at the Chickasaw Bluff, Ida B. Wells, W.C. Handy, and the wedding of the waters. (In celebration of the completion of the Memphis-Charleston railroad, they filled up a railcar with water from the Atlantic Ocean, brought it to Memphis, and then dumped it in the Mississippi River. And then they did the same thing with Mississippi River water.)

"I've been writing Memphis history for 20 years," Magness says. "All of this is in my head. I wanted to tell some of the fun stories that children would like, such as the first steamboat and the first fire engine."

Magness thinks local history is a good gateway to get children interested in history.

"When you tell that that Poplar Avenue is an old Indian trail, you can see their eyes light up," she says. "They get excited because it's something they can identify with."

She also hopes her book can supplement history texts in local classrooms. She's read the American History book that the Memphis City Schools use in their fourth-grade curriculum, and says that each chapter has a small mention of Tennessee. Only it's not really local.

"It's all about East Tennessee," she says. "There's not even any mention of the Mississippi River, for heavens' sake."

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