Illustrating American History: From John Smith to George Washington, children’s book author Roz Schanzer makes it fun to learn about history
If you were planning on writing a book about one of America’s greatest legends, how would you approach the assignment?
Northern Virginia-based children’s book author and illustrator Roz Schanzer researches her historical figures carefully. First, she consults every significant adult book and scholarly article about the subject she can find. Then she takes a close look at ancient photos, period items from museums, painted portraits, and old political cartoons.
Schanzer’s favorite scoops almost always come from primary source material written by the folks from history who take part in her stories. These sources are full of surprises and can include anything from love letters, private journals, and obscure speeches to outrageous newspaper editorials and secret military correspondence from spies.
She synthesizes all of the information, and soon, her own story begins to take shape. Then come the illustrations. The whole process can take anywhere from one to three years to piece together, when what was once merely an idea finally becomes a hardcover book published by one of the publishing houses she works with, which include National Geographic, Doubleday, and HarperCollins.
The titles of her books include: “George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen From Both Sides,” “How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning,” and the best-selling book, “How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis & Clark,” which also won a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year award
“For the ‘Lewis & Clark’ book, I tracked down an exact replica of the keelboat used in the famous journey,” says Schanzer, who accomplished that goal by conferring with experts all across the country, including those at Fort Clatsop, the final Western outpost of the Lewis and Clark expedition. “Other illustrations I’ve seen depicting the Lewis and Clark boats showed canoes made of birch bark, but my research showed that the explorers would never have used any such thing.”
To Schanzer, going to incredible lengths to get all the facts and details just right simply seems like the right thing to do.
Consider “Gold Fever! Tales From the California Gold Rush,” published by National Geographic. Back in the days of film photography, Schanzer traveled to every California gold-mining site she could find and took more than 600 photos of gold nuggets, saloons, unusual mining equipment, and each odd item or interesting bit of scenery that would help make her pictures both accurate and fun at the same time.
“When I create the images, I want to get every shoe, every party dress, every uniform exactly right for the time period,” she shares, noting that when she looks at other historical books, she gets frustrated if the details aren’t accurate. “I think it’s the job of every historical illustrator to accurately depict all things great and small. Otherwise, how will kids know what life really looked like all those years ago?”
Consider Schanzer’s title, “What Darwin Saw: The Journey That Changed the World,” published by National Geographic.
Schanzer begins the tale when Darwin was 22 years old and offered the chance to join the adventurous crew of the Beagle, a sailing ship about to begin a five-year journey around the world. In her deliciously illustrated graphic novel filled with quotes from Darwin’s diary, letters, and books, she describes Darwin’s discovery of gigantic fossils and exotic animals.
For the first time, he watches volcanoes explode and earthquakes destroy entire towns. He explores jungles dripping with orchids, climbs mountain peaks, and visits tropical islands surrounded by living coral reefs.
Of the book, The Washington Post wrote: “For her tribute to Darwin’s five-year voyage around the world, Rosalyn Schanzer melds a graphic-novel style, lively illustrations, straightforward narration, and excerpts from Darwin’s journals. The landscapes are gorgeous (the white cliffs of Patagonia’s Atlantic coast, the tortoise-and-lizard-filled Galapagos), the animals expressive, and the amount of information dizzying.”
John Smith Escapes Again!
Also published by National Geographic is Schanzer’s book, “John Smith Escapes Again!” It was released during the autumn before the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, which Smith was working to establish when he was captured by Chief Powhatan, the supreme leader in the Chesapeake region and the father of Indian princess Pocahontas.
Did you know that as a young man John Smith was tossed into the briny deep and became a pirate? Or that he later became a wretched slave? Or that he didn’t have blond hair — as he did in the Disney movie — but a mane of dark-brown locks and a thick beard?
Historians are not certain that a brave and beautiful American Indian girl named Pocahontas rescued the courageous and cunning Smith from certain death, but they do know she was never his girlfriend; she was only 10 or 11 at the time. Still, odds are good that Smith, who Schanzer says was perhaps the greatest escape artist of his time, could probably have wriggled his way out of a dangerous situation with the Powhatan Indians all by himself.
Schanzer also discovered other little-known details, including those about Smith’s last trip downriver in Virginia. Smith had fallen asleep with a bag of gunpowder on his lap. In a twist of fate, a fellow sailor apparently lit up a pipe — and a stray spark blew onto the gunpowder, exploding it.
Smith awoke with a start, jumped into the river and put out the flames, but unfortunately, he had to go all the way back to London to get medical treatment. Though he did make a single expedition to New England in 1614, terrible luck at sea and a lack of new backers kept him from returning to his beloved America again.
And that was a real shame, Schanzer says, for it was Smith whose books first kindled the Great American Dream. “He believed that America was the one place on earth where everyone, no matter how lowly their status, could make a better life for themselves if they were willing to work hard,” the author shares. “I have to admit, after spending about a year creating this book, John Smith has become a hero of mine.”
The Heart of a Traveler
Schanzer is never one to pass up taking a great trip. Her propensity for a good adventure has taken her to Belize, where she swam with sharks; to Alaska, where she kayaked with whales; and to the Amazonian jungles of Peru, where she fished for piranhas. Schanzer and her husband, Steve, visited volcanoes and gigantic marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands in preparation for her book about Darwin.
Those travels provide a stark contrast to her early jobs. At the start of her career, she sat in a small cubicle, illustrating cards for Hallmark. Then in 1971, three short years before following Steve to Northern Virginia for his job in a think tank, she began illustrating children’s books.
It proved to be the perfect thing to do while raising son Adam and daughter Kim. By 1993, Schanzer decided it was time to craft her own stories.
An Artist — and a Writer and Historian, Too
One of her first releases was “Ezra in Pursuit: The Great Maze Chase,” published by Doubleday. It was the story of a boy and his dog chasing three bank robbers through the Wild West in 1874. By 2000, she was ready to tackle a topic near and dear to her heart. She wrote “Escaping to America: A True Story,” the tale of her Jewish ancestors, who escaped from war-torn Poland in 1921 to seek a better life in America.
“This book features illustrations of my father, then a young boy, as he struggled to find his way to a new environment,” Schanzer explains. “It was very exciting to get inside of my family’s heads.”
Of that book, noted children’s book review service Kirkus wrote: “Steerage has been described in many books, but never so clearly for this younger age group. Schanzer draws pictures with words as well as with her art.”
Schanzer admits that having an esteemed literary publication pay her such compliments has given a nice little boost to her ego. “I never really considered myself a writer or a historian, but looking back at my body of work, I guess that I am,” she says. “Ultimately, I just want to make the books so much fun and so interesting that my readers will get caught up in the story. I’d like to bring the past to life and if I can, then I’ll consider my work to be a success.”
About Roz Schanzer
When she isn’t buried inside a dusty history book at the library or on one of her exciting adventures, Rosalyn Schanzer can often be found talking to students in countless elementary and middle schools and at teacher in-services, universities, seminars, and conferences. She is also available via videoconferencing and webinars.
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