In March, Bygone Babes’ inaugural month, contributors examined early influences on why they decided to pursue history as a field of expertise and career, in the “Why History?” series
Recently, I found an old box of books, stored for years in my parent’s attic. Rummaging through the box of my childhood keepsakes and notebooks, I found my collection of Dear America books. Dear America is a series of young adult historical fiction books written from the perspective of teenage girls. Each novel, written in the form of a diary, follows a different girl at various moments of American history. Serving as witnesses to historical events, these girls share their thoughts and feelings about what is happening around them. This series was my first experience with history and the historical fiction genre and hold a special place in my heart. The Dear America series helped me overcome challenges with reading and guided my consciousness as young reader and later as a historian.
For as long as I could remember, I struggled with reading. No matter how hard I tried, I could never keep up with my peers’ growing vocabulary and ease at reading and understanding new words. Despite being labeled as ‘bright,’ I scored in the lower percentile on reading comprehension and vocabulary tests. I vividly remember feeling embarrassed during silent reading, the sound of my classmate’s page turning ringing in my ears as I stumbled and reread sentences. Frustrated with something that seemed to come so easy to others, I would avoid reading at all costs, pretending to read the books that collected on my bedroom bookcase.
My mother, an elementary school reading teacher, worked tirelessly to help develop my understanding of how written language worked, the phonics of sounding out words, the timbre and flow of sentences, the compositions of paragraphs. Blame our mother-daughter relationship or my burgeoning pre-teen attitude, but my growth was much slower than my mother would have hoped. After much debate, my parents enrolled me in after school classes when I was 10 with the hope that, I may overcome my reading disability. With time, the classes taught me how to approach the written word as a friend, not a foe. The teachers I worked with encouraged me to find material that I enjoyed reading. The content did not matter, what mattered was practice.
Heidi (right) reading Sweet Valley High book series
After a year of trying to find my niche in the wide world of literature, I checked out Dear America: When will this cruel war be over? from my local library. I was enthralled by the struggles of a teenage girl during the Civil War. It was the first book that I could not put down and finished in record time; I retold the story to anyone that would listen. My mother was thrilled with my new found interest and allowed me to order other Dear America books on a new online bookstore called amazon.com (hah!). I devoured as many Dear America books as I could; spending hours in my room laid out on my bed reading the fictionalized diaries of a pilgrim girl, a slave on the Underground Railroad, and a factory immigrant from Ireland. I had found my genre and Dear America opened the doors of history for me. I discovered that I loved to learn about the people that experienced important moments in history. By the time I was in high school, I was regularly reading non-fiction history novels without much thought to my previous struggles.
History and Dear America built my confidence as a reader. The series opened up a world of possibilities. History, particularly late nineteenth century US history, became a lifelong passion and translated into both a Bachelors and Masters degree in History. For me, history is more than a collection of mundane facts and dates, but personal stories to which we all can relate.
Heidi Trent Burnett received a Master of Arts in History from University of San Diego where she focused on environmental history and wrote a Master’s thesis titled “San Diego’s Wilderness: the changing landscape of Cleveland National Forest.” She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from Sonoma State University. She currently works in Higher Education administration where she uses the skills acquired during her history education regularly. In her free time, Heidi enjoys spending time with her husband, young son, and exploring the great outdoors.