This post is part one of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for the annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we interview the authors to learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite! Our online polls open in April, and the winning author will receive a $10,000 prize.
This week, we are chatting with author P. O’Connell Pearson about Fighting for the Forest. Her nonfiction book brings to life the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work relief program for unemployed young men that was a part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Fighting for the Forest dives deep into a New Deal program that many people may never have heard of. How did you first come across the CCC, and what prompted you to write a whole book about it?
It’s funny, but I can’t remember not knowing about the Civilian Conservation Corps. I grew up in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., and I recall going to Shenandoah National Park when I was young. That was the CCC’s first and one of their biggest projects. I learned about the CCC in more detail as a history major and then a history teacher. There was something about the program that just drew me to it, and when I travel to national parks and the like, I look for signs of the CCC. The CCC was a natural choice for nonfiction, and it turned out that a dear friend’s father was in the Corps and worked in Shenandoah National Park. Bingo! I was ready to dive in.
At the start of the book, you make a special point to highlight that the CCC did not discriminate based on “race, color, creed, or criminal records.” Why was this antidiscrimination stance so extraordinary?
Segregation and discrimination were everywhere in the U.S. during the 1930s. So getting the nondiscrimination amendment added to the bill establishing the CCC and having that bill pass in Congress was remarkable. But unfortunately, while it’s true that the Corps was open to African American and Latino men, and they were paid the same wages as whites, they still experienced discrimination. When white residents in many areas of the country resisted having minorities in camps near their towns, the director of the Corps segregated the camps. And stores and movie theaters in many places did not allow minority enrollees into their businesses. Even so, the majority of African Americans and Latinos in the CCC felt positive about their experience because they learned the same skills and discipline as other enrollees and that served them well in later years.
In the final pages of the book, you candidly share that while there were many positive things that resulted from the CCC program, there were a number of negative outcomes as well. Why was it important for you to present the flaws?
I’m a great fan of the CCC. But I’m a greater fan of looking honestly at the past. History is the story of human beings, and humans are far from perfect. Sometimes decisions from the past conflict with what we now know about things—invasive species or forest fires, for example. Sometimes decisions in the past were based on poor information or ideas about race and religion that we find offensive or simply boneheaded today. All of it, good and bad, is part of the story. I think that when we study the past honestly, it helps us know who we really are as a people. And it helps us look at the present honestly.
Why do you feel young people should read historical nonfiction?
First of all, true stories about the past are great stories. They can be funny, scary, exiting, adventurous, sad, inspiring—just about anything fictional stories are. Second, knowing about the past helps explain the present. We live in complicated and sometimes scary times. Understanding how we got here helps give us confidence and a path forward. Third, real stories of the past help us appreciate the men and women, and sometimes children, who paved the way for us to be who we are and to live the way we do today. That’s important, I think. And reading historical nonfiction connects us to the real world. We see familiar places in new ways. And when we meet new people or travel to new places, we don’t feel so much like strangers. Historical nonfiction is a passport of sorts.
What three words would you use to describe Fighting for the Forest?
Enlightening, relatable, and inspiring
By Shana H. Fung