Judith St. George, 84, authored dozens of children’s books about U.S. history.
Judith St. George, a children’s writer who gave generations of youngsters a sense of the past with dozens of books about U.S. history from the country’s founding to recent times, died June 10 at a hospital in Farmington, Conn. She was 84.
The cause was complications from dementia, said her husband, the Rev. David St. George.
School libraries and bedroom bookshelves are full of volumes that introduce young readers to the world around them. Daily rituals from brushing teeth to counting sheep, the animal kingdom from alligators to zebras, ordinary and extraordinary discoveries in the odyssey called growing up — all of these are found in picture books and chapter books.
Mrs. St. George enlarged another genre of children’s literature, the one that reveals to young people the lives that came before theirs and that perhaps even their parents and grandparents do not know about. Many of her books, some 40 in all, were works of history or historical fiction.
“All I know,” she once remarked, “is that I want my readers to care as much about the outcome of historical events as if they were reading today’s headlines.”
Her first book, inspired in part by her experience living among the Revolutionary War sites of New England, was “Turncoat Winter, Rebel Spring” (1970), the story of a teenage patriot who must decide whether to turn in a friend as a British spy.
Her early female protagonists included Josie, a 14-year-old girl in 1848 who corrects a male in his arithmetic and winds up at the landmark women’s rights convention held that year in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The book, “The Girl with Spunk,” was published in 1975, by which time many of Mrs. St. George’s more precocious readers might have overheard such names as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
Mrs. St. George’s biographies included “The Duel” (2009), an account of the lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr that illuminated not only their rivalry but also their similarities (they were both orphaned). Another double biography, “John and Abigail Adams” (2001), presented a historical love story for the reading set still training for the pages of David McCullough and fulllength PBS specials on such subjectmatter.
Her other books about White House occupants included “You’re on Your Way, Teddy Roosevelt” (2004), “Make Your Mark, Franklin Roosevelt” (2007) and “Stand Tall, Abe Lincoln” (2008), which focused on the future 16th president’s loving relationship with his stepmother, who had helped raise him on the frontier and nurtured his love of reading.
Mrs. St. George collaborated with a number of illustrators, most prominently David Small in “So You Want to Be an Inventor?” (2002), “So You Want to Be an Explorer?” (2005) and “So You Want to Be President?” (2000), which won the Caldecott Medal for distinguished illustrations.
The volume for political aspirants supplied the sorts of tidbits — accountings of Theodore Roosevelt’s pets and William Howard Taft’s weight — that give children a kernel of knowledge to trumpet and entice them toward future learning.
She also touched on larger themes about the presidency.
“If you want to be president — and stay president — be honest,” Mrs. St. George wrote. “Democrat Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath,” she noted, without belaboring about what. “Republican Richard Nixon’s staff broke into Democratic headquarters to steal campaign secrets. He covered up the crime and then lied about it. (That was the end of Richard Nixon as president!)”
She later explained her intent in writing the book.
“I felt it was important to let kids know that presidents have two sides,” she said in an interview published on the Web site Teacher Vision. “Inone sense, they are larger than life, but in another sense, they are also very human. And although our Presidents have ranged from terrible to fair to great, for the most part they have tried to do their best in the world’s most demanding job.”
Judith Alexander was born in Westfield, N. J., on Feb. 26, 1931. In an essay for the Something about the Author autobiography series, she described herself as “terribly shy” and a “worrier” as a girl but also as the beneficiary of a loving family that encouraged her in reading and other pursuits.
A 1952 English graduate of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., she began writing on her old college typewriter and endured nine rejections before publishing her first book.
In addition to her husband of 61 years, of Bloomfield, Conn., survivors include four children, Peter St. George of Palm Beach, Fla., James St. George of Anchorage, Philip St. George of Eagle River, Alaska, and Sarah Anne St. George of Evergreen, Colo.; and five grandchildren.
Mrs. St. George introduced readers to American Indian history in books about Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and Sacagawea. Other volumes recounted the lives of Helen Keller, who overcame deafness and blindness to become a celebrated example of perseverance, and Betsy Ross, seamstress of the early U.S. flag.
The author described doing extensive research for her books, among them “The Panama Canal: Gateway to the World” (1989), for which she made the crossing through the canal, and “The Brooklyn Bridge: They Said It Couldn’t Be Built,” released in 1982 in anticipation of the bridge’s centennial.
Mrs. St. George also ventured into mystery. In “Haunted” (1980), she wrote about a teenager housesitting at the site of a sinister murder-suicide and a cat who sheds white fur after deaths. Sometimes her mysteries crossed into history, such as in “The Ghost, the White House, and Me” (2007), in which the Lincoln Bedroom figures prominently.
“I want my readers to be aware that history is an ever-rolling stream and that the past can’t be separated from the present,” Mrs. St. George said. “Above all, I want the people in my books to come alive for my readers the way they come alive for me.”
Many of Judith St. George’s books were works of history.