IN the book talks she gives at school libraries, history writer Jean Fritz says she's amused by the cautious response she sometimes gets. ``I'll tell kids something funny, and they'll all look at their teacher, to see if it's OK to laugh. You can almost hear them thinking, `This is history. Is it supposed to be funny?''' Although Ms. Fritz has been writing fiction and historical novels for children for more than 30 years, she's probably best known for the zesty biographies she began to turn out in the early 1970s.
Her trademark humor surfaces in the facts she chooses to share with such relish:
John Hancock practiced signing his name in big letters. Sam Houston liked to dress in fancy costumes. Ben Franklin could cut his toenails underwater.
Fortunately, Fritz is as scrupulous with her fact-finding as she is buoyant with her delivery. She haunts secondhand bookshops and spends months in state historical archives verifying anecdotes - all in the name of getting the story right and making it enjoyable.
``I did historical fiction first,'' she recalls of such early titles as ``Early Thunder,'' ``I, Adam,'' and ``Brady.''
``But I got so frustrated with having to fix up fictional plots that I was glad to finally get away from all that, and just tell things the way they happened - which often is a lot stranger than anything anyone could make up!''
In her latest work, Fritz looks at the lessons that can be learned from another culture. ``China's Long March'' is an account of the year-long, 6,000-mile march undertaken by the Chinese communists across China from 1934 to 1935. (See review on Page 25.)
``I wanted to be careful in the book not to make Mao the hero, because [later on] he really became mad, no question about it. But it was a year of great idealism for the communists, because they thought they could remake China in a better way by remaking human nature.''
Fritz is perhaps uniquely fitted to the task of making the Chinese experience understandable for American readers. Born in China of missionary parents, she lived in the port city of Hankou, some 600 miles south of Peking, until she was 13.
Six years ago, she began her return odyssey by recording her childhood memories of China in the award-winning ``Homesick: My Own Story.'' In 1985, she wrote a follow-up book about her first trip back to the land of her birth in ``China Homecoming.''
For ``China's Long March,'' Fritz returned to China to talk with a dozen of the estimated 600 survivors of the march.
``My first interview was very intimidating,'' she recalls of the no-nonsense chat she had with Kang Kequing, a member of the Politburo and head of the women's movement in China.
``It was in the Great Hall of the People, and there she sat, across about five miles of carpet, a very stolid, set woman.''
As the ever-ebullient Fritz talked about her own remembrances of China, Kang Kequing gradually opened up and began to share some recollections of the march. A story she told about the imaginary, so-called mental meals the comrades ate when food supplies were especially low provided a memorable bright spot in the final manuscript.
``The general concept of children's literature in China is didactic. Everything they write for children, they want children to copy.
``When I told [two Chinese newspaper reporters] that I was writing the book because I wanted American children to understand the Chinese and be friends with them - and that you can't do that unless you know something about history and something about people - well, they were very pleased with that. It even made the front page!''