YOU'VE probably seen the studies. They tell what percentage of high school students don't know what country the American colonists fought to gain their independence, who was president during America's Civil War, in what century the Civil War was fought. The percentages are high. You may wonder what such appalling ignorance must do to a citizen's perception of the United States. What can be done?
One simple step to consider is to join forces with your child in reading historical novels. Generally, the best authors of historical fiction for young people do thorough research, write well, and know how to tell a good story. In their novels, history lives and breathes.
Scott O'Dell looks at the early exploration of our country in The King's Fifth (Houghton Mifflin, 1966). The year is 1541, and the young cartographer Est'eban de Sandoval is on trial for depriving the king of Spain of his stipulated one-fifth of all treasure found in the New World. In prison he writes how he and a small expedition broke off from Coronado's army to search for the Seven Cities of Gold in what is now Arizona.
O'Dell's style is simple and timeless. He explores all sides of the story - the Spanish explorers hunting for gold, the priests seeking heathen souls to convert, and the Indians confronting white men for the first time - and lets the reader judge.
Ann Petry brings the same objectivity to bear on the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. In Tituba of Salem Village (Crowell, 1964), she presents the troubling incident as resulting from some young girls' need for love and attention, an unpopular minister's need for acceptance, and a small community's unstable blend of superstition and harsh religious faith. Those forces combined to focus suspicion on a powerless victim: Tituba, a black slave from Barbados.
How could it have happened? How could ``civilized'' Spaniards have slaughtered thousands of native Americans? How could ``upright,'' God-fearing people have sentenced innocent women to death? O'Dell and Petry allow us to see and feel the historical realities that helped create such events.
Among novels of the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Houghton Mifflin, 1943) has yet to be surpassed. Johnny, a young apprentice silversmith in Boston, suffers a crippling burn to his hand and must find other work.
Through his involvement with the Patriot movement, we see how war with the mother country, once unthinkable, slowly became a reality.
Forbes presents what might be called a traditional view of the war, focusing on the justness of the Patriot cause. A revisionist view can be found in the more recent My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (Macmillan, 1974).
Tim is from a Tory family, but has a brother in the Continental Army. Unfortunately, this novel lacks the depth of characterization and historical atmosphere that make Johnny Tremain so memorable. But it does have the merit of presenting both sides of the conflict. TWO very fine and very different novels show us aspects of the 19th century. The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox (Bradbury Press, 1974) is beautifully written and grimly realistic. Jessie is kidnapped to serve aboard a slave vessel. His job: playing the fife to make shackled slaves ``dance'' for exercise. You won't soon forget the terrible voyage of ``The Moonlight.''
Sid Fleischman's By the Great Horn Spoon! (Little, Brown, 1963) is history on the lighter side - a humorous look at the California gold rush, featuring nonstop action, unexpected plot twists, and plenty of laughs.
Finally, one of the best novels of the American Civil War is Irene Hunt's Across Five Aprils (Follett, 1966), a lyrical, poignant tale of a southern Illinois farm boy who must suddenly shoulder adult responsibilities when all the men in his family go to war.
Following the war through newspapers and letters, Jethro hopes the North will win, but he fears for his favorite brother, who has chosen to fight for the South.
In this novel, Hunt's balanced chronicle of the major battles of the war and the politics of the day intertwines with a carefully crafted family story to create a rounded view of this critical period.
For a young person, the rewards of exploring historical fiction can be great. But, parents, you can help get the journey under way by reading along with your child and talking about the books together. You won't lose anything in the process. These are fine novels you're likely to enjoy. And, besides, if you haven't sat in a history classroom lately, chances are you'll learn something.