Those Little Orange Books

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First edition of one in the biography series which appealed to boys and girls.

I often had my nose in a book after the third grade, and usually it was a biography.  Stories about famous people which centered on them when they were my age fascinated me.  I read what they said, what they did, what their families were like and how their way of life differed from mine.  There were over 200 in this series; all were published in the 1940s and 50s by the Bobbs-Merrill Company of Indianapolis.

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The covers morphed into blue by the time I checked them out in grade school.

Reading one after another before we studied American History in school, I found that Martha (Patsy) Dandridge and Abigail Smith grew up to be important figures in the colonies. Children who would be leaders on the frontier often had poor childhoods but close families.  The little biographies are classified by some as fiction, because they contain conversation that we don’t know happened, but might have.  The events which the talking evolves around really did, though.  And we were smart enough at the time to realize nobody had an electronic device to record what was said.  Even if they did, who knew the kids would turn out to be key figures of our past?

I just reread Teddy Roosevelt, All-Round Boy, publication date 1953.  From years of doing research about our 26th president, I find most of it to be correct.  Many facts are drawn from TR’s autobiography written in 1913.

I was fortunate to find an old library book in good condition which previewed my current collection of Theodore Roosevelt biographies.

Someone is checking up on the vintage books and issuing revised copies.  Florrie Binford Kichler, who formed Patria Press in 1997 (Bobbs-Merrill was acquired by Howard Sams and then Macmillan in 1985), had read many of the books in her own childhood.  She said she’d had rheumatic fever when she was eight, which required bed rest for three months. “My face lit up every time Aunt Mary came to visit with an orange biography.”  Her first was about Mary Todd.

Silhouetted drawings interpreted events in each subject’s life.  I know from spending time in the Houghton Library at Harvard that this amusing incident took place.  Theodore Roosevelt, and his friend, Freddy Osborn, tipped their hats to the wife of the US Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish.  They forgot that the frogs they had been collecting were in the hats.

Baby Boomers also recall the faceless illustrations on the inside pages.  They resemble scherenschnitte, or paper cutting, which was popular in the early American colonies.  Very different than today’s Who Was… series which plop on the covers a post-modern-looking giant head and shrunken body of the subject.  They, of course, are starkly accurate and leave little to the imagination.  I always liked to think I was there in the chapters of the Bobbs-Merrill ones.  It felt like I could have been in the same room or yard or school, watching and listening.

How about it?  Were you interested in those little orange books?  If so, did it lead to a lifelong love of history?  I’d be interested to hear your story.

Depth of Focus

A long time ago (in college) when I had a borrowed camera on which the knobs were so hard to turn that my thumbs were always red, I learned about aperture and depth of focus.  One had to do with light and the lens.  The other was the ability to transfer an object into a sharp image on paper.

I suppose, in a general way, depth of focus could also be used to label how much a body knows about something.  For me it is the growing up years of the twenty-sixth president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

I didn’t narrow to that topic at the beginning.  I was just interested in “the biggest character in American history,” as a recent biographer has described him.  I knew something of his Rough Rider personality, but not much about the rest of his sixty years, even what he’d done a hundred years ago as highest elected official in our country.

TR speaking in 1902 (

After tracking the places he’d lived, people he’d known, and jobs he’d held, I asked more questions.  Why was he interested in nature?  How could he have learned so much on his own?  I looked to primary sources for answers.  Mostly, I just kept reading.

I’m still amazed at how much one can learn independently by taking the time to read (Remember the Birdman of Alcatraz?).  Reliable websites instantly cough up facts for us, but sitting down with a book and reading it from cover to cover is crucial to our understanding.  Bits and pieces add up to information.  A book adds up to a conclusion of some kind, even if it isn’t the author’s.

William Henry Harbaugh artfully tells of Roosevelt’s political life.  David McCullough reveals family and social influences on a sickly little boy who metamorphosed into a leader.  Edmund Morris meticulously chronicles his drive to accomplish, but lets you make up your mind about which factors influenced him most.  Another earlier Pullitzer Prize winner, Henry Pringle, seems to have dipped his objectives in acid wash before he started to write.

There are more who used honey.  Some were TR’s contemporaries who could call upon their own memories.  Since then others have added to the list, among them Stephan Lorant (who assembled a photobiopic), Paul Cutright, Carleton Putnam, Nathan Miller, Kathleen Dalton, and Candice Millard.  The thirty-five books Theodore Roosevelt authored himself, including his autobiography, and the subjects he chose, say a lot about him, too.

Theodore at sixteen (Harvard University photograph)

I set out to tell more about “Teedie” between the ages of eight and eighteen than they had (and came pretty close).  New leads about his boyhood friends gave me more of the story.  Isn’t that true of our own friendships?  In the Houghton Library at Harvard University I read a cache of papers from the boys’ nature club which had never been published.  I also located photographs of the house he lived in from 1872 to 1884, which no one else did.

With Theodore’s life as the connecting wire, I’ve spiraled a notebook into other worlds  — of days gone by and of the outdoors — which you can see in my blog posts.  Birds are an obvious tangent.  Due to my research, I can tell you scientific names, songs, habits, and the danger they’re in today.  Looking closely at movers and shakers of the past, particularly presidents, has been enlightening.  It is much easier to remember people and events when you have stories to go with them.

The Lilly Foundation of Indiana continues to give grant funds to teachers like me to make physical searches into all kinds of things — under the headings of history, science, art, music, literature, which also adds to the sum of understanding as we pass the experiences to others.

I discovered much about an interesting American and kept looking.  Theodore Roosevelt not my idol, but he is my hero.  Looking through any lens, we need more of those.

Podcast the First



In the cold outside/cozy inside days of winter, maybe you’ll have time to listen to some of my book.  Or is there a restless younger person in your house who would like to hear a different take on history?  One of the things I miss most about the classroom is reading aloud to the kids, and if you want to sit Indian-style on the floor, go right ahead!  The first reading is from Chapter Two, “Our Young Folks.”



Book cover photograph courtesy

Author Fair

From noon to three o’clock this Saturday, November 8, I’ll be at the Allen County Public Library Author Fair at the main branch in downtown Fort Wayne.  I’d love to see you there at Table #5.  About seventy authors will be on hand with books of all genres, and ten percent of sales go to the Friends of the Library.  I’m on the panel at one o’clock, Not Just for Teens: Trends in Writing for Young Adults.  Also, teachers who purchase of a copy of my book ($12) get a free study guide!