Children’s Historical Publishing connects at-risk youth to their future through stories of Dayton’s pastVal Beerbower
William Bell was surprised and a little disappointed when he found out his stepchildren didn’t know some of Dayton’s most influential inventors. He was determined to remedy this and a passion project quickly blossomed into a publishing company that today offers 31 educational books designed to teach children not only prominent figures in Dayton’s history but books about cooperating with others, basic principles of law and, most recently, the women’s suffrage movement.
Bell founded the nonprofit organization Home Based Arts in 1994. His goal was to improve and enrich the lives of children through educational tools and programs in order to “help children develop their minds, character and appreciation for their community.”
This was particularly critical for at-risk youth and kids living in poverty. Underfunded school districts lacked the resources and many of these children also came from tough home environments where daily needs like finding food surpassed the desire to supplement one’s formal education.
Bell wrote songs he thought would both entertain and educate children. The songs were well-received, but Bell sought better resources to assist teachers and illustrated books seemed to be the answer.
The Children’s Historical Publishing division launched in 2001 with the first title, Dayton: People, Places, and Things. Later on, Home Based Arts was dropped from the name and the nonprofit stuck with Children’s Historical Publishing.
The activity books Children’s Historical Publishing produced integrated history, art, science and technology into engaging educational materials. Published with donations and grant money, these books were disseminated to hundreds of children.
To date, more than half a million children have received Children’s Historical Publishing books. “William wanted kids to ‘look up,’” says Joyce Reid Kasprzak, Children’s Historical Publishing executive director. “He wanted them to realize all the activity taking place in our city and that there are all kinds of possibilities for (their future). He wanted kids to believe in themselves through stories of other people.”
Children’s Historical Publishing had just a handful of titles when Bell died in 2006. Kasprzak stepped up from her board position to take the helm at Children’s Historical Publishing, and continues Bell’s mission to connect with children through educational storytelling.
Initial topics included Dayton inventors and inventions, but then subject matter branched into other areas, dictated by feedback Children’s Historical Publishing received from teachers. “Twice a year we gather our teacher advisory board and ask them what (issues) they think is important,” Kasprzak says. “With our schools in Dayton, Trotwood, Jefferson Township and the like all underfunded we feel it’s our responsibility as good citizens to help out.”
For example, in many socio-economically distressed school districts students are likely to encounter law enforcement and the legal system. In response, a couple titles emerged to help break down very complex issues into concepts and terms children could absorb.
Haki and the Rule of Law was penned by local attorney Merle Wilberding. A second publication, Haki Finds Common Ground was co-authored with University of Dayton School of Law professor and director of the Zimmerman Law Library Susan Newhart Elliott.
Moved by his desire to help at-risk children understand the world around them Wilberding says writing the books was very rewarding. “My motivation in writing both of these books was to introduce children and young adults to, literally, law and order,” he says. “All the basic aspects of the rule of law are there to help you live an orderly life and to understand the laws policemen, teachers, city officials are all contributing to your right to lead a productive, safe and sane life.”
New titles track with the “Me Too” movement and coincide with the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage. This is a topic close to Kasprzak’s heart. “In the early ’70s I was the first woman to be able to get a credit card without my husband’s (or father’s) signature,” she says. “I thought it was important for students to understand that women had to work hard to obtain the right to vote and enjoy privileges that help them be independent and financially secure.” She also wanted to tie in the importance of institutions like the Dayton Woman’s Club in advancing suffrage and other women’s issues.
Kasprzak called upon her friend and Woman’s Club historian Mollie Hauser to write a Children’s Historical Publishing title about the club. Hauser agreed, citing the need for people of all ages to have heroes and heroines and understand how they, too, could make a difference.
“For this book I chose to focus on women who were founding members of the Dayton Woman’s Club,” Hauser says. “Not only were they strong women they had set goals to improve their lives and the lives of their community. My intent in writing about these people is to help young girls and boys realize no matter their circumstances they can improve their lives.”
With its relevant content complemented with illustrations that also stay current, Children’s Historical Publishing books are well received. Debbie Robertson teaches language arts for sixth-grade students at Spinning Hills Middle School. She says she’s been incorporating the CHP books into her curriculum for at least five years.
“The books are engaging; they’re easier to read and understand,” Robertson says. “They like them because they’re consumable—kids like when they’re able to write in the books and do word activities.”
It’s not just kids who enjoy Children’s Historical Publishing books. Teachers like Robertson can incorporate the literature into their curriculum knowing the content has been created specifically to meet official criteria.
“The state says what’s required for each age group and we design our books to match that core curriculum,” Kasprzak says. “We cover a lot of ground in social studies, English, and history.”
Robertson agrees, saying the books also support national trends in pushing children to read nonfiction literature. “I think (fellow teachers) will find the books to be good teaching tools in terms of vocabulary, science, social studies, but also teach them a lot about where they’re from.”
The real power of Children’s Historical Publishing books isn’t the educational content. According to Kasprzak, the best reason to put a Children’s Historical Publishing title in the hands of a kid from Dayton is so they can see possibility through the stories of people who were also themselves “just a kid from Dayton.” “Lots of these kids in inner-city schools don’t see the need or possibility of college or a rewarding career,” Kasprzak says. “If you’re hungry, or you don’t know where you’re sleeping, college seems too far away and unattainable. These books help kids have hope and let them know it’s possible to be whatever you want to be.”