- Daphne Kalmar
In August of 1974, when my family moved from Colorado to New Hampshire, the first thing my father unpacked was our black-and-white television. President Richard Nixon resigned that day, and my father wanted to see the news coverage. I still remember how deeply my dad — no Nixon fan — cared about the president's resignation. Reading Daphne Kalmar's second middle-grade novel — Stealing Mt. Rushmore, due out on August 18 — reminded me of how politics can strongly influence young kids, often without their awareness.
Although the book takes place more than 40 years ago, in the summer leading up to Nixon's resignation, the novel's themes are pertinent today. The book stars 13-year-old Nellie, a plucky girl in a houseful of boys in Somerville, Mass. Her mother disappeared five months ago, leaving no forwarding address or phone number. Her father, a short-order cook in a diner, struggles to single parent and earn a living.
The plot rolls along as Nellie and her younger brother scheme to take a family road trip to Mt. Rushmore to see the monument of the four presidents her father idolizes. As the book unfolds, Nellie begins to ask hard questions about what that monument — and family — means. While Kalmar does not offer any tidy closure, she shows how a family can be both loving and complicated.
A Hardwick resident and former elementary and middle school teacher, Kalmar received numerous accolades for her 2018 novel, A Stitch in Time. The book was chosen as an NPR Best Book of 2018, one of the "50 Must-Read Historical Fiction Books for Kids" by Book Riot, a BookPage Best Books of 2018: Children's Books and a finalist for the Vermont Book Award.
On a hot Sunday in July, Kalmar spoke with Kids VT outside the Jeudevine Memorial Library in Hardwick, where she volunteers as a trustee.
Kids VT: Without giving away too much of the plot, can you talk a little about why Nellie's mother disappeared?
Daphne Kalmar: Nellie's mother was very unhappy. At that time, women only had a couple of choices. They were expected to just have this gene for maternal caretaking and housekeeping and all of the rest. Men either had it or they didn't, but it wasn't an expectation or a moral failing if men were not maternal. Back in those days, fathers were expected to provide financial security and put food on the table.
KVT: I particularly admire how you acknowledge in the book that the relationships in Nellie's family are complicated.
DK: Something that's always annoyed me is that kids are often told that they owe their parents forgiveness, no matter what. I think that's a horrible thing to tell a kid, because it undercuts their anger and their own feelings about their situation and their relationship with the parent. That's not what forgiveness is. As Nellie says, "If I decide to forgive my mother, I will." If I'm going to send a message in the book, it's that you forgive people in your own good time — if you feel you need to or want to. I don't think it's true forgiveness if it doesn't come from somewhere very deep. It should never come from an obligation.
KVT: The multiple themes in this book — gender roles, racial segregation, the Vietnam War controversy — would make this a great discussion book for middle-grade students.
DK: I agree. When I taught American history, I used to present Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre [showing British soldiers in an orderly line, firing on colonists] as propaganda — which it was. We would talk about point of view and his message. Why did he present this scene as a slaughter? How powerful do you think his engraving was? It doesn't matter if the kids remember what the Boston Massacre was; it matters that they know how to be critical thinkers and how to look at potential propaganda, dissect it and doubt it.
KVT: That kind of discussion could open up some enormous questions about American history.
DK: It's time we stopped whitewashing history, certainly in the classroom. We've been presenting a view of history that is so warped on one side for so long that I think it explains a big part of why we are in the situation we are in now. It's such a divided country. It's time we provide more than one perspective. And if people aren't comfortable with that, that's too bad.