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Jean Fritz, author of historical children’s books, dies

Jean Fritz, the author of almost 50 books for children, most of them fast-paced, vividly written works of history and biography, died May 14 at her home in upstate Sleepy Hollow. She was 101.

Her death was first reported by The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. The cause was not disclosed.

Fritz began her literary career by writing conventional fiction “picture books” for children, but she turned to history when she realized “the facts were more exciting to me than my own stories.”

Part of her inspiration for exploring American history came from her childhood, which was spent in China, where her parents were missionaries.

“I was American, but I didn’t feel like an American,” she told the Times in 2003. It didn’t help that a British bully at the school she attended often taunted her about the country she scarcely knew.

“Every day at recess,” Fritz said in 1990, “that boy came up to me and said, ’George Washington is a stinker.’ So I had to fight. I was the only one there to defend my country.”

In 1958, she wrote her first historical book, “The Cabin Faced West,” based on a family story about her great-great-grandmother, who encountered George Washington on horseback in a remote part of western Pennsylvania and invited him to join her family for supper.

Fritz embarked on a series of books on heroes of the Revolutionary War, followed by others on explorers, presidents and historically significant women, including voting rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton and author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her books were illustrated by a variety of artists, including Tomie de Paola and Margot Tomes.

Fritz did monumental amounts of research for her books, including visiting the places where her subjects had lived. All the dialogue in her books was taken from the historical record.

“At her best,” historian Elisabeth Griffith wrote in the Times in 1986, Fritz “is a skillful biographer and a graceful, entertaining writer.”

Most of her books were aimed at children at least 8 to 10 years old. She plunged right into the story, often beginning with descriptions of childhood.

“Harriet Beecher had always understood that, along with her sisters, she was second best in her family,” Fritz wrote in her 1994 book on Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“On June 14, 1811, when she’d been born, her father had grumbled to a neighbor, ’Wisht it had been a boy!’ Of course her father was disappointed. He was Lyman Beecher, a minister in Litchfield, Connecticut, and he was collecting boys. He wanted lots of Beecher preachers in the family.”

When she was young, Fritz said in 1990 interview, history held little interest to her.

“I kept thinking as a child that there was more than I was being told, more than just dates and wars,” she said in 1990. “I wanted to get acquainted with the people.”

Jean Guttery was born Nov. 16, 1915, in Hankow, China (now Hankou). Her parents often spoke wistfully of the United States, which Fritz did not visit until she was 12.

“My interest in writing about American history,” she later wrote, “stemmed originally, I think, from a subconscious desire to find roots — I felt like a girl without a country.”

She grew up mostly in West Hartford, Connecticut, and began writing stories as a girl. She was a 1937 graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and later worked as a textbook researcher and studied children’s literature at Columbia University.

After her marriage in 1941, Fritz lived in San Francisco and Tacoma, Washington, and reviewed children’s books for local newspapers. In 1951, she and her family settled in upstate Dobbs Ferry, where she worked as children’s librarian. She her first book for children in 1954.

Her husband, Michael Fritz, died in 1995. Survivors include two children and two grandsons.

Fritz’s 1982 book “Homesick: My Own Story,” drawing on reflections from her childhood, won an American Book Award for children’s fiction. She wrote another autobiographical volume, “Homecoming,” in 1985.

She received many honors for her work, including a National Humanities Medal presented by President George W. Bush in 2003.

Among other subjects, Fritz wrote about the Constitution and such historical figures as Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas, Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamiltion, George Washington’s mother, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

“The question I am most often asked, is how do I find my ideas?” Fritz wrote in a personal essay. “The answer is: I don’t. Ideas find me. A character in history will suddenly step right out of the past and demand a book.”

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