Wiltonian’s book sings of America’s first rockstars

If you knew her in school, you might not have expected Christina Frei to have written a book dedicated to early American history. She is the first to admit she was not the biggest fan of history when she was an elementary school student.

“I used to hate history,” she said in a recent interview. “I thought it was a waste of time, and I found it pretty boring in school.”

Yet, as her life progressed she found herself more and more interested in the lives of the great American leaders who came before her. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were not only faces on currency, she realized, but were human figures whose life stories were filled with inspiration.

Nowadays, she has a career as a children’s author and youth motivational speaker and uses the Founding Fathers to teach important lessons on leadership, compassion, self-esteem, and much more. A far cry from the student who once despised the subject, she holds a degree in American studies from Wellesley College, and will appear on the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda this morning, July 3, to promote her new book The Five Rockstars of the American Revolution.

“I go to mostly middle and elementary schools to share these stories about the Founding Fathers as inspiration for kids,” she said. “John Adams could stand up to an entire city really hating him for defending British soldiers after the Boston massacre because he did not let people’s opinions change the way he acted. That’s a great model for any kid who is struggling with self-esteem.”

Her newest book focuses on the lives of John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams.

Ms. Frei said the HBO special “John Adams” inspired her to become involved in helping school-aged kids understand the impact of our country’s Founding Fathers.

“I watched the HBO special John Adams, and I knew I wanted to work with kids,” she said. “So, I decided to put a book together about the Founding Fathers, who I thought were so cool and so human.”

Rather than putting the boring facts of their lives together, she sought to tell stories about them that were both interesting and motivational.

“I put all the most interesting stories, the juicy stories … together with big life lessons,” she said. “Each of them are leaders in a unique way. You get some history in the book, and you also learn how unique each of these men are.”

Her book and presentations are so adept at helping kids grow passionate about history, she said, because she enables the children to understand the American leaders as people, rather than obscure faces from a history book.

“It’s almost by accident that the kids learn key things about our country’s formation,” she said. “If they understand Jefferson’s mind and get to know him as a person, they will understand the idea of the declaration, and why they were so important and exciting.”

Not only will they understand those often obtuse concepts, they will begin looking up to the former American leaders as role models.

“They are fantastic models,” she says. “These are the people you would want your kids hanging out with. If I could get my way, I would make sure every student in America would fall in love with one historical figure in American history. Once they fall in love with one character, they start to connect to the rest of history.”

However, Ms. Frei also understands the need to tread softly on, but not ignore, subjects that — without historical context — might be seen as a serious dent in the Founding Fathers’ legacy. The fact that Jefferson and Washington owned slaves is one example.

“If it does come up, I’m straightforward about it. They did own slaves, and yes it was an awful institution. But part of growing up is realizing how bad human beings can be, and not sugar coating that,” she said. “Jefferson and Washington both knew how bad it was. Even with that, they managed to create an amazing thing.”

Her personal favorite historical figure is John Adams, the second president of the United States. He was a man who was notoriously rough around the edges, but also had a much softer side.

“He comes off as a little feisty and diff at first,” she said. “But, the more you get to know him, the more you realize he stood by his friends, had a very loving marriage, and did so many great things for the good of the country.”

It doesn’t hurt that he was also a jokester, she said. Citing this fact, she pointed out that at one point, while describing General Washington’s loss at Manhattan, he wrote in a letter that “in general, our General was out generaled.”

A piece of the time period she is especially fond of explaining is the difference between northern and southern understandings of freedom and liberty.

“We often think that the Continental army fought for the same thing, independence and liberty,” she said. “But liberty had a lot of meanings depending on where you lived [at that time]. If you were from Massachusetts, it was the right to live in your community the way you liked. If you lived in Virginia, it was the liberty to have an honor-bound way of life. If you had a bunch of Massachusetts men next to Virginia men, they probably wouldn’t get along at first. Liberty can mean a lot of different things.”

Ms. Frei will present a free web seminar called They Don’t Teach You about July 4th, on Thursday, July 4 at ChristinaFrei.com