Tunis’ tone resembles that of the learned but conversational museum curator presenting a guided tour. The text is liberally sprinkled with names of archaic objects and processes that will be unfamiliar to the general reader, such as a trammel (an adjustable pot hook). Most of these terms are defined in context or clarified by an accompanying illustration. Although the tone is informal, Tunis’ sentences tend to be long and complex in structure. The combination of long sentences, unfamiliar words, abstract descriptions of technical procedures, and small print may render the text difficult for readers at the lower end of the recommended age group. The difficulty is countered somewhat by a skillful use of fictional techniques and humor, which bring otherwise dry passages to life: “The appearance of the slightest glow on the rags was a signal to commence a blowing operation that might succeed in nursing the spark into a small flame. Charles Dickens, who had made a fire that way, said that with luck it could be done in half an hour. That would be a long half-hour on a January morning, with the fire out.” Tunis’ humor most often points out the quirks of human nature, which one suspects he finds not much different from those of his own era. In spite of the fact that Colonial Living includes one long section on the Southern colonies, however, Tunis pays relatively little attention to the lives of slaves in the South and almost totally neglects African...
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Colonial Living, Tunis’ fourth book, received the Thomas A. Edison Foundation Award. It was favorably reviewed at the time of publication by The New York Times Book Review, as well as by the standard children’s book review journals such as Booklist and Horn Book. Tunis’ Frontier Living was published as a companion volume to Colonial Living in 1961.
Although still held by many libraries and cited in the sixteenth edition of Children’s Catalog (1991), the core list of books for children from preschool through sixth grade, Colonial Living is not mentioned in major textbooks on children’s literature. This omission is probably attributable to the fact that most of these textbooks are limited to children’s literature at the elementary level. Tunis’ prose may be difficult for the average elementary school reader in an era in which the trend in nonfiction for children is the photo essay.
Another notable trend in children’s nonfiction is the emphasis on careful documentation and provision of reference aids such as a glossary, a list of sources, and an index. Colonial Living includes none of the above. Although the depth of research suggested by the author’s remarks in the preface and acknowledgments is impressive, most teachers and librarians would prefer to see a bibliography of the sources used.
Also important in quality nonfiction are the illustrations. A more recent book on the same topic would be more likely to include a variety of media, particularly photographs or contemporary illustrations, but Tunis’ drawings should not be underestimated. In many cases, a good drawing is far superior to a photograph, and Tunis’ skill with pen and ink, as well as his fascination with the technology of an earlier era, is strongly reminiscent of David Macaulay’s works, such as the Caldecott Honor Book Cathedral (1974).