Frontier Living Essay - Critical Context

Edwin Tunis

Critical Context

Frontier Living, Tunis’ sixth book, was published as a companion to Colonial Living. It was favorably reviewed at the time of publication by the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books and The Horn Book Magazine, and it was cited by May Hill Arbuthnot and Zena Sutherland in early editions of their textbook Children and Books (1964, 1972). It was named a Newbery Honor Book in 1962.

Frontier Living is no longer cited in major textbooks on children’s literature, except for the expected listing as a Newbery Honor Book. It is, however, listed in the sixteenth edition of Children’s Catalog (1991). As a Newbery Honor Book, it is likely to be found in many public and school libraries for years to come. Yet, even without that award, Tunis’ illustrations would ensure the book’s place as an early example of excellence in nonfiction for children. His meticulous use of pen and ink to reveal the secrets of early American technology are a precursor of David Macaulay’s books Castle (1977), Cathedral (1973), Mill (1983), and others. Although the publishers of many newer nonfiction books seem to prefer photographs as illustrations, it is hard to imagine any photograph that could improve upon the accuracy and clarity of Tunis’ drawings.

Another critical factor in evaluating nonfiction for young people is the extent to which the contributions of women and minorities are addressed. Tunis’ treatment of American Indians was so notable for his time as to be mentioned in contemporary reviews, although he scarcely mentions other minorities.

Frontier Living has more utility as a reference tool than its companion volume, Colonial Living, because of its index. The inclusion of illustrations in the index add considerably to its reference value.