“How come you write about famous people?” asked a third grader.
There I stood at another school visit stumped by a young person asking a question I’ve heard over and over again. You’d think that by now, since I write picture book biographies, I’d have a handy answer. But each time, that “fame question” throws me. I guess it’s because I don’t choose my subjects because they’re famous.
Instead, I’m drawn to stories about people who’ve changed history. For me, history has never made sense as a series of facts or dates (which I still rarely remember!). Instead, I tend to agree with the quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “There is properly no history, only biography.” In my books, I try to show students that history, whether in science, politics, or the arts, is made by regular people. People who pursued a dream or a skill in a deep way—not because someone forced them, not because they wanted to be popular; but usually just because they were curious and liked the work. In other words, the young Abraham Lincoln didn’t know he was gonna be ABRAHAM LINCOLN. He was just Abe, that tall kid; the one who loved to read and made friends easily.
This view of history holds true for my new book, Otis & Will Discover the Deep: The Record-setting Dive of the Bathysphere, illustrated by Katherine Roy. It’s the story of how mechanical engineer, Otis Barton, and natural scientist, William Beebe, worked together to create the bathysphere—the first submersible craft that took human beings into the deep ocean.
William Beebe is well-known in scientific circles, but hardly a household name; and Otis Barton’s name is kind of off-the-grid all together. I didn’t know about either man ahead of writing the book. Instead, a few years ago, I read a small news item that used the word “bathysphere,” which I’d never heard, and became fascinated with the men who built it. I learned that Otis Barton started as a curious kid who built homemade diving equipment to see deeper into the ocean. And Will Beebe was so in love with nature’s mysteries that once he dove into the ocean for the first time, he never studied anything else.
Early on in the research of Barton and Beebe’s amazing adventures, the universe cooperated. My generic request to the Library of Congress website happened to be answered by a librarian, Constance Carter, who’d been Beebe’s assistant in the 1950’s. Photos, film, diaries, and archives were uncovered. There were historical accounts of at least nineteen bathysphere dives over four years. The challenge became how to winnow that much information into one picture book story. I decided to concentrate on a single bathysphere dive in June, 1930—the first time Otis and Will saw the deep ocean they’d dreamed of visiting since they were kids.
These childhood dreams drove Otis and Will to great discoveries. To satisfy their own questions, they struggled with scientific and mechanical problems. Most impressively, they put their lives on the line over and over again. Otis and Will became the first to see what lived below the ocean’s light level, or as the book’s refrain puts it, down, down, into the deep.
So, are Otis and Will famous? Well, none of the Kardashians have to worry that Otis Barton or Will Beebe will ever have more Instagram followers. At least not yet. But I hope you will agree that Otis and Will are better than famous; they are important.
And from now on that’ll be my answer. I don’t write about “famous people.” I write about “important people.” Why? Because each child is important and deserves role models with the same questions, curiosities, and feelings. Because each student is history’s future.
The oldest section of Victoria lies immediately north of the Inner Harbour between Wharf and Government Streets. Start by walking north from the Inner Harbour along historical Wharf Street, where Hudson’s Bay Company furs were loaded onto ships bound for England, gold seekers arrived in search of fortune, and shopkeepers first established businesses. Cross the road to cobblestoned Bastion Square, lined with old gas lamps and decorative architecture dating from the 1860s to 1890s. This was the original site chosen by James Douglas in 1843 for Fort Victoria, the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. At one time the square held a courthouse, jail, and gallows. Today restored buildings house trendy restaurants, cafés, nightclubs, and fashionable offices.
At the top (east) end of Bastion Square, the Maritime Museum of British Columbia (28 Bastion Square, 250/385-4222, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily, until 5 p.m. in summer, adult $12, senior $10, child under 13 free) is housed in the old provincial courthouse building. It traces the history of seafaring exploration, adventure, commercial ventures, and passenger travel through displays of dugout canoes, model ships, Royal Navy charts, figureheads, photographs, naval uniforms, and bells. One room is devoted to exhibits chronicling the circumnavigation of the world, and another holds a theater. The museum also has a nautically oriented gift shop.
Centennial Square, bounded by Government Street, Douglas Street, Pandora Avenue, and Fisgard Street, is lined with many buildings dating from the 1880s and 1890s, refurbished in recent times for all to appreciate. Don’t miss the 1878 City Hall (fronting Douglas Street) and the imposing Greek-style building of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the heart of Centennial Square is Spirit Square, which is dedicated to First Nations people. Here you’ll find two totem poles and a garden with native plants.
Continue down Fisgard Street into colorful Chinatown, Canada’s oldest Chinese enclave (and second-oldest in North America behind San Francisco). Chinese prospectors and laborers first brought exotic spices, plants, and a love of intricate architecture and bright colors to Victoria in the late 1850s, and the exotic vibe continues to this day. The original Chinatown was much larger than today’s and was home to more than 3,000 residents at its peak in the early 1900s. After being revitalized in the 1980s and being declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1995, the precinct is now a popular tourist attraction. Its epicenter is Fisgard Street between Government and Store Streets, with the intricate Gate of Harmonious Interest providing the official entrance.
Today Chinatown is a delicious place to breathe in the aroma of authentic Asian food wafting from the many restaurants. Poke through the dark little shops along Fisgard Street, where you can find everything from fragile paper lanterns and embroidered silks to gingerroot and exotic fruits and veggies, then cruise Fan Tan Alley, the center of the opium trade in the 1800s.
This summer, I attended the TBEX conference in Toronto, a gathering of more than 1,200 travel bloggers from around the world. Besides talking about travel, blogging, and business with hundreds of fellow writers, I had the chance to sample three new Toronto experiences. The next time you’re in the area, check them out!
Dustin Fuhs has a unique approach to help visitors explore Toronto. As the founder of LiveToronto Walking Tours, he’ll take you on a private, one-hour tour of downtown Toronto. Even better, he’ll also photograph you in front of iconic city sights, essentially creating digital postcards—with you in them. He’ll customize your walk to your particular interests, but he normally visits popular locations like Toronto City Hall, Eaton Centre, Roy Thompson Hall, the CN Tower, and the Lake Ontario waterfront.
Fuhs is a walking encyclopedia of Toronto lore—you’d want him on your team if you were playing Toronto Trivial Pursuit—and he knows the best angles for snapping photos, too. LiveToronto tours run daily, cost $40 per person, and can be booked online.
Thousands of years before European settlers began exploring what is now present-day Ontario, the region—like most of North America—was home to aboriginal peoples. You can learn more about Ontario’s aboriginal heritage with a stroll on the Shared Path, a walking trail that runs along Toronto’s Humber River. The Shared Path is the newest of the Toronto Parks, Forestry & Recreation department’s free, self-guided Discovery Walks that help you learn more about the region’s history—on foot.
The Shared Path runs through Etienne Brule Park, named for the French explorer who is considered the first white man to travel the territory of the Wendat (or Huron) people in the early 1600s. The park that bears Étienne Brûlé’s name sits on the site of Teiaiagon, a former Wendat village. The Wendat adopted Brûlé into their community, and he in turn adopted many Wendat customs, including their dress and their sexual practices. He learned the Wendat language, too, and became an interpreter between the Wendat and the French.
The tree-lined riverfront path, which connects to a traditional aboriginal portage route, includes several informational plaques that explain the region’s aboriginal history. The Shared Path and Etienne Brule Park are on the west side of Toronto, a short walk from the Old Mill Station on the Bloor-Danforth subway line.
I’ve always thought of national parks as vast outdoor wilderness spaces, far from metropolitan centers. Ontario’s spectacular national parks, including Bruce Peninsula National Park, Georgian Bay Islands National Park, and Point Pelee National Park, are no exceptions. But Canada’s newest national park, on the eastern border of metropolitan Toronto, will be the country’s first urban national park.
An 18-square-mile (47-square-kilometer) parcel of land stretching from the community of Markham in the north to Lake Ontario in the south, Rouge Park has been a recreational area for the greater Toronto region for many years. However, as development increasingly encroached on the park lands, many Torontonians began lobbying to provide greater protection for this natural area. In 2011, Rouge Park was approved to become part of Canada’s national park system.
While Parks Canada staff members say that various administrative details remain to be sorted out before Rouge obtains its official national park status, the park is open to the public in the meantime, and admission is free. Hiking trails crisscross Rouge Park’s forested areas, and park employees lead periodic guided walks. You can look out over the Little Rouge Creek Valley from the Glen Eagles Vista Trail (a great place to take in the fall colors), or go for a swim in Lake Ontario from sandy Rouge Beach. Campers can pitch a tent or park their RV in the Glen Rouge Campground, the only camping spot in metro Toronto.
Several sections of the park are accessible by public transit from downtown Toronto. Check the park website for transit details and driving directions.