APRIL 29: Joan of Arc

joan-of-arcON THIS DATE in 1429, seventeen-year-old Joan of Arc and French troops entered occupied Orléans. She would soon liberate the city from English control.

Known as Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maid) during her lifetime, she was thirteen when she first heard “a Voice from God to help me govern my conduct.” The message, she said, was “sent to me by God and, after I thrice heard this Voice, I knew that it was the voice of an angel.” Joan believed the Voice belonged to the archangel Michael, who spoke to her several more times and gave her a mission at age seventeen: she was to drive the English from Orléans, a city in north-central France that had been occupied by the enemy for seven months, and to lead Charles VII to the city of Reims, where he could be officially crowned king of France.

Unable to read or write and unacquainted with the ways of warfare or diplomacy, Joan seemed a preposterous candidate to aid France in its Hundred Years’ War with England. She said she told the the Archangel Michael that she “was just a poor girl who knew nothing about riding or leading in war,” but received assurance that she would be assisted by other angels, and that her mission “was by God’s order.” The English and their allies, the Burgundians, controlled most of France, including Paris, when Joan attained an audience with Charles VII and talked him into giving her command of a small force of troops in which to fight the enemy at Orléans.

Meant to be a figurehead, Joan showed “herself to be an inspirational leader with a distinctive strategy for winning,” wrote Larissa Juliet Taylor in 2009’s The Virgin Warrior: the Life and Death of Joan of Arc. In just 10 days, the French thrust the English from Orléans, followed by other victories in other towns as Joan and the army marched toward Reims. The crowning of Charles VII at Reims, however, proved more divisive than unifying for the French. Joan wanted to keep fighting and was distressed when the king signed a treaty with the Duke of Burgundy, who had been an ally of the English. Many in the king’s circle, and perhaps the king himself, came to see Joan as a threat.

In 1430 the Burgundians captured Joan and sold her to the English, who put her on trial for heresy in 1431. Charles made no effort to rescue or ransom her. After a mockery of a trial, Joan’s captors burned her at the stake. Twenty-five years later, a rehabilitation trial decreed the earlier judgment in error and declared Joan an innocent martyr. She was declared a saint of the Catholic Church in 1920.

APRIL 28: Nancy Drew debuts

 female heroes were hard to find, a sixty-seven-year-old fiction publisher in his last year of life had a novel — actually a series of novels — idea. Edward Stratemeyer, the brain behind The Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys books, suggested a series of stories starring “an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy.” In a memo, he said the girl should be the sixteen-year-old daughter of a district attorney. Her name: Stella Strong.

Although the heroine’s name changed, Stratemeyer’s vision came to pass with the publication of three Nancy Drew books on April 28, 1930 — 49 days after his death.

Supposedly penned by a Carolyn Keene, most of the early novels were actually written by a Toledo Blade reporter named Mildred A. Wirt. The tales usually had young Nancy sniffing out a non-deadly crime — there were no murder mysteries in the first 56 books — while racing around fictional River Heights in her stylish blue roadster. Perpetually popular with young readers, Nancy Drew books, consisting of more than 370 different titles, had sold 65 million copies in the U.S. and 200 million worldwide through 2010.

Nancy’s age was advanced from sixteen to eighteen in 1959. The fictional sleuth has been cited as a role model by, among others, Bette Davis, Barbara Walters, Hillary Clinton, Mary Tyler Moore, Fran Lebowitz, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

APRIL 24: “A new realism in adolescent literature”

 in 1967, eighteen-year-old S.E. Hinton published The Outsiders, a novel about young people involved in gang fights and homicide that launched what The New York Times Book Review called a “new realism in adolescent literature.” Hinton had always wanted “to read books that showed teenagers outside of the life of, ‘Mary Jane went to the prom,’” she said. “The books available just didn’t read true, they didn’t deal with the real lives of teenagers.”

200bt6cSold to Viking Press for $1,000, The Outsiders received mixed reviews, with some praising its realism and others condemning its sensationalism. “The vast majority of teenagers personally experience nothing close to the violence of Hinton’s characters,” wrote a reviewer in Nation magazine. Many school libraries banned the book, but that didn’t hurt its steadily increasing sales. “It built gradually, from teachers telling teachers, and kids telling kids,” said Hinton. The Outsiders eventually became “The best-selling young adult novel of all time,” according to Puffin Books.

In 1983, The Outsiders was made into a Francis Ford Coppola-directed film starring a platoon of emerging film stars, including C. Thomas Howell (who played Ponyboy Curtis, the lead character), Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, and Diane Lane.

Tiny boxer, huge contributions

GEORGE DIXON, nineteen when he won the world bantamweight title in 1890, comes in at number 61 in a countdown of great teenagers. Dixon was the world’s first black boxing champion in any weight class and may have invented shadow boxing as well as the suspended punching bag. He was a truly remarkable man and athlete.

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APRIL 23: She reached for the moon

civilrights04Above: Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, with a figure of Johns in the foreground. Pursuing desegregation “seemed like reaching for the moon,” she said. “It was all pretty hard to grasp.”

STUDENTS AND TEACHERS at overcrowded, all-black Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, received a shock when they gathered for what seemed like a routine spring assembly on this date in 1951. Standing on the stage, sixteen-year-old Barbara Johns — the principal was nowhere to be seen — asked that students and faculty to walk out in protest of the school’s overcrowded and run-down condition. “Don’t be afraid, just follow us out,” she said.

ae971ab6dcd90d6932dbb4c924742208Johns had planned the walkout with four other students, with the conspirators forging a note from the principal to bring the school together in the auditorium. With the principal lured away by a false report about student trouble downtown, the other 400-some inhabitants of Moton High, built to hold less than half that many, followed Johns out of the building. Many cheered and some held hand-lettered signs that announced, “We Want a New School or None at All” and “Down with the Tar-Paper Shacks.”

That afternoon, the students wrote a letter to the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in Richmond, Virginia, describing the school’s disgraceful condition and asking for help. Members of the Ku Klux Klan become aware of the student protest and burned a cross in the Johns’ family lawn a few days later. This was an attempt to intimidate the family and discourage any intention of fighting the separate-but-equal law that kept blacks and whites in segregated schools.

Johns’ family sent her to live with relatives in another state, but that didn’t slow the movement she’d began. A month after the Moton walkout, NAACP lawyers filed suit in federal court challenging the separate-but-equal statute that generally resulted in poor funding for all-black schools. The Moton suit would be one of the five cases reviewed in the Brown vs. The Board Of Education court case that resulted in the Supreme Court declaring an end to segregation in public schools.

APRIL 22: Other Side of the Sky

 Farah Ahmedi celebrates with her sponsor, Alyce Litz, after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2008.

TEN YEARS AGO today (2005), Simon and Schuster published the autobiography of seventeen-year-old Farah Ahmedi. Titled An Afghani Girl Finds the Other Side of the Sky, the manuscript was chosen in a contest sponsored by “Good Morning America” and Simon and Schuster. “I am so shocked,” Ahmedi told the New York Daily News at the start of a 10-city book promotion tour. “I thought there was not enough story. I haven’t done enough in my life.”

144019294In truth, Ahmedi’s seventeen years had been packed with plenty of powerful, and terrible, moments. At age seven she’d stepped on a land mine while going to school in Kabul, the capital and largest city in Afghanistan; the explosion destroyed part of her left leg and she had to be airlifted to a hospital in Germany, where she remained for two years. Shortly after her return to Afghanistan, a rocket struck her family’s home, killing her father and two sisters. Two months later, her two brothers fled Afghanistan to avoid being conscripted by the Taliban; as of 2005, she had heard no word from them. Despite her crippled state, Ahmedi traveled with her mother across the mountains and into Pakistan to escape the Taliban regime. They lived the next four years in a refugee camp.

“This story will rip your heart out while giving vivid accounts of how fortunate you are to live in a free society,” said Knight Ridder Newspapers about An Afghani Girl Finds the Other Side of the Sky. Written with the help of Tamim Ansary, the book reached number 23 on The New York Times extended best-seller list after just a week in bookstores. After writing her book, Farah met with first lady Laura Bush at the White House and became a youth ambassador for the United Nations’ Adopt-A-Minefield program.

APRIL 21: Here’s Annie

andrea_mcardle_reid_shelton_annie_1977Above: Andrea McArdle as Little Orphan Annie, with Reid Shelton (Daddy Warbucks) and Sandy the dog.

ON THIS DATE in 1977, thirteen-year-old Andrea McArdle debuted as Little Orphan Annie in the Broadway play, “Annie.” The play was a huge success and McArdle enjoyed yourself, telling the Hartford Courant in 2011 that “it was a blast.” Her sudden fame resulted in photo shoots for LIFE magazine and introduction to a series of A-list celebrities, including Muhammad Ali, Beverly Sills, and Michael Jackson. McArdle would win Theatre World and Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, and was the youngest performer ever nominated for a Tony award as Best Lead Actress in a Musical.

Before “Annie,” McArdle had appeared in 35 commercials and spent more that two years on the CBS soap opera, “Search For Tomorrow.” She was originally cast as one of the “tough girls” in “Annie,” based on Harold Gray’s comic strip about a redheaded, street-smart orphan, but when producers decided the original Annie looked too angelic for the lead, McArdle got the part. After the huge success on Broadway — “Annie” won seven 1977 Tony Awards, including Best Musical — she opened a 1978 London production of the hit. With other actresses in the Annie role, the Broadway show lasted for 2,377 performances.