Broad Stripes and Bright Stars: A Compelling Look at American History from Peter Spiers

The Fourth of July is a perfect occasion to share a little history with children and give them a deeper understanding of why certain symbols, like our flag and national anthem, inspire such deep emotions. A favorite at TCS is Peter Spier’s classic The Star-Spangled Banner, which brings to life Francis Scott Keys’ poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” verses that eventually became our national anthem.

Francis Scott Key wrote his poem after witnessing a perilous moment in the nation’s history: an advance by the British on Baltimore, the country’s third-largest city. A month before, they had captured Washington D.C. and burned down the White House, the Capitol and the Library of Congress. As the British fleet began a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, Key was trapped on the deck of a truce boat in Baltimore harbor. When, “by the dawn’s early light,” he saw the American flag still waving over the fort, he felt such exultant relief and gratitude to the soldiers for protecting the city that he wrote a commemorative poem.

It’s hard to imagine an illustrator who could give a more evocative account of a naval battle than Peter Spier, who spent three years in the Dutch navy after studying art at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. Spier’s meticulous research—a practice he described as “always half the fun of the work”—is apparent in each illustration for Key’s stanzas, from the water buckets used to cool down the cannons, to the star-shaped design of the fort, to the eerie “red glare” of incendiary rockets, a terrifying new weapon the British picked up in India. His pictures are full of sky and water to capture the atmosphere of the poem: the twilight’s last gleaming, the mists of the deep, the fitfully blowing breeze. And amidst the drama of the battle, Spiers includes peaceful vignettes that children will enjoy: soldiers calmly feeding horses inside the fort, ducks impassively floating past warships. As the Caldecott winner explained in an interview before his death in 2017, “I do this for the kids, for the child within myself.”

In each image a flag appears somewhere, “gallantly streaming,” a beacon of hope. A historical afterword offers more details about Francis Scott Key and the “star-spangled banner” of Fort McHenry, which is now in the Smithsonian. The giant, 30-by-42-foot flag was designed and sewn by Mary Pickersgill, a professional flag maker, because the fort commander wanted “a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” When the British warships retreated, the commander triumphantly raised the Stars and Stripes and had the fifes and drums play “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

The Star-Spangled Banner is an excellent companion to Spier’s similar volume, We the People, which is a tribute to the American Constitution. In several of his books, Spier conveys his heartfelt affection for American culture and ideals such as tolerance and respect for differences. Born to a Jewish family in Amsterdam, Spier was arrested in 1943 with his parents and siblings and sent to Theresienstadt. The family was liberated from the camp in 1945, and Spier returned to Holland for his education and military service. In his mid-20s, he immigrated to the U.S. and found work as an illustrator at Doubleday. He remembers that his first manuscript “was about a cow that lived in Holland, in fact in the exact location where I grew up.” The Cow Who Fell into the Canal, from 1957, continues to be a best-selling picture book in Holland, and in the U.S. Doubleday is reissuing many of his most-beloved titles. As Peter Spiers noted in an interview: “I am a very lucky man to have earned a living by doing my hobby.”

Wishing you plenty of time and freedom for the pursuit of happiness!

Maureen