Talking with a teacher about history

It’s coming soon! My next book, The World Turned Upside Down: The Yorktown Victory That Won America’s Independence, will be published on April 12 and I’m planning several upcoming posts to focus on the Yorktown story. If you’ve never visited Yorktown, Virginia, put it on your list of great American historic sites. The Siege of Yorktown was undoubtedly a pivotal moment in American history.

Yesterday I filmed a video about the book with my friend, Kelli. She teaches 7th grade English at a local public school in Virginia. She’s also a fellow writer, we met in a local writers group. Kelli asked me a lot of great questions and I can’t wait to share the final video. Here are a few of the highlights.

James Lafayette, collection of the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Where did the idea come from? Readers always want to know where book ideas originate. In this case, I saw a cover story about James Lafayette in a history magazine. I was curious about this person from the past who I’d never heard of… an enslaved who served as a spy? What a fascinating combination. James became a spy for General Lafayette during the summer leading up to Yorktown in 1781. His life is mysterious, but his story is documented in several state records and his portrait, painted from life, is on display at the Valentine Museum in Richmond.

Kelli asked me what the book is about. The theme is freedom, but the various characters define freedom in different ways. For James, it means personal freedom. For General George Washington and other patriot leaders it means freedom for a people to govern themselves. One of the book’s storylines describes the challenges that enslaved people faced in seeking freedom. The British offered freedom and many enslaved people equated the red coat and the Union Jack flag with freedom, but in reality formerly enslaved people faced great uncertainty if they ran to the British. There was no guarantee of freedom.

Kelli pointed to a passage from the book and asked how I can write so vividly about an event, in this case Jack Jouett riding up the steep hillside at Monticello to warn Thomas Jefferson that the British were on their way to capture him. I said because I’ve visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s preserved house, many times and when I’m writing, I can picture it. Readers of this blog know how much value I place on seeing the sites where history happened.

Letter from George Washington to his dentist, May 29, 1781

Kelli also asked me why a middle school student would want to read the book. Valid question. My answer: Because it tells an important story in American history, but also because it contains great stories about spies, and who doesn’t like spies? My favorite primary source document in the book is a letter that General George Washington wrote to his dentist in Philadelphia requesting tools to care for his teeth. The letter was intercepted by the British. Since both sides were known to add fake dispatches in their mail to trick the enemy, the British had to first authenticate the letter. After they decided it was real correspondence, they analyzed it and decided it meant that Washington wasn’t planning to head south from New York anytime soon. He was staying north and would most likely attack New York City, occupied by the British.

The book is filled with over 60 images, mostly color, of fascinating primary sources like the dentist letter. They include French and British maps, portraits, and the famous John Trumbull image of the surrender at Yorktown located in the US Capitol rotunda, and a little known image of the surrender painted for the French court.

Thanks, Kelli, for talking with me. Look for the video soon on my website,

For my latest author news, follow my author page on Facebook @timgroveauthor.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
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