Making history fun and fascinating for young adult readers
Making history fun and fascinating for young adult readers is perhaps the most meaningful aspect of award-winning author Steve Sheinkin's work. When he first set out to become a career writer, he dabbled in graphic novels and screenplays, and found a full-time job writing history textbooks. While not a dream job, it honed his writing skills and taught him that history is full of great stories—and that dry history textbooks do not always convey the discovery and excitement that history can provide. Sheinkin realized he could do better.
And he has. Writing textbooks, despite its dull moments, prepared him to step fully into the challenging world of young adult books, writing historical nonfiction and fiction that truly connects with middle school readers, showing them that history is not at all boring. Sheinkin is now the acclaimed author of over a dozen historical books for Middle School readers, and his books have earned prestigious awards and nominations. Most recently, Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, the story of legendary Native American football player Thorpe in the early days of football, is a finalist for the Children's History Book Prize. Other books include Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon (a Newbery Honor Book), The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism and Treachery (Horn Book Award)—and many more.
His career keeps him busy researching and writing—each book takes more than a year to write—and visiting schools all around the country. He enjoys talking to students about books, history, the process of writing, and the excitement of reading.
Recently, Sheinkin visited Bullis on a PA-sponsored grant to talk with Middle School students in large and small groups, and also signed books for students. Middle School students read three of his books over the summer, including Undefeated. Sheinkin spoke to them about aspects of writing, and how important it is to be aware and listening; a writer never knows what will spark a new idea. "I tell the kids that the story comes first, even though I write history books," he explains of his presentations. "We talk about the writing process, about the structure of good stories, and even look at the advantages of screenplay writing for isolating favorite and important scenes." He also met with Middle School Language Arts teachers, who plan to incorporate some of his writing tips in their lessons. "I was impressed with his openness about how random thoughts can morph into worthwhile stories," remarked Middle School English Teacher Andy Marusak '66, "and the way he organizes his thoughts prior to writing novels."
"I like big, complicated stories and gray areas," Sheinkin says of the historical subjects he chooses to write about. "Textbooks make history so black and white. Those gray areas tell us a lot more—for example, Benedict Arnold was both a good guy and a bad guy. I like to bring out those sorts of controversies in history, which make kids think and want to debate the issues."
The storytelling value of his books is very high, which is one secret to his success: his history books are enjoyable reads. "I look for a good plot and strong story elements in the historical situations I write about."
The hardest part of this kind of writing, Sheinkin reveals, is creating the context of the historical background for younger readers who don't always have that knowledge to bring to the books. The author strives to seamlessly blend factual history with the characters he creates, all based on real events and people. "I try to gently explain what's going on at the time so we can get to the story."
Along with writing, he considers visiting schools a very important part of his work. "Talking with the kids is always fun, and it helps me keep in touch with the main audience for my books." Sometimes he tests out ideas on a school group. "Kids will tell you pretty directly whether or not something is interesting!"
Sheinkin envisions continuing to tell historical stories long into the future. "It's such a fun job," he says. He greatly enjoyed his visit to Bullis. "I visit 25 or 30 schools a year," he says, "and Bullis is one of the few schools where I actually thought, I wish my own kids could go to this school."
"Steve Sheinkin was personable, inspiring, engaging, and very knowledgeable," remarks Middle School Principal Marilyn Moreno. "What a treat for our students!"