February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

All the Juicy Details | Nonfiction Booktalker

There’s a lot more to history than names and dates

Young readers might think history is all about dead people, unpronounceable names, and forgettable dates. But Steve Sheinkin knows all the good stuff he had to leave out when he wrote textbooks—and now shares those goodies with infectious exuberance.

A terrific trio: Two Miserable Presidents (2008), Which Way to the Wild West? (2009), and The Notorious Benedict Arnold (2010, all Roaring Brook) tell true tales that are perfect to share with your booktalk audience.

Guess the identities of the men Sheinkin calls the Two Miserable Presidents. The answer: Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln. The first 20 pages give a succinct review of the reasons for the Civil War. Surprisingly, the invention of the cotton gin leads the list! We learn about George McClellan, the Union Army’s first commander, who was afraid of fighting and called Lincoln a gorilla; and about the legendary Robert E. Lee, who was offered to lead both armies but chose the South. Sheinkin includes great quotes: On April 11, 1865, when Lee went to surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, he said “I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Sheinkin makes stories of ordinary fighters unforgettable, too. A Confederate soldier was having his hair cut when the Yankees attacked. One side of his head was almost bald, while the other had long curly hair. It stayed that way. His friends cracked up whenever they looked at him, even while loading and shooting their cannons.

In Which Way to the Wild West?, Sheinkin points out that the West kept moving. When the U.S. was a young collection of a few states, the West was Tennessee and Kentucky. With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the size of the country doubled. Nobody knew this then, of course, because it took years of exploration to determine its actual size.

Sheinkin gives a fast-paced and stirring history of our country’s geographic growth. During the administration of President James K. Polk, who believed in Manifest Destiny (translation: “We want it and we shall have it!”), what became the contiguous U.S. won the rest of its land—from Mexico and Great Britain. The frontier grew rapidly, not least because of the sharp dealings of fast-talking salesmen. One promoter told people that roasted pigs ran around Oregon with knives and forks stuck in them, and you could cut off a slice of meat whenever one of the porkers trotted by.

Sheinkin relates the tragic stories of Native Americans, treated abominably over and over again, and includes controversial figures like Wild Bill Hickok, who said he personally killed over 100 men, but “never without good cause!” There are many anecdotes about immigrants from Europe and China who endured unbelievable hardships as they labored, explored, and carved out their own piece of the West, what we now call “living the American Dream.”

Arnold, the famous American traitor, began his career as an ambitious patriot who was wounded in battle, captured Fort Ticonderoga, and spent much of his fortune supporting the Revolution. Arnold felt he wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved—and his need for esteem and wealth led him to sell out his former comrades.

Had Arnold succeeded in handing over West Point to the British, the rebels would likely have lost the war and been hanged. Sheinkin’s narrative begins with the hanging of Major Andre, the spy who worked with Arnold and made every mistake in the book: he went behind enemy lines, he carried incriminating papers, and he removed his British uniform. (He would have been arrested as a protected prisoner of war if he’d been in his regalia.) Andre was hoping for a firing squad, but an American officer told him to remember what the British had done to Nathan Hale! Ask your booktalk audience if they recall.

Thanks to writers like Sheinkin, who serves up the juicy bits, your audience may soon realize that history isn’t just about dates and names but the stories behind the facts.

About Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter is the former head of children’s services at the Anoka County Library in suburban Minneapolis and a speaker at school and library conferences all over the USA. She never goes anywhere without a book.