Monday, May 4, 2015

The Myth of Boring History: Sharing the Suspense with Kids

Full disclosure: I'm a history nerd. If I weren't working as a children's book editor, I'd probably be an underemployed social studies teacher or a barely-paid tour guide at a historic site. But since I am working as a children's book editor, I get to help make social studies books for school libraries and classrooms. And I get to hear about how much more important STEM subjects are than social studies in the wider trends of the US education system. 


Science and math are super important. (And super interesting! Kids tend to find them boring if they're being taught in a boring or hard-to-access way, not because Elon Musk's plans to colonize Mars and create affordable electric cars aren't incredibly fascinating.)


But history is important too, and it too gets dismissed as boring. It's easier in some ways for teachers to answer "How will I use algebra in my everyday life?" than "How does the Pequot War matter in my life?" Unlike STEM subjects, which are constantly evolving and advancing, history seems static. It already happened. We know how it turned out. Or do we? Dun dun dun...



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Seriously, this guy's ideas make tech
and engineering seem pretty thrilling.
Very often when I'm researching the books I'm editing, I come across information that's totally new to me. Abraham Lincoln thought he might lose the election of 1864? The California Gold Rush helped spark the western "Indian Wars" of the late 19th century? We actually have Rosalind Franklin to thank, as well as James Watson and Francis Crick, for figuring out the structure of DNA? 


Suddenly I'll be on the edge of my seat, wondering if Lincoln's going to pull it off or what Franklin's research is going to reveal. (Spoilers: yes, by a landslide; the DNA double helix.) All the uncertainty and tension of the time becomes real again, even though in the back of my mind I do know the outcome. What if things had turned out differently? They could have. At the time, people weren't stuck in history. They were living their lives, making decisions minute to minute, just as we do. And history isn't just something in the past; we're creating it right now.

I love books that try to share some of that suspense with kids: to help them see history not as a pre-plotted timeline but as an intricate, improbable, multi-branched chain of events that nobody could've predicted (and that even now is more of a mystery than textbooks generally admit). I love books that reveal not just what happened and when, but how it happened and why, and how our lives might be different if even one point on that timeline hadn't existed or had unfolded differently, and how the ripple effects of these events continue into our own ongoing timeline. I want kids who read our history books to be on the edges of their seats along with me.

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