Syracuse University Magazine

History with a Twist

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Steve Sheinkin ’90, National Book Award Finalist

After years of fruitless attempts at sneaking real-life interesting characters and funny stories into the history textbooks he was writing, Steve Sheinkin decided to take matters—and history—into his own hands. 

His historical nonfiction books for young readers—King George: What Was His Problem; Two Miserable Presidents; and Which Way to the Wild West?, to name a few—humanize historic figures and share the untold stories of others who were a part of the events. With a little bit of humor and a whole lot of research, Sheinkin, an Honors program graduate who majored in international relations in the College of Arts and Sciences, is making history exciting again. 

His most recent book, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Roaring Brook/Flash Point) was a 2012 finalist for the National Book Award in the young people’s literature category, evidence that Sheinkin is not the only one excited by the stories of the unsung heroes of history. Here are excerpts of his phone conversation with Syracuse University Magazine

How do you take the same history, people, and events that you couldn’t get into the textbooks and make them exciting for your readers?

The funny thing is, I always thought those things were interesting, but they would never let me put all that cool stuff in. All the while, I was keeping secret files in my desk of all those stories. I said to myself, “One day I’m going to do something with this.” I never knew what. It took me years to realize I could write my own books of all the stories I wanted to tell. 

How do you make those bits and pieces of history approachable for people?

By just telling stories. When many people think of guys like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, they think they’re going to be really boring. So I start with childhood stories to show them as real people who have their own funny adventures. That’s important with younger readers—to get humor in there, even some irreverence, just to show these historic figures aren’t so different from them. That’s the biggest hurdle—it seems like these guys exist in paintings, but not in real life. 

How do you decide which stories you’ve collected are worth pursuing as books?

That’s a big process. Each of the books takes a year or two, and in between—and I’m doing it now—I go through this process of looking through my files and trying to pick a story. I always write several proposals and narrow it down from there. Bomb started as one of many ideas I was working on with my editor, and it just rose to the top. 

In the process of researching Bomb, what was the best or most rewarding find?

Some of the stories I didn’t know about, like Ted Hall, a teenager at Los Alamos who became a spy. It was one of those finds that was like a light bulb going off—a character so fascinating and young, who nobody knows about. You couldn’t invent a character like that; at least it wouldn’t be believable. I didn’t know about the Norwegian saboteurs either, the ones who attacked Nazi-run factories on skis to disrupt German atomic bomb research. There was a lot of this sort of Indiana Jones action that I didn’t know about until I started reading.

What is it like to have your work nationally recognized as exceptional historical nonfiction?

It’s just amazing. It’s so cool, especially after coming from the textbook world, where I knew the stuff I was doing wasn’t helping. I remember hating those textbooks when I was in school, so I really felt compelled to do something better and have a chance of breaking through and getting some kids excited about learning this stuff. 

You’ve said your book The Notorious Benedict Arnold was your favorite. Is that still the case after the success of Bomb?

That’s always such a dangerous question, and yet it’s one that kids always ask, along with “How old are you?” and “Are you rich?” But I think that’s always a moving target. I still love Benedict Arnold—the book, I mean. Well, sort of the guy, too, at least as a one-of-a-kind character. 

Are there any stories you haven’t had a chance to tell yet, but can’t wait to share?

The next one I’m coming out with is going to be really weird, and a total change of pace. It’s about an attempt to rob Abraham Lincoln’s body from his grave in Springfield, Illinois. It’s not as heavy as the Bomb story. It’s a true crime thriller about these counterfeiters who decide to rob Lincoln’s body. Basically, they’re going to blackmail the government into letting their colleague out of jail. It’s bizarre and disgusting, in a way, which is great for kids. It’s light, though, a sort of bumbling cops-and-robbers story. 

Do you have any advice for students who want to get into writing?

I took creative writing classes at SU way back when. I studied history, but I always thought of myself as a writer. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it all goes together. Any practice you can get writing helps. My teachers told me that back then, too. Everything helps.  —Melanie Deziel

 For more on Sheinkin’s past projects, upcoming books, and ongoing adventures, head to his web site at stevesheinkin.com/.