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A Textbook Case: U.S. History in the Making

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Most textbooks are boring, says Joy Hakim, the author of a new series of books on American history. That's why Hakim, a former newspaper writer, editor, and teacher, set out nearly seven years ago to write her own. Her idea: to create books that would use engaging stories rich in human details to draw children into the study of history.

Students could learn from her books, for example, that Queen Elizabeth I of England brushed her teeth with sugar or Spain's Queen Isabella passed a law forbidding Indians from taking too many baths. Some of the stories would be humorous; others would be adventurous. And along the way, young readers would learn history.

"We shouldn't make kids read any books we wouldn't want to read ourselves,'' says Hakim, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va.

The trouble was that Hakim could find no takers for her idea.

Such prominent educators as Diane S. Ravitch, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, and Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed her efforts. But virtually every major trade and textbook publisher rejected her manuscripts. Foundations declined to underwrite her efforts as well, and Hakim ran up a debt of $60,000.

"They all said this is great stuff, but it would just be too risky to publish it,'' Hakim remembers.

All that has changed. Last fall, Oxford University Press, looking to make inroads into children's publishing, put out the first three volumes of her 10-book series, A History of US. Bookstores have already sold out the first printing of 5,000 copies.

Her books have won her an interview on National Public Radio and an introduction to President Clinton. American Educator, the A.F.T.'s national magazine, has excerpted the books. And the American Textbook Council has called her work "one of the most interesting history-textbook ventures in years.''

"These books are superior to standard textbooks,'' says Gilbert Sewall, the executive director of the council. "They are history-centered. They are complex and nuanced, and they have a literary style and verve not common to mass-market textbooks.''

And, most important of all to Hakim, elementary and middle school children like Ned W. of Virginia Beach don't think her books are boring.

Discarding the Dull

Critics have long concurred with the kind of appraisal Hakim gives traditional textbooks. Written by nameless committees of writers, the books lose any spark of personality in their writing early in the publishing process. Instead, they tend to become recitations of names, dates, and political events.

There is a good reason for this. The books must sell in every state and thus must offend no one nor leave out anyone's history. Yet, what makes them commercially viable also makes for dull reading.

Hakim, a 62-year-old with closely cropped brown hair and a dry wit, discovered this for herself when her daughter was studying U.S. history.

"She was taught history backward, and it was a disaster,'' the author recalls. "When I saw the history book, I understood why.''

"The book was so dull it didn't matter if you read it backward or forward,'' she adds in a note at the end of her first book.

When a school superintendent in her community showed Hakim a study suggesting that reading comprehension was 40 percent higher for newspapers than it was for textbooks, things began to click into place.

"I realized that I or any newspaper person could do better,'' she says. "I just knew there was a need, and I assumed the publishing world would fall at my feet.''

In a sense, however, comparing A History of US with standard textbooks is unfair. Hakim never intended for her books to be textbooks.

"I wanted to make the point that we need trade books in school and not textbooks,'' she says.

Oxford is, in fact, marketing the book as a crossover between the two genres. Oxford sells the books to bookstores and has arranged with D.C. Heath, a long-established textbook publisher, to distribute the books to schools. The company just recently mailed individual copies of the fourth volume of the series to middle schools nationwide.

Engaging Young Readers

Rather than write a textbook, Hakim simply set out to write books that children would want to stay up to read by flashlight under the covers.

To make sure the books would be both appealing and understandable to them, she hired schoolchildren as reviewers. For a $5 fee, they would read the manuscripts and make notations in the margins. The letters "NC'' meant a passage was not clear, and "B'' signified when a passage was boring. A "G'' meant "good.''

"It's amazing how perceptive kids are,'' she says. "I threw out one chapter after one very bright boy said, 'I didn't get this.'''

She rewrote another section on the pre-Revolutionary War era's Quartering Act when her young editors said they were confused. To them, a quarter was the sum of two dimes and a nickel.

And Hakim collected reams of personal details about historical figures, some of them funny and others gruesome.

For example, in The First Americans, the initial volume in the series, she reproduces a journal entry from a member of explorer Ferdinand Magellan's crew. He wrote: "We were three months and 20 days without getting any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuit swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats ... And of the rats ... some of us could not get enough.''

Hakim says a leading textbook company that was considering publishing her manuscript had sought to remove that passage. She insisted it remain, contending that such details would whet children's appetite for more.

"Kids just eat that stuff up,'' she says.

Hakim also declines to shy away from controversy and complex ideas in her books. In the first volume, for example, she compares the antislavery views of Bartolome Las Cases, the Spanish priest, with those of Juan Gines de Sepulveda, his countryman and a scholar who favored slavery.

"One of my students finished the book and told me it was better than Nintendo,'' says George Coggan, a Charlotte County, Fla., teacher who has used the books for three years with 4th- and 5th-grade students.

Coggan says his students gave the books glowing reviews even though for the first two years they were reading from prepublication manuscripts without illustrations. His school district has since purchased 5,000 copies of the books for use in its elementary schools.

Meeting Obstacles

Although many teachers who have come across the books are as enthusiastic as Coggan, a few are somewhat skeptical.

Dale Kenney, a 9th-grade history teacher in the District of Columbia public schools, says that although her students overwhelmingly prefer Hakim's second volume to their usual textbook, she worries whether the book completely meets her district's curricular objectives.

That may be a concern for other teachers as well, points out Sewall of the American Textbook Council. He says students typically encounter the study of history first in 4th grade and that experience is given over mostly to the study of state and local history.

To some degree, that may be changing. In 1988, the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools, a national panel formed to examine the study of the subject, called for teaching more history and introducing it to students earlier. And at least two large states--California and Florida--have done just that.

"The social-studies market is in flux right now,'' says Kathy Shepard, a marketing manager for D.C. Heath. "There are a lot of people who want more history and are very interested in teaching it this way, and there's also a group that wants its textbooks.''

Cost could pose another obstacle for the new series. In paperback form, schools can buy individual books, which are about 160 pages, for $8.95 each. Large quantities can cost as little as $6.95 apiece. Still, a complete 10-volume set could add up to $70.

"Can schools afford these materials?'' Sewall asks. "I can't answer that question, but my hunch is the books will find a place in more-affluent school districts and in school libraries.''

Hakim points out that educators need not buy all 10 books, but may want to pick out a few to support an instructional theme or as an alternative to textbooks.

D.C. Heath, in fact, has projected it will sell 10,000 copies of each volume this year. "We're comfortable with that number,'' Shepard says.

In the end, however, whether the books gain a wide classroom audience will depend largely on the teachers who come across them.

"If a teacher finds A History of US appealing and thinks of it as a vehicle for teaching history and reading, then the book stands a chance of being successfully received,'' Sewall concludes.

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