Interview: Must-See History

January 01, 2003 6 min read
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Joy Hakim hopes an upcoming PBS series based on her scene-filled books will make the past palatable to students of all ages.

At a time when TV executives are making increasingly outrageous programming decisions (Fear Factor, anyone?), a series based on American history textbooks seems risky. But viewers who tune in to PBS’s Freedom: A History of US on Sundays from mid-January through March won’t be subjected to a bland tour of battle sites. That’s because the show is based on the work of Joy Hakim, who, since 1993, has written 10 lively middle school history volumes.

Hakim, a former 5th grade and high school teacher and journalist, writes texts that read like novels, with vivid descriptions, compelling characters, and complex moral struggles. Readers don’t just learn, for example, that George Washington’s army survived a terrible winter at Valley Forge in 1777. In one volume, Hakim writes: “Picture 2,000 dirt-floored, drafty wooden huts lined up in streets like a village, and you have an idea of the architecture at Valley Forge. If you look at the ground, you may see blood. Some of the soldiers have no shoes; their toes freeze and leave bloody tracks.”

It’s this kind of dramatic language—excerpted in the show’s companion book of the same name—that producers hope will draw the Sopranos crowd. And it doesn’t hurt that the series is hosted by NBC anchorwoman Katie Couric, with narration provided by celebrities like Julia Roberts.

We recently reached Hakim in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to talk about why she thinks traditional textbooks have no place in the classroom.

Q. As a young student, did you like history?

A. No. I hated history, like everybody else. I thought history was incredibly boring. I went off to college, and I took [a course taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian] David Donald, and he just electrified me. It was idea-fettered history, and it changed my whole idea of the field.

Q.What prompted you to start writing the History of US series?

A. I had raised three kids, and I was very disturbed by their books. They weren’t grammatically incorrect, but it was just terrible writing.

We have a reading crisis in our country, for heaven’s sake—why would we give kids books that are so dull, nobody wants to read them? It just doesn’t make sense. History should be every child’s favorite subject. Our most passionate discussions as adults are over politics. Well, the politics of the past is just as interesting, and it’s the same issues. And if you get kids into those issues, they’ll argue about it.

The core of the American story is slavery. How could we have had slavery in the “land of the free?” Most books just make it very dumb: “Slavery was evil, period.” Well, it’s more than that. The real question is, why do good people sometimes do bad things? The people in the South were not all bad people. But they were trapped in a system. And you have to ask yourself, what would you do if you were a very wealthy slave owner, and giving up your slaves would make you poor? I ask kids that question, and suddenly, [they] think, “Wow—I wouldn’t want to be poor.” So there are all sorts of things to think about that, traditionally, the history books haven’t given you.

Q. Where do the textbooks go wrong?

A. The reason textbooks are so dull is that, first of all, they’re not written by single writers. They’re almost all compilations of lots of writers, so there’s nobody doing this organizing that goes into telling a story. By and large they don’t get good writers. They pay for professors’ names, and then they have about 20 free-lancers. So you just can’t have compelling writing that way. And [in] the textbooks, you’ll have a paragraph or two and then questions. Well, those dumb questions inhibit your reading.

The literary form of our time is nonfiction. If you look at the New York Times next Sunday, I’m guessing you’re going to see 10 or 12 nonfiction books reviewed and six or seven fiction. So presenting history in a nonliterary form, which the textbooks do, is just outrageous.

Q. You were a journalist before you started writing history books. Is writing for kids different than writing for adults?

A. Yes. It’s much more difficult. Kids are more perceptive readers. They take certain things very seriously. I haven’t read a book in a number of years that transformed me, but the books that I read very early did. Kids are much more critical, they respond more, and you can’t get away with anything.

I started out [testing] the books in classrooms in seven cities around the country, and I had teachers and kids giving me their opinions. I found that if I went to individual kids, they were too polite to tell me, “This is dumb,” “This is boring,” so I said, “I’m going to pay you for this,” and it changed their whole focus. I gave them a code to put in the margins—B for “boring” and NC for “not clear"—and I paid $5 a manuscript. If the kids put B’s in, I rewrote. I also asked them to underline any word that they didn’t understand, so I would know which ones to define, and that always was baffling. Somehow, the big words I thought they wouldn’t know, they often did. But there’s a scene where [Ulysses S.] Grant is in a boat on the James River during the Civil War, and he sends a wire to Abraham Lincoln, and the manuscript came back from a little girl, who said, “Why would he send him a piece of wire?”

Q. Are your books designed to supplement or replace traditional textbooks?

A. I like to think they might be a model for a new kind of textbook. We should get rid of the kind of textbooks that we have. They’ve done a number on our kids. They’ve made a huge amount of money for some publishers, but they’ve been harmful. We just do not need textbooks. So I see mine as a model—books that will sell in bookstores. If it isn’t good enough for somebody to go out and buy, for a kid to want to read, then it’s not good enough.

Q. Is there any single era in American history that you find to be particularly relevant to society today?

A. The end of the 19th century has a lot of parallels with today. [It was] the time of the robber barons and a lot of the labor unrest, and what’s parallel is that there was this great gap between rich and poor. After the Second World War, we became a really middle-class nation. And we’re now seeing this tremendous chasm opening, this huge difference between CEOs who are earning $200 million a year and your salary. So it’s kind of interesting; you can look back and see this happened once before.

Q. You’re now writing a series for middle schoolers about the history of science. What can readers expect from these books?

A. We see science often as rigid laws, and it’s constantly changing. I start with the ancient Greeks, and we go through time. As kids learn the history, they’re going to learn about scientific theories. Relativity and quantum theory are very difficult in their particulars, and I don’t pretend to even understand those, but the overarching ideas are not difficult. What they are is counterintuitive. And it’s easier for kids, who have open minds, to accept that than it is for us who are more rigid in our thought. We wouldn’t have had the electronic revolution without quantum theory, and kids need to understand it underlies their world. And it has this great narrative. The mistakes you make and the wrong directions are as important in some ways as the successes. Everything builds on each other, and connections make it fun—it’s amazing who knew who. It’s a tale.

—Samantha Stainburn


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