Steve Sheinkin won the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Nonfiction for his book The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery. From his acceptance speech:
“But I realized there was more to Arnold’s appeal than the story, and it goes back to Arnold making people nervous. Why does he make people nervous? It’s not that Arnold is a bad guy—it’s that he’s a good guy and a bad guy. A hero and a traitor.
“As a country, I don’t think we handle contradiction very well. When it comes to talking about the American Revolution and our Founders—essentially, our creation story—we seem most comfortable sticking to two-dimensional portraits. It’s hard for us to think of the United States as a nation built on grand and beautiful ideals but with deep moral flaws woven in from the start. I think we’re afraid that if we try to explain this complex mixture to young readers, they’ll be confused, and maybe less patriotic. I’m convinced it’s one of the main reasons kids think history is boring.”
I love Sheinkin’s point about history being complicated, and how we avoid those issues when teaching history to kids. History is never about good guys versus bad guys. It’s about real people dealing with immediate problems and trying to solve them the best they can, or trying to succeed in their own right, or trying to avoid major collapse. It’s what we still do. The more books we have that deal with complex historical figures, the better. And, as Sheinkin says, this might help kids get more invested in history.
Make sure to click through for the rest of Sheinkin’s speech.