J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Making Oneself Notorious

Last year Steve Sheinkin won the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for children’s nonfiction with The Notorious Benedict Arnold. I missed the awards ceremony, but the Horn Book has just posted Sheinkin’s acceptance speech. Here’s a taste:
I was living in New York City, working as a history textbook writer. Our company was beginning work on a new fifth-grade U.S. history, and we told one another, “This won’t be the typical boring textbook. This time we’re going to make history come alive!” Part of my job was to come up with grabbers—quick, exciting stories that would draw kids into the action of each lesson. So I thought: here’s my big chance to use some of my Arnold material! I’ll work him in early, during the raucous, pre-Revolution tax protest days.

In the conference room at our office, I met with two very experienced editors and pitched a story that I have in my notes like this:
It is a cold, drizzly night in New Haven, Connecticut, in January 1766. Five young sailors hurry down a quiet street. They come to a dark house and begin banging on the front door. A twenty-five-year-old merchant named Benedict Arnold opens the door. The men start talking, all at once. Arnold appears to be growing angry. “What!” he cries. “He’s still in town?”

Moments later, Arnold is striding down the street, the young sailors falling in behind him. Arnold comes to Beecher’s Tavern, kicks in the door, enters, and takes a quick look around. There, sitting alone at a table, is the man he is looking for. The man jumps up and stumbles toward the back door, but Arnold pounces on him, drags him outside, ties him to a post, rips off his shirt, and begins whipping him. The sailors shout “Huzzah!” as each stroke cracks across the man’s back, wet now with blood and rain.

Who is Benedict Arnold? And why is he whipping this man? You will read that story next.
There was a long silence at the table. A very long silence. I explained that the man being whipped was a sailor who’d informed on Arnold for not paying British import duties. It was a perfect lead-in to the Stamp Act, Sam Adams, tax protests, the whole thing.

The editors were not convinced. Actually, they seemed to be in a small amount of physical pain.

“Benedict Arnold makes me…nervous,” one told me.

“Me, too,” said the other.

I thought, That’s the whole point! He made Congress nervous. He made George Washington nervous. He was America’s original loose-cannon action hero, a sort of brooding, cursing Bruce Willis character, two centuries before Hollywood. What I didn’t realize at the time was that for textbooks, this is not necessarily a good thing.
Eventually Sheinkin found a more welcoming format for his research. (The link offers a video as well.)

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