Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Register or subscribe today
Find more Books and Authors
The writer and educator discusses her ongoing nonfiction History Smashers series, which focuses on correcting common misconceptions in American historical education, and talks about the importance of multiple viewpoints and an accessible voice.
“So much of American history, especially, has been told through a white lens, so it’s essential to include the voices and perspectives of scholars and co-authors from traditionally marginalized groups whose stories are addressed in the series. Without their input, these stories from history simply can’t be told in a way that’s truly accurate or complete.”
A middle-school English teacher for 15 years, Kate Messner burst onto the children’s literature scene first with several middle-grade novels, then, in 2011, with her picture books Sea Monster’s First Day and Over and Under the Snow, and she’s been steadily amassing praise and honors for her subsequent titles. Not only does she write biographies (Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor, 2021) and explore environmental science topics (The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs: The Story of Ken Nedimyer and the Coral Restoration Foundation, 2018) but she also crafts books about history and social studies. She’s even got 12 time-traveling titles featuring a friendly golden retriever (Ranger in Time: Attack on Pearl Harbor, 2020). Her books have received numerous accolades, including the Green Earth Book Award, Outstanding Science Trade Book, Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts Award, the International Literacy Association Teachers’ Choice Reading List, the E.B. White Read Aloud Honor, and the Crystal Kite Award.We spoke with her about one of her latest projects, the History Smashers nonfiction series, which uses graphic elements to explore history topics about which much misinformation exists.
Links: Although you have written fiction series before, History Smashers is your first nonfiction series. How did History Smashers come about?Messner: History Smashers is my first nonfiction series but not my first history series; I researched and wrote 12 books in the Ranger in Time historical-adventure series. While I was working on those books, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much of what I learned about history growing up was incorrect or incomplete. That was really the spark for the History Smashers series, which is aimed at unraveling the myths we often learn about history when we’re young.
The series title came after a lot of brainstorming. My original thought was to call it the Real Deal series, but my terrific team at Random House pushed me to come up with a title that was more active and dynamic, more appealing to young readers who are really excited about history.
Links: Essentially, you’re smashing a number of myths around certain historical events in each book. How did you choose which myths to smash and which ones to leave alone? How did you ensure the accuracy of your own research into these events?
Messner: We chose to launch the series with one of America’s favorite myths—the story of the Mayflower and the so-called First Thanksgiving—because it’s so widespread and still being taught as actual history in some schools. From there, we focused on fascinating stories from history with elements that have been mythologized and others that have been ignored. Research is really at the heart of this series, and I rely on primary sources and archaeological records as well as the work of modern scholars. So much of American history, especially, has been told through a white lens, so it’s essential to include the voices and perspectives of scholars and co-authors from traditionally marginalized groups whose stories are addressed in the series. Without their input, these stories from history simply can’t be told in a way that’s truly accurate or complete.
Links: On page 17 of The Mayflower, you teach a quick mini-lesson on primary sources. Later, you debunk primary sources and say they aren’t always accurate. Why is it important to stress this point?
Messner: We do love our primary sources as researchers, and I’m no exception—I’ve been known to dance around dusty research libraries when I unearth a letter that sheds a new slant of light on someone from history. But the problem with primary sources comes when we don’t consider the perspective from which they were written or consider the fact that historical figures often wrote with very specific agendas in mind. When I talk to kids about primary sources, I ask them to imagine that they had a fight with a sibling and wrote a note to their parents to explain what happened and whose fault it was. There’s a pretty good chance that those notes are going to tell different stories, at least in terms of what’s included and what gets left out.
It’s human nature for us to tell stories in a way that makes us look like the good guy, and that’s true for historical figures, too, with much higher stakes. Colonizers, in particular, wrote volumes and volumes to justify stealing land and killing or enslaving the people who lived there before the colonizers arrived. Many Europeans wrote things about Native people and African people that were simply wrong, either because they didn’t understand their culture or lied about it or both. That’s why we want to look at primary sources carefully and evaluate them with a critical eye, asking all kinds of questions, not just about about what the document says but also who wrote it, their intended audience, and their agenda.
Links: For all of the books in this series, you share primary-source quotes and then translate that information so it’s easy to understand. How did you come up with this approach?
Messner: Primary sources are so great for helping us to understand history, not only because they offer first-person accounts but also because they tell us as much about the writers as they do about the subjects. They engage kids in critical thinking about history and spark smart, thoughtful conversations. But in order for that to happen, that source material has to be accessible. When readers experience a more challenging primary-source text alongside a more casual, modern translation, they get to practice making those translations from more formal and sometimes archaic language to everyday English. That was something I really wanted to highlight in this series.
Links: The series’ back matter, with your extensive bibliography and references, is helpful for readers who want to learn more. Describe your research process for the books in this series. How important is to visit certain places when writing history books?
Messner: I could write whole books about my research process for this series, but in a nutshell, I always start at the library, with an enormous collection of paper books, so that I’m able to get a solid overview of the topic and the current literature. When I’m working with secondary sources, I pay close attention to reviews written by people from traditionally underrepresented groups who have special knowledge of the topic being written about. Some critically acclaimed books about the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people written by white authors are excellent in some regards, but because they still demonstrate a major lack of understanding of Wampanoag culture and values, so Native perspectives on that history are invaluable.
Once I have that foundational overview, I focus on the elements of the history that have most often been mythologized, misrepresented, or erased, and I dive into more primary sources, haunting research libraries and museum collections. During the pandemic, this was challenging, and I can honestly say that the series would have come to a crashing halt without the help of some life-saving research librarians who were generous enough to respond to my pleading phone calls and emails during the time when their institutions were closed to the public.
The bulk of my work on this series happens during the research phase, which goes on for months before I even draft an outline. But there does inevitably come a point in the research process when I find that I’m reading the same things over and over again and it’s time to start arranging the pieces of the puzzle to begin writing. With every chapter, though—pretty much every page, in fact—I find myself circling back to research, double-checking sources, searching out new documents, and making phone calls to experts to check facts or clarify my understanding. The research for this series really extends through the whole writing process.
Links: How would you have used these books in your classroom if you were still teaching?
Messner: When I was teaching middle school, I was always grateful for books that challenged my students by sharing honest, tough truths about history. If I were still in the classroom full time, I’d be excited to share the History Smashers series and use it as a jumping off point to encourage kids to look at history—and the stories they’ve been told about it—with a critical eye. I think it’s a great series to use alongside a more traditional history textbook, and it’s also important to bring in texts that shine a light on history that’s been largely erased. Picture books like Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper’s Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (2021) are so powerful in that respect.
Links: What is your advice to teachers teaching social studies?
Messner: I think the most important thing teachers of social studies can do is to think about whose stories have been told and whose voices have been silenced and work to bring those voices into the conversation about our shared history. I also think it’s worth revisiting the idea of heroes in history and presenting historical figures, including America’s founders, in a more nuanced, accurate light, instead of simply mythologizing them.
When I talk with kids about History Smashers: Women’s Right to Vote, I share what I learned about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when I was growing up. They were heroes to me, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned both Anthony and Stanton had actively fought against voting rights for Black men while they were fighting for white women’s suffrage. It feels important to share such stories, especially at a time when many people in America are working to make our own, modern-day nation more just. Don’t we want to make sure that when we’re fighting for change, we do it in a way that doesn’t cause harm to other people, instead of repeating mistakes of the past?
Links: In your research for the five History Smashers books what has been the most shocking or surprising thing you unearthed? What did you choose to leave out?
Messner: A lot surprised me about the suffragists. Long before I started working on History Smashers: Women’s Right to Vote, I was well aware that the white women’s suffrage movement had issues with racism, but I was still floored by some of the racist language in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s public speeches. The infighting within the movement was also fascinating to me, particularly the disdain that the older suffragists had for the more radical women like Alice Paul, with her arrests and hunger strikes. I found a letter from Anna Howard Shaw in which she wrote, “I wish something would happen to Miss Paul and stop the whole business.”
Because this whole series is about telling the truth about history, I try not to leave things out, but I’m also mindful of the age of my readers and aim to present accurate information in ways that are developmentally appropriate. We can talk about slavery in America, for example, in ways that make it clear that this was a horrific and cruel practice, without going into the sort of violent, graphic detail that could traumatize younger readers.
Links: As always, your writing style is fun and exciting for kids. You address readers directly and build suspense all along the way, sometimes posing questions to get readers to anticipate what will come next. How do you decide what teasing question to lead with?
Messner: Aw, thank you! That conversational tone is really at the heart of the series. I always imagine I’m talking with a young person I like a lot, leaning in to say, “So . . . do you want to know what really happened?” I so love talking with kids at school visits, and for me, the friendly conversational tone of this series is a very natural extension of that.
Links: What other myths or stories do you plan to smash? Why?
Messner: The first six titles in the series are The Mayflower, Women’s Right to Vote, Pearl Harbor, The Titanic, The American Revolution, and Plagues and Pandemics (October 2021). Book seven will be History Smashers: The Underground Railroad, which is also about the history of slavery in the Americas and its legacy. This title is co-authored with Gwendolyn Hooks and comes out in 2022. I’m also just beginning to work with a Taino co-author on a History Smashers book about Columbus and the Taino people. That’s a topic that teachers, librarians, and families have been requesting since the series began, but it’s also one that I wasn’t interested in writing without having Taino voices represented, so it took a little while to make sure that could happen.
Links: How much input did you have on the design of the books in this series—the illustrations, archival photos, and graphic elements?
Messner: I feel incredibly lucky to be working with the Random House team on these books. Creating visually exciting, accurate graphic nonfiction involves so much collaboration, and I’m very involved in the design of the books throughout the process. As I research and draft, I keep notes on possible archival photographs to use, illustration opportunities with photo references, and stories within each chapter that would be best told in comic sequences. I review cover sketches and interior art, along with the editorial and design teams at Random House, and a lot of revision happens along the way so that both the words and art are engaging, detailed, and accurate. The detailed illustrations convey information that goes beyond the text, which is so great for young historians.
The art is really what makes this series shine, in my opinion. We’ve been so lucky to work with the illustrators we have on board. Dylan Meconis creates all of the cover art and did the interior illustrations for the first three books as well. From there, we’ve been fortunate to find the perfect illustrator to handle interior art for each topic we’ve tackled—Matt H. Taylor for our Titanic book, Justin Greenwood for the American Revolution, Falynn Koch for Plagues and Pandemics, and Damon Smyth for the Underground Railroad. I’m always in awe of the way their art brings life to these stories from history.
Links: What other History Smashing topics might you want to write about down the road?
Messner: I’m hopeful that this series will continue, so I’m always thinking about what topics might be a good fit, and I’m forever tucking away little scraps of paper with ideas and notes. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Inventions and Discoveries—and how many people and groups in history ended up getting credit (or stealing it!) for the work of other people and cultures. So that’s something I’d love to explore in a future book.
May I turn this question around on your readers now? What topics would YOU like to see covered in future History Smashers books? I know that this series has already become a staple in many classrooms and libraries, and I’d love to hear about other titles that you’d be excited to share with your readers!
The American Revolution. Illus. by Justin Greenwood. 2021. Random (9780593120460). Gr. 4–7. 973.3.The Mayflower. Illus. by Dylan Meconis. 2020. 224p. Random (9780593120316). Gr. 4–7. 974.4.Pearl Harbor. Illus. by Dylan Meconis. 2021. Random (9780593120378). Gr. 4–7. 940.54.Plagues and Pandemics. Illus. by Falynn Koch. 2021. Random (9780593120408). Gr. 4–7. 614.4.The Titanic. Illus. by Matt Aytch Taylor. 2021. Random (9780593120439). Gr. 4–7. 363.123.Women’s Right to Vote. Illus. by Dylan Meconis. 2020. Random (9780593120347). Gr. 4–7. 324.623.
Terrell A. Young teaches courses in children’s literature to graduate and undergraduate students at Brigham Young University. Deanna Day teaches literacy and children’s literature courses at Washington State University. Barbara A. Ward teaches children’s literature courses at the University of New Orleans and has taught in the city’s public schools for 25 years.
Register or subscribe today