History Is Awesome by Ben Thompson
Let’s get one thing straight right now: History is awesome. And if you’re one of those humorless contrarian haters who oh-so-proudly profess that the study of history “just isn’t your thing,” you’re wrong.
History is, by definition, the study of every single thing that has ever happened anywhere in the universe. It covers everything from flesh-devouring dinosaurs to the formation of planetoid structures in outer space to Evel Knievel jumping a Harley over fifteen flaming school busses while AC/DC wails “Back in Black.” It’s high-speed chases, mysterious uncharted tombs, epic swordfights, nuclear explosions, and 1990s hip-hop albums. Heck, every image in your iPhone Photo Gallery counts as a small chunk of history even though there’s a pretty small chance any of your weird selfies are going to end up being featured in a college textbook any time in the foreseeable future.
No, for kids (and grown-ups) who hate history, what they really mean is that they hate the way history is taught. This is because, for some bizarre reason there are a lot of books and movies and teachers out there that take even the most incredible and fascinating events of all time and turn them into something so mind-numbingly boring that you’d seriously consider sawing your own hand off at the wrist with a dull pair of Kindergarten safety scissors if it meant you’d have a good reason for an excused absence from history class.
When I was a kid, I loved history. My dad had a really sweet collection of antique weapons ranging from Zulu spears to flintlock muskets, and I wanted to know everything I could about all of them. Who carried them? When? How did they work? What battles were fought with them? I was hungry for any kind of knowledge I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, this typically meant I had to slog through some horrifically-dull old book where a formidable brick of text took something as exciting as the Charge of the Light Brigade and made it read like the owners’ manual on a used Chevrolet. If I wanted something more exciting, there were plenty of semi-historical movies out there, but they changed everything around for the sake of drama and completely axed any hope of having actual history content. Sure, 300 is a cool movie, but watching Gerard Butler beat down an army of giant mutant Persian-like monster-men with an array of flying sidekicks and chiseled abs for two and a half hours doesn’t exactly make you an expert on the Battle of Thermopylae. It’s like the history equivalent of using Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a primer on Hindu mysticism or thinking you can represent yourself in court because you watch a lot of Law & Order reruns.
Movies are made to be marketable to massive audiences, so “based on a true story”-style pseudo-history action movies will never go away. But there is something that history writers can learn from Hollywood.
I think one major problem for history writers is that they find themselves getting so bogged down in the details of the event that they lose sight of the reason they fell in love with it in the first place. Yes, it’s important to get the details right. Yes, you need to explain why it’s important for kids to study it. But that doesn’t mean you need to suck all the fun and excitement and adventure out of it like some kind of grim-faced humor vortex, ready and poised to whack you across the knuckles with a ruler every time you doodle a cool sword in the margins of a notebook while you’re taking notes on the Third Crusade. Even when you’re dealing with hardcore, difficult subject matter, it’s still important to try and find a way to connect with your reader rather than lecture them. Make them feel what it felt to be there. Make them laugh, or cry, or change the way they view a situation. Make them feel anything, because it’s better than just spouting out facts, numbers, dates, places and names of old dead white guys and then getting all mad when a ten year-old kid can’t remember the difference between Winfield Scott and Winfield Scott Hancock. Like, for instance, Abraham Lincoln loved watching bare-knuckle boxing and was really sad that he couldn’t take his pet dog Fido to live in the White House with him. Does it really matter that much to a fifth-grader if his Peoria Speech was in 1854 or 1855?
I didn’t have some grand, overarching plan to dramatically alter the landscape of history education when I pitched the idea for the Guts & Glory series. I just wrote the history books that I would have wanted to read as a kid – true facts from history told like an action movie or an old-school pulp fiction story. Stories of heroic bravery, where real men and women braved life-threatening danger and persevered against all odds for what they believed in. I took everything that I thought was cool about whatever I was writing about (the first book is on the Civil War, the second on the Vikings, and the third on World War II, but honestly I could write books like this about any period in human history) and put it together in plain English without trying to impress my uptight old college professors. The way I like to describe it is “Julius Caesar over beers,” although I don’t think I’m allowed to use that analogy when I’m talking about writing history for Middle Grade readers. Let’s call it, “your cool uncle tells you about the war and lets you watch a PG-13 movie while eating pizza on the living room couch way past your bedtime.”
Its history the way I would have wanted to read it growing up. And, while it’s hard to have your work reprinted in some stuffed-shirt academic history journal when you’re making Pokemon references in a chapter about Viking raids in Medieval England, it’s all painstakingly researched from primary source material and triple-checked for accuracy at every turn. And hopefully that will get kids interested in learning more about some of the most contentious, most influential, and most vital moments in human history.
Ben Thompson is the author of GUTS & GLORY: THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR and has been producing humorous history-related material for over ten years. He has written articles for publications such as the Military Times and organizations like the American Mustache Institute. Ben currently owns four swords (if you count a letter opener shaped like Glamdring the Foe-Hammer) and can jump over most garbage cans with one leap. He invites you to visit his website at gutsandgloryhistory.com