What Is History for Francesco Sedita? by Francesco Sedita
As a kid, I was not only a reluctant reader, I was a hater of history. It terrified me, bored me, and made me feel like an outsider. As a closeted, chubby, Italian American kid with a weird name, the last thing I wanted to learn about was straight white people; and that’s what history felt like to me, especially in my all-boys Catholic prep school. At home, my family rarely discussed our place in the world, or in the Unites States. Instead, when gathered around the dinner table, we often talked about the things happening on Mott Street in Little Italy, where my mom grew up. We didn’t talk about politics, we talked about the larger-than-life and bigger-than-history-books fights between my grandmother and great aunt. Sometimes the shape of the pasta we were eating was more important than the shape of the world we lived in.
As I got older, I realized that because I did my best just to squeak by in history, I didn’t know nearly as much as the people around me. It was easy enough to fake it, but it wasn’t until I got the job of Publisher at Penguin, which included looking after and growing the burgeoning Who Was? book series, that it became obvious just how lacking I was in the history category. Over the years at Penguin, I read more and more of these incredible books and gradually, my fragmented high school history started to make sense as the gaps were filled in, book by book. By reading this series for 10 year olds, I realized that I could understand history, that I could relate to it, and that it was something I enjoyed.
I’m not a “the universe speaks” kind of person, but if it ever did, it was definitely speaking to me. I wanted Who Was? to grow, and quickly, so it could include as many different types of people, events, and locations as possible. From Elton John to The Tuskegee Airmen, from Oprah Winfrey to Leif Erikson to Selena, from Stonewall, to Broadway, to Gettysburg, to The Great Barrier Reef, and on and on and on, the WhoHQ was a home for all.
About three years ago, I knew it was time to take these books—books that young readers love and trade like baseball cards—and make a TV show. I grew up knowing that funny always has to come first, and by the time I was in college, I was doing stand-up and was lucky enough to have a writing internship at “Saturday Night Live.” So, when we started concepting out The Who Was? Show, we imagined “The Muppet Show” meets “You Can’t Do That on Television” meets “SNL”… meets my newfound love, history. And that’s how The Who Was? Show, which comes out on Netflix today, was born. A show filled with joy, with teeth, and with history secretly interlaced throughout.
The goal of the Who Was? series has always been for kids to be able look at the history of our country, our world, and see themselves reflected back, no matter their color, shape, size, successes, or problems. It is for kids with different backgrounds, with lots and lots of personal worries and personal issues; kids who also might be reluctant readers, who don’t see themselves in much of the history books they are given in school—and who, like that chubby Italian American kid from Mott Street, have yet to realize that history is the most fascinating soap opera we can ever read or watch.
And I think the show, even more than the book series in some ways, does just that. It will teach viewers quite a bit, but will also make them laugh, I hope—a very important thing to be doing at this time in our history.
Francesco Sedita is the president and publisher of Penguin Workshop at Penguin Young Readers. He focuses on creating a quality, affordable book program for children ages 0-12. Francesco is fortunate to publish authors like Ann Hood, Dolly Parton, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead, Giada De Laurentiis, Nancy Krulik, Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler, LJ Alonge, and Carlos Aponte. He is also an executive producer of The Who Was? Show, based on the New York Times best-selling series that he publishes, airing on Netflix. Francesco is the author of the Miss Popularity series and is currently at work on a graphic novel series for Viking.