Steve Sheinkin is the master of writing dynamic, totally fascinating histories for kids–and winning awards for them. Among many other accolades, he’s been named a three-time National Book Award Finalist for Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War; The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights; and Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, which also won a Newbery Honor. His newest book, Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team, tells the riveting story of Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School football team, true underdogs who through great heart, talent, and determination became one of the most successful teams in history and who Sheinkin credits with inventing the game of football as it exists today. A member of the Sac and Fox Nation who co-founded the National Football League, the team’s star Jim Thorpe was also the first Native American to win an Olympic Gold Medal and is still considered one of the best athletes in history. But this great man’s journey was neither rosy nor easy, and the racism, cruelty, and betrayals Thorpe faced make this, in Steve Sheinkin’s own words, “one of the most inspiring” and “one of the most heartbreaking” stories that he has ever told.
We were lucky enough to host Steve for some school visits last week, and Meghan Goel, our kids buyer, took the opportunity to ask him a few questions while he was here.
MG: I was wondering whether there was a story that really stands out to you about Jim Thorpe or his relationship with Pop Warner that encapsulates why you wanted to tell this story?
STEVE: Yeah, they were both really strong personalities in totally different ways. And what stood out to me was the inevitability of their clashing. Even though they were very, very successful together, they were born to clash, too—which is often true of people born to do great things together. Pop was loud and obnoxious and cursing up a storm, and Jim Thorpe was quiet and super, super determined and could not possibly be told what to do. And so on the field they argued a lot and fought. Jim Thorpe is really the center of the story, and one story that just encapsulates it perfectly is when he wanted to try out for the team. I use this at the very beginning, as a prologue to the book because it shows their personalities and abilities so clearly. It’s where Jim walks out onto the field. He’s wearing rags. He has basically just borrowed a try-out uniform that didn’t fit him. He was on the track team, but had never played any kind of organized football yet, and he walked out onto the field to try out. But the team was already set for the year. And the Carlisle team was already very good. They were already a national power in football, and Pop wasn’t looking to add some skinny kid to the team. But Jim just insisted on trying out. And it turned into first, a clash of wills that Jim won because he was there and he was going to play, and then just this jaw dropping performance—this combination of speed and agility and power that no one had ever seen in one player before. And of course within five minutes Pop Warner knew he had seen the best player he was ever going to see in his entire life. The kid was still a skinny teenager, but he had everything right there. And that kind of just sets the stage for their relationship and also everything they would do together.
MG: I think that this book will open kids eyes to a part of history that they don’t know much about, especially our country’s extremely troubling history with Native American Nations and the history of schools like the Carlisle Indian School. Was there anything in your research about the Carlisle School or talking with Native scholars that surprised you personally and made you want to write about this history for kids?
STEVE: Yes, I always try to tell stories that have kind of a combination of elements and that delve into darker or more complicated parts of our history. I think that’s really important to do. And that’s exactly what I felt the challenge of here. There’s this really uplifting and inspiring underdog sports story—to me the best one I’ve ever come across in any kind of true story form—but then the more I learned about it, the more I really felt I had to also tell the story behind the school because otherwise it would just feel like a feel-good story, and it’s not. Jim Thorpe’s life story is not a feel-good story at all. But even more than that, after talking to people who know more about these schools or have family members who went to these schools, I felt like that had to be a big, big part of it. And so I went back and talked about the founding of this school. And what was surprising was just how harsh it was. The very first batch of students was taken east to Pennsylvania, purposely far from their families so that they would be completely cut off from their cultures. One of the kids who later wrote about it as an adult said it was like being taken to another planet. And I think that must have been true. They had never spoken English before. Why would they have? They had their own language and their own culture and their own names and traditions, and that was all suddenly stripped away really, really quickly. And so even though I focus on things that happened years later, and mostly sports related, I also wanted to tell the story of what it was like to show up at this school, be told you could no longer speak the only language you knew, and be told you were getting a new name. There was this really poignant scene where they walked into a classroom and they just see squiggles on the blackboard. They were names from the Bible or former presidents, but that meant nothing to these guys. And they were told to pick something, and that became their name. And so, if you don’t know that history, and I really didn’t know much about it, that was really surprising and harsh.
MG: Yes, that scene felt very, very callous and cruel.
STEVE: Yes, and this is very controversial, even now, but Pratt who founded the school—Richard Henry Pratt who was an army officer—thought he was helping. And that’s something people are still debating and angry about today.
MG: This book is also in large part about the game of football. In your book you talk a lot about how at the time this book took place, there were questions being raised about football as a game—the violence of the sport, the push to get it under control, and the big changes that were made in how the sport is played. Right now there are once again questions about the safety of football, and as someone with young children myself, I know a lot of parents who are once again reconsidering the idea of kids playing the game. Do you think there are correlations?
STEVE: It’s very similar. I think the debates are very similar in a lot of ways. One big difference is that it was actually—and this is hard to imagine—more violent and much more dangerous in those days. Not only did students not wear any protective gear, but the plays were just rougher and they would end up in these giant pile-ups of bodies, and so head and neck injuries were much more common, and even deaths were quite common in college football and high school as well. And then they had this huge debate. What’s interesting is to look back at the sources and see that this became a huge national issue. Muckrakers who would write about much more serious and important things got involved in football and asking: How are we allowing our youth to play this terrible game?
MG: Even the President got involved!
STEVE: Yes, President Roosevelt got involved because he was of the opposite mind. He basically said: Listen, life is not meant to be safe; this is teaching our young men. It was like their version of war, in his mind, toughening up the youth of America (and by youth he meant the rich white youth of America) to be the future leaders of this country, and he thought: We need that; and we don’t want to raise a bunch of mollycoddles (which was his term). So he really used that bully pulpit to tell colleges to get their act together, because big time schools like NYU, Columbia, Stanford, were banning football. At his own college of Harvard, the president of Harvard desperately wanted to ban football. And they had a personal war over that. And if Harvard had, probably the whole country would have gone that way. So that’s when the NCAA was founded to protect or save football. They introduced passing and all kinds of new rules that made it much more like the game we play now—and hopefully safer. That was their goal. And the tie-in is that the Carlisle Indian players were the first ones to see the advantage. They were always the smartest team. They had to be. They had the tiniest student body and they had to compete with much bigger, richer schools. And they saw the advantage of all these new rules that opened up the game. They invented modern football, which did become safer and also much more entertaining too.
But of course it didn’t make it totally safe by any means. And now I have a seven-year-old boy. I like to think of myself, by modern standards, as a very hands-off parent. But I would be wary about it. I would probably let him play. My wife would probably not. But I would have mixed feelings about it for sure, and I would definitely be worried about it. And when I watch football now, I watch it from that parent’s perspective and think, wow that looked really painful! I’m not a huge fan—I don’t sit and watch football all weekend. But I’m still a fan, and that’s why I always wanted to do a sports book and mix sports and history.
MG: It’ll be interesting to see if history repeats and the sport is changed again.
STEVE: I think it will. I think it will change again. Sometimes you get these old-schoolers who say they can’t believe a penalty was called and that this is good old-fashioned football, but that’s stupid. That’s what they said back when kids were dying playing the game.
MG: Your books make history fascinating for kids, bringing chapters of history to life through stories that are highly engaging and readable. Were there books that did that for you as a young person?
STEVE: As a kid, if you had asked me if I liked history, I would have said definitely not, that I hate it, it’s boring, it’s just where you memorize names and dates. But when I look back at some of my favorite books, I realize they were historical, especially historical fiction. I loved The Mutiny on the Bounty books. Kids today have no idea what I’m talking about when I say that, but those were really exciting. And a Michael Crichton book called The Great Train Robbery was a huge influence on me. It’s based on a true train robbery in Victorian London (which is a great setting for an adventure story), and it’s a really detailed behind the scenes account of how these guys pulled off a brilliant train robbery. So it’s a combination of history and thriller. I didn’t really know there was such a thing, but I think I’ve been kind of trying to recreate that ever since in the work that I do now, combining that with other things I’ve learned from – like I like the Nathan Hale comics and I still like to draw comics, too.
I believe in pulling in influences like that from unexpected places. I think kids learn so much more from something when it’s entertaining. Like look at the influence of Hamilton. Or, one of my favorite things to do with my kids is that we do our own little Lego movies. I think my daughter’s the same as me. If you asked her if she liked history, she would say no. She’s ten. But then if you said alright, make a movie about Lewis and Clark or something, she would have a blast doing it, and she would remember so much more about it. So I think that’s the way to approach these subjects. You’ve got to be engaging. Not every story is happy or funny, but it’s got to be interesting.
[note: if you haven’t seen Steve’s web comics about walking and talking with other authors, you should check them out: http://stevesheinkin.com/category/writer-comics/%5D
MG: Well thank you for doing it. It’s so important for us as booksellers to have books like this that provide engaging hooks into history. Like you said, history isn’t a list of facts, it’s the story of the people who lived it. And those stories are what your books really bring to life.
STEVE: That’s what I didn’t know what I was a kid. That’s what took me a really long time to figure out.
*Please note these answers from Steve have been transcribed from an audio interview. Any typos are ours, not his.