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Award-Winning History Series Takes Students by Storm!
An exclusive Education World e-Interview with author Joy Hakim

History isn't always high on a student's list of favorite things. Too often they see history as memorizing a long list of dates they'll forget soon after they leave the classroom. Author Joy Hakim and the Oxford University Press have changed all that with their award-winning 11-book series A History of US. This series won the 1997 James A. Michener Prize in Writing. More importantly, kids who use the series seem to love it. They discover history isn't really so boring after all! This week, Education World writer Sherril Steele-Carlin talks to the author of this trend-setting series, Joy Hakim. Included: Hakim's ideas on getting students more involved in history!

Joy Hakim is a storyteller. She's been an elementary school teacher, a journalist, an editor, and more. Her 11-book series, A History of US , proves that she is a storyteller first and foremost. The series was awarded the James A. Michener Award in Writing from the National Council for the Social Studies. It also won gold and silver awards from Parents' Choice, and awards from several libraries, including the New York Public Library. Joy Hakim has taken dull dates and turned them into applause. She shares some of her techniques and thoughts in today's exclusive Education World e-interview.

Education World: Why did you write the series?

Joy Hakim: Partly because I had no idea what I was undertaking. I thought it would take a year and be only one book. More important: My kids were bored by U.S. history; their books weren't very good; there was a whole body of literature saying a narrative of U.S. history was needed. In addition, I saw a study done at the University of Minnesota that showed children's comprehension of journalistic writing was 40 percent higher than their comprehension of standard textbook writing. I was a journalist. I understood that.

EW: Was it difficult to find a publisher who shared your vision for these books?

Hakim: It was impossible.

EW: How did you finally find Oxford?

Hakim: I got out Literary Marketplace and submitted the manuscript to all the appropriate publishers-- dozens of them. It was turned down by everyone, often with a lovely cover letter saying how much it was admired, needed, etc., but it didn't fit their budget or plans or whatever. Then a friend told me to contact Byron Hollinshead. He had been head of Oxford [University Press] and American Heritage. He was recently chair of National History Day. Byron loved the books and sent them around. Two publishers were interested. I chose Oxford. They didn't have a children's editor at the time, and the trade editor took a chance.

EW: I understand you have several hundred letters from kids about your books? What do they have to say?

Hakim: The letters make it all worthwhile. They are wonderful, and filled with wonderfully creative spelling. Here are a few quotes:

"I read your whole book. That should make you happy. I don't usually read."
-- Ned

"I like the way you make the reader feel like she is in the time that you are talking about. I also like the clear explanations of words that are hard to understand."
-- Claire

"I read every one of your books. Some of the books had a lot of blood in them and some talked about political stuff. All of my grades I got from this book were A's and B's."
-- Ricky

"I love your books. They are so interesting. Some parts are funny and some parts are serious. I also think the pictures are neat. Your books are a lot better than regular textbooks. They are fun to read but you learn a lot from them."
-- author unknown

"To be honest, you wright [sic] the best history books."
-- Lindsey

"I thought social studies was going to be boring, but your books made it fun. It was as if we were really there."
-- Colly

EW: You mentioned you paid kids to edit the books, what a great idea! How many kids participated, and what types of things didn't they like?

Hakim: While writing the books, I worked with teachers in seven cities, sending them manuscripts and getting their comments. I went to visit each of them and got lots of helpful suggestions. They especially asked to have pronunciations and explanations of words-- which I tried to do. (I'll be doing even more of that in the science books I'm now writing.) I also paid individual kids to edit manuscripts. I gave them a code-- "b" for boring, "g" for good, and "nc" for not clear-- and asked them to put those symbols and any other notes in the margin. I used about eight readers per book. Usually, one or two were really helpful. I had what I thought was a great chapter on a runaway slave taken from a plantation owner's diary. I think it would have fascinated adult readers. The kids just didn't get the implications. I took it out.

EW: What is your background in history?

Hakim: I studied U.S. history with David Donald at Smith and have taken lots of history courses in summer sessions at Brown, Cornell, and Harvard since then. But mostly I've learned through reading and travel.

EW: How do you think parents can get more involved in their children's learning experience?

Hakim: My books are intended to be read and shared by families, that's why it was important to me that they be in bookstores as well as classrooms. History belongs to all of us. Delving into family stories can be fun. Families can visit historic sites, museums, etc. Museums are doing some of the most innovative teaching you can find today. The National Park Service sites are terrific, so are the presidential homes.

EW: Have you heard from parents about the books too?

Hakim: Yes, I have heard from parents. We haven't taught U.S. history well for a long time. I find a lot of parents are reading and learning with their kids. One school that I know of sent reading assignments to the parents to encourage home discussions.

EW: How about the teachers who use them?

Hakim: I have many letters from teachers. Here's a quote from a Massachusetts teacher: "I wish you had been here with us Friday afternoon. When I finished reading the first chapter of your book A History of US: The First Americans, the students all clapped. Your style is so passionate that it stirred the ten- and eleven-year-olds and their much older teacher. This is the first time in my 36 years of teaching that reading a textbook has sparked spontaneous applause!"

EW: How long did it take you to do the series?

Hakim: It took six or seven years of writing, but ten years from the time I started until I had a book in hand. The publishing process was surprising. These books were actually done by American Historical Publications for Oxford University Press. The team was terrific. Byron Hollinshead in charge, editor Tamara Glenny, designer Mervyn Clay, picture researcher Mary Blair Dunton.

Show and Tell
Have you used A History of US with your students? Or have you heard about the series from teachers or students who have used it? Share your thoughts and reactions (and those of your students) with other readers on a special message board.
EW: Would you change anything in the next series revision?

Hakim: We've done one revision. Of course, there are always things to be done to improve and extend the books. I'd like to do an innovative index. Oxford wouldn't go along with that idea. Maybe someday they will.

EW: How would you recommend teachers add to their students learning experience with these books?

Hakim: I'd like to think they would use creative ways to keep the students reading, researching, and writing. Perhaps dramatizing scenes from the book or painting memorable characters.

EW: You mentioned your current project is science books, can you tell us a little more about that project?

Hakim: I'm writing a narrative science series (actually two of them) right now. The first three books tell the story of the quest to understand the universe-- from Thales to string theory (mostly physics and chemistry). Understanding that quest gives you a base for understanding today's society. The other two books are centered in Earth science and biology-- so they focus on the environment and on genes and DNA. [The fact] that many schools ignore the idea foundation of these sciences that underpin our times is horrific. It makes schooling irrelevant to a lot of kids.

Sherril Steele-Carlin
Education World®
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