Adding life to history

Textbook: Author weaves a fresh twist into accounts of the nation's past.

March 19, 2000|By Maureen Fitzgerald | Maureen Fitzgerald,Knight Ridder/Tribune

PENNSAUKEN, N.J. -- Several students rushed up to Joy Hakim as she entered their eighth-grade classroom at Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken. They thrust their history notebooks before her, asking for her autograph.

One student lifted his textbook, "A History of U.S.," into the air, pointed to it, and gave her a thumbs-up sign.

It was a novel day for these students of the electronic generation. The author of their history book -- the thing with printed words they lug to class and home in their backpacks -- was standing before them, like, live and in person.

Even more novel was the reaction of these 13- and 14-year-olds to, like, a book. About history, no less.

"It's, like, not boring," said Whitney Jamison, 13. "It's fun."

"The way it's written, it sounds like somebody's saying it," said Anthony Arot, 14. "And they have all these little side notes, with cool stuff."

"They tell stories," said Rodney Nixon, 13. "The whole book is like one big story."

"Most books just skip to the major events," said David Baratta, 14. "These books tell you what happens in between."

The innovative and award-winning 10-book series, "A History of U.S.," published by Oxford University Press, is a bold contrast to the old facts-and-dates approach to history.

It was, in fact, the boring American history textbooks that Hakim's children were reading in elementary school that inspired her to try to write something better. (Her children are grown, but her grandchildren are reading her books in school.)

"I cringe when people call these textbooks. ... They're real books."

The books are a thorough and accurate narrative of our nation's history, written in the warm and chatty voice of a grandmother telling juicy stories and leaving in all the good stuff.

The series was awarded the 1997 James A. Michener Prize in Writing and the Parents' Choice Award. And schools across the country have taken notice. More than 1.3 million copies have been sold since its publication in 1993.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University have selected the series for use in its Talent Development Middle School Program, a reform model in use at seven Philadelphia public schools, including Roberto Clemente, which Hakim also visited recently.

The Hopkins team has developed an extensive supplemental curriculum for the series, which will be available for purchase this spring, and which more than 100 schools have requested.

"We chose Joy's books because they are heads and shoulders better than anything else that is out there," said Maria Garriott of the Hopkins program. "Most texts are so dull; her books put the villains and heroes back in."

Hakim has no formal training as a historian; she just decided, back in the 1970s, to take a year off from her job as a newspaper reporter in Virginia. Her goal: to try to write history as a journalist would. She expected to write a one-volume history in one year.

"It kind of got out of hand," she said. "It turned out to be 10 books in 10 years."

Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Hakim was visiting classrooms and meeting with teachers at the Pennsauken middle school as a "scholar-in-residence."

"At 8:10 every morning, when I'm starting my American history class, I thank Joy Hakim," said Janet Harris, chairwoman of the history department at the middle school, who fell in love with the books and brought them to the district.

In the classrooms the author visited there, the teen-agers wanted to know where she found the great pictures and drawings (a picture researcher found them in libraries and museums), if she was a millionaire (she said she's not, but she has made "some nice money"), and if there was some luck in getting her books published.

"I think you make your own luck," Hakim said. "All the textbook publishers turned it down, even though they liked it a lot. They said it just wouldn't work in schools, that schools wouldn't buy it."

The students also wanted to learn about her favorite characters. Without hesitation, she named Sir William Johnson, an example of the type of little-known but important personalities who fill her books.

"Johnson is one of my heroes," Hakim said. "He was brave and strong and actually quite remarkable. He was one of the few people who treated the Indians fairly."

Johnson arrived in New York in 1738 from Dublin, which was then part of Britain.

He learned the language of his Mohawk neighbors, she said, though he spoke it with an Irish brogue; he respected the tribespeople and their customs when most people judged them to be inferior and cheated them. He was made chief and given the Indian name of Warraghiyagey.

He established more than 30 fur trading-posts and has been called America's first chain-store owner. He was knighted for valor in battle.

"He was both an English American and an Indian American, and he did his best in each of those worlds," Hakim wrote in her third book. "No one on this continent has ever done that as well."

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