Skip to main content

Feature

On-Site with NEH

An author weaves a fresh twist into the tried-and-true

By Maureen Fitzgerald | HUMANITIES, May/June 2000 | Volume 21, Number 3

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

One student lifted his textbook, A History of the US, 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 thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds to, like, a book. About history, no less.

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

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

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

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

The innovative and award-winning ten-book series, A History of the US, 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 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 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.

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

"You have to believe in yourself. Several times I thought about giving up, but it turned out to be worth it."

History teacher Frank Romm said he loved that the books didn't shy away from controversy.

"So much of history is sugar-coated," Romm said. "She goes right to the heart of the controversy, whether it's racial, ethnic, political or corruption. She presents both sides, and it really generates great class discussion."

Between classroom sessions, Hakim and teachers huddled in a strategy session on how to get kids excited about history.

Hakim suggested that students could write and perform short plays from chapters in her book or write short history books for younger school children. Or that students could take a character or controversy and learn more about it.

And then she took her message to children in the classroom.

"For the first time in history, the richest man in the world got all his riches by using his brain. It used to be that you had to be a king or had land that you inherited.

"It no longer matters much who your parents are, or the color of your skin," Hakim told the students. "Brainpower is what counts."

Excerpted with permission from The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 18, 2000.

Joy Hakim's classroom visits were made possible through the Humanities Scholars in Residence Program, a National Endowment for the Humanities project that is funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation of Morristown, New Jersey.