Severn School students were treated to an atypical lesson on April 22 as they were regaled with tales of Abraham Lincoln as a professional wrestler, Abigail Adams as a Caribbean pirate, and the reckless Benedict Arnold, who, as the kids learned, was a hero before he was a traitor.
Those tales came courtesy of author Steve Sheinkin, who traveled from New York to speak with students about his books and the writing process.
Before meeting with middle-schoolers, Sheinkin addressed the Lower School. He talked about making comic books, producing a “total flop” of a film and rebounding to become a successful author.
A former textbook writer, he also discussed fascinating historical figures, like Sarah Edmonds and Loreta Velazquez. Both women dressed as men during the Civil War, acting as soldiers and spies for the Union Army and Confederate Army, respectively.
Students beamed at the story of Benedict Arnold, who is infamous for defecting to the British but who is lesser known for his success as a general in the American Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
“It’s like an action hero in a movie, but he existed 200 years before movies,” Sheinkin said. “His story is an over-the-top action adventure spy movie.”
Another cinema-worthy story detailed how Chicago counterfeiters planned to rob Abraham Lincoln’s grave in the 1870s.
“That’s not too much of a spoiler I hope, that Lincoln was killed at the end of the Civil War,” Sheinkin joked.
Kids were enthralled with those stories but equally eager to hear about Sheinkin’s books, which some students had read prior to the visit.
“Usually history doesn't strike me, but ‘Abigail Adams Pirate of the Caribbean’ was easy to understand and really good,” said Olivia, a fifth-grader. “I like chapter books with pictures that make you want to keep going. Every time you stop reading, it's a cliffhanger.”
Sheinkin’s most popular stories are from the “Time Twisters” books in which siblings Doc and Abby meet historical figures who are doing activities vastly different from the ones that made them famous.
“I wanted to take characters that were interesting and send them on an adventure, almost as if they escaped from their history textbook,” Sheinkin said of his “Time Twisters” series.
Those stories include convincing Abraham Lincoln to accept the presidency instead of pursuing professional wrestling, and trying to lead Abigail Adams from a pirate ship to the White House.
“Everything in the book has some truth to it,” Sheinkin told his audience. “Lincoln is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.”
Sheinkin tried to pin down the answers to many of the kids’ questions following his presentation.
What inspired him to write books? Had he ever done a book with gladiators? Had he used real-life people as inspiration?
“One biology teacher was mad when I made the comic because he thought I made him too bald,” Sheinkin said with a laugh.
One student asked about the painstaking editing process.
“I don’t want to sound discouraging, but that’s typical,” Sheinkin responded. “You send it out, it gets rejected and you send it out again. Almost every author has a version of that story.”
Lastly, students accepted the challenge of placing historical characters in bizarre scenarios just like the ones depicted in Sheinkin’s “Time Twisters” books.
What were some of the ideas?
Sacagawea on Broadway. James Madison as a basketball player. George Washington as a dentist.
“He might not enjoy the joke, because he had horrible teeth,” Sheinkin said in response to the dentist idea, “… and that could be the reason he was in a bad mood a lot of the time.”
Students were in a good mood as they reflected on the author visit.
“It was fun and interesting to learn about how he got started,” said Tyler, a fifth-grader. “He was good with us, he asked for our ideas. It was interesting to learn about how many publishers said no to him at first!”
Another fifth-grader, Jack, called the visit awesome. “It was cool that he tried to write movies but then found something else that he really liked,” Jack said.
Sheinkin was impressed with the students.
“Not only do I get to share my stories, but I also get ideas and I get to try out ideas,” Sheinkin said. “That’s vital for keeping me in touch with what kids want to read.
“One thing kids would never say is, ‘That could never happen. That’s not realistic,’” he continued. “The imagination kids have is better than most adults.”
For more information on the author, go to www.stevesheinkin.com.