Saratoga Springs author Steve Sheinkin hates to admit it now, but he began his career as a textbook writer. “I used to work for years writing historical textbooks,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home. “I’m kind of ashamed of that because kids hate those books, but it gave me a good sense of what the curriculum is.”
He took the work because it was a writing job and he was being paid to research, which he loved to do. “But I also came to realize what a poor job these books do in trying to excite kids about history. History is filled with great stories, but these textbooks always leave out the story and focus on the names and the facts, and a lot of kids tell me how much they hate history class, and I can understand why.”
After leaving that job, he decided to write the kinds of historical books he wanted to read, and that has paid off well. He has now written four books for middle-school readers, and his last one, “Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon,” was published in 2012 and became a Newbery Honor Book and a National Book Award finalist.
‘The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights’
AUTHOR: Steve Sheinkin
PUBLISHED BY: Roaring Brook Press (208 pages)
HOW MUCH: $19.99
RELATED EVENTS: Book signing 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Northshire Bookstore, 424 Broadway, Saratoga Springs
His newest book, “The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights,” tells the story of a massive explosion that rocked a California Navy base in 1944, killing more than 300 sailors and eventually bringing about the largest mutiny trial ever in the U.S. Navy.
“What excited me about this book was how dramatic it was, and that it is known by very few people,” he said. “More than 300 sailors died in that explosion. Today that would be an enormous story, but in the context of World War II it wasn’t as big a deal as it should have been.”
As he researched this story, Sheinkin began to see the event as pivotal in the early history of the civil rights movement.
“The 50 African-American sailors who refused to work after that explosion because of the unsafe working conditions were taking a stand,” he said. “They were demanding to be treated with respect, which is something we all expect and that many of us often take for granted.”
In his research, he discovered many African-American men joined the Navy for better rights. “That was the dominant theme in their life — to be treated with respect and fairness,” he said.
He also gained a much greater appreciation for the integrity of NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall.
“Marshall could see early on this mutiny case was really about the racist policies of the U.S. Navy,” he said, “but he also knew there was no way the Navy defense attorney for the 50 men would ever agree to bring racism into that trial case.”
Marshall did what he could to help the Port Chicago 50 get as fair a trial as they could at the time. “But this was 1944 and the mainstream press was not interested in civil rights as a topic, which explains why this trial and this event soon became such a footnote to history,” said Sheinkin.
It takes him about 18 months to write one of his books. “I love all the research,” he said. ”It’s like detective work. I’m following clues from one source to another. I could sit and read historic documents all day. I also love to travel and interview people about whatever the topic is.”
Like many other writers, he struggles with the actual sitting down to face that blank page.
“I’ll usually research a topic for six months,” Sheinkin said, “and I could just keep on going, but I know that blank page is waiting for me. It’s hard for me to start the books, and every book takes four or five different beginnings before I find the right one. I should know by now the first few are always wrong.”
He is happy to be living in Saratoga Springs. “Most of my family is in the New York City area, and my wife and I and our two kids were living in Brooklyn, but we wanted to buy a house and have more of an outdoor life. “
His wife grew up in Albany, so he was familiar with the area. “We looked around at a few places and we liked Saratoga a lot. As a writer I needed to see the library and the Saratoga Library was perfect. I spend most days there. It’s like my office. It’s a really comfortable place, and my kids also love it.”
His advice to would-be nonfiction writers is to find a story exciting to you. “If you’re not passionate about your subject, then it’s just words on a page.”
What excites him now is visiting schools to talk about stories from the past, like the African-American sailors accused of mutiny in 1944.
“I’m also well into the research of my next book about Daniel Ellsberg, the infamous leaker of the Pentagon Papers,” he said. “A lot of people have forgotten him, but with the story of Edward Snowden and the NSA spying, it’s a topic in history that needs to be revisited.”