This post is part II of our four-part series on this year’s finalists for our annual Children’s History Book Prize. Join us here on our History Detectives blog over the next few weeks as we meet the authors and learn more about their amazing books. Read all four finalists, then help us choose the prizewinner by voting for your favorite in our online poll! Polls open the week of April 30. The winning author receives a $10,000 prize! Learn about the process of choosing the book prize winner.
This week, we’re joined by author Steve Sheinkin to discuss his book Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Jim Thorpe, once considered “the best athlete on the planet,” is not a sportsman that most kids know about. How did you first learn of this remarkable character and what made you want to tell his story?
Steve Sheinkin: I always wanted to write a sports book—but it had to be the right story. It had to have that edge-of-your-seat game action and tell a deeper story, something bigger about American history. The story of Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle football team has all that and more. As a kid, I knew the name Jim Thorpe and that he was this great Native American athlete, but not much more. A few years ago, I came across a short article in Smithsonian magazine, mainly about Jim’s Olympic gold medals being unjustly taken from him, but there was this one-sentence reference to him being part of a groundbreaking football team. That part I’d never heard of! So I jumped into the research and knew very quickly it was a story I wanted to tell for young adults.
DCHM: Thorpe played (and excelled in!) many different sports during his lifetime but you chose to devote the majority of your book to the years when he played football for the Carlisle Indian School. What did you want kids to learn about Thorpe from that time in his life?
SS: I focus on the rise of the Carlisle football team partly because I think football was Jim’s favorite, and arguably best, sport. But even more than that because it’s an all-time great story of perseverance and triumph against the odds. The team started out with no coach, no uniforms, and a field they had to build themselves between classes. They played the hardest schedule in the nation, with all their big games on the road—no college football power would come to their tiny campus. And everywhere they went, they faced Native American stereotypes—opposing crowds would chant “war whoops,” and newspapers would depict them in cartoons with feathers in their hair and hatchets in their hands. Still, Jim Thorpe and his teammates set their sights on becoming the best football team in the country. It was an impossible goal—but they did it.
DCHM: Football is played very differently today than football was played during Thorpe’s time, and some of the differences are mentioned in your book. What is the craziest thing that was allowed (or done) during the early days of football that is not allowed (or done) today?
SS: Basically, everything was allowed except the forward pass. Football was insanely violent in the late 1800s and early 1900s, even by today’s standards. Players would lock arms, and offense and defense would plow into each other like human wrecking balls—all without helmets or pads. Every play would end in a massive pile with guys punching and gouging each other. The major colleges only allowed the forward pass into the game because so many kids were getting seriously injured on the field—the hope was that passing would open things up and make the game “safer.” The Carlisle Indian team was the most innovative team in the country, and the first to see the potential of throwing the ball deep down the field. They made the game much faster and more entertaining.
DCHM: Photographs, newspaper articles, political cartoons, and more are used throughout your book. What kind of research did you do in order to find all those primary sources?
SS: The research process is sort of like nerdy detective work, as I tell kids when I visit schools. I love that part of the work, and there was no shortage of material. During Carlisle’s glory years, 1907 to 1912, they were the most famous and, arguably, most popular football team in the country. Using newspaper archives, I basically followed Jim Thorpe and his teammates around the country—I’d look at their schedule for a given year, then go from city to city with them as they played Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Penn, Princeton, Harvard, Army. One of the main things I wanted to do in the book was recreate the game action. There’s no film of the games, but there are lots of articles and box scores, as well as the quotes from the players. All of that helped me recreate the atmosphere and action of Carlisle’s big games.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical nonfiction?
SS: Well, let’s face it, lots of kids think history is boring. I’m convinced that’s due to the fact that history textbooks really are boring. I should know, I used to write them! Sorry. But history, real history, is made up of dramatic stories about people in different times and places—it’s never boring. So I think young people should read narrative nonfiction in part because it’s entertaining. And also, it makes you smarter, helps you understand the world better, and shows you perspectives you may not have considered. It’s one of those rare things that tastes good and is good for you.
DCHM: What three words best describe Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team?
SS: Surprising, infuriating, inspiring
–Shana Fung, DiMenna Children’s History Museum