2015 Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults: An Interview with finalist Steve Sheinkin

yalsa nonfiction finalistThe YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18) during a Nov. 1 – Oct. 31 publishing year. The award winner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Join us for a live webcast of the YMA Awards press conference or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter or Facebook to be among the first to know the 2015 winners. The official hashtag for the 2015 Youth Media Awards is  #ALAyma.

Steve Sheinkin has written screenplays, made films, edited and written textbooks, and now he writes full time, creating some of the most fascinating  and fun to read nonfiction books for people of any age. These books include The Notorious Benedict Arnold : A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery (winner of the 2012 YALSA Award for Excellent in Nonfiction award) and BOMB: The Race to Build -and Steal- The World’s Most Dangeous Weapon (winner of the 2013 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction award, as well as a National Book Award finalist, a Newbery honor book, and a Robert A. Siebert medalist) His book The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights is a finalist this year for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.


Congratulations on being a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction finalist! What was your reaction on hearing the news? Will you be attending ALA Midwinter in Chicago? Going to the YALSA Award program and presentation?

Thanks so much! Of course, it was very exciting to get the news that The Port Chicago 50 was a finalist. I always become pretty obsessed with the stories I’m researching, but this one feels especially personal, because of the friends I’ve made along the way, and because I’m so glad to be helping to keep this story alive. I won’t be at ALA in Chicago, but will be following developments closely.

How did you first hear about men who were the Port Chicago 50? Was it through Robert Allen’s book or some other way? (I read on your blog about Mr. Allen; thank you for introducing me to his work.) 

I first heard of the story while researching a previous book, Bomb. My brother–in-law, Eric, told me about this wacky conspiracy theory – in short, that the first atomic test was not in New Mexico in 1945, as recorded in official history, but actually in a place called Port Chicago, California, a year earlier. It sounded crazy, so of course I was interested. I started researching, and quickly found out that the true story behind the disastrous explosion and subsequent civil rights showdown at Port Chicago was far better than any Internet theory. My research quickly led to Robert Allen’s work, and his willingness to share the interviews he did with participants back in the 1970s gave me priceless material to work with.

How do you write history for young people? As opposed to writing for adults, I mean; do you have to make concessions?

No, I definitely don’t think in terms of concessions. I find stories that I hope will appeal to a wide range of readers, including me as a teenager, and then I try to tell the stories in a direct, fast-paced, and engaging way. The only thing to keep in mind is that many subjects in history will be new to many young readers, so some background is usually needed. Balancing that need for context with the need to keep the narrative speeding forward is definitely the hardest part of the job.

It’s fun to read your “Walking and Talking” comics on your blog. Have you always drawn? Do you think you will ever create a graphic novel historical nonfiction book?

Thanks, I love doing those comics. Yes, I’ve always drawn comics – I remember one time in high school when my biology teacher saw a comic I’d done about him. It was sort of making fun of a boring lecture, but his main reaction was, “Hey, I have more hair than that!” I’d love to tell some historical tales in the graphic novel format – I love what folks like Nathan Hale and George O’Connor are doing. I could see someday teaming up with an artist to create some kind of series… who knows?

What is next for you? Can you tell us what project you are working on now that has you most excited?

My new book, which will be out in September, is Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. The subject, obviously, is the Vietnam War, and at the center of the action is this brilliant young Pentagon insider, Daniel Ellsberg, who starts off as a hard-core Cold Warrior. He sees the war from the inside, spends time in Vietnam, gradually turns against the war, and decides to risk everything to try to end it. He’s the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers – the top secret documents that exposed years of government lies about the Vietnam – to the New York Times. He’s still around, and is often interviewed about the more recent bombshell leaker story, that of Edward Snowden. Anyway, the book’s going to be kind of similar to Bomb, in terms of being a big, fast, complex, morally ambiguous thriller, with lots going on at once. At least, that’s what I’m going for! And after that, a complete change of pace – a great underdog sports story from the early 1900s.

Thanks to Mr. Sheinkin for taking the time to answer The Hub’s questions.

~Geri Diorio, currently reading The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins