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Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Kenneth C. Davis

Stacey Hayman

Lucky for us, our current author is a man who likes to hop into the endless rabbit hole of odd and fascinating facts. Having written multiple best-selling books on a wide range of topics, Kenneth C. Davis has proven he knows how to catch — and keep — the attention of all ages. When readers take a pause between titles, they might catch Mr. Davis as a guest on any number of public radio’s shows or illuminating some hidden history on a TED- Ed video. Inspired by good questions and his own sense of curiosity, Mr. Davis began his writing career more than thirty-five years ago and has loved every minute of it. Splitting time between his home in New York City and vacation spots in Maine, the author and his wife Joann enjoy time with their two adult children and two grand daughters, Kit and Archer, both book lovers.

SH: When I was a teenager, people would describe me as a: (jock, band geek, popular, goth, other, none?)
KCD: Hmmmm, never been asked that! Perhaps “clean-cut hippie?” It was the Sixties and early Seventies, after all.

SH: The best/worst thing that happened to you in high school?
KCD: Best: joining the Ski Club and learning to ski on weekend trips. Worst: I now believe my high school guidance counselor had me confused with another person and told me that I didn’t have very good college prospects. I wasn’t encouraged to aim very high, and I didn’t apply to college, preferring to take what is now called a “gap year.” But I went back to school, and am very pleased with how things worked out.

SH: Favorite childhood book? Favorite food? Favorite band or album? Favorite television show?
KCD: Childhood book: It was called Minute Biographies – a collection of one-page profiles of famous people throughout history. I read that book over and over again. Clearly, it made me love stories of real people.
Favorite food: A staple meal in our household is a simple pasta Bolognese, made with ground turkey and diced vegetables. I think that is my family’s favorite and mine.
Band: Probably the Beatles and if I have to name just one album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Childhood favorite TV show: Jeopardy –much more fun than school—and the Little Rascals.

SH: Is there a story from your childhood that is told most often, either by you *or* about you?
KCD: The story most repeated in our household–especially at Christmastime—is the tale of how we lost a Christmas tree from the roof of our car. It wasn’t funny at the time, but it is now.

SH: Was there any class in high school you regret paying too little, or too much, attention? If you could add one class to high schools across the country, what would be the topic?
KCD: I took an Introduction to Film Making –this is of course during the pre-video age – and I am sorry it was only a half-year course, a senior-year elective. I am also sorry I did not take advantage of a photography class in which I would have enjoyed learning the technical aspects of serious photography. I love photography and visit museums and galleries as often as I can. There is also much history in photography as well. To see the WPA work of Berenice Abbott, Lewis Hine’s child labor photographs, or the Depression-era work of Dorothea Lange makes history so vividly alive. A picture truly is worth a thousand words. I would add my favorite high school senior year class, the History of Film. We watched everything from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation to Italian Neo-Realists, French New Wave, great film versions of Shakespeare, and modern classics right up to The Graduate. (Remember this was the early Seventies!) We treated film as literature and had to write brief film “reviews” which was good experience for honing critical skills. And the experience made me a movie-lover for life.

SH: If you could be a character from any book ever written, who would you want to be? Why?
KCD: Wow, tough question. Ishmael from Moby Dick because he lives to tell the story? Perhaps David Copperfield because his triumph over so many personal setbacks was so vividly real to me, and the poignancy of the trouble he confronts, the people –good and bad—he
encounters, and the shaping of his character make him a singular fictional creation of universal appeal. It remains one of my favorite novels for its sweeping story and its perfectly detailed small moments of life.

SH: In addition to your books, is there anything you think everyone should be reading?
KCD: I think reading itself is what counts most. I know Joseph Conrad is a more controversial literary figure these days because he represents a “colonial” perspective. But something he wrote stays with me. The writer’s task, he said, is to “provide that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” We are lucky right now to have so many great historian-story tellers at work. I would always suggest David McCullough’s books, such as Mornings on Horseback, about young Theodore Roosevelt, or his book about the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas . Everyone should read The Diary of Anne Frank and Hiroshima. And of course, Charlotte’s Web, a perfect book
that I like to read aloud every few years.

SH: Do you have any favorite family traditions that might need some explanation to outsiders looking in? Do you remember how they started?
KCD: “Festivus” and the “Airing of the Grievances.” No seriously, my favorite family tradition was one that we did with our young children –now grown. That was cutting our own Christmas tree in Vermont where we once had a second home. We would carefully choose the tree and each of us would take a turn with the saw. The first lesson we learned was to cut a tree at the top of the hill—not the bottom. The first time we cut a tree, we had to lug it uphill through hip-deep snow. Not smart! I hope to revive that tradition with our granddaughters who live in  Maine.

SH: If you had an important secret or story to share, who would be the first person you’d turn to?
KCD: The first and only person would be my wife who also works very closely with me on all of my books.

SH: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
KCD: Bicyclists going the wrong way on New York’s dedicated bike lanes. That is very dangerous! That and airports.

SH: If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
KCD: Since going through airports is my true pet peeve, obviously being able to fly. No more emptying pockets and taking off shoes in long security lines.

SH: What three words would you use to describe yourself? What three words do you think other people would use to describe you?
KCD: Myself: Curious, affable, and knowledgeable. Others: Informative, entertaining, instructive.

SH: You are sitting down to dinner with five people, living or dead, who you find fascinating. Who is at the table and what are you eating?
KCD: Dead presidents are too obvious, but I would have to include Abraham Lincoln –a man who was a wonderful storyteller. Then Ben Franklin, Charles Dickens, Frida Kahlo, and Katherine Hepburn. We’d eat pasta Bolognese with an earthy Italian red wine.

SH: Do you have a phrase or motto that inspires you?
KCD: I used to believe that Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” He apparently did not, but is still a valuable saying. I also like “Facts are stubborn things.” –John Adams

SH: What one thing makes you feel happiest? What makes you sad? What scares you? What makes you laugh?
KCD: Being with my family, especially our two adorable granddaughters. The current state of the country makes me both sad and afraid.
Seinfeld still always makes me laugh. As does the Colin Firth episode of my guilty pleasure, Love Actually.

SH: A series of choices: Cats, dogs, birds, or other/no pets. Phone call, handwritten letter, or email? Save or spend? Salty or sweet? Stairs, escalator, or elevator? Big city, small town, or quiet country? Trains, planes, or automobiles? Eat out, order in, or cook a meal?
KCD: No pets. Animals should be free. Phone call (but keep it brief). Save. Sweet (chocolate chips, not potato chips –and I definitely don’t get sea salt chocolate chips.) Stairs. Big city, especially New York. Trains. Cook a meal.

SH: What did you buy with your first paycheck as an author? Was it a planned or an impulse purchase?
KCD: I don’t remember, but an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) was certainly one of them.

SH: When you sit down to write, what do you need around you? Do you prefer a certain time of day or is it more spontaneous? How do you approach the creative process?
KCD: I have my MacBook, the basic reference books on my shelves, and often coffee. I am up at 6 a.m., at the gym at 7 a.m., and like to start the work day with the New York Times (print edition) by about 9 a.m. and work until 1 p.m. The afternoon is for errands, a walk, and then usually more work time. The creative process: “Just do it.”

SH: If someone wrote a book about your life: who would you want as the author, what kind of book would it be, and what title would you give it?
KCD: If you are asking who my favorite biographers are, they would include David McCullough, W.H. Brands, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. If the question is who would be my greatest honor to have write about my life, I would have to say E. B. White, who was born in my hometown of Mt. Vernon, New York. He is the most affable and warm-hearted of writers. And Charlotte’s Web, as mentioned earlier, is one of the most perfect books ever written. I think the story of my life would be about a very average American kid whose parents were hard-working, blue-collar people but helped me to be curious about the world and to love reading. Title: “When You Don’t Know Much, Ask!”

SH: What’s the best, surprising question you’ve ever been asked?
KCD: “If someone wrote a book about your life: who would you want as the author, what kind of book would it be, and what title would you give it?”

SH: Finally, is there a question you wish someone would finally think to ask?
KCD: “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

In the Shadow of Liberty

SH: How did you select and research the five lives shared in this book?
KCD: In the Shadow of Liberty tells the stories of five people who were the legal property of four of America’s most famous founders: Billy Lee and Ona Judge, enslaved by George Washington; Isaac Granger, enslaved by Thomas Jefferson; Paul Jennings, enslaved by James
Madison; and Alfred Jackson, enslaved by Andrew Jackson. All five individuals held unique positions as members of the immediate households of these presidents- living with them “24/7,” as we would say. Billy Lee, for instance, was with George Washington every day of the American Revolution. Ona Judge was Martha Washington’s maid–dressing her, fixing her hair, and tending her every need. The lives of these individuals, as members of these households, were far better documented than the lives of the vast majority of enslaved people. They appear in letters and other accounts of the day. In some cases, we have their own recorded conversations and memoirs, which provided a
rich primary source for my research and that of many historians and biographers. Isaac Granger, for instance, who was born at Monticello around the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration, recounted his life to an interviewer, and offered one of the few physical descriptions of Sally Hemings, whose room at Monticello has recently been discovered. Paul Jennings was taken as an enslaved ten-year-old child to Washington, D.C. by James and Dolley Madison and later recorded the first-ever memoir of a person who served in the White House, including his eyewitness account of the burning of the White House. Jennings was in the room with Madison when he died. In other words, these are extraordinary accounts of people who witnessed the birth of the Republic from a perspective most history books leave out.

SH: What do you think might have been the biggest challenge of living during this time?
KCD: Let’s be clear. When we are discussing the utterly brutal system of slavery, we are talking about a vast abuse lasting centuries that denied the most basic human rights and relied upon torture, violence, and fear. For women, especially, it meant a life of rape, their children to be enslaved, too. Beyond the pure physical and psychological terror, the greatest challenge may have been the hopelessness of knowing there was no way out. An enslaved person caught by the roving slave patrols –“Pattyrollers” to enslaved people—without a pass, was to incur   beating. To attempt escape meant the harshest punishment –chains, the loss of a foot, whippings, being sold off, and sometimes death.
As free people, most Americans are blessed with many choices today. To be enslaved meant having none. Even though the people who served within the households of these presidents might have been better fed and clothed than other enslaved laborers and servants, they couldn’t
choose where to go, what to do, or whom to love. Even having a family was uncertain when a child or a husband could be sold on the whim of a master. At one point, George Washington auctioned off children, breaking up families, when he sold the estate of a man who owed him money. The five people I describe are also somewhat unique in that each achieved freedom –Billy Lee emancipated in Washington’s will,   Ona by escape, Isaac and Paul after their freedom was purchased, and Alfred by living through the Civil War to Emancipation. But they all  struggled daily for most of their lives without the “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” Americans celebrate but often take for granted.

SH: What do you think these men and women would have said was a highlight moment in his or her day, year, or life?
KCD: It would be very audacious or highly presumptuous on my part to speak to such a question. Isaac Granger does tell of the simple happiness of being with his wife and the birth of his children – although their ultimate fates are unknown. He also talked about being taken to Philadelphia by Jefferson as a teenager and learning the tinsmith trade – in a city where he had a glimpse of freedom. Paul Jennings spoke with pride of serving Madison. But was he merely saying what he was expected to say? For most enslaved laborers, there was one day off –Sunday—which was a day of worship, family, and time to hunt, fish, or farm for themselves; children might play with simple toys, like the
marbles found at Jackson’s Hermitage. For Paul Jennings, Sunday offered the only chance to see his wife and children, enslaved on another nearby plantation. Christmas was the only holiday for most. In the Shadow of Liberty recounts how Alfred Jackson, who was enslaved at Jackson’s Hermitage, went to a Christmas party where there was singing, dancing, and drinking. But a brawl broke out and a man was killed. Alfred and two other men enslaved at the Hermitage were charged with murder and tried –but acquitted.

SH: How do you think these political leaders, fighting for freedom, truly felt about enslaving others for personal reasons?
KCD: We can only look to the historical record for clues about what the Founders thought; they revealed little that was “personal” in the modern sense. Clearly, slavery was at odds with the ideals and principles for which they fought. We often hear the excuse offered today that the presidents who kept slaves were “men of their times” and that was the way of the world in which they lived – we shouldn’t judge them by “modern standards.” But Washington, Jefferson, and Madison certainly all knew that slavery was a contradiction to the Declaration’s ideals that they went to war for and clearly held dear. Washington wrote to another Founder, “no one wished more than I for a plan” to abolish slavery. Jefferson condemned the slave trade as the “execrable commerce” in his draft of the Declaration- a passage removed by Congress.
But here is the bottom line: they were completely dependent upon slavery for their fortunes and political power, and in the end, they failed to act on their stated moral principles. They found it difficult, if not impossible, to bring an end to slavery because it was at the center of the world in which they lived. All three hoped slavery would eventually die out, but in that, they were tragically mistaken. Andrew Jackson, by contrast, had no such moral qualms. He was a ferocious defender of slavery who believed it was legal and used his power as president to crush the abolition movement. He was the force behind the seizure of Native American lands to further spread slave-based cotton territory.

SH: What do you most want readers to think about (care about, and feel about) after reading this book?
KCD: More than anything, I hope that lives of Billy, Ona, Isaac, Paul, and Alfred help put a human face on a subject that is too often discussed in academic or legal terms – words like emancipation, amendments, abolition. These are terms that don’t convey the personal tragedy behind a great crime against humanity that was at the center of American history for centuries. I also hope readers come away with a new understanding of how central slavery was to our founding and shaping as a republic. Slavery was not a sideshow but a central act in the American drama. And finally, its grim legacy continues to haunt the arc of our history right up to the present day racial divide that cuts across America.

Don’t Know Much About (series)

SH: How did you get the idea for the first book in the series? Which book is your favorite -so far?
KCD: The first book in what became a series was Don’t Know Much About History, published in 1990. As I was writing it, there was much talk of “Cultural Illiteracy” and the “Closing of the American Mind.” Surveys had also begun to show how little students knew about the basics of our history and government. Or that many might fail a citizenship exam. That idea shook me because I have always loved history as real stories of real people—not the dull version dished out in textbooks or by academics who talk to one another in the Ivory Tower and leave the rest of us out of the conversation. I set out to write a book about American history that made it accessible, entertaining, and human. Too many people consider history “boring,” as they learn it as a series of dates and battles. But history is about real people doing real things. George Washington disobeying orders as a young soldier and overseeing a very significant massacre of French soldiers. Benedict Arnold, hero of the early Revolution, who suffered from an out-sized ego that led to his treachery. Columbus writing in his log books that he had found the Garden of Eden. These are human stories that get past the hokey “cherry tree history” we tell children. I also saw a need to erase the myths, whitewashing, and outright falsehoods many people have learned. I wanted to tell the stories our schoolbooks left out about significant and influential women like Anne Hutchinson, Native American leaders such as Tecumseh, or William Weatherford who went to war against Andrew Jackson, and African Americans like the five people at the center of In the Shadow of Liberty. Their stories are too important to ignore.
Favorite book? Most authors would say that’s like choosing favorite child. Can’t be done. But I suppose Don’t Know Much About History –since it was first and I do love American History—has always been my favorite in the series. But I am also especially proud of In the Shadow of Liberty. This most recent book is a culmination of much of my work for nearly thirty years of thinking about the great American Contradiction—that the nation was “conceived in liberty” but also born in shackles.

SH: Now that you’ve done research into so many historical eras, what other decade would you feel most comfortable living in?
KCD: As a historian, I know that few decades before very modern times were “comfortable.” The good old days were often terrible. For much of our history, the first thing women and children had to do every morning was light a fire and make sure that there was wood and water.
Cows had to be milked, butter had to be churned. Simple tasks to us—cooking, laundry, bathing—all involved hard work. We are a very spoiled generation. People who yearn for a “simpler time” are indulging in a form of nostalgia. You can’t even go “wilderness camping” these days with seeing a sign that “wi-fi” is available. But if I had to choose a decade in which to live, the period from 1787 –being present at the Constitutional Convention—and then in New York and Philadelphia for Washington’s presidency would have been extraordinary to witness. Imagine Franklin’s Philadelphia dinner table in 1787 as Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and a few others sit around drinking
interesting port while hashing out the Constitution. Or a Washington Cabinet meeting with Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton arguing the country’s future. Or maybe sailing with the marines Jefferson sent to challenge the Barbary Coast pirates. I have always been a sucker for pirates!

SH: Are the books focusing on science or geography easier or harder to create than the history books? What other subjects are you interested in adding to the collection?
KCD: I’ve always focused on subjects in which I am inherently interested and have curiosity about –as well as thinking they are topics we all need to understand. That said, Don’t Know Much About the Universe was probably the most challenging in the respect that I was less grounded in that science. But it was still a pleasure to research and as a child of the Space Age, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Trek (the original!), I’ve always been fascinated by outer space and science fiction.
I’ve recently taken a break and moved away from the Q-and-A format of the Don’t Know Much About series to focus on nonfiction narrative. Both of my next two scheduled books coming from Holt and aimed at young adult readers are in that format—narrative nonfiction with an emphasis on storytelling. One potential Don’t Know Much About book I would consider is the general subject of civics, government, and the Supreme Court –because they are so important to our nation and so misunderstood.

SH: What’s the most surprising fact you’ve discovered? How often do you find yourself sharing that fact with strangers?
KCD: Wow, there have been so many that fill my books. Did you know that the first Pilgrims were French people in Florida fifty years before the Mayflower? Or that Paul Revere was court-martialed for cowardice? Or that Columbus thought the world was pear-shaped? These are all pieces of our hidden history and always good for conversation-starters. Lately, I have focused on the discovery that George Washington broke the law and did not tell the truth about keeping enslaved people in Philadelphia where they might be freed due to Pennsylvania law. Or that he purchased teeth from enslaved people at Mount Vernon to use in his own mouth as false teeth.

SH: Do people try to stump you with obscure or random facts? Has anyone’s random fact made it into one of your books?
KCD: Once I sat down in a National Public Radio studio and was told that the show was called “Stump the Geographer.” For the next hour, I was grilled by callers who were out to humble me while they were asked softball questions from my book like “Are there canaries in the Canary Islands?” I can proudly say I held my own. But actually, I find that more people want to hear the real stories I tell than are out to play “gotcha.”

America’s Hidden History (series)

SH: How do you decide what historical information is hidden enough for you to write about?
KCD: That’s an interesting and important question. I tend to use my own surprise of discovery as a litmus test of what others may not know. I am a curious person who likes to travel to out–of- the- way places and poke around forts, museums, battlegrounds, and historic houses. I spend a lot of time reading and researching, both at libraries and historical sites. It is often the accidental discovery: finding a collection of Columbus’s log books on a library shelf; or coming across Fort Matanzas –from the Spanish word for “slaughters” – near St. Augustine, Florida where the Spanish executed some of the French “pilgrims” I mentioned earlier in a religious bloodbath. They provide that “Aha! moment” when I realize, “They didn’t tell me that in school.” The key questions I start with are: Is it interesting and is it important? Is it a piece of information or a story that turns what we think we know on its head. Wait! Thomas Jefferson was almost captured by Benedict Arnold in 1781? Washington recovered thousands of enslaved people who were with the British at Yorktown?

SH: Where do you go for your research? How do you determine the accuracy of your sources?
KCD: In the age of “fake news,” this issue is more important than ever. The Internet has opened up an extraordinary world of primary source documents, images, and information that was once much more restricted. Historical sites –such as the presidential houses—are all generally rich sources, but they weren’t always reliable as they once had an agenda of inspiring pride and patriotism. Lately, however, they have come a long way in terms of reckoning with the role of slavery in these presidents’ lives in an honest and more balanced approach. And that’s a
healthy thing. I always look for primary sources and then turn to trusted books, preferably of recent publication. Libraries –public and online—are an increasingly valuable source, as they make more material available through the Internet, which has proved a mixed blessing. While providing access, online research has also opened up a Pandora’s Box—you can check out that story in Don’t Know Much About Mythology—and I always tell students that just because it is on a computer screen doesn’t mean it is true. Document, source, and then double and triple check the documentation and sourcing.

SH: Do you have much input when images are selected for the cover or for inclusion inside your books?
KCD: Yes, I have considerable input. In fact, I chose all of the images for In the Shadow of Liberty –many of which are in the public domain and some of which are my own photographs taken on research trips.

SH: What topic are you planning to tackle next? Are there any ideas on your list that you think might surprise your readers?
KCD: The next book, scheduled for May 2018, is More Deadly Than War –an account of the twin catastrophes of the Spanish flu and World War I, which engulfed America and the world simultaneously 100 years ago. The war killed an estimated fifteen to twenty million people, but the Spanish flu killed nearly 700,000 Americans and as much as 5 percent of the world population –possibly as many as 100 million people. These stories are completely linked, but the Spanish flu’s devastation fell into the black hole of American history and was left out of many accounts of World War I. But this global pandemic was completely connected to the war and its conclusion in November 1918.
After that, I will write about Native American history through the stories of individuals who were taken captive –both settlers captured by American Indians, and Indians held by Europeans and Americans. Did you know the famed “Squanto,” as he is widely known, had been captured and enslaved by English sailors? That is how he spoke such good English when the Pilgrims arrived. I want to tell these human stories to put a face on another horrible chapter from America’s past that is grossly misunderstood and mythologized.

SH: Do you ever get student papers or author manuscripts sent to you for fact-checking? If so, do you do it? If not, would you be interested in doing either option? (Can you read historical fiction without wanting to send the author a few corrections?)
KCD: I have received a few requests for help, but simply can’t accommodate them while I do answer an occasional query. I would much rather send students to the library which is where I learned to write and do research. My favorite way to interact with students is through my
classroom visits via Skype. Since 2011, I have “virtually visited” hundreds of classrooms around the country and the world. I usually speak for a few minutes and then take questions. I am constantly amazed and impressed by the curiosity and enthusiasm for history I hear in these sessions with middle school and high school classes. It has been an exhilarating learning experience for me and you can learn more about it on my website, http://dontknowmuch.com [1] where there is a CONTACT PAGE for teachers, librarians, and others to get in touch with me.
While I have just begun reading All the Light We Cannot See – set during World War II—I have read very little historical fiction lately. I think it is a great way to get young readers interested in the past. I was very much intrigued and influenced by The Killer Angels, the great novel of Gettysburg, and Gore Vidal’s Burr – books that are both entertaining and often accurate. But I always remind students and other readers that fiction means some of it is made up.

Kenneth C. Davis Online

Twitter. http://www.twitter.com/kennethcdavis [2]

Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/kendavisdontknowmuch [3]

Don’t Know Much About. http://dontknowmuch.com [1]

YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/user/dkmahistory [4]

In Depth with Kenneth Davis on C Span. https://www.c-span.org/video/?308705-1/depth-kenneth-davis [5]

Books by Kenneth C. Davis

In the Shadow of Liberty. Henry Holt, 2016. 286p. $17.99. 978-1-6277-9311-7. VOYA August 2016. 4Q 3P J S
Don’t Know Much About series for children
The 50 States
The Pilgrims
The Presidents
The Solar
Don’t Know Much About series for adults
The American Presidents
The Bible
The Civil War
Anything Else
America’s Hidden History series
America at War
A Nation Rising
America’s Hidden History

Stacey Hayman may not be a young adult (librarian) anymore but she loves to read (just about) all the books written for teens. Reading and reviewing teen and adult books for VOYA, Library Journal, and Booklist, Hayman has also been chair of VOYA‘s Nonfiction Honor List, a member of ALA’s Notable Book Council, and AAUP Book Selection Committee. She’s also co-authored a book, Better Serving Teens through School Library-Public Library Collaborations (Libraries Unlimited, 2013). When she’s not waiting for her next review book to arrive, you might catch her looking for trouble in all the wrong (or right?) places. (Suggestions on where to look next are always welcome!)

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