A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
FEBRUARY 25:

  • Happy birthday Cynthia Voigt (Dicey’s Song, A Solitary Blue), True Kelley (Claude Monet: Sunshine and Waterlilies), Iain Lawrence (The Giant-Slayer), and Woodleigh Hubbard (C Is for Curious).
  • It’s the birth date of Frank Bonham (1914–1988) Durango Street, and Anthony Burgess (1917–1993), A Clockwork Orange.
  • It’s the 25th Annual Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Read Home on the Range: Cowboy Poetry selected by Paul B. Janeczko, illustrated by Bernie Fuchs; Cowboy Slim by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Margot Apple; and Cowboy Kate and Cocoa by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Betsy Lewin.

In February we celebrate American History Month. When I was a child, I was almost exclusively educated about American history through a series of books, with reddish-orange spines, that told stirring tales about our heroes and heroines. The series was Landmark Books, with titles such as Sterling North’s Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to the White House. I still remember how these books smelled and their exact place, two shelves down, in my school library. As an adult I have revisited these titles and found them a bit wanting in terms of scholarship—but these writers knew how to create scenes, drama, and characters. They made history exciting.

When I picked up Steve Sheinkin’s recent book The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery, I was reminded of why the Landmark Books worked so well. But in this case, Sheinkin has done his research. He has a fine scholarly grasp, great sources, and effective footnotes. Sheinkin reveals Benedict Arnold as a man of action and adventure.

Now, I admit, I love the bad boys of history—always have, always will. (Don’t ever get me started on Richard III.) So Arnold is a personal favorite, and I have read scores of books about him. Both Jim Murphy and Jean Fritz have written great Arnold biographies for children, but The Notorious Benedict Arnold adds something new to what is available. Arnold was always restless when not in the height of action, and so is his biographer. Sheinkin begins his saga with the hanging of another one of our bad boys—John André. He quickly moves through Arnold’s early years and follows him out on the battlefield. Readers watch Arnold seize Fort Ticonderoga “in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress”—what a line. He hacks his way through the wilderness in an attempt to capture Quebec. He outsmarts the British fleet in the Battle of Valcour Island. In his greatest moment Arnold defies General Gates’s orders and helps the Patriots win the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point in the American Revolution because it brought French aid for the Americans.

Although Sheinkin doesn’t try to glamorize Arnold during these triumphs, neither does he demonize him. Readers can see Arnold as his contemporaries viewed him—a man of action, who gave money, his physical health, and everything he had for the American cause. Had Arnold decided to accept Washington’s offer to lead half of the Continental army, he would be revered today and might well even have become president. Sheinkin does not dwell on the reasons why Arnold became a traitor, but he plays out in full measure the dramatic scene of Arnold’s attempt to hand over West Point, with George Washington present, to the British.

If you have young readers ages ten to fourteen who love American history with military action and adventure, The Notorious Benedict Arnold will keep them enthralled from the striking jacket cover to the final lines. It reminds all of us that history can be exciting and fun to read. That is what I learned from the Landmark Books—and once again from Steve Sheinkin.

Here’s a passage from The Notorious Benedict Arnold:

The night was dark and moonless. Each captain lit a low flame in a lantern and covered the sides of the lantern with cloth, making the faint light visible only from directly behind. One lantern was hung at the back of each boat. The men wrapped shirts around the ships’ oars to muffle their sound, and, very gently, dipped the oars into the lake.

Colonel Edward Wigglesworth led the way, and the other captains followed in single file, each guided by the dim light on the boat ahead. Amazed and breathless as he glided past the British ships, Wigglesworth could easily hear sailors talking, carpenters hammering. “We rowed out clear of the enemy without being discovered,” he said.

Arnold, on the Congress, was the last to leave.

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Originally posted February 25, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Adventure, History, Revolutionary War
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Notorious Benedict Arnold
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COMMENTS

  1. Heidi Grange says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said. This book reads as close to fiction as any nonfiction book I’ve ever read and yet the end notes make it clear that the author did his homework and did it thoroughly. Now I just need to use the book to convince my students that history is not as boring as they think it is. This book provides a great beginning. Thanks for the great info.

  2. Karen Boss says:

    I wrote a paper last semester about this book focusing on the narration. It is so clever; Sheinkin has created a narrator who jumps in occasionally with a comment or remark that adds to the text and makes the information more rich. When Sheinkin spoke at the Horn Book at Simmons program last October when he won the Nonfiction Boston Globe Horn Book Award, he talked about being a former text book writer who wasn’t allowed to write copy would reach out, grab kids, and pull them in – he was frustrated by the censorship-like concern about what gets presented to American schoolchildren in their texts. So he started writing his own history books so kids could get the whole story (and the whole story is usually a lot more interesting than any other version of the story – right?). I’ve read King George What was his Problem?:The Whole Hilarious Story of the Revolution and Which Way to the Wild West and both were TREATS! I hope he continues to write – these books are no joke with the amount of research they require. He provides something to children’s books that is unusual and wonderful!

  3. Allison Cole says:

    I also read orange history books as a child– they were biographies, though, and I’m not able to find whether or not they were part of the Landmark series. I gravitated toward the women– Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Florence Nightingale, as I remember. Even though I’ve never made history a primary focus of my studies, I’m reminded by those books and by Sheinkin’s how much I enjoy reading it. Like Karen, I also got to hear Steve Sheinkin speak at the Horn Book Awards, and his enthusiasm was truly infectious. Lucky readers of this book will find, as you’ve noted, that this same enthusiasm and liveliness carries over into the book. It really was a pleasure to read.

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