The best history books to evoke “who knew?”

Who am I?

I’m an author of YA fiction who spent his earlier years “wiggling dollies” (as the Brits say) in the trenches of Jim Henson’s Muppet world and then spent a decade writing children’s television of the PBS kind. After writing my first kids’ novel (Out of Patience), I never looked back. OK, I did glance back for the inspiration for a second novel…

I wrote...

Suck It Up

By Brian Meehl,

Book cover of Suck It Up

What is my book about?

While writing for a kids’ TV series, The Magic School Bus, I became amused by the level of political correctness and censorship for children. It led me to the question: “What will be the last minority to be recognized and embraced by our multicultural society?” My answer: vampires. They’re a persecuted bunch with special needs, and they suffer from the hate crime of staking.

Suck it Up is the story of a teenage boy, Morning McCobb, who’s a rather wimpy vampire; he drinks a soy-blood substitute called Blood Lite. Morning is selected as the first Undead American to come out of the casket and prove that vampires are citizen worthy. Of course, he falls in love with a mortal girl, triggering his baser instincts, and the troubles begin.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation

Why did I love this book?

In 1907, at the Carlisle Indian School (Carlisle, PA), a scrappy Native American football team coached by Pop Warner invented the passing game and revolutionized the game of football as it was being played by the Ivy League schools with deadly results. (So many players were dying from injuries, President Teddy Roosevelt almost banned the game in 1905.) Sally Jenkins’ book is eye-opening history that throws open the doors to the Carlisle Indian School and grippingly tells the story of how the “Carlisle Redmen,” as they were called, became the darling of the nation, and eventually took on Harvard in a legendary 1912 game pitting two young running backs against each other: Jim Thorpe and Dwight Eisenhower.

If you’re a football fan and/or have an interest in Native American history, this book entertains with Pop Warner’s famous trick plays (e.g., the “hidden ball trick”) and the Harvard boys performing the first “endzone dance,” and illuminates as Jenkins presents the historical milieu and racism Native Americans faced while the Carlisle Indians were winning fans and changing hearts.

I found this non-fiction jewel so riveting, it inspired me to write my first historical fiction novel.

By Sally Jenkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Real All Americans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sally Jenkins, bestselling co-author of It's Not About the Bike, revives a forgotten piece of history in The Real All Americans. In doing so, she has crafted a truly inspirational story about a Native American football team that is as much about football as Lance Armstrong's book was about a bike.

If you’d guess that Yale or Harvard ruled the college gridiron in 1911 and 1912, you’d be wrong. The most popular team belonged to an institution called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Its story begins with Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, a fierce abolitionist who believed that Native Americans…

Book cover of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Why did I love this book?

For me, the “Who knew?” of this true tale of the sea cuts through the mists of the past three ways. 1) How the island of Nantucket in the 1800s became an enclave of pacifist Quakers practicing the bloody art of whaling is a story by itself. 2) The whale always swimming under the surface—should you have read Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby Dick—is of Melville being inspired by the story of the Essex taking on the wrong whale. 3) The book also reads like a non-fiction sequel to Moby Dick as it details the desperate ordeal the surviving crew members of the Essex faced—and what they eventually ate—during their epic journey across the Pacific in search of land.

No “fish story,” In the Heart of the Sea gets to the heart of human perseverance.

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked In the Heart of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The epic true-life story of one of the most notorious maritime disasters of the nineteenth century - and inspiration for `Moby-Dick' - reissued to accompany a major motion picture due for release in December 2015, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker and Cillian Murphy.

When the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in 1819, the unthinkable happened. A mere speck in the vast Pacific ocean - and powerless against the forces of nature - Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale, and her twenty crewmen were forced to take to the open sea…

Book cover of Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had

Why did I love this book?

Are you a baseball fan who grumbles about modern players being overpaid and coddled? If so, this book will transport you to baseball’s roughest epoch, and reward you with a ballbag of “Who knew?”s as to how the game was played and fought in the late 1800s. Back then, a different species of men took the field, men who would not recognize our 21st-century diamond dancers, who slip on gloves for every occasion: catching, batting, even sliding.

A quick sampler of Who Knew?s. In 1884, an ump commanded, “Striker-up!” A pitcher could hit a batter as many times as he wanted, and the batter had to take it. The pitcher could be fined for such abuse, but the only way a batter got to first was by hitting the ball. A pitcher could “twirl the sphere” and baffle the hitter until the pitches “twisted his mental trolley.” A twisted mental trolley could lead to a player having “a case of the sulks.“ The “dudes and dudines” in the stands called offending players “white-livered boobies!” The team that won the pennant “captured the rag.”

The hero of this story of yore is Hoss Radbourn, a ballplayer who pitched a season like no other, and whose exploits off the field were just as jaw-dropping when baseball was played, managed, and owned by a league of sinners. It would take another seventy-five years of cleaning up the game before baseball was sanctified: “As American as baseball, Mom, and apple pie.”

By Edward Achorn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fifty-Nine in '84 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"First-class narrative history that can stand with everything Steven Ambrose wrote. . . . Achorn's description of the utter insanity that was barehanded baseball is vivid and alive." —Boston Globe

“A beautifully written, meticulously researched story about a bygone baseball era that even die-hard fans will find foreign, and about a pitcher who might have been the greatest of all time.” — Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer prize-winning historian

In 1884 Providence Grays pitcher Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn won an astounding fifty-nine games—more than anyone in major-league history ever had before, or has since. He then went on to win all…

Book cover of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Why did I love this book?

The Benjamin Franklin most of us know—from the bullet points of our schooling to the placid face on the one-hundred-dollar bill—is a stick figure compared to the flesh-and-blood Ben Franklin who leaps from the pages of this book like a Tasmania devil. Yes, Franklin is one of the more famous of our founding fathers, but he’s lesser known for being the father of a bastard, William Franklin, who fathered his own bastard, William Temple Franklin, who went on to become his grandfather’s secretary in the decades Ben Franklin spent in England and France as America’s diplomat before and during the War of Independence.

Isaac’s biography constantly reveals truths behind the legend. Who knew 16-year-old Franklin became a prodigal son when he fled his brother’s Boston printshop (where he was bound as an apprentice) and ran away to Philadelphia? Who knew young Franklin was such an excellent swimmer that a swimming buddy almost convinced him to go on tour to do aquatic exhibitions and teach? Who knew that Franklin, the scientist who liked to play with lightning, discovered the Gulf Stream, Nor’easters, and as the colonies’ deputy postmaster initiated the first home delivery of mail? Franklin’s list of firsts is just one of the many threads in this beautifully woven Persian carpet of a book.

What’s most impressive is how the Ben Franklin of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment comes across as so utterly modern that if he walked out of the book into the 21st century, he would fit right in. Part of his modernity is that the life he lived created a particularly American concept: the full-on celebrity. As well as a polymath, Ben Franklin was America’s first superstar. Who knew?

By Walter Isaacson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benjamin Franklin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During his 84-year life Benjamin Franklin was America's best scientist, inventor, publisher, business strategist, diplomat, and writer. He was also one of its most practical political thinkers. America's first great publicist, he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public and polished it for posterity. In this riveting new biography Walter Isaacson provides readers with a full portrait of Franklin's public and private life - his loyal but neglected wife, his bastard son with whom he broke over going to war with England, his endless replacement families and his many amorous, but probably unconsummated, liaisons. But this is not…


By William Least Heat-Moon,

Book cover of PrairyErth

Why did I love this book?

The “deep map” that Least Heat-Moon unfolds for us in this revelatory book is the history of Chase County, Kansas, home of the largest and least corrupted stand of tallgrass in America. He takes us with him—by car, on foot, and in mind—as he explores this story-rich land, its plants, animals, and the homespun people who have struggled to occupy this forbidding landscape.

In one breath, he reminds us it was the tall grasses of the African savannah that first made humankind stand up. In another, he tells us that the humans who peer across America’s tall grasses have “prairie eyes.” In “a place where you see twenty miles sitting down,” you have prairie eyes if you take in the horizon with stoic calm, knowing it can bring the deliverance of rain or the destruction of a tornado, dust storm, prairie fire (the “red buffalo”), or locusts. 

Least Heat-Moon reports affectionately of the people who refused to let the elements evict them from the windswept prairie. Some neighbors—which may be miles away—are considered “a half bubble off plumb.” But neighborly they are. My favorite anecdote is about a woman who lost her husband to a tornado, along with her dentures. A couple of years later, a neighbor riding his horse found some dentures on a rock. Remembering the widow’s loss, he mailed the dentures to her in Oklahoma where she had moved. She wrote back, thanked him, and told him they still fit just fine.

The author writes, “Indians widely believe that the past belongs to everyone, but only the proper storyteller can open it.” Least Heat-Moon is such a storyteller. He “walks in the stories of this place” and regales us with a deep narrative of a travel writer achieving the ultimate goal: he makes us want to go there.

By William Least Heat-Moon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked PrairyErth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER. By the author of Blue Highways, PrairyErth is “a majestic survey of land and time and people in a single county of the Kansas plains” (Hungry Mind Review).

William Least Heat-Moon travels by car and on foot into the core of our continent, focusing on the landscape and history of Chase County—a sparsely populated tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills of central Kansas—exploring its land, plants, animals, and people until this small place feels as large as the universe.

Called a “modern-day Walden” by the Chicago Sun-Times, PrairyErth is a journey through place, through time, and…

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