In his acceptance speech at the 2011Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, Steve Sheinkin explained that he wanted The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery (2010, Macmillian) to be “a no-nonsense, non-fiction page turner; a straight-ahead action thriller.” Boy, did he succeed!
The Notorious Benedict Arnold filled in many blanks in my knowledge of the American Revolution. Sheinkin tells the story of Arnold’s entire, adventure-filled life. Arnold was a decisive leader, and he played a key role in many of the early battles of the Revolution. By choosing to tell Arnold’s story as a narrative, Sheinkin allows his readers to know Arnold as a person and understand his motivation for betraying his country.
Sheinkin knows what historians since the time of Herodotus have known: “We make sense of out of the world by telling stories.” (Robert Burton, M.D., Nautilus) Or, as historian William Cronon writes in A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative, “Narrative remains essential to our understanding of history and the human place in natue.” Sheinkin’s narrative will help any reader make sense of one of the most notorious figures in American history.
If narrative history can give us a better understanding of events, pairing a non-fiction text with fiction can deepen that understanding even further. Teachers have long known that “fact enriches fiction and fiction makes facts memorable.” (Livingston & Kurkjian, Literature Links: Expanding Ways of Knowing) Recent brain research has provided evidence for why this is so. Psychologist Louis Cozolino explains that “Stories serve as powerful organizing tools for neural network integration.”
In his latest historical fiction novel for young readers, Sophia’s War (2012, Simon & Schuster), Avi masterfully weaves the true story of Benedict Arnold and British Major John Andre with the fictional story of Sophia Calderwood, a young girl whose family has been deeply affected by the war. Pairing these two books is the perfect opportunity for teachers to help their students build the neural networks necessary for deeper learning. The echoing of facts and events between these two books “acts as a magnifying glass of sorts…and is going to increase student’s assimilation of that curriculum.” (Ciesla, Building a Self-Supporting Web of Knowledge-What is Interdisciplinary Education?) This sort of knowledge building is exactly what the authors of the CCSS had in mind when they envisioned a “literate person in the twenty-first century.” This person will “actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews.”
Either The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery or Sophia’s War will build your knowledge and broaden your world view. Reading both together will enrich them even further. Like Sheinkin, you might become obsessed; you might even start planning a trip to Saratoga!
If you’re interested in other fiction/non-fiction pairings, be sure to read Susan Dee’s Nerdy Book Club post. She offers her ten favorite text sets, and there are many other suggestions in the comments.
Also, be sure to check out what other people have been reading at Teach Mentor Texts. Thanks to Jen for hosting!