This year, Kenneth C. Davis, author of books about American history, visited eleven schools in Queens in a series organized by the MyLibraryNYC program.
More than 2,000 students and adults attended the author’s presentations, where he primarily spoke about two of his books, In the Shadow Of Liberty, on presidents who owned slaves, and More Deadly Than War, about the connection between the Spanish flu and World War I.
Davis, who had planned to be a teacher, became a writer after working in a bookstore. A woman who worked with him told him he was wasting his time selling books, and he ought to be writing them. He took her advice—and married her.
His first book was a history of paperback publishing in the United States, the story of how the widespread availability of books changed and democratized reading. Davis considers himself “a child of the library” and even now visits the library three to five times a week. The library is both his go-to place for research and where he gets videos for his grandchildren.
“The library plays a very central role in my life,” he says. “I have always understood that the library is central as a part of our civic society.” Davis believes that many of our problems today come from fake news and propaganda, and that libraries are the places “that can help inoculate us against that.”
His presentation about the Spanish flu emphasized the way that science and society are connected, and how the movement of troops spread the flu around the world. In one year, more Americans died of the flu than had died in all of the twentieth-century wars put together. Davis also referenced two famous Americans who survived the flu—Walt Disney and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—and asked audiences to imagine how the world would be different without them. In his presentation on presidents who were slave owners, Davis invited students to ponder the contradiction of a country “conceived in liberty that was also born in shackles.”
Kenneth C. Davis at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria.
Describing his research process, Davis says, “It’s very idiosyncratic. I start with a lot of reading. I always discover that little piece of the story that I’ve never heard before. The research process is going in new directions I didn’t anticipate.”
Although he writes mostly for younger people, the author says he would write his books in the same way for adults: “The key is to take ideas and present them in a way that’s accessible, even conversational. Find contemporary references and analogies. Look for things in pop culture that connect with people.”
Davis remains keenly interested in stories that were not in his schoolbooks. He believes we are in a golden age of very good historians writing popular nonfiction and credits David McCullough for getting him interested in history in a way that he had never been before “because he gave it this incredible human element.” Other historians he looks to as models include David Halberstam, Doris Kearns Goodwin, H.W. Brands, and Harrison Salisbury.
Davis may not have become a teacher, but he spends a lot of time teaching young people. Since 2011, he’s done more than 300 classroom visits by Skype, discovering along the way that he “really loved talking to young people.” “There’s an idea that young people aren’t interested in history,” he says. “My whole career has been about disproving this.”
The pleasant surprise about visiting public schools in Queens was how incredibly engaged his audiences were. Noting a visit that he did with 400 middle grade students, he says there wasn’t time to answer all of the students’ questions. “I think that the most important thing I’ve done in my career is ask questions. The questions the kids ask are always the best part of the presentation,” Davis says. “Being curious and asking questions is the most important thing any of us can do. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my writing career—ask good questions.”
Kenneth C. Davis’s In The Shadow of Liberty and More Deadly than War are both available at Queens Public Library.