RKR Interviews Ben Thompson, Author of Guts & Glory
Your Guts & Glory series tackles history in an action-packed, exciting fashion. Have you always been a history buff, or was this interest fostered in later years?
I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. My Dad was a big history buff, and he collected all sorts of awesome artifacts ranging from old swords and muskets to Roman helmets—things you’d probably only see in action movies or museums. He’d always talk about what the different items were used for, and about the kinds of people who would have used them, and I found the entire thing fascinating. I was a huge history fan throughout all of school, majored in it in college, and now I’m so lucky and grateful to be able to do something I love professionally.
How did you come up with the idea for the Guts & Glory series? What made you want to write for kids?
I am of the opinion that anyone who loves history loves it because they had one person in their life who was able to make history a real, tangible thing. Whether it was a parent, teacher, or friend, or even a movie or video game, history fans usually have something in their past that changed history from the rote memorization of the birthdays of a bunch of old dead white guys, and turn it into a fun, visceral, and exciting adventure. History is literally the study of everything that has ever happened, and it’s filled with over-the-top heroics, unbelievable triumphs, and white-knuckle drama. So I’ve always had a hard time with how some authors or teachers could take incredible deeds and make them sound so unbelievably boring that you’d rather sit in line at the DMV than hear about the French Revolution. It’s like, sometimes historians get so bogged down with the names and dates and chronology that they forget why any of that stuff is worth remembering to begin with.
With the Guts & Glory series, I wanted to tell history the way I see it – as a thrilling ride laced with enough excitement, danger, and heroism to produce a million blockbuster films. History not only describes some of the most epic deeds ever accomplished by humans, but also shows all of the amazing and inspirational things that one person (or one group of people) can do when they don’t let anything stand in their way.
What’s the best part about writing for children? What’s the most challenging?
The kids themselves are the best part! I love doing school appearances, talking to students, and getting nice letters from readers and fans. It’s so rewarding to be able to teach kids about the things that I think are awesome and have them actually learn something in the process.
It can be challenging, though, because kids can smell a phony from a mile away, and you need to be on the top of your game. I think it can be easy to underestimate your audience and say, “oh, it’s just fifth graders” or whatever, but trying to dumb down your content or using that as an excuse to get sloppy with your research or writing is a huge mistake. You need your work to be accessible to the age group (and rated PG, which is seriously not easy to do when you’re talking about some of these historical figures), but if you bring anything less than your best, you’re not going to succeed. If you do bring your best, it can be the most rewarding thing in the world.
What were some of your favorite books growing up? Did they inspire you to write and/or get you excited about reading?
I’ve always loved reading cool history stuff. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is probably one of my favorite books of all time, because Edward Gibbon was an old-school historian who didn’t pull any punches. A lot of the primary source writers like Suetonius and Xenophon were the type who just straight-up told you “this guy was amazing, and this guy deserved to be overthrown.” As long as you can filter their critiques through the lens of the author’s personal belief system, it makes the content more engaging, insightful, and exciting. I feel like it can be easy to get bogged down by objectivism and give up entire chapters trying to explain the motivations of all parties involved in a conflict. But that gets really boring really fast. I always preferred the writers that could get right into the action, lay out where they stood on the subject, and then give the reader freedom to draw their own conclusions.
Do you have any more historical book suggestions for kids who love your series?
My main advice to students is to push yourself! Read some of the primary sources if you can find them… it’s a truly fantastic insight into the minds of historical figures. Sure, it’s good to know that Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, but when you’re reading his autobiography and he’s talking about his favorite dish to eat at home with his wife, it makes him into a real human being, not an old painting or a crumbling white marble statue. Some of these people are actually really funny too, and their writing can be pretty entertaining. Sure, even as late in history as Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War some of the language can be tricky to get through. But here’s a secret: reading the writings of Thomas Jefferson is kind of tricky for most adults, too! Give it a shot, and see how you do. It’s never too early to aim high.
What are you working on now?
Well, I’d love to work on more Guts & Glory in the future, and I am also working on a new series due out next year called Epic Fails, where I talk about some of the great mess-ups from history – and how some pretty incredible people took really hopeless situations and ended up succeeding against all odds. Beyond that, who knows? I hope to keep writing about awesome stuff, visiting schools, and teaching kids that history isn’t nearly as boring as they might think it is.