Teacher's lively Civil War tales reflect his passion for history
By LORRI HELFAND
© St. Petersburg Times,
PALM HARBOR -- Alan N. Kay always has been a history nut. And he knows why most folks aren't. Memorizing facts takes all of the fun out of history.
"Textbooks have become the primary form of study. It's boring. It's like reading a phone book," he said.
It's the individual stories that draw people in and make them want to learn more, he said.
To share his passion, the Dunedin High School history teacher started writing historical fiction more than a decade ago. In his works, Kay, 35, creates fictional characters that experience real events and interact with historical figures.
Last month, Send 'Em South, the first book in his 10-volume Civil War series, hit the stands. The series, Young Heroes of History, is geared to children 11 to 15 years old, who haven't learned to dread history yet.
"I want to write for kids because kids are still impressionable," he said.
Kay's young characters are wiser than the adults around them, and on a certain level, he believes that's true.
"I like writing about kids because kids wear their hearts on their sleeves. Kids will stand up and say, "This is wrong about society' long before adults will," he said.
Each book in the series deals with different themes. Send 'Em South is the story of a girl who escapes slavery and of an Irish boy who befriends her and tries to protect her from slave catchers. It's about breaking down stereotypes of all types, Kay said.
Although it's a children's series, it's not all hearts and flowers. Kay said he purposely chose to include controversial elements.
"Young Heroes of History is focusing on what kids can do in negative situations. The whole book is about terrible situations and how kids can succeed. If you keep it all positive, it's too simplistic," he said.
Also controversial, some of his characters use the "N" word.
Although it may be uncomfortable for people to read, he said, "I wanted to make it historically accurate."
Nicole Riley, publicity director for White Mane Publishing Co., said her company considers historical context when faced with controversial language. Although she wasn't involved in discussions of Kay's book, she said, "I'm guessing they were okay going forward with it within the historical perspective."
Now, Kay is celebrating, but his path wasn't an easy one. His first book, Jamestown Journey, sold at the Jamestown Museum, was published in 1992. But it didn't achieve widespread success, so he went back to the drawing board. He spent his mornings writing another book on the Civil War and his lunch hours looking for publishers. He ended up with a file full of rejection letters.
His lucky break came in May 1999. White Mane Publishing contacted him to say it wasn't interested in his book but was interested in him. They wanted him to write an entire children's Civil War series.
Seven months later, he finished writing Send 'Em South, the first book in the series. It was due out last August but was delayed nine more months while the cover was designed.
Now, Kay is focused on marketing his new book. He just got back from a trip to Boston, where he presented it to the Museum of Afro American History and several bookstores.
Locally, he has several book signings in the works, including two on Saturday, from 11 to 1 p.m. at Waldenbooks in University Square Mall and from 2 to 4 p.m. at Waldenbooks in Citrus Park Town Center.
There's also a Web site, youngheroesofhistory.com, which offers additional information on the series.
Kay has already finished writing book six and is researching book seven. When school starts, Kay plans to juggle his roles as author, teacher and Pinellas County History Day coordinator.
Although he's not going to make a hasty decision, Kay thinks that one day he'll have to choose between his careers. Either way, Kay said he feels pretty lucky.
"Whether I'm a writer or I'm a teacher. I don't wake up saying, "Ugh, I'm going to work.' Wednesday is not hump day for me," he said.
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