Undefeated: Steve Sheinkin's 2017 BGHB Nonfiction Honor Speech

I always wanted to write a sports story, but it had to be the right one. That is, I wanted a story with edge-of-your-seat action, where you’re rooting so hard you shout at the page. But the story also had to be about something bigger, something more significant than the outcomes of long-forgotten football games. And I wanted to write a book that would have at least a chance of winning over non–football fans.

My wife, Rachel, always my first and most trusted reader (and not a football fan), helped me find that balance. And I knew I was onto something good when my sister-in-law, also not a fan, gave the book a good review.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m so glad you liked it!”

“Yeah,” she said. “I just skimmed all the football.”

Thank you to Joe Bruchac, who very generously shared his Jim Thorpe and Carlisle football research and offered helpful advice along the way.

Editor Connie Hsu was a great head coach for this book, sort of like Pop Warner, but with less cursing. She has a sharp eye for story, and she’s tough. Just to give one example: I had an anecdote in early drafts about the Carlisle team playing the first-ever indoor football game. I loved this story. Chicago, 1896, against the University of Wisconsin, and the sold-out arena fills with cigarette smoke, and at one point a punt soars high above the field and gets stuck in the rafters. Everyone looks up at the roof. That’s the only ball they brought. So a kid climbs up, balancing on beams high over the field, and shoves the ball down to the players. Amazing stuff, right? We cut it. As Connie helped me see, it was slowing down the main story. A painful cut. But she was right.

Finally, my biggest thanks of all to Simon Boughton. To continue the sports analogy, he’s the guy who plucked me off the bench and put me in the game. Way back when I was writing horrible textbooks, he saw a manuscript of mine and decided it had potential. Of course, the first thing he did was get rid of all of my drawings and hire an actual artist to redo all the comics…but no hard feelings. That project turned into our first book together, King George: What Was His Problem? And just about everything I’ve done since has started with a conversation with Simon, with me pitching an idea, and him saying something like, “That sounds worth doing.”

From the January/February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2017 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB17. This is Steve Sheinkin's fourth Boston Globe-Horn Book Award; read his previous speeches and more here.

Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin is the author of Impossible Escape, Fallout, Born to Fly (all Roaring Brook), and Bomb (Flash Point/Roaring Brook), among others. Accolades include a Newbery Honor, three National Book Award finalists, and he is the winner of a 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Award for Undefeated; the 2016 BGHB Nonfiction Award for Most Dangerous, the 2014 BGHB Nonfiction Award for The Port Chicago 50, and the 2011 BGHB Award for Nonfiction for The Notorious Benedict Arnold (all Roaring Brook).

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