Interview with Steve Sheinkin, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
Roaring Brook Press/ Macmillan Publishers
Adina Talve-Goodman: The Port Chicago 50 is about fifty soldiers of color who chose to take a stand against loading dangerous ammunition without proper training during World War II. What drew you to tell this particular story?
Steve Sheinkin: This is a story I stumbled upon while researching a previous World War II book, [editor’s note: 2012 National Book Award Finalist Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon], about the making of the atomic bomb. What drew me to Port Chicago was that it’s such a little-known story, and yet it’s so dramatic, and really demands that you put yourself in the place of the participants and think about what you would do.
ATG: Why did you choose to gear this book toward young people? What are you hoping a young person will take away from reading about the Port Chicago 50?
SS: Well, for many years I wrote history textbooks, and I’m still trying to make amends by writing non-fiction books that teens will actually want to read. So first and foremost, I hope young readers are hooked on story, and I hope they feel compelled to turn pages and see how it turns out. No adult willingly picks up a boring book, and I don’t think students should have to either. Beyond that, I hope the story adds to their understanding of the complexities and moral ambiguities of American history. I hope it makes them think about how the issues discussed in the book are still impacting our society.
ATG: Can you tell me about your research process? Where did you start? How did you decide what to include in the book and what to let go?
SS: There’s not much written about Port Chicago, so if I had to rely on what’s available in libraries and online, I would have hit a dead end. But I was able to get copies of several previously classified U.S. Navy documents, including the complete court martial transcript of the fifty men charged with mutiny. But the real key to this book was a set of oral histories collected in the 1970s by a University of California, Berkeley, professor named Robert Allen. It’s a classic detective story, how he found many of the convicted mutineers in the pre-internet age. Allen generously shared his interviews with me, and this allowed me to tell the story the way I’d hoped to—from the point of the view of the young sailors at Port Chicago.
ATG: Did anything surprise you while researching or writing this book?
SS: Overall, in spite of how the men at Port Chicago were treated, I came away impressed by the Navy. At the start of World War II, they had the reputation of being the most discriminatory branch of the military. Yet they responded fairly proactively to racial events like the one at Port Chicago, and actually desegregated two years before President Truman’s famous 1948 executive order banning segregation in the military. This doesn’t mean everyone lived happily ever after, but still, it’s a good example of how quickly we can change when we put our minds to it.
ATG: What are you working on now?
SS: I’m finishing up a new non-fiction book for teens, a political thriller set during the Vietnam era. I think of it as a kind of anti-civics book. Remember those textbooks with neat little charts describing how our government works? Forget all that. This is the inside story—the secret history of the Vietnam War, and the story of a man who risked everything to expose the truth and end the war.
Adina Talve-Goodman is the managing editor of both One Story and One Teen Story.