Ellis Island Adventures

Ellis IslandSelf-promotion is the name of the game in all aspects of publishing today, and while the accolades I’ve accumulated are just few tiers below a Pulitzer (or a Tony), I’m always glad to report when one of my books is recognized. The latest is Ellis Island: An Interactive History Adventure, one of many “You Choose” books I’ve done for Capstone Publishing. Ellis Island just won a Teachers’ Choice Award for 2015, sponsored by Learning magazine.

As many people do, I have a personal tie to Ellis Island, as my grandparents and other relatives passed through there on their way from Italy to various points in the Northeast. I was also fortunate enough to be able to search through the photo archive the National Park Service keeps there, while doing research for a book on immigration. The phrase Ellis Island conjures up images of immigrants reaching their “promised land” and starting a new life, but of course, as my book shows, some were turned back. And by the mid-1920s, restrictive immigration laws kept many “undesirable” immigrants—mostly Catholic, Jewish, and from southern and eastern Europe—from even reaching the island.

Readers of Ellis Island see this reality, that not everyone was welcomed. The book has three main story lines, as readers choose to follow the adventures of a girl leaving Russia for New York; a young Italian man who makes it through Ellis Island and finds himself fighting in World War I; and a German immigrant interned at Ellis Island after that war, as many alleged and admitted Socialists were during the Red Scare. (I returned to the subject of immigrants—and some U.S. citizens—being held at Ellis Island in my latest play, I Killed Mussolini. Still looking for a production, but you can read an excerpt here.)

Each main thread in You Choose books has a number of options for the readers, usually leading to seven or eight possible outcomes. The goal, of course, is to have readers finish one and then read the other two to get the full scope of the topic. I do as much research for these books as any of my “regular” history books (and at times maybe more—exactly what did passengers eat in steerage when crossing the Atlantic?), but I also have the freedom of creating characters and their dialogue. So, not pure history but a technique that seems to resonate with both kids and their teachers, who appreciate that the interactive nature of the books (and I’d like to think some entertaining writing) make the students want to read them.

Along with the honor, I also appreciate a review that Capstone has posted on its website. It’s from the Smart Books for Smart Kids blog, by Debbie Glade:

Michael Burgan writes in a format that is easy for readers to comprehend,
while at the same time engaging them and keeping the topic fascinating at
all times….When I was in elementary school, I dreaded history lessons
because they were incredibly boring…in contrast, the interactive nature of
Ellis Island is more like a real life adventure—both happy and sad—that
teaches without clobbering students over the head with straight facts. Where
was this book when I was growing up?”

Many thanks to Debbie and to the teachers who took part in Learning’s survey.