Don’t know much about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that claimed the lives of an estimated 100 million worldwide? Look no further than Kenneth C. Davis’s More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War, published this month by Henry Holt. Aimed at readers 10–14 and illustrated with patriotic period posters and archival photos, the book chronicles the parallel stories of the pandemic and WWI, a devastating concurrence that Davis labels “twin catastrophes.” The book joins the author’s Hidden History series for young readers, which launched in 2008 with America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation and had its roots in his bestselling Don’t Know Much About books for adults. PW asked Davis about the genesis of his writing career and move into children’s books, and what sparked his most recent foray into hidden history.
Looking back at your own timeline, what was your initial impetus for writing Don’t Know Much About History?
I wanted to make history more fun for people who thought history was all dates, battles, and speeches. I had always approached history as real stories about real people—which to me is fascinating. In Don’t Know Much About History, I opted to use this as a focus, and to provide a lot of information in a digestible, conversational way to prove to people that history isn’t necessarily the version that they got—and maybe hated—in high school.
Obviously the success of that 1990 book spawned a robust series spanning a wide array of subjects. What then precipitated your shift to writing for kids?
It was, in part, wanting to stretch my wings a bit as a writer—I knew I was ready to do something else. I have always loved narrative nonfiction as a reader, and in my research for the Don’t Know Much About books I’d come across so many stories that school books had left out—untold tales we should know about but had never heard. What we learned in school was a whitewashed version, and I realized that the real story is much more interesting than the hokey stories we tell children about cherry trees and the like.
In spring 2011, when the 150th anniversary of the Civil War was approaching, I was asked, as the author of Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, if I’d be interested in Skyping with upper middle-grade and high-school classrooms to talk about the war. So I did, and I realized I was getting tremendous satisfaction talking to this age group—the kids were so interesting and curious and aware. So I rather accidentally discovered I wanted to write for kids!
Another inspiration, I think, is that over the years, I’ve discovered that many teachers use the Don’t Know Much About books in their classroom curricula or for supplemental reading. And I’ve also heard teachers say that they’d become history teachers because of my books. It is a great honor to hear that.
What ignited your interest in writing about the Spanish flu and World War I?
It was due to a completely chance encounter—like so many things in the universe. Through my research for earlier books, I was aware of the Spanish flu pandemic, and one day I was at the Holt office, waiting for the elevator with Sally Doherty, my then-editor, who was sneezing and coughing. Somehow the words, “Spanish flu” came up, and I mentioned that the pandemic’s 100th anniversary was coming up, and a book idea was born.
Did the information you discovered while researching the book bring any surprises?
As soon as I began doing the most fundamental research on the pandemic, I learned that I was uncovering a story that was much bigger than I realized. Almost immediately, I became aware of the powerful connection between the flu and the war. That and the fact it all happened exactly 100 years ago made this a compelling story—and a perfect example of how history was hidden, not for nefarious reasons, but because of a strange set of circumstances.
One thing that springs to mind is that, for an event that affected the country in such an extraordinary way, there is almost no mention of the deadliest pandemic in modern history in history books, novels, plays, and films of the time. There were a few exceptions—Katherine Anne Porter, who actually nearly died of the Spanish flu, mentioned it in her book, Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels, and Thomas Wolfe wrote of it in Look Homeward, Angel.
In More Deadly Than War, you use contemporary analogies to connect readers to historical happenings, likening German propaganda to “fake news,” and a sneeze’s emission of virus-carrying droplets to “a video game with space invaders.” Why do you think this is this effective?
As a writer of history, it is most crucial to get the facts right, which is why this and my other books require extensive research and very careful copyediting and fact checking. But to me, it’s also crucial to connect the past to the present—that is one of the most important jobs a writer of history has.
Given the book’s many horrific scenarios—vivid stories of death from disease and wartime combat—what hopeful messages will young readers take from your book?
First of all, the pandemic revealed an extraordinary ability and willingness on the parts of many people to come together and help in the worst of situations, despite the enormous risks involved. And the concurrence of the pandemic and the war brought many women into the workplace in an unprecedented way. Women volunteered to go to the front lines in Europe to work as nurses, often with the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, and stepped in to fill jobs that men had held but lost, due to the war or the flu. It was a major moment in women’s history, and I don’t think that it was an accident that the suffrage movement followed so closely behind.
What’s next on your writing docket?
There is lots of hidden history still to be told, and I’m looking to continue to write in this vein. I get extreme satisfaction in writing for and talking to young readers. And it is especially nice to hear parents say that they are reading and talking about my books together with their kids. I believe that is a key way that history can have a real impact on children.
More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War by Kenneth C. Davis. Holt, $19.99 May ISBN 978-1-250-14512-3