Martin Sandler has written so many books, he wonders if he has an accurate count anymore, but he won’t soon forget 1919 The Year That Changed America (Bloomsbury), which won the 2019 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last week.
“This is the culmination,” Sandler said after receiving the award at the National Book Foundation’s gala on November 20. “How do you go any higher than winning a National Book Award?”
To research each of his books, Sandler pores over archival material, which is how he came upon the confluence of enormous historical events that occurred a century ago. “In 1919, women got the vote, Prohibition came through, the Red Scare was born, two guys you never heard of flew across the Atlantic—eight years before Charles Lindbergh.”
It was in the midst of researching the great molasses flood in Boston that Sandler says he discovered how deeply enmeshed the major events of a particular time period can be. In mid-January 1919, two million gallons of molasses burst from their container onto the streets of Boston, killing 45 people.
“While the Red Cross, firemen, and policemen were digging through the rubble after the molasses flood,” Sandler said, “all the bells in Boston started going off at that moment, because the last state had voted to pass Prohibition.”
“That really got me,” Sandler said. “If all these events were isolated things, I still would have written the book, but somehow they’re all related.”
Sharing those relationships from history with people of all ages is what has motivated Sandler throughout his career. Before embarking on writing, he taught junior high school and high school in Quincy, Mass., as well as college history courses at the University of Massachusetts and Smith College. It was while teaching that he wrote the first three chapters of The People Make a Nation, a textbook that he ultimately co-authored with Edwin Rozwenc.
The book was a direct response to the textbooks that Sandler found in his classrooms. “They handed me the American history textbook and there were exercises like ‘learn all the presidents up to today,’ and I thought, ‘this is BS.’ I wrote three chapters and sent them to a publisher. What chutzpah!” The book was published in 1971, the first of roughly 60 titles by Sandler.
Sandler ultimately moved away from teaching to focus on writing. For many years, he also ran a production company that developed historical programs for television, including “This Was America,” a series narrated by William Shatner.
“I loved it, and I still miss it,” Sandler said, but ultimately writing beckoned as a full-time way of life.
Today, Sandler writes two to three books a year, from the office on the second floor of his house in Cotuit, Mass. Among the most difficult aspects he encounters is putting himself in the time period, even when it might be personally challenging to do so.
For instance, while researching Harry Truman, Sandler came across a letter from the yet-to-be president to his mother in advance of a trip to New York City, in which Truman uses a slur for Jews. “My hero was Harry Truman,” Sandler said. “I loved Harry.”
Sandler was both disappointed and challenged by the question of whether the letter was essential to the story he was trying to tell. Ultimately, in such moments, he relies on his own experience to guide him to his goal, which is to convey the overarching theme as best he possibly can. For 1919, Sandler says, “the overarching theme is that progress never goes in a straight line.”
The same can be said for the author himself, who was caught completely by surprise when the award was announced. “You’ve got four great young people there,” Sandler said of fellow nominees Akwaeke Emezi, Jason Reynolds, Randy Ribay, and Laura Ruby. He expected one of them to take home the award. “Honest to God, I was preparing the speech while I walked to the stage.”
But the most profound moment for Sandler came after the ceremony. “What felt so good is that three of the judges came up to me separately and said why that book is so important to them,” Sandler said. “There is nothing I love to do more than write,” he added. “I’m still trying to believe it. This is apt to make me humble.”