The inaugural Who Was? History Bee national competition for young historians in grades three to five may not have gone quite the way that Penguin Young Readers originally planned, but according to Penguin Workshop publisher Francesco Sedita, “It was such a wonderful first-year experience, even with the pandemic, I can’t wait to see what the next year brings! Of course, we’d like to do it differently next year. And we’re going to get Hawaii involved too.”
The contest was inspired by the Who Was? series of children’s biographies of important historical figures launched by Grosset & Dunlap 18 years ago. Currently published by Penguin Workshop and illustrated since 2002 by Nancy Harrison, the series currently includes more than 200 titles in print across four lines: Who Was?, What Was?, Where Is?, and What Is the Story Of? Approximately 24 new titles are released each year.
More than 25,000 students from 49 states (not Hawaii) participated in the contest this year. The competition kicked off last September with students testing their knowledge of notable historical figures and events at the classroom level; from there, winners ascended to school level competitions. Winners at the school level then took written tests and wrote essays about the historical figure they most admire. The final judge of the competition was Jeff Kinney’s brother, Patrick Kinney, who wrote a children’s biography for the series, Who Is Jeff Kinney? (2015).
The 10 finalists competing to be Who Was? History Bee Champion were initially slated to compete at an event hosted by the Kinney brothers in New York City on May 4. The live championship was canceled due to the pandemic—so Penguin decided to name all 10 finalists 2020 Who Was? History Bee Champion.
The 10 champions were invited to participate in a Zoom video meeting with the Kinney brothers, and Jeff informed them of their group victory. Sedita, who listened in on the call, reported that Jeff was “amazing” and “the kids were so excited” to interact with him. One champion, who lacks broadband access at home, had their parents drive them and park close enough to their school that their device could pick up the school’s internet.
Each champion will receive $2,000 and a library of 50 Who Was? books. The champions’ school libraries are winners too—each will receive a set of 50 library edition copies of Who Was? books. Penguin is also donating $500 to a first responder organization, hospital, nonprofit, or other institution of each champion’s choice.
“We are incredibly proud of the 10 winners who shared their passion for history and poured so much time and work into the first Who Was? History Bee,” Sedita stated in a release. “We are witnessing history in the making. With heroes rising every day, it is more valuable than ever for young people to contemplate the past, and the remarkable individuals who have changed the world for the better.”