Photo credit: Meg Perotti
“I trust Google,” he said, completely out of the blue. He was flopped on the couch on a lazy Saturday morning, his needs-a-haircut-now bangs in his eyes, a graphic novel in his hands.
“I trust Google,” my 6 ½-year-old son repeated. “To tell me good and right information.”
“Well,” I replied. “Tell me more about this...”
He explained that they’d been discussing search engines in the Media Center at school, and that they’d talked about how we get information. How we do research
. Big stuff for first grade. And so incredibly important. Sensing an opportunity, I attempted to continue the conversation.
“You know, I do a lot of research for my book. I do use Google, but I also get the information for my stories from other places. Do you want to know more about that?”
Sigh. He did not. The graphic novel lured him back in — fair enough. You can only listen to mom talk about work for so long. I left him to the comic universe, but the moment stuck with me, making me think more about the research process itself. About how we access information, how we understand the subjective complexity of history — and how, in this deep-fake, alt-fact era, young people like my children and the students I often speak to begin to know what’s “true.”
Over the past five years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of young audiences, ranging from elementary to university, about the series of historical nonfiction books that my collaborator Miriam Klein Stahl and I cocreate. The first three books in the series have focused on women and girls from history (and today! The present is history too!), and the new book, Rad American History A-Z
, is a broader survey of radical moments and movements in American history. At this point, I’ve written stories about nearly 150 historical figures and events — but I’ve researched and considered writing about well over 500, if not more.
One thing I’m always sure to tell students is this: I am not
an expert. I don’t already know everything that I write about in my books. And that’s the point
. That’s where the research — and the genuine fun — comes in. I am not a trained historian. I have an MFA, not a PhD. I’m a curious storyteller with a passion for little-known histories and the stories and lives of the marginalized.
I want young people to know that I do use Google — but that there is also so much more
. I joke with students that we didn't even have
Google when I was their age! They gasp, and we laugh, but the moment has weight: How did
we do things back then? And how are they doing it now? As more and more public schools pare down their school libraries, and shift classrooms and educators toward app-based learning, how do digital natives experience the wide range of research methods? And what aspects of my own research process feel most meaningful and productive?
[H]e is one of the keepers of the culture and legacy of his people. His insight does not show up as a Google result.
My process is fueled by a relentless curiosity. I’m not trained in academic research methodologies, so I operate in ways that are intuitive, exploratory, and, sure, a little random at times. Sometimes my approach to a new topic is quick and wide-ranging. I might skim the surface of stories like a smooth stone flicking over the centuries, splashing here and there.
And sometimes the research is a total rabbit hole, an endless maze of dark warrens, each one leading me to another tunnel of facts and figures. Deep-diving, I follow link after link, keeping a ridiculous number of tabs open on my browser as I take notes, mark pages with Post-Its, and tape index cards to my office wall with the names of people I’ll look up someday. I write down long lists of call numbers, stagger out of the library under a tower of new books.
I do all of these things in pursuit of information, of story — but what I really get the most out of is talking to people. People who have specialized knowledge that they’re eager to break down; people who are thrilled to share their own personal accounts and lived experiences; and people descended from those who were there, and are honored to share their memories. Their energy fuels the stories, and lends an accuracy and authenticity that I can’t get from typing words and phrases into a search engine.
During the beginning stages of the book’s life, my research assistant Mia sent over 100 inquiries to historians who matched with the specific topics I was planning to write about (thanks to the incredible website Women Also Know History
). We were soon coordinating phone calls and Skype visits with scholars across the country — devoted researchers of 19th-century suffrage speeches; the brief but transformative Reconstruction era; the roles of women in jazz; the history of libraries; quilts and American domestic crafts; the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans; 20th-century LGBTQ history; and so much more.
There’s something incredibly delightful about getting on the phone with an “expert” and asking them to just talk
about their work. I asked them to share the aspects of their research that they find most fascinating, that they wish people knew more about. In many cases, these are people whose fields of study aren’t totally mainstream, and whose work is often not recognized outside of specialized fields like Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, and African American History. Sometimes I felt like I could feel their faces lighting up as they elaborated on historical minutiae. Sometimes we both got giddy with history geekiness. They helped me expand my knowledge of familiar subjects, and introduced entirely new historical perspectives.
In addition to talking with scholars, I spent many hours tracking down and talking to people who were there
— or who are descended from those who were. I wanted to hear from them, to get their perspectives on their stories — and I also wanted to ensure that the stories were as culturally respectful and accurate as possible. I spoke with several of the women who conceived of and wrote the first editions of Our Bodies Ourselves
, the landmark women’s health book that has transformed (and saved) the lives of many women. I interviewed a number of witches for the story about American witchcraft (my children were thrilled by the fact that I’d interviewed “real witches!”). I wanted to write about Riot Grrrl, so I reached out to a number of people who were in the bands and the audiences at those groundbreaking punk shows.
As a white, privileged woman, I am acutely aware of the responsibility I bear when it comes to writing about communities of color and marginalized histories — especially when those stories have consistently been mis- and underrepresented. We wanted “B” to be for Black Lives Matter, but wouldn’t include the story unless we could get it approved by the women who started the movement. The story of Black Lives Matter has been covered in so many publications, and so often the queer Black women who started it get sidelined, or erased completely. We asked cofounder Alicia Garza, How do you want your story to be told?
We absolutely wanted to present Native American histories in the book — but knew we wouldn’t publish the stories if we weren’t able to receive permission. LaNada War Jack, a leading figure during the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz, talked about her experiences on the island, and helped ensure that the story portrayed the Indian experience and culture with respect. A member of the International Indigenous Youth Council shared the story about Standing Rock with folks from several tribes. And for the story about the Great Law of Peace, the oral constitution of the Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois) people that greatly influenced the founding documents of American democracy, I worked with the current Council Secretary of the Haudenosaunee Nation. His edits, handwritten in the margins and sent as a PDF, enabled me to get the story as close to “fact” as possible — he is one of the keepers of the culture and legacy of his people. His insight does not show up as a Google result.
In some cases, I spoke with the children of historical figures: Karen Korematsu reviewed the story about her late father, Fred, and shared memories of his courageous struggle. While researching the United Farm Workers, I came across a reference to Esther Uranday, a woman I hadn’t heard of. Though there was barely any information about her, she clearly played a critical role in the early days of the UFW. She passed away several years ago, so I connected with her son via Facebook — he was moved to know that her efforts would be recognized in the book, and shared his memories of his hardworking, labor-organizing mother.
Eric Reiss had a similar reaction when I reached out to him about his mother, Dr. Louise Reiss, whose work on the effects of nuclear radiation and toxic fallout was groundbreaking — but barely acknowledged. He Skyped with me from his home in Amsterdam, telling story after story about his brilliant mother (including the anecdote about the time President Kennedy called his house to speak to Dr. Reiss about her findings, and young Eric answered the phone).
Google is no doubt a critical part of my research process — it often functions as my gateway. But it’s never the final, or only, destination in the learning process. In gathering all of these stories, I’ve hopefully been able to create a different kind “history book” that presents unexpected, nuanced, and engaging perspectives on several centuries of American life and culture. The conversations I’ve had with scholars, survivors, fighters, activists, descendants, and culture-makers filled my heart and mind — and the pages of the book. They reminded me, over and over, that there is no singular “history” — there are myriad histories that depend on perspective and point of view. On who’s doing the asking, the telling, the documenting. It has been an honor to ask, to listen, and now to share.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a feminist writer, activist, and educator. With illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl, she is the author of the New York Times
bestsellers Rad American Women A-Z
and Rad Women Worldwide
, as well as My Rad Life: A Journal
and Rad Girls Can
. Kate is the cofounder of Solidarity Sundays, a nationwide network of feminist activist groups, and she speaks often about politics, resistance, feminism, race, parenting, and more. Rad American History A–Z
is her latest book.