Who Was History Bee is an initiative that aims to give kids a deeper, and global, knowledge of history and people who have positively changed the world. Over 25,000 students from 49 states participated in the free-to-enter contest that is hosted by Penguin Young Readers and ten children were named as winners. Some kids hailed from public schools, others from private, and homeschoolers were also welcomed to participate.
Penguin Young Readers based the contest on the New York Times bestselling and beloved Who Was? history and biography children’s book series. Originally, the ten finalists were slated to compete at the history bee championship which would be hosted by Jeff Kinney and Patrick Kinney in New York City on May 4th. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, live championship was canceled and all ten finalists were named as winners.
To celebrate the big win, Penguin Young Readers hosted a zoom call with the ten young winners and featured three surprise guests: the Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney, his brother Patrick Kinney who is the author of Who is Jeff Kinney?, and Francesco Sedita who is the President and Publisher at Penguin Workshop. The online event was fun and dynamic due largely to the passion of the young history buffs—each of whom will receive $2,000 and a library of 50 Who Was? books. Moreover, each champion’s school wins a 50-book library of titles from Who Was? The ten champions were also awarded $500 to give as a donation to a first responder organization, hospital, nonprofit, or other institution of their choice.
Recently Publisher of Penguin Workshop Francesco Sedita discussed the event via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get into the publishing industry and how did you find your way to Penguin?
Francesco Sedita (FS): It’s a story for over a drink because it’s a long one! But the quick rundown is that I started in the adult world, as an assistant at Knopf. Then I moved to Scholastic Reading Clubs, then to their Trade division as Creative Director…And then Penguin called. But when we have that drink, make sure you ask me about my outfit for my first interview at Knopf. Oh, and my first interview with Penguin!
MM: How did you decide to start History Bee and who are some of the figures who kids have discussed?
FS: The idea behind the History Bee was to bring the popularity and collectability of the WhoHQ series to life by giving the series’ biggest fans a chance to show just how much they’ve learned from the books. We also felt that by starting the Bee at the grassroots level—getting classrooms and libraries involved first—we’d be adding to the existing history and social studies curricula with a fun and engaging competition that benefitted everyone—both the teachers and librarians as well as the students. As the competition moved from classroom and library rounds, to school-based rounds, to the finalist round, we were really able to see which historical figures emerged as the students’ favorites—everyone from current figures like Malala Yousafzai, Sonia Sotomayor, and Michael Jordan to historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman.
MM: How do you find kids and schools to participate and how important was it for you to include kids from public, private, and even homeschools?
FS: Registration for the first Who Was? History Bee opened last year and we’re very fortunate as a company to have well-established relationships with teachers and librarians through our School & Library team. We were able to sign classrooms up at educational and mainstream conferences, through online outreach, and of course, via word of mouth! It’s so incredibly important to have all kinds of schools, including homeschool groups, participate in the Who Was? History Bee. We want to provide a dynamic opportunity for all kinds of learners and institutions to participate in the history fun. Accessibility is key.
MM: How do you determine who are the top ten finalists?
FS: This year we determined our ten finalists by creating an internal company judging panel from across all Penguin Young Readers teams — editorial, marketing, publicity, and sales. Potential student finalists, as school or library final round winners, turned in proctored exams to our headquarters where we took a two-week period to review and converse on finalist potentials. Our favorites were chosen on consensus from the team and were pushed through to the final round!
MM: Most years there is one winner, what was it like to have ten this year?
FS: We would have loved to have one winner as all the finalists worked so hard to get to the Who Was? History Bee and we really appreciated all the studying and preparation done from all the kids. That being said, we were incredibly happy, and felt it appropriate given the unforeseen circumstances, to award everyone with the title of Who Was? History Bee Champion. Because we had ten winners, each student was awarded a $2,000 scholarship prize, a $500 prize to donate to a first responder organization of their choice, a set of fifty Who Was? titles for their home and school libraries. It was fantastic to see everyone go home with something.
MM: What future projects are on the horizon for Penguin and how do you envision History Bee evolving over the next five years?
FS: The Who HQ has lots of exciting new things in store—new formats and new ideas for TV to name a couple. The great thing about the WhoHQ is that it’s a universe that is filled with so many stories, so many great events, so many terrific thinkers, and there’s always more to add. I think the Bee will progress and follow along as the books and media do—becoming bigger and better!
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To learn about the 2020-2021 Who Was History Bee, visit whowashistorybee.com for registration details, study guides, and more!
Who HQ page: http://www.whowasbookseries.com/history-bee/
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Penguin Kids Twitter: https://twitter.com/penguinkids