Grateful American Book Prize

Historical Imagination

The founding of the Grateful American Book Prize was featured in the April 2016 Issue of Philanthropy Roundtable Magazine.

Historical Imagination

David Bruce Smith was listening to a radio story about a group hoping to build a Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. (His ears perked up because the group was a tenant of ­the company his late father Robert Smith built into one of the major real-estate developers in D.C.) A national survey conducted by the museum backers found that 83 percent of Americans failed a basic test of knowledge on the Revolution and America’s founding documents.

Smith was surprised that an American ­Revolution museum didn’t already exist. (The campaign then launching was eventually successful, and the museum will open in 2017.) And he was irked that so many citizens were ­ignorant of their national story.

Smith had been drawn to history since childhood, prompted in part by his father’s keen interest in preserving and restoring properties like ­Washington’s Mount Vernon, Madison’s ­Montpelier, the Benjamin Franklin House in London, and Abraham Lincoln’s summer cottage. “My father always referred to himself as a grateful American,” explains Smith. So in 2013 “I started the Grateful American Foundation with the purpose of restoring enthusiasm for ­American history among kids and adults.”

He began with a series of podcasts featuring historical experts, curators, and educators. Former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts Bruce Cole encouraged Smith to add a book prize to his efforts. He now offers a cash reward of $13,000 (to represent the 13 colonies) to authors who write compelling books bringing America’s story (in fiction or non-fiction form) to middle-schoolers. “Of the 85 prizes given to children’s literature,” notes Smith, “it is the only one on that topic.”

The prize was first offered in 2015, and Smith was told that if he received 30 to 50 submissions to launch, it would be a success. He received 140. The winner, Like a River, follows two teenage Union soldiers through the Civil War in detailed historical fiction, including photography. The foundation is now seeking submissions for the 2016 prize. “I’ve committed to five years,” says Smith, “but really and truly I would say the prize will be available indefinitely, because it’s important.”

Learn more in the April Issue of Philanthropy Roundtable.