Carter G. Woodson who started what later evolved to be Black History Month once said “if a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated”.
It seems fairly straightforward to record that history, spotlight it, and teach it so that it becomes a part of our consciousness. Unfortunately, history is pretty complicated. History doesn’t have an immutable existence and there can be multiple perspectives, developing in light of new information (both true and false) and cultural shifts. History can be vulnerable to bias, rewriting, and to being lost altogether.
It is often the case that students learn a “set narrative” (see Michael Conway’s article, “The Problem with History Classes”) and students often come away with what they end up believing to be the only narrative and a list of bullet points to slog through and memorize. In the US, struggles, accomplishments, and the role minority populations play in the building of the US are condensed into a handful of bullet points. And things that aren’t on the list are relegated to insignificance and obscurity.
Of course, it is impossible to teach the entire story of humankind and all historical perspectives, but learning more about the people who lived in times and places –some incredibly different from what we know- and who acted, reacted, and felt in completely human ways can lead to more understanding and empathy. And there is no better time to develop them than when you’re young.
Below are just a few children’s and YA books featuring stories about those who once lived and who probably won’t make it into the usual history diet. Included also are a few historical fiction stories based on true people, situations, and events. This list has an emphasis on black historical figures as it is currently Black History Month.
Come all you brave soldiers : Blacks in the Revolutionary War by Clinton Cox. About the soldiers who fought for independence from England.
The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson. In 1998 when the Kosovo hostilities escalate, an ethnic Albanian girl and her family flee for their lives and make their way to the US, where they encounter new challenges.
Genius of Islam: How Muslims Made the Modern World by Bryn Barnard. How Islam and Muslims played an essential role in the development of the modern world.
Inside out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. A young girl and her family leave Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and resettle in Alabama.
Landed by Milly Lee ; pictures by Yangsook Choi. A fictional story based on the true experiences of the immigration process for young Chinese boys who come to the United States via San Francisco’s Angel Island in the early 20th century.
Liberty or Death: The Surprising Story of Runaway Slaves Who Sided with the British During the American Revolution by Margaret Whitman Blair. About the black men who sided with the British who had promised freedom in exchange.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Based on the life of Salva Dut, a Sudanese refugee who led hundreds of boys to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya during the second Sudanese civil war.
My Brother’s Keeper by Israel Bernbaum. Bernbaum, a Holocaust survivor, describes the horrors of the Holocaust through art.
Run, Boy, Run : A Novel by Uri Orlev. A nine-year-old Jewish orphan boy’s struggle to survive in Nazi-occupied Poland, based on a true story.
She Loved Baseball : the Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick; illustrated by Don Tate. She owned a baseball team and was the first and only woman to be inducted to the baseball hall of fame.
Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling. Set at the beginning of WWII, the story of two girls – a Japanese-American girl sent to a Japanese internment camp and a Mexican-American girl at the center of a real life landmark desegregation case.
Voice of Freedom : Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford ; illustrated by Ekua Holmes. A voting rights activist who fought for and protected the voting rights of African Americans and helped many register to vote.
Welcome to Josefina’s World, 1824 : Growing up on America’s Southwest Frontier by Yvette LaPierre. Part of the American Girl series of books and one of several books featuring the heroine, Josefina Montoya. It provides an overview of how Mexican Americans lived in the 1820s – their daily lives, activities, and culture. We hold
We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. About the 4000 black children who marched for civil rights and demonstrated in non-violent protest. The violent reactions of the police officers spurred the government to take action in desegregate Birmingham and to outlaw discrimination on the basis of race.
The Winter People by Joseph Bruchac. Set during the French and Indian War, an Abenaki boy’a journey to rescue his mother and sisters, who were kidnapped by the English during a raid.
X : A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon. Follows human rights activist, Malcolm X, from his childhood to age 20.
Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi. A young Korean girl and her family’s experiences during the Japanese and Russian occupations of North Korea in the 1940s and their escape to South Korea.
And a special shoutout to Frederick Douglass (inexplicably, some people seemed to be unsure about who Frederick Douglass was):
Frederick Douglass for Kids : his Life and Times with 21 Activities by Nancy Sanders. An interactive biography of Frederick Douglass, former slave, abolitionist, and human rights activist.