by Maggie Block
“Rad Books for Rad Kids” is the Emerald’s spin on a book review column featuring South End librarian Maggie Block’s analysis of youth literature through a radical lens.
We did not put out a holiday book buying list. Partially due to technical difficulties, partially because we know not every parent (caregiver, cool adult relative, family friend, etc) can afford to or would want to buy their kids a bunch of new books. So we’re going to focus on resources to help you find books for your activist kiddos in 2018 and beyond!
In these political times, stories of resistance, anti-oppression narratives, and the spirit of anti-fascism are necessary to the children in your life, no matter if you’re buying them books or helping them discover and check out great ones at your local library.
I’ve wanted to write this list for a while. In the age of Trump, we are all reeling from the hatred, ignorance, and constant attacks on our freedoms and civil rights. There is so much wrong with what is being said, legislated, and the many disgusting fringe ideas being mainstreamed right now that I initially had zero idea where to start with a list like this. With so many communities under attack, it felt like going in any one direction would leave out an important group, idea, or cause.
So, in order to begin, I have to acknowledge that I cannot write one list encompassing every community experiencing oppression. I’d have to write an encyclopedia to do that, and while that’s pretty much what I actually want to do, I, unfortunately, have neither the time nor resources to make that happen.
Also, to reiterate, this is not going to be a book list. It’s going to be a list of book lists, or a list of resources I turn to, to find great diverse and defiant youth literature. Many of these are resources I always have listed on my blog’s Resources Page, and all of these are great places to find incredible books, media, and information for young people.
Before we dive in, I wanted to mention that when we live in a world where books published for children and young adults are still mostly about white straight cisgender Christian people, part of the purpose of lists such as these is to help children and families of diverse cultures, ethnicities, religions, and identities find stories that reflect themselves and their communities back to them.
But also in a world where white supremacy and fascism are on the rise, it’s very important that we give privileged children windows into other people’s experiences. It’s also vitally important that adults show the children in their lives the normalcy, brilliance, and beauty of people from marginalized experiences that are not their own.
PART 3: Necessary Histories
One resource I was really hoping to find was world history resources for young people. One of the reasons white supremacy is allowed to thrive is because African, Latin American, Asian, Middle Eastern and Arab histories are not taught in primary school. The great advances that civilizations made outside of Europe and post colonial US simply are not known to the average American – not because they didn’t happen, but because of our Eurocentric educations. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a lot, but you can, of course, find kids books about all the countries in the world at your local library. One hub where you can learn world history remains out of my grasp (please, please, PLEASE let me know if you know of such a resource). One great list I was able to find, was put together by Kelly L Roll and Kathryn M Kerns, both librarians at Stanford University. Their list Children’s Books About History is one of the most comprehensive and inclusive ones I’ve seen. Roll and Kerns also made great picture books lists on Children’s books with an African theme, Children’s books with an Asian theme, and Children’s books with a Latin American theme.
A good place to look for World History online is Britannica Online, which you can access for free with your library card from KCLS or SPL’s websites. Britannica allows you to search as a child, teen, or adult; you can search for continents, countries, cultures, and ethnic groups that should be covered more in US public education. A great way to learn about the contemporary world is via Culturegrams, which again you can access for free with your library card on KCLS or SPL’s websites. And of course you can always go into your local library, and a librarian or another information professional will be happy to show you print and online materials about any topic you’d like to know more about.
The Zinn Education Project is a really great resource for learning about US histories that far too often get left out of school curriculum. Howard Zinn is famous for being a historian who put together A People’s History of the United States of America (KCLS)(SPL), a history book focused on people’s movements – primarily labor – and trying to demystify some of the mythology that leads to our worship of some pretty terrible leaders from our past. The Zinn History Project continues his work and collects a wide variety of resources from fiction books, to profiles of untold American heroes, to even more great websites.
And while we’re talking about filling in the massive gaps left out of most US history classes, I think it’s vitally important we learn about the cost that European Colonialism had on Indigenous nations and tribes. When searching for children’s books about colonialism what you tend to find are Eurocentric books, with lots of illustrations of white people in settler towns. So to find resource lists about that brutality of European colonizers I had to search for the Trail of Tears, and even then the pickings were slim. The Best Children’s Books offers this short list, and Tina’s Dynamic Homeschool Plus offered this longer one. I would again refer you to American Indians in Children’s Literature, Indian Country Media Network, and The Library at The University of Illinois’ list to find more materials about how messed up colonization was.
Another topic very much worth discussing with young people in your lives are Indian boarding schools (here in the US) or Indian residential schools (in Canada), and there are quite a few lists and books on this topic. American Indians in Children’s Literature offers a great list, with books for multiple ages, along with nonfiction titles, websites, and videos. Color in Colorado also offers a hefty list, as does Worlds of Words. A movie I watched in high school that introduced me to the realities of Indian Boarding Schools was Rabbit-Proof Fence (KCLS)(SPL). Set in Australia – where they had a near-identical boarding school program for Aboriginal communities – you see three girls taken from their families, forced into a cruel boarding school, and then break out to start an incredible and dangerous journey home.
Also, it is incredibly important that as we teach young people about the oppression of indigenous people, that we talk about how these are not problems relegated to the United States’ past. Standing Rock only happened last year, Nations and Tribes continue to fight for sovereignty, sacred lands, and that the federal government respect treaties it signed. Teaching For Change has some great resources on teaching about No DAPL, as does the Institute for Humane Education. The Duwamish Tribe – local to us here in Seattle – is currently fighting for Federal recognition, you can learn about them on their website, join the Real Rent movement to support them (please learn more about real rent at realrentduwamish.org) and work with your young activists to support their cause.
Another part of history that young people need to have is a very honest understanding of is slavery. First, let’s address this absolute foolishness that the Confederacy was about anything besides maintaining slavery. There are a great number of books for children (KCLS)(SPL) and teenagers (KCLS)(SPL) about the Civil War, and I hope that they all will tell the truth that Confederate leaders rallied their support around the cause of supporting slavery. In fact, the Vice President of the Confederacy gave a speech calling slavery the Cornerstone of the Confederacy. There are many book lists about slavery, and all young people need to learn how horrible and disgusting that part of our history was. The Huffington Post has a list of honest books about slavery for varying ages, Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site has a number of teaching tools along with a book list, School Library Journal has a list of Slightly More Recent Books About Slavery, Social Justice Books has a great long list for all ages. Also, as we try and position ourselves in these times I think it’s important that we show young people heros who stood for freedom. Horn book has a great list of books about Harriet Tubman, who, let’s be real, was the actual GOAT. And I want to highlight a book John Brown: His Fight For Freedom (KCLS)(SPL). John Brown was the person Malcolm X said white allies should try and emulate if they wanted to be allies to Black Liberation, and this book has beautiful and dynamic pictures, well written verses, and tells Brown’s story in a compelling way for children.
There are also a number of great resources on the Civil Rights movement. A Mighty Girl has a fantastic list featuring women and girls who were instrumental to the Civil Rights movement, Common Sense Media has a long list starting for kids 4 years old and going up to 13, The Best Children’s Books has a hefty list for younger and older kids, and YALSA has a list of books for teen readers. I also want to highlight a few books, first and foremost the March graphic novel series by John Lewis (KCLS1)(KCLS2)(KCLS3)(SPL1)(SPL2)(SPL3). March tells John Lewis’ story of the Civil Rights Movement in an incredibly moving and compelling way. The illustrations are beautiful, and the story action packed and suspenseful, amazing enough to get the most reluctant readers into history. Lewis highlights all the great activists and change makers he worked with, highlighting some lesser known and incredibly important leaders in the Civil Right Movement. I think the March series is important to activists of any age, because it grounds you in the work it takes to create change. John Lewis was involved in many actions and campaigns, he put his comfort, safety, and life on the line over and over again. These times have us all overwhelmed, all overloaded, but reading about the incredible work Lewis and his peers did is an important reminder that we have to continue to show up, continue to keep fighting. Now, because this is Lewis’ story it’s from his point of view, and takes his side on infighting within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I would suggest that in tandem with reading March young readers also check out The Black Power Movement (only available at KCLS) and Black Power (KCLS)(SPL), both of which look at folks like Stokely Carmichael – the man who coined the phrase “black power” – and Black Liberation Politics in a more positive light.
And again, it is important to ground these histories in the contemporary civil rights struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement. Kiera Parrott made this excellent Black Lives Matter reading list for teens, that I am going to add onto mostly because a few amazing books came out after she wrote this list. Hush by Jacqueline Woodson (KCLS)(SPL) tells the story of 12-year-old Toswiah, who goes from always having had a positive relationship to the police – her father is a cop – to having to hide from them in witness protection when her dad speaks out about fellow officers shooting an unarmed Black teen. The Hate U Give (KCLS)(SPL) is one of the most talked about books this year, and for good reason, Angie Thomas is a beautiful writer, you feel so deeply for Starr as she has to deal with the pain of her childhood best friend being gunned down by police in front of her eyes, and then deciding how to respond and be involved in the aftermath. Dear Martin (KCLS)(SPL) just came out in October, and tells the story of a young man who experiences brutality, told in real time and in his letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am Alfonso Jones is so new it’s still on order at the King County Library System (KCLS)(SPL), and is a graphic novel about the ghost of Alfonso Jones as he follows friends and family in a subway car on their way to fight for justice for him.
A part of American history so shameful many of us are not taught about it at all in US history is Japanese Internment Camps. The Best Children’s Books has a list for students grades 1-8, Pragmatic Mom’s list is beautiful as she weaves her own family history into it, YALSA has a list for teen readers. But to be honest I see far more overlap in the books mentioned in the lists then in others I have pulled together. I would like to highlight a couple of books, keeping in step with the need to show young people heroes I would strongly recommend Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (KCLS)(SPL). Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American man, fought the internment camps all the way to the Supreme Court. Also Dear Miss Breed (KCLS)(SPL) which chronicles the real life correspondence between children in internment camps and their friend and Children’s Librarian Miss Breed; I am so deeply honored to share a profession with her.
Anti-Asian racism is also not a thing of the past and often times written off as not a problem. Talk to your kids about the lack of Asian representation in movies and TV shows. Learn about Asian American history and contemporary culture! Splinter News just did a great article on America’s radical Asian Activists. American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs is a fantastic documentary about a badass woman who fought for change until she died, no area libraries have it but you can watch it on Netflix. A+J did a great series on contemporary Chinese culture. A great local resource is the Wing Luke Museum, which always offer great exhibits and insight into Asian American and Pacific Islander experiences and histories.
I was very disappointed by the greater lack of queer history books for young audiences than I was expecting. I could find one book for teens that looked contemporary, Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights (KCLS)(SPL) and I was fairly disappointed that I didn’t find Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P Johnson listed in the index for it. I was able to find one book for Children, Gay & Lesbian History for Kids The Century-long Struggle for LGBT Rights, With 21 Activities (KCLS)(SPL). The supreme lack of youth literature in queer history alone shows how contemporary homophobia and transphobia are. An upcoming book I am very excited about All Out edited by Saundra Mitchell is a collection of short stories where amazing contemporary YA authors write historical fiction of queer youth throughout time. Also if you know any teens who want to start a queer history project, hit me up, that’s my dream library program.
And to finish off this list I think it’s necessary we teach all young people about the evils of Nazis and facism, and the great heroes who resisted and fought them. Teach with Picture Books has a short list on their website, and a very long annotated list in pdf form, many of which are about resistors. Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site has a comprehensive list, Pragmatic Mom has a good list of books for kids, and the Jewish Book Council offers a long list of books for teens. One book I adored and very much want to recommend is We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler (KCLS)(SPL). We Will Not Be Silent tells the true story of young people brave enough to write and distribute anti-fascist literature in Nazi Germany. Their words are beautiful, their story compelling, and the price they paid harrowing. It is heartbreaking and inspiring, and while it cannot offer its readers a happy ending it reminds us how powerful young change makers can be.
These are not even close to all the histories that need to be told, and I hope if you see stories and communities I left out you will let me know in the comments! I hope you have enjoyed the Give the Gift of Resistance series, and in case you missed it this article has two predecessors: Catch-all resources to help you find diverse books and Resources to find books, media, and information about specific communities and identities.
Maggie Block is a South End-area Teen Services Librarian. While her expertise as a youth librarian in the community will help when writing these pieces, she writes these articles on her own time, and the opinions she expresses are purely hers and in no way reflect her library system or anyone else they employ.