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I started high school over (gulp) 25 years ago. Things have changed a lot with the story since then. Sure, the story itself hasn’t changed, but the way we talk about it and think about it has changed. We learned more information, and there are many more books published since then that give voice to the lived experiences and stories of marginalized people. The teaching of history and the writing of history textbooks are politicized and not entirely impartial (the book Lies my teacher told me explains this in detail, on education/publishing company shareholders, advisory boards, textbook authors, etc.). It is important.
I’m homeschooling my son, and I’ve found that in secular homeschool circles, especially those striving to adopt an ABAR (antibias, antiracist) curriculum, it you’re more than likely to stumble upon a story discussion sooner rather than later. Discussions about which curricula are good, which are problematic, and whether to create your own history studies or use a pre-made one.
There’s also a lot of discussion about our own learning and relearning of history. Many of us also realize the shortcomings of our own education and learning and make efforts to improve this.
But even if you’re not homeschooling, what we learned in high school years or decades ago isn’t everything. Far from there. And it’s never too late to reevaluate what we’ve been taught and learn more.
History was never one of my favorite subjects (I preferred English), but maybe the way it was taught and the way the textbooks were written had something to do with it. I read a lot of stories so I could better teach my son and share material with him as the topics came up, and I found that I really liked it. How much do I love him? I’ve made myself a whole playlist that I don’t see myself finishing anytime soon, but that’s okay.
One thing I’ve noticed is that for those of us who want to know more, we can’t get enough history books to put in our TBR pile – but it can be hard to know by where to start because there are so many wonderful books out there now. I’ve put together a kind of reading list to start with, for everyone from kids to adults. There are a lot of crossovers though – some of the middle level books can be used with younger kids at a simpler level as a discussion starter, and many of the middle level or YA books can certainly be read by adults. This list barely scratches the surface; it’s just meant to be a springboard for more reading. For this list, I’ve focused on non-fiction books only, but there are plenty of wonderful historical fictions out there that are great to read about, or even paired with a non-fiction selection.
There’s a caveat to this list: the story isn’t always pretty, and it’s not always easy to read. But these books are not the complete story. It is also important to read books by and about marginalized communities that promote joy. Here’s an article about books that celebrate black joy, and this is an article about books about queer joy to start with.
Books for children, colleges and young adults
The 1619 Project: Born on Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson and Nikkolas Smith
When a college student receives an assignment for a family tree but can only trace three generations, her grandmother tells her how her ancestors were stolen 400 years ago and brought to America by white slave traders. . This beautifully written picture book is about slavery, but it also deals with the resistance that is alive today and highlights survival and the legacies that remain today.
Asian Americans who inspire us by Analiza Quiroz Wolf, Michael Franco and Tuire Siiriainen
This book introduces readers to 16 pioneering Asian Americans who broke stereotypes, made breakthroughs, excelled in their fields, or inspired others. Individuals include David Ho, Grace Lin, Maya Lin, Ellison Onizuka, and more.
Notable Indigenous Peoples: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers and Changemakers Past and Present by Adrienne Keene & Clara Sana
This beautifully illustrated book not only features 50 Native American, Alaskan Native, and Hawaiian individuals, but also contains insights into issues such as cultural appropriation, colonialism, land and water rights, and sovereignty. food. Those highlighted include Wilma Mankiller, Maria Tallchief, Janet Mock and Kyrie Irving.
Before she was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome & James E. Ransome
Harriet Tubman wasn’t always known as Harriet. In this lyrical story we read of his various names – Moses, Minty, Araminta. The writing is beautiful and poetic, but accessible even for young children. The prose is paired with rich watercolor illustrations, and there’s even a resource guide on the back for further perusal.
We’re Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell & Frane Lessac
This is a companion book for We are grateful: Otsaliheliga, and discusses topics such as forced assimilation like boarding schools, native civil rights, nationality, native language revival work, and the U.S. government not recognizing tribes as nations, among other issues. There is a timeline and a glossary, and these questions are written simply and clearly.
What is Black Lives Matter? by Lakita Wilson
The What Is/Who Is series is fantastic and a great introduction to various people, places, events and organizations. This book tells the story of the organization Black Lives Matter, the events that spurred the movement, the nonviolent civil disobedience and protest against police brutality it promotes. It is accessible to young children and is a good springboard for discussion.
Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask (Young Readers Edition) by Anton Treuer
This young reader edition of the adult book provides answers to all the questions natives and non-natives might have – from issues like cultural appropriation to questions about fry bread, and everything in between. It covers terminology, history, language, politics, social justice issues, and more. This may be a young readers edition, but this book is great even for adults.
They called us enemies by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker
This graphic memoir tells Takei’s story of being imprisoned in an American internment camp during World War II. He shares what it was like, the terror felt in the camp, the choices people had to make and the effects it had. It is a compelling and thought-provoking book that is a must-have addition to World War II literature.
Books for adults
The United States History Review Series
A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki
It’s also a great starting point – and there’s a version for younger readers too. Takaki’s book illustrates just how rich American history is, through stories of non-English speaking people in the United States – Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Mexican Americans, Irish Americans, and more. It delves into various issues with different communities and details of American history that you may not have learned. It’s an invaluable addition to any history book list.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones
The New York Times1619 Project, created by Hannah-Jones, was a work of journalism like no other. Essays, poems, stories and archival photos – all exploring the history of slavery, oppression and also resistance, and how it manifests itself today. It’s not just about discussing the story; it is also a commentary on our present time. Contributors include Camille T. Dungy, Jasmine Mans, Danez Smith, Natasha Trethewey, and Yaa Gyasi.
The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee
Lee writes about generations of Asian immigrants and their descendants in America, and how their lives have evolved over the decades to change what Asian American life looks like. Along with history that includes Asian immigration to America and the events of World War II, she delves into the myth of the “model minority” as well as Asian hatred – while writing about community activism. It’s a detailed look at a variety of events and stories that have been largely overlooked by many.
What books have you read? Which will you read first?