Battles continue to rage in schools across America about how history is taught and who is included in the story of “us.” These controversies go beyond test scores and textbooks; they represent different visions of justice, community life, and what this society stands for. After all, if we don’t wrestle with the past in all its difficult complexities, we can’t make sense of the forces shaping our lives in the present.
As historian Patrick Wyman pointed out on Twitter, “Lot of folks out there confuse ‘history’ with ‘stories from the past that make me feel good about who I am.…’ History should make you feel uncomfortable....The past doesn’t exist to validate your sense of who you are in the present.”
Lot of folks out there confuse "history" with "stories from the past that make me feel good about who I am in the present." Most of the time, when somebody's whining about "rewriting history," what they mean is "this knowledge about a real thing that happened makes me feel bad."— Patrick Wyman (@Patrick_Wyman) May 22, 2021
The following books provoke and engage, inform and enlighten. They invite readers to reflect on challenging questions and recognize that meaningful learning never occurs without discomfort.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents: Adapted for Young Adults by Isabel Wilkerson (Delacorte, 2022): Trimming down her 2020 adult bestseller, Wilkerson offers teens global historical and contemporary contexts against which to consider America’s racial hierarchy rather than framing this country as exceptional and unique.
My Selma: True Stories of a Southern Childhood at the Height of the Civil Rights Movement by Willie Mae Brown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jan. 3): This memoir is an effective blend of details from everyday life and extraordinary history. Brown’s girlhood in a loving Black Baptist family unfolded even as the civil rights movement shook Alabama and the rest of America.
For Lamb by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Holiday House, Jan. 10): A master of historical fiction returns with a story set in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era as various narrators seek self-determination and fulfillment within an unforgiving society’s tight constraints.
A Mighty Long Way (Adapted for Young Readers): My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School by Carlotta Walls Lanier with Lisa Frazier Page (Delacorte, Jan. 17): The Little Rock Nine, the first Black teens to attend the city’s Central High School, made history at considerable personal risk; in this fascinating memoir, the youngest of the group shares an insider’s view of radical social change and its consequences in her life.
Promise Boys by Nick Brooks (Henry Holt, Jan. 31): Long-standing inequities in education are critiqued in this gripping mystery novel about Black and brown boys at an urban prep school who come under scrutiny after their authoritarian principal is murdered.
The Davenports by Krystal Marquis (Dial Books, Jan. 31): African American elites are the focus of this noteworthy debut novel set in Chicago shortly after the turn of the 20th century; it centers the social and romantic intrigues of four young women.
How To Be a (Young) Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and Nic Stone (Kokila, Jan. 31): Scholar Kendi and YA author Stone collaborate in this original reimagining of Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist in which one man’s personal journey is effectively contextualized against the backdrop of broader social forces.
The Racial Trauma Handbook for Teens: CBT Skills To Heal From the Personal & Intergenerational Trauma of Racism by Támara Hill (Instant Help Books, Feb. 1): This accessible and important self-help guide aimed at Black and biracial youth shows how racism negatively affects our most intimate relationships even decades after events have passed. It offers readers critical paths to understanding and healing.
The Sum of Us (Adapted for Young Readers): How Racism Hurts Everyone by Heather McGhee (Delacorte, Feb. 21): A think tank president applies her considerable research and public policy skills to this remarkable work that persuasively demonstrates how correcting inequities rooted in slavery will reap benefits for Americans of all races.
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.