31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 American History
Let’s make today’s list a little more interesting, shall we? Here’s what I propose. There were a great slew of children’s books published in 2019 and set in America’s past. For them to appear on today’s list they must fulfill the following requirements:
- Each book must says something specific about a particular aspect of American history.
- Biographies will be avoided, with the sole exception of those biographies where the subject is important within the context of an event or object.
- Fiction and fact will be included together.
With that in mind, here are some of the more interesting trips into America’s past that we saw in 2019:
2019 American History
The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome
In the past, the only time you ever saw a black kid in a picture book, it was probably going to be in a story about slavery. In recent years, the number of slave-related picture books has dropped precipitously. Now, we’re getting stories that involve slavery but that have complex feelings attached. Ransome typifies this when he discusses the complicated emotions that come when a loved one escaped. When a family member leaves, the family is simultaneously hopeful and distraught at possibly never seeing them again. The end result is a simultaneously simple and sophisticated tale. And Ransome is doing so much exciting stuff these days! Have you seen 2020’s The Overground Railroad? I’ll say no more, except that you have a real treat in store.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Tradition by Kevin Noble Maillard, ill. Juana Martinez-Neal
Fry bread is food, shape, color, flavor, time, art, history, place, nation, everything, and us. Lively art and verse celebrate a modern Native American family at the table. Phew! When considering books of American history to include on today’s list, it occurred to me that though the images in this book are contemporary, the history of fry bread and its role in some Native American cultures is inseparable from the historical record. I mean, I need you to see this book’s backmatter. The copious copious backmatter. And as I read Maillard’s personal family stories and cultural additions and historical notes, I realized that what this book is, truly is, is a Thanksgiving corrective. Maillard even mentions Thanksgiving when he discusses “the amicable relations taught at school and celebrated at home every Thanksgiving,” and how they contrast with the true history of the colonists and the Indian nations. So. Adults. When you read this book, read the whole thing. Read the backmatter. Then read it to your kids and you’ll have all this information you can tell them WHILE you read. You can supplement the reading with what Maillard has written here.
Liberty Arrives! How America’s Grandest Statue Found Her Home by Robert Byrd
It’s not as though we haven’t had books about the creation of the Statue of Liberty before. Heck, I know my library’s 900s has a whole slew of the suckers. What makes Byrd’s book stand apart (aside from the copious text) is how much time and attention he spends on the funding issues. Now when I write it that way, it sounds pretty dull. Fortunately, Byrd does a good job of really talking about how integral regular people and, especially, kids were in terms of funding. It does a darn good job without having to rely on photographs too.
Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island by Jennifer Thermes
In my experience, American exceptionalism can’t hold a candle to Manhattan exceptionalism (particularly when you live there). Now that I live away from 117th Street, I like to try to determine how useful such a book as this is to kids in other parts of the country. Yet the allure of Manhattan is incredible, even when you’re in flyover country. What makes Thermes’ book stand out is that while there is a certain level of rah-rah Manhattan to it, this may be the first history of the island to give large portions over to Seneca Village, the slaves that lived in Manhattan, and the Lenape and their experiences there. I did find a small disconnect when you’d go from a section on the outrages of Seneca Village to a celebration of the glory of Central Park, and I was surprised not to see the Draft Riots covered, but generally speaking this is a pretty darn good history for kids. Interesting and there are even a couple Hamilton references snuck in there.
Monument Maker: Daniel Chester French and the Lincoln Memorial by Linda Booth Sweeney, ill. Shawn Fields
“A sculptor is nine-tenths mechanic, and one-tenth poet.” – Daniel Chester French. This book has to fight an uphill battle. First off, it’s almost entirely done in black and white. Second, the subject matter sounds boring. Oh goody. Another book about making a sculpture. Haven’t we had enough Statue of Liberty/Mount Rushmore books to last us a good long while? And then, at the beginning, I thought I was reading fake dialogue so I was out. But then, as I read the book I was stunned by the elasticity of the writing, the imagination in the art, and the fact that almost every single piece of dialogue (save one at the beginning and I can let it slide) is accounted for with meticulous notes in the back. The story turns out to be thrilling! The backmatter is hugely informative and downright interesting. Add in the fact that Sweeney mentions multiple times the contributions of black laborers (and the fact that they were not allowed to attend the dedication in a proper location making it “a stain on that day”) and ties the memorial to three pivotal points in history (Marian Anderson, MLK, and Obama). This is a jaw-dropper of a book. Give it a look.
A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, ill. Julia Kuo
I won’t lie to you. It took me a little while to finish this book. There is no denying the fact that Kadohata is one of the best writers for children working today. If you were to look up the phrase “indelible images”, she would have to be the first author references. There are sections of this book that I will never be able to get out of my head. Kadohata tackles a bit of history unheralded and unknown to many Americans. After being forced into Japanese internment camps during WWII, Hanako and her family have decided to leave the United States to become Japanese citizens. Yet when they arrive in Japan it becomes quickly clear that the country is a difficult place to live. There’s a sadness at this book’s bones, but I wouldn’t label it as depressing. Certain most of the book takes place in Japan, but it’s America and its internment camps that are on trial here.
A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein, ill. Jerry Pinkney
King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington is legendary now, but creating it was no easy task. In this wholly original true story, kids learn about the collaboration and last minute inspiration that led to the “I Have a Dream” speech we know today. It is incredibly difficult to come up with a Martin Luther King Jr. book that (A) Is any good and (B) Has a new way to present information about his life for a young audience. Yet I ended up so impressed with this title that I started searching about to see if Wittenstein had done other works of nonfiction in the past. He had, but I feel like he’s stepped it up considerably with this title. Now you know how crazy I get when it comes to fictionalized elements in nonfiction stories. The quotes in this book are all cited with their sources at the end, and there is a kind of dreamy moment with King thinking about the ones who came before as he tries to write, but I found it forgivable and unspecific enough that it doesn’t louse everything up. The construction of the book is expert, the art some of Pinkney’s best, there’s a nuance to the character of King that’s rare in a book for children, and it’s honestly a story about the man that I didn’t know before.
The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in Our Food and Drugs by Gail Jarrow
Every year I fail to receive any of the new Calkins Creek titles (ahem, cough cough, ahem) and every dang year Gail Jarrow goes on to win some kind of Sibert Medal. Well, NO MORE! I went out and put a hold on this puppy the minute I heard it was coming and I’ve managed to read it in time for today’s list. Now it does feel like a book on the founding of the FDA wouldn’t be the most interesting choice in the world, but hold on to your horses, little missy. This book’s a hoot (and a truly lovely companion to fellow 2019 publication Killer Style: How Fashion Has Injured, Maimed & Murdered Throughout History by Serah-Marie McMahon and Allison Matthews David). In it, you have this amazing opening where Jarrow basically lists off all the food that could potentially destroy you if you chose to eat breakfast in a city in 1890. And the chapter title is “Embalmed Bees and Other Delicacies”. Add in all the AMAZING horrible ads (“Cocaine Toothache Drops; Instantaneous Cure!”) and political cartoons, and the end result is that the life of government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington is just about the most fascinating story you’ll encounter all year. Weirdly thrilling and terrifying by turns.
The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Frank Morrison
Reviewers get sort of hooked on the use of the same words over and over. If I ever did a wordcloud of my own adjectives and descriptors, “vibrant” would probably come up as overused. But boy oh boy oh boy, if any book deserved the term it would be this one. This is, without a doubt, the best thing Frank Morrison has ever done. From the moment he won a John Steptoe Award back in 2004 for Jazzy Miz Mozetta I’ve been hoping for a book like this. Likewise, you get the distinct feeling that he’s been waiting his whole life to do this book, and it shows.
Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders, ill. Jamey Christoph
I think we could not have had this book, in its current form, anytime before this moment in time. I did like the conceit of centering Stonewall on its location and base, from stables to bar. The artist also did some great research, so it looks accurate. My first library job was at the Jefferson Market Branch, and every day I used to walk by the Stonewall Inn on my way to work in Greenwich Village. This book brought back all kinds of good memories. All told, I think this is a strong bit of writing with really remarkable art. I’ve never really ever seen anything like it before.
This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy
The subtitle will tell you that this is “One Girl’s Story” but telling the tale of a school integration that seemed to go well until it went horribly wrong (and has been all but forgotten in the shadow of the Little Rock Nine) makes it clear that this is American history in the purest sense. Holy moly, it’s a good book! I admit a tiny bit of skepticism when I saw how long it was. Then, like a ten-year-old, I got a thrill when I realized it was in verse. But a verse nonfiction memoir? How was that going to work? Brilliantly, as it happens. Pairing Boyce and Levy together completely works. This is such a creative solution to the old “fake quotations” problem. It’s filled with quotes from named sources, like newspapers and interviews, to say nothing of the impressive backmatter. Then you actually get moments where the verse turns seamlessly into poetry, so there are sonnets, ballads, villanelles, pantoums, haikus, and more. Oh. And the story really grips you. Sucks you right in. Deserving of all its praise.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, ill. Kadir Nelson
I’ve always said that Kadir Nelson just needed the right author to reach his full picture book potential. So why did it never occur to me that Kwame Alexander would be his perfect match? This is pure Kwame and pure Kadir mixed in the best possible way. It’s a poem extended into a book, which could be completely prosaic but instead ends up gorgeous and meaningful. I feel like the author and the illustrator did exactly what they set out to do. Plus, check out how Kadir changed up his style in some of these spreads! I absolutely love the list of “Historical Figures and Events Featured In The Undefeated” at the back, because there were a couple people here I didn’t recognize. Yeah, this is gold.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2019, Booklists
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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