31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 American History Titles for Kids
History. It’s not for the weak. If 2020 taught us anything it’s that a surface explanation of complex historical issues is insufficient. Our youngest readers deserve the truth, told well, every step of the way. Today’s list gets at those books that did a good job with the concept of telling the truth about our past. Biographies, I should note, are included if the title has a specific tie-in to some aspect of American history.
2020 American History Books for Kids
All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing by Chris Barton, ill. Nicole Xu
When something horrible happens, what do you do? What can be done? One April morning in Oklahoma, a truck with a bomb exploded. In its wake, a single tree remained. That is the beginning of this true story of healing and recovery. I think when 9/11 happened I expected this kind of book to appear, but it never did. I wanted something exceedingly smart, insightful, touching, with a sense of the greater picture. Turns out, that book is almost impossible to write. So basically I cannot figure out how Chris Barton managed to write this one. I don’t usually go about calling a book almost perfect, but I think I can say it about this one. This book manages to do the impossible. Its focus may begin with the Oklahoma City bombing, but its scope goes far far beyond. I’m just in awe.
Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars by Gary Golio, ill. E.B. Lewis
How did the voice of a blind man, traveling this country by train, literally reach to the stars? Golio brings to life the story of how Willie Johnson’s singing ended up on the Golden Record of Voyager I. Okay, now it’s time to think long and hard about what this list is doing for the differently abled. Golio’s take on the nonfiction picture book biography genre is very interesting here. Not content to merely zero in on Johnson’s life, he’s placing on either side the fact that Willie’s voice was placed on the golden record NASA shot into space in 1977. This is both literal (the endpapers are gold) and figurative (Willie’s story begins and ends with that record). Then there’s the fact that Golio is writing in the second person, which is a pretty interesting quirk. No fake dialogue (no dialogue at all) and minimal speculation (which is hard since there is so little known about Willie’s early life). It’s a clever method of introducing someone famous and important to readers and darned if it doesn’t work. One cannot help but think how timely it is to have a book out this year that talks about how we go on even when we’re in the darkest of night.
Equality’s Call: The Story of Voting Rights in America by Deborah Diesen, ill. Magdalena Mora
Attaining true equality in voting has always been a struggle, and the fight continues. This title introduces younger readers to its history in rhyme. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know the author of this book was the same person who did the Pout-Pout Fish books when I picked it up. And now I have just robbed you too of your blissful ignorance. Mea culpa. But honestly, if you were to describe this book to me, I never would have picked it up. “It’s a really young non-fiction title about voting rights throughout America’s history . . . and it rhymes . . . and it’s by The Pout-Pout Fish’s author.” And darned if the whole thing doesn’t work. Because the thing is, books like this usually elide hard truths. They like to do that. And this one . . . it doesn’t confront them all head on, but at the same time it gives the parental reader (in this case, me) places to fill in the blanks. For example, there’s this two-page spread where Ida B. Wells is on one page with Black women and Susan B. Anthony is on another page with white women and they’re both asking for the right to vote but, at the same time, there’s some side-eye going on. That means that when I read this to my kid, I can explain how the white suffragettes shut out the Black suffragettes and treated them terribly. There’s wonderful backmatter (I was very gratified to see that they included the info that Native Americans did not gain voting rights in all states until 1957, a fact I only recently learned elsewhere), and a list of activists.
Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball’s Negro Leagues by Leah Henderson, ill. George Doutsiopoulos
Thanks to the Ellen Klages middle grade novel Out of Left Field, I already had a rudimentary knowledge of the lives of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Toni Stone, and Connie Morgan. Even so, this picture book focuses its attention squarely on Johnson alone from childhood to an Afterword that talks about the many honors she received late in life. Leah Henderson is having quite the year herself! Between this and The Magic in Changing Your Stars, she’s cranking out some high quality fiction and nonfiction alike. There were a number of things I liked about this book, including the ways in which Henderson eschews faux dialogue and has this extensive list of Source Notes with direct quotes, as well as a Select Bibliography for consideration. The illustrator, George Doutsiopoulos, is Greek and insofar as I can tell this may be his first book published here in the States. He better keep at it, because there’s a twinkle in Mamie’s eyes in this book that’s difficult to capture in illustration. This isn’t the first picture book bio of a Black woman in baseball, but it’s certainly one of the best you’ll find. In a league of its own.
The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull, ill. Alexandra Bye
Who would have thought that a quiet, shy girl would grow up to fight injustice and take a significant role in FDR’s New Deal? A picture book biography of a woman who never drew the spotlight, changing the world in quiet, careful ways. Y’all are going to have to help me figure out if I like this one on its own merits as a book for kids or if I like this so much because as an adult I didn’t know any of this information. Maybe the book makes her out to be too big a deal, but you definitely get the impression that the New Deal was due in large part to Perkins herself. One thing I love about Ms. Krull is that she doesn’t fudge a fact, fake a line of dialogue, none of that. I was very impressed too by the fact that in her note at the end she mentions that a great park of Frances’s success was being the right person in the right place at the right time. Definitely deserves additional reads. A cut above many of the other strong female picture bios we see.
Rescuing the Declaration of Independence: How We Almost Lost the Words That Built America by Anna Crowley Redding, ill. Edwin Fotheringham
During the War of 1812, England was determined to burn the nation’s capital to the ground. Yet thanks to a plucky office clerk, the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and more were saved from destruction. A riveting true tale. A stirring piece of American history that plays completely fair with its material. Will you find fake dialogue in this book? You will not. Will you find imagined sequences that can’t be backed up with historical records? You will not. Is there a Selected Biography in the back with eleven different sources listed? There is. And does it also come with an Author’s Note, information on The Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, The Articles of Confederation, a Timeline for the Burning of Washington, and info on where to see these documents? It does AND (even more important than all of this) it’s a super fun read. Part of that is due to Fotheringham’s art. At some point the main became the official illustrator of Literary Revolutionary America, and I for one have no objections to that point. But really, it’s Redding who deserves a lot of credit for the book’s success. I know that telling the story of the guy who had to keep one step ahead of the British army during the War of 1812 sounds inherently interesting, but if you want to keep it accurate then you’re hindered by inconvenient facts. Redding never wavers from the truth and the book is stronger for it. And did I mention that it’s fun?
Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb! by Veronica Chambers, ill. Rachelle Baker
“A catalyst for change in America” gets her due in this riveting, inspirational, magnificent biography of a figure that was so much more than just the first Black woman to make a bid for the presidency. Okay, I admit that I’m a little harsh when it comes to picture book biographies. Like, do kids actually need to read one about the members of Queen? Half the time I suspect that they’re just being written to appease the parents and they don’t really deliver anything significant for child readers. But THIS biography is different. Chisholm is hugely important, but what makes the book different is that Chambers pulls in context and contemporary figures like AOC and even rap lyrics praising her, to tell her story. Inspirational (and I don’t use that word lightly).
William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad by Don Tate
The origin story of this book is almost as good as the book itself. When Don Tate’s mom gave him an old battered copy of The Biographical Dictionary of Black Americans from a garage sale (isn’t that, like, the most mom thing you ever heard?) he used it for a Black History Month challenge, where he’d draw one person from it a day. He started out with the famous people and then stumbled on William Still. Father of the Underground Railroad? How had Don (or any of us) never heard of this guy before? Well, I don’t want to alarm you or anything but apparently when it comes to abolition, white people had a tendency to get all white savior-ish with the stories of who risked what for whom. And William, who quietly created the lists that would allow families to come together again, and then went on to become a coal baron, didn’t get his due. One of these days, can we just take all the Don Tate bios, put them in a line, and have them celebrated fully in some way? Because when it comes to singing the unsung (or too little sung) nobody does it like Mr. Tate.
Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices by Lindsay H. Metcalf
Though it may resemble a picture book, the sophisticated history at work from Metcalf here will definitely need some older eyeballs. Since I was a child in the 80s, I never quite knew much about the farm crisis during that time (aside from the Doonesbury comics I read, of course). Metcalf, born and raised on a farm, has investigated this story inside and out. For my part, I think there’s a lot of value in hearing about a protest made by folks from rural areas. Particularly since initially it failed. Kids read about successful protests all the time. The idea of reading about one that did not make immediate change is a jolt of reality they may not expect. The roots of the farm crisis aren’t discussed particularly, so be prepared to field some questions from any kid that chooses to read this through. But what an exciting story it is! Clashes with police. Hundreds of tractors gumming up the traffic of D.C. The threat to drive one into the US Department of Agriculture (and then doing it with a kid on a tiny John Deere). The blizzard where the tractors won over the hearts of D.C. residents! Political history doesn’t have to be a stranger to kids anymore and this one is unique.
The Mayflower (History Smashers) by Kate Messner, ill. Dylan Meconis
Prepare to take a deep dive into the story of Thanksgiving. Think you know it already? Think again. Chock full of thorough research, this is the history your schoolbooks won’t teach you. On the one hand, we have way too many Kate Messner books to choose between this year. On the other hand, this book isn’t just needed. It’s imperative. Messner sets up the myths and then smashes them, doing probably the best job I’ve seen in a children’s work of nonfiction to give the Wampanoag their long overdue due. There’s a particularly magnificent part at the end where she discusses a Mayflower celebration in the 70s that wanted to invite the Wampanoag to take part, only to have the white organizers panic when the planned speech by the tribe turned out to be something other than happy dappy. Necessary reading for the 21st century. My sole regret is that I never was able to see the other books in this series.
We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changed the World by Todd Hasak-Lowy
Change isn’t peaceful, but it doesn’t have to be violent either. Evanston author Todd Hasak-Lowy reveals six historical cases when activism was necessary to improve the world. So the issue with this book isn’t whether or not it’s list-worthy, because I happen to find it extraordinary. Essentially, it breaks down nonviolent activism, shows what works, what doesn’t, and takes six test cases as its examples. It doesn’t soft shoe the difficulties, and even talks about the failures. At the same time, though, it shows how difficult but not impossible it is to make real and lasting change. It also shows how when one method doesn’t work you have to get creative and try something else. No, the issue with this book is whether or not it’s YA or for kids. Abrams is selling it as 10 to 14, so I’m including it because I love it so much. But it definitely needs a couple more eyeballs on it.
Want to see other lists? Stay tuned for the rest this month!
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 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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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