31 Days, 31 Lists: 2022 American History for Kids
Why do I even do an “American History” list? Welp, seems to me that the current battleground over children’s books in this country, the book banning and the cries over what constitutes “real” history, has a lot to do with who gets to tell our stories. In the past, white people controlled the narrative. Now we’re seeing books for kids coming out about our nation’s past that are less than entirely sunny and some people are NOT excited about it.
Today, I’m celebrating those books for kids that dare to tell some truths about the America we live in. Its history and its true heroes. Plus a couple works of fiction to give context along the way. And just to be cheeky, I’m mixing it all together into one big pot. Bon appetite!
And if you are interested in reading past “American history” booklists that I’ve compiled, please consider the following:
2022 American History Books for Kids
American Murderer: The Parasite That Haunted the South by Gail Jarrow
We start off with a book on the older end of the spectrum. Definitely for the 9-12 year old crowd. So this book is, and I mean this truly my friends, it is terrifying. Imagine me running around the home, thrusting this book into the face of my 3rd grader to show him the terrifyingly toothy hookworm photos inside. I am the best mom! And this is the best book. It really explains perfectly how the American South was crushed effectively by a hookworm named, and this is true, the American Murderer. In the shadow of COVID, reading about blind eyes taken by the Southern medical community in light of the facts is both depressing and overly familiar. This is part of the Calkins Creek “Medical Fiascoes” series, and is the first installment I’ve had a chance to read myself, though I’ve always been a big Jarrow fan. Full of disgusting and fascinating photos and images, a certain strand of kid is going to find this enthralling. Worms worms worms! History history history!
Call Me Miss Hamilton: One Woman’s Case for Equality and Respect by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Jeffery Boston Weatherford
Civil rights isn’t just marching in the streets. A lot of the time is taking people to court over injustices. Can you fight to have people call you a name with respect? Mary Hamilton did. The story of one brave woman’s work to be called “Miss Hamilton”, accompanied by emotive scratchboard art and photos. First off, not a fan of the cover. Once I was into the book I got really fond of Mr. Weatherford’s style, but I do not think that particular cover image is doing the book any favors. The actual text is fascinating since I’d never heard of this case before and Ms. Weatherford does a great job of bringing the historical context to the forefront. The real key with the art, aside from the scratchboard illustrations is the integration of photography. That shot of the nuns!
Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Angela Joy, ill. Janelle Washington
The life of Emmett Till’s mother highlights one woman’s lifetime of making brave, rather than easy, choices. Meticulous papercuts tell her story with dignity. Mmm. Chalk this up as an exceedingly smart take on how to frame the life and work of Mamie Till-Mobley. It’s really right there in the title. The book tells this woman’s life from start to finish, but the crux of it, what it all really hinges on, is the question of what one does when faced with a difficult decision. Do you make the easy choice or the brave choice? And it’s so well done, how it manages to tell Emmett’s story honestly without getting too gory for child readers. I just can’t believe that this is Janelle Washington’s first book either. This takes the art of papercutting to a whole other level. Seriously, this should be serious contender come award season. One of the best of the year. Easily.
Fighting for Yes! The Story of Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, ill. Vivien Mildenberger
The history of disability rights in America is displayed through a single woman’s story. Can you imagine being told NO your entire life? The story of Judith Heumann’s life is stirringly presented and is sure to make activists out of each and every reader.To my mind, a good author is capable of making kids understand how deeply unfair something can be. And this story of Judith Heumann just bears down on the injustice of her education in ways I’ve never seen or, to be frank, thought of before. You’re just 100% on board with her from the get-go, and Mildenberger’s art makes for a great companion to the tale. 100 points for not making the title of this book some kind of pun on “Heumann”’s last name. Love the notes from Judith herself (it’s always good for kids to see bios of living people), the context in the Author’s Note, and the neatly made page of Selected Sources.
The 500 Million Dollar Heist (The Unsolved Case Files) by Tom Sullivan
This one’s for the 9-12 year old crowd. Now, from the moment I read the first book in the “Unsolved Case Files” series (Escape at 10,000 Feet), I was hooked. I was also a little puzzled. How is it that no one has ever thought to do what Tom Sullivan has done? Which is to say, lay out the facts of various unsolved crime-related mysteries, and allow the child readers to decide the truth. Each book in the series looks like a series of documents, but laid out in a narrative format. The crime is described first and then the reader is told what we now know. After that, different theories are posited, as well as those complications that make one theory or another more or less likely. Since reading this book about the robbing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum I’ve seen references to it everywhere. And maybe at some point in my past I’d heard of the famous art heist that was never solved, but Sullivan really puts you inside the action from the get go. You are there when the crime is discovered. You are there as you see it in progress. And you are no closer to solving the case than anyone else by the end. Kids of a certain mindset will greatly enjoy debating the possible solutions to the case with their friends. As delightful as the crime was infuriating.
Going Places: Victor Hugo Green and His Glorious Book by Tonya Bolden, ill. Eric Velasquez
Thanks to racism, Jim Crow laws, and segregation, if you were Black and wanted to travel around the United States in early days of the family cars and highways, finding safe spots to stop could be hard. Victor Hugo Green made it a lot easier, and this peppy book shows how his Green Book made the world a safer place. Now THAT is what I’m talking about! Sometimes it’s hard for me to separate out how good a book is from how much better it is than a similar one that’s done this topic before. This is not, by any means, the first book on Victor Hugo Green that I’ve ever seen. It is, however, the best I’ve ever seen. Eric Velasquez is in his element and has pulled out every last stop that could have been pulled out. You know when you sometimes get the feeling that an illustrator is sleepwalking through a project? This is the opposite of that. Velasquez is clearly passionate about the subject matter and, just as important, he’s having fun with it. Tonya Bolden, meanwhile, is always good, but here she’s given just the right amount of context to surround the story itself. There’s a lot of “maybes” at the beginning, which I don’t love, but I don’t really mind either. And look at this design! This is historical picture book storytelling at its finest. At last, we finally have a book on this subject worth turning to again and again.
Hardcourt: Stories from 75 Years of the National Basketball Association by Fred Bowen, ill. James E. Ransome
Older reader book alert! We’re talking American history and what could be more American than basketball? It’s all about the personalities, rivalries, and moments of sheer remarkable physicality. All the drama is on display in this quick synopsis of its history and greatest moments, with stunning watercolors that capture the soul of the game. Boy, I tell you. Ebooks may have their uses but there is no comparison to a print title when it’s as large and lovely as this one. I read the book on my phone but seeing the actual book in person I realize now how much you lose when Ransome’s art gets shrunk to a pinprick. I pretty much don’t know anything about basketball so for me this book was like getting a crash course with a LOT of explanations. I feel like I now can get a whole host of cultural references I would have missed in the past. And really, isn’t that sort of the point of children’s nonfiction? To catch kids up on the rest of the world that already happened? Gorgeous and engaging and something some of our child readers are going to want to see the most.
I Am Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges, ill. Nikkolas
What’s it like to be Ruby Bridges? Why not let her tell you herself? Ruby recounts her famous youth, putting young readers right into the head of an average kid caught up in a historical moment. It probably says something unflattering about the state of children’s books today that I can look at the cover of this book and immediately my mind says, “Ugh. Another Ruby Bridges book”. Which, aside from being entirely unfair, is more a fault of an industry that churns out bios of the same people over and over than the title itself. And as nutty as it sounds, I actually was drawn to the book at first because Nikkolas Smith was the illustrator and I just loved his work on the 1619 Project book last year. I didn’t even realize that Ruby Bridges herself had written the book until I actually went to read it. Mind you, I’m under the impression that she’s done more than one book about her life over the years, so I took that into consideration. Still, this is a much better take on the story than any other picture book bio I’ve seen until now. Ruby really and truly puts you into the head of her 6-year-old self, confusion and all. You get this real sense of how bewildering the grown-up world is, shuttling her from place to place. Smith is, as always, on target with his art and the whole thing is a rousing success. Not your average Ruby Bridges book
Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth by Michelle Duster, ill. Laura Freeman
It’s not every day you get to read a picture book written by a Suffragette’s great-granddaughter. I’ve enjoyed the art of Laura Freeman for years, but I think she really comes into her own with this latest book. Just LOOK at those killer endpapers. I’m talking terrific typography. A larger-than-life quote with an image of young Ida in the front and another huge quote next to older Ida in the back. And inside? A really good encapsulation, it doesn’t attempt the whole birth-to-death style, but opts instead to start with her highlights, backtracks pretty much to when she was sixteen, and shows from there how this woman had some kind of an unstoppable motor inside, driving her. Reminds me of some of those Hark, A Vagrant comics about her from back in the day. And yes, teacher type people. There is a Timeline in the back. Bonus.
Jack Knight’s Brave Flight by Jill Esbaum, ill. Stacy Innerst
A gripping, edge-of-your-seat telling of the daring flight by one man to save air mail service in America. Best book. Worst cover. I have low tolerance for sepia mistakes. But boy is this a great example of how the writing of a nonfiction picture book really elevates the entire production. Esbaum’s no newbie and it shows. She knows how to really put you in the pilot’s seat. The exhaustion and tension and that moment when he almost falls asleep in the air. And then all those near misses or actual misses! A wonderful example of a book that plays fair with the material (sourcing all the quotes, not mucking up the facts) and comes off with a gripping, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat bit of factual storytelling. Bravo!
Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves by L.M. Elliott
One of my rare middle grade fictions from the year. What’s a shortcut to a librarian’s heart when it comes to historical fiction? I’ll tell ya a secret: It’s giving them facts they didn’t know before. True story! For instance, I had no idea, prior to reading this book, that Nazi subs had a nasty tendency to blow up ships right off the Virginia coast. Apparently, it was a huge problem, and Louisa June’s story tells all. It also touches on such big themes as depression at a time when folks simply didn’t understand about that kind of thing. Louisa June herself wants to help with the war effort, and when she’s not being strafed by her own plane’s bombers by accident, she’s rescuing sailors in the waves. I found it darned affecting. Extra points to the audiobook narrator Elizabeth Wiley who does a killer Eleanor Roosevelt imitation. I suspect it may have played heavily in her getting the job.
New From Here by Kelly Yang
More middle grade fiction! And yes, the recent COVID crisis counts as historical. It’s January 2020 and Knox and his family are escaping the spread of COVID-19 by moving to California from Hong Kong while their dad stays behind. Recent history comes to vibrant life in this tale of racism, struggle, and family. I think it’s really cool that Kelly Yang has come up with a middle grade novel that talks about a historical event so recent that kids can actually remember living through it themselves. Watching the characters try to escape COVID by coming to America is like watching a train accident in slow motion. You just want to tell them what’s going to happen. And I love the tie-ins to the real story that Kelly and her kids lived through. I thought the relationship between the brothers and how that changes worked well. I found some elements a tiny bit far-fetched, but not too terrible. All told, an effecting COVID novel.
A River’s Gifts: The Mighty Elwha River Reborn by Patricia Newman, ill. Natasha Donovan
When the Elwha River was dammed up it not only decimated the salmon population but flooded the lands of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. So what happens when you remove the dams? A powerful story of activism and nature’s recovery. Let the record show that for the first two or three pages of this book I was not initially on board. Something about it struck me as dull, I guess. So glad I stuck with it, though! This book is a marvelous companion to this year’s THE WOLVES OF YELLOWSTONE since, in both cases, people muck with nature, restore nature, and then are surprised when restoring nature has unintended good consequences. Donovan’s art is the perfect companion to Newman’s text. It actually becomes rather tense at the end when the dams have been removed and everyone’s wondering if the salmon will return. We don’t have enough truly happy historical environmental stories out there. This is one of the few, so cherish it.
Sanctuary: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the Nation’s First Shelter for Women by Christine McDonnell, ill. Victoria Tentler-Krylov
In a time when men without housing had shelters to stay in but women did not, Kip Tiernan saw the problem and got to work. A moving tale, beautifully told. This one really won me over. I’ve little patience for good-hearted but ultimately dull books. This one, in contrast, is good-hearted and good! In keeping with much of what I’ve already said twice today, I’m not a huge fan of the cover, of course (which sort of makes it look like some kind of lovey dovey circle of love), but I just adore what Tentler-Krylov is doing with her watercolors here (she can replicate fur better than almost anyone). This is ultimately a story about building empathy, and I won’t lie to you. When that bus driver comes up to the elderly Kip and tells her “It’s because of you that I ate when I was a child,” I got teary. Honestly, emotionally resilient and very worthy.
Seeking Freedom: The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe and the Ending of Slavery in America by Selene Castrovilla, ill. E.B. Lewis
The tale of George Scott, once formerly enslaved and a spy for the North during the Civil War. E.B. Lewis is going his most realistic with this book. Though it’s clearly illustrated, there’s a real feel of reality and immediacy to the art here. I think a lot of it has to do with how he’s painting the sunlight. From page to page I kept cooing over the light in these images. Meanwhile, Castrovilla keeps the uncertainty at the top of your mind. Knowing what to trust and when is so difficult. This is a story I certainly hadn’t seen before. The book doesn’t want to necessarily go in this direction, but it really becomes an ode of praise to General Benjamin Butler. His actions are those that people often bring up when combating the notion that “everyone” who was white felt the same way about slavery at this moment in history. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing a lawyer twist unjust laws? The list of his actions both during and after the Civil War is fascinating. Wouldn’t mind seeing a picture book biography of him someday too. I do wish the book made it a little clearer at the start why it was strange for a Northern general not to hand slaves over to the South when they come for help, but otherwise there’s a lot to parse here.
Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel’s Adams’s Photographs Reveal About the Japanese American Incarceration by Elizabeth Patridge, ill. Lauren Tamaki
Older nonfiction title here. When your country makes a horrible mistake, how do you document that failure? Three great photographers saw the internment of Japanese American during WWII from different angles. Look through their eyes and determine where the truth lies, and where the lies start to sound like the truth. Expertly woven together. Though I’d place this in the older nonfiction section, the actual text of this book is relatively short and to the point. Partridge is economic with her wordcount here. You really get a very essential, if fast, rundown of the history of Japanese American incarceration. The lens of the book (if you’ll forgive the pun) focuses squarely on the three photographers and the different ways they portrayed the concentration camps for the greater American public. Lange wanted to show them honestly, but the government censored her images. Miyatake couldn’t show his at all, so took them in secret and kept them intact for years. And Adams wanted to show the residents of the camps in the best possible light, even if that was ultimately detrimental to the greater good. The text and use of the photographs is great, but it was genius bringing in Tamaki to fill in the gaps with illustrations. The end result never flags in interest at any point. And, as a Photography major in college myself, I love how it shows the nuance between photojournalists trying to tell the truth to the world and the ways in which that “truth” can ultimately be manipulated. Heady stuff.
Shapes, Lines, and Light: My Grandfather’s American Journey by Katie Yamasaki
“Serenity. Surprise. Delight.” Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki used that mantra throughout his life. Now his granddaughter is able to tell his journey, with all its ups and downs. You gotta feel for Katie Yamasaki. Her grandma was a classically trained pianist. Her uncle won a Pulitzer. And her grandpa designed the freakin’ Twin Towers. But she certainly has pushed herself farther than ever She’s using all her skills to tell the story of that grandfather and I was really impressed by how she chose to lay out his story. The book follows Minoru throughout different historical moments in time. It’s a really impressive tale of pursuing your dream job in spite of your own government labeling you “the enemy”. And winning! At the same time, I loved that Yamasaki doesn’t color his life as one sweet ride after he established his own architecture firm. This is a really human look at both a grandfather and a great artist. Certainly worth your consideration.
Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Mara Rockliff, ill. R. Gregory Christie
An everyday hero gets the praise she deserves in this stirring tale of how one woman supported and aided the people engaged in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A marvelous example of how a single life can make a difference. Knowing the sheer number of biographies we see by the end of the year, I’m not 100% certain this book will make it to the end, but I’d like to see some more reads on it at the very least. I don’t even think that this is the first picture book bio I’ve read of Georgia Gilmore, but I really like Rockliff’s take on not just her life but also how we as individuals can learn from her actions. This is a book about empathy and giving everything you have for what you believe in. Now, going in to this, it’ll help if you’re already a fan of Mr. Christie’s art, because he gets a bit loose in some spreads (purposefully, I’d say). I just thought that this was an excellent example of what a picture book biography is supposed to do: Show how a single person’s actions speak beyond the times in which they lived.
Three Strike Summer by Skyler Schrempp
Wow. Oh wowie wow. That, that, THAT, my friends, is how you write a piece of historical middle grade fiction. Schrempp. Remember that name. That’s the name of a woman who knows how to string two words together so that they just start singing in your ears. So I had the great good fortune to have a long car ride ahead of me, so I chose to listen to the audiobook edition of this book. Best decision I could have made. Skyler Schrempp, the very author, reads the book herself. After I got over my envy (I would have killed to read my own audiobook for my middle grade novel last year) I had to admit that there isn’t an actress alive that could have done a better job. And the story? Look, I’m married to a man who used to be a union organizer, so you know I’m gonna be biased in favor of this tale. Though, honestly, if I were to summarize it for a fellow adult then I think I’d call it “The Great Escape meets The Grapes of Wrath” with a healthy dose of that organizing I referenced. In this tale Gloria is mad for baseball but getting into a game is a near impossibility for her. When her family up and moves from Oklahoma in the middle of the Dust Bowl to California to pick peaches, she tries to attach herself to the local boys and their team. Meanwhile, there’s some major oppression coming down from the bosses of the place and Glo’s keep-your-head-down father starts getting radicalized and quick. Glo’s great but the voice. Oh, the voice! The first chapter of this book is so strong I’m surprised it doesn’t just walk off the pages and go out in the world to seek its fortune. It has SUCH a satisfying ending and the writing, as I say, is the best of the best. One of my favorites of the year.
To the Front: Clara Barton Braves the Battle of Antietam by Claudia Friddell, ill. Christopher Cyr
Imagine walking into a war zone with no supplies, just waiting for horrendously injured men to start arriving. Clara Barton’s life is brilliantly rendered in this tale of a true American hero. I did NOT expect to like this. First off, I’m really prejudiced against any books for kids with brown or sepia-toned covers (see: JACK KNIGHT’S BRAVE FLIGHT). They just scream “BORING!” to me. But this is probably the best example I could name of a picture book bio with extraordinarily good writing that elevates its subject. By the time you get to the end of this book you’re ready to up and join the Clara Barton fan club. It’s like, as I read this, I kept trying to find reasons to not like her and, every time, she would upset those expectations. It’s also beautifully sourced and does this trick right at the start of stating that Clara’s words are in blue or brown bold italics while the author’s are in a plain font. The backmatter? *chef’s kiss*. Folks. Don’t let the cover fool you. You gotta read this!
When the Schools Shut Down: A Young Girl’s Story of Virginia’s ‘Lost Generation’ and the Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka Decision by Yolanda Gladden as told to Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, ill. Keisha Morris
Clever teachers that see this book should equate elements of it immediately with our own kids’ recent time away from in-person schooling. This is the tale of what happened when the Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka ruling occurred and white lawmakers shut down the schools rather than allow white and black children to be taught together. It’s a smart idea for a picture book autobiography (and we have mighty few of those on our shelves as it is). I was also rather entranced by Keisha Morris’s art here. A lot of history books sort of blur together, with their deadly serious art. Morris injects some life and light and vitality in here. There’s a great deal of energy on these pages. We’ve seen similar images before, but I thought she was the right person to do a story like this. Excited to see what she does next.
Want to see other lists? Stay tuned for the rest this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 3 – Simple Picture Book Texts
December 4 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
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 – Gross 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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