31 Days, 31 Lists: 2023 American History for Kids
Hm. It can sometimes be difficult for me to determine what’s a trend in books for kids vs. what I actually get off my butt and read. I just went through all the titles that I read this year that I’d call “American history” related, and to my surprise I read surprisingly few middle grade novels that would fall into that category. That’s on me, I think. Surely there were a slew published in 2023 out there that I entirely missed. Then again, historical fiction used to be a much bigger percentage of titles published for kids. It used to win all the major literary awards. These days? I think a lot of it gets discounted as “boring” or “educational”. Fortunately, as you will see from the books on today’s list, these are titles that may do a lot of things, but bore you? Never but ever. And for fun, I’m just putting it all together here. The picture books, the older fiction, the nonfiction, the comics, you name it. Enjoy!
If you’d like a PDF of today’s list, you can find one here.
And if you are interested in reading past “American history” booklists that I’ve compiled, please consider the following:
2023 American History for Kids
An American Story by Kwame Alexander, ill. Dare Coulter
You can’t tell the story of America by just telling the happy parts. A look at early slavery in America and a consideration of what we teach our kids at school. Holy moly! You know, every author, no matter how good they are, has their ups and downs. They simply can’t knock it out of the park every time. So when I pick up a Kwame Alexander book, I don’t care how many starred reviews it has. I want it to surprise me. Well, apparently after working with Kadir Nelson, Kwame must have thought to himself, “Hey, winning a Caldecott Award was fun. I wonder if I can do it again?” because the art of Dare Coulter here is jaw-dropping. Seriously, I’m already mentally writing articles about what it might mean for this to be the first Caldecott Award winner to use modelwork on the page (though, of course, we’ve had Honors like Frida by Yuyi Morales). Inspired by his kid’s school’s egregious teaching of slavery when discussing colonial America, Kwame sets the record straight. The title is on point, but it’s the art of Coulter that blows you away. When you get to that shot of the girls by the fire, that’s when you know you’re in for something amazing. It’s rough but it’s honest. The anti-CRT crowd ain’t gonna like this . . .
Bomb: Graphic Novel by Steve Sheinkin, ill. Nick Bertozzi
The adaptation of Sheinkin’s multi-award winning history of the race to create the atomic bomb during WWII gets a visual makeover in this graphic novel adaptation. Already a pretty gripping book, there are places where this book will fill a definite need. For any kid (or adult, let’s face it) still struggling to understand how an atom bomb even works, Bertozzi’s clear-cut illustrations help a lot. I read Bomb back in the day and I actually thought that the explanation about heavy water here was superior to that in the original. The action sequences work fairly well, and I was reminded that Sheinkin is no stranger to comics. After all, he published The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey back in the day (look it up sometime) as well as the Walking and Talking series here on Fuse 8 where he would interview famous children’s book creators. I did have a couple moments of confusion once in a while when reading the book. For example, the moment when Dr. Oppenheimer meets his new secretary at Los Alamos and has to be introduced by a new name, I pretty much had to read the exchange several times to figure out what was going on. For the most part, though, it’s a rip-roaring bit of history. Hand it to the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales fans who are hungry for more. And be sure to check out this interview with Steve and illustrator Nick Bertozzi for more background information into this title. Previously Seen On: The Graphic Novel list
Contenders: Two Native Baseball Players, One World Series by Traci Sorell, ill. Arigon Starr
I’m just trying to remember the publishing scene even ten years ago and how likely it is that a book like Contenders would have even (A) come out and (B) been as beautifully lauded and advertised as this particular book has been. The name “Traci Sorell” undoubtedly sounds familiar to you. That’s probably because she’s done such critically acclaimed titles as We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga and We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know. Here she creates a dual biography that starts with a big moment, then pulls back to fill in some biographical info. In the 1911 World Series, the only two Indigenous baseball players in the major leagues faced off against one another. Naturally, the press at the time was just awful about it. Never alleging or filling in with fake dialogue or committing really any of the usual bio sins, Sorell tells the background stories of Charles Bender and John Meyers adeptly. They had a couple things in common, but in many ways they led incredibly different lives. I was particularly pleased when I saw the eight additional Native players listed since 1911 that have played in the majors. Artist Arigon Star presents them like baseball cards, while at the bottom of the page you have depictions of racist white fans with tomahawks and facepaint facing off against Native activists, their fists raised high. A powerful telling with fantastic backmatter.
The Day the River Caught Fire: How the Cuyahoga River Exploded and Ignited the Earth Day Movement by Barry Wittenstein, ill. Jessie Hartland
“Wake up, this is not a drill!” By the 1960s the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire . . . again! Learn how its clean-up helped inspire the first Earth Day in this strange, stinky, (sometimes explosive) tale. And how’s that for an eye-catching title? The joke is that when you read this, there wasn’t just one time the river caught fire but MULTIPLE times that it happened! And people just sort of wrote it off like, “Huh. Guess the river’s on fire again.” Wittenstein and Hartland are having a ball with this book. How could they not? It’s the ultimate example of pollution that’s gotten way out of hand. The kicker is seeing how having a fiery river was normalized until folks finally decided to do something about it. Jessie Hartland’s art style is a perfect companion to this storytelling as well. A fun bit of kooky storytelling about a very real event.
Dear Yesteryear by Kimberly Annece Henderson
When I was a teenager, I had a secret passion. It was a little odd, but I loved going to antique shops and looking through the old photographs they had on sale there. These were forgotten photos from the late 19th early 20th century, and often I would buy the ones that I thought were the most interesting and take them home. There, I’d make up stories about them and what their lives might have been. Photography has always been something that’s fascinated me. Little wonder that when I heard about Dear Yesteryear I was instantly intrigued. What I did as a kid as a hobby, historical curator and researcher Kimberly Annece Henderson does as a calling. In this book she takes historical photographs of Black people and their families from the 19th and early 20th century and weaves poetry around them. In her Note from the Author she says, “Trees have roots, and we each come from a long line of people who play a role in our unique life story.” When I interviewed Ms. Henderson about the book this year, she said, “this book acts as a figurative family photo album for Black Americans who might not have done their ancestry research yet, or if they’re like me, and they have hit roadblocks researching their ancestry due to American Slavery, these portraits represent this idea of collective Black ancestry in a sense. That’s what makes it feel special in my opinion.” Beautifully put and beautifully put together. Previously Seen On: The Photography List
The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh
A 13-year-old boy trapped indoors by Covid-19 uncovers a dark family secret leading back to the Holodomor, the early 1930s Ukrainian famine caused by Stalin’s policies. This is a unicorn. It’s one of those books with three narratives that actually works. I’ve noticed a slight increase in adult nonfiction focusing on the Ukrainian famine recently, but we hadn’t really seen anything on the children’s side of things. The reason I’ve included it on the American History list is that two of the narratives focus on our American history, both the early days of the pandemic and an America that wrestled with how to acknowledge (or fail to do so) what was happening in the Ukraine. I’m not ashamed to say that as a 45-year-old woman I was inordinately proud of myself for figuring out the twist in the story. Some kids may see it coming, but not all will. Additionally, its audiobook is WELL worth listening to. Multiple narrators tackle the three kids in the book, and it’s incredible to consider that they needed each of those narrators to not only be good at acting itself but to also correctly pronounce both Ukrainian and Russian terms with aplomb. I wouldn’t have considering pairing a pandemic storyline alongside a Ukrainian famine one, but it makes a LOT of sense. A kid stuck with his great-grandmother for weeks on end is going to be more inclined to hear her story than one able to leave the house. Gorgeously written and cleverly plotted (something I personally find so hard to do). I was entranced.
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Above the Trenches by Nathan Hale
Nobody is doing anything even slightly close to what Nathan Hale is doing these days. Let’s say you’re a children’s librarian sitting at a reference desk. Kid comes up to you and asks for a book that shows battles in war. Now regardless of your own pacifism instincts, you want to give that kid what they want. Trouble is, if your library is anything like mine, the books you have for kids on the subject are going to be old. We just don’t have a lot of books on historical wars for children these days. And the best possible exception to this? Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. Now they’re not all about war, but the ones that are have no equal. I went into his latest installment thinking it would be about The Red Baron. I mean, it’s fighter pilots in WWI, right? But since our narrator, Nathan Hale, was eaten by a big book of Americanhistory in the first book of this series, the focus of this book is the Americans who volunteered to fly for France long before America entered the war. It is also playing with fire, this book. Right from the start Nathan Hale warns the reader that the pilots in this book will be drinking alcohol and smoking. We then get a glorious shot of the Hangman and Provost doing precisely that (much to the alarm and fury of Hale). But even better, EVEN BETTER, is the fact that the planes flown at a certain point of the war were, and this is true, called Fokkers. Oh. Oh. The jokes, my friends, the jokes. Absolutely one of his finest. If you’re searching for enormously well-researched deep dive into WWI planes that’s also the funniest stuff being written today in comics, you can find no better book than this. Previously Seen On: The Graphic Novels List
Remember Us by Jacqueline Woodson
In a summer where the houses on Sage’s block go up in flames regularly, everything from her friendships to her relationship to basketball is bound to change. A nostalgic tale from a magnificent author. This is going to sound strange, but I think that this is Woodson’s Dandelion Wine. Which is to say, she’s steeped every page in a great deal of nostalgia. The focus is on a moment in history when Bushwick in Brooklyn kept catching on fire in the 1970s. Woodson indulges in some slow storytelling, but that doesn’t mean she’s abandoned its emotional resonance. And like the characters in this book, I do remember being a kid and feeling like I was already looking back at a memory, just as Sage does here. It’s great writing.
There Was a Party for Langston, King of Letters by Jason Reynolds, ill. Jerome Pumphrey & Jarrett Pumphrey
“There was a party for Langston at the library” Langston Hughes, that is. A marvelous recounting of one man’s legacy and a vibrant visual praise of Black American writers. This text sings. Oh, happy day! I like this book by the Pumphreys! I like this book by the Pumphreys so much that I honestly think that this book has some serious Caldecott contender cache surrounding it. Woohoo! This is a marvelous example of how a good writer (and they don’t get much better than Jason Reynolds) can do a bit of nonfiction without faking anything AND making it a fun read for kids! Gone are the rote bios that dully recount a person’s life without viv or flair. And the typography! I hope someone interviews the Pumphreys and Jason together so that we can hear about how this collaboration actually occurred. How much influence did he have over their art? Was it their idea to turn the first names of Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka (I’m assuming that’s the Amiri Jason means) into their bodies? Bonus: 500 extra points to Jason Reynolds for the line, “rickety radio heart”.
World Made of Glass by Ami Polonsky
Iris has a secret and its eating her up inside. Her Dad is dying of AIDS and in mid-80s NYC, that’s the kind of thing people don’t understand. Only through activism does she begin to come to terms with a world on fire. I listened to the audiobook of this, which I think was the right way to approach it. Honestly, it got me to thinking about middle grade historical fiction in other countries, and I wondered if other nations spend as much time dissecting recent history for kids today. This book (by Evanston native Ami Polonsky) is a dead dad book to its core, which isn’t usually my bag. It also requires the heroine to do a complete 180 on her dad’s partner in a relatively short amount of time. But that said, it’s not like she’s just met the guy and the anger is new. This was an old anger that she was just sort of holding onto since she didn’t know the guy very well. Once they start hanging out more, I found her ability to let it go reasonable and believable. As for her vocabulary, Iris is a poet with a poet dad. All told, this is a pretty good introduction to the AIDS crisis at its peak.
Hope you enjoyed these! Here are the lists you can expect for the rest of this month:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readaloud
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 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Comics & Graphic Novels
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 – 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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