Learning About the Present Through Our Past

The two books featured in the post are sitting together with sunlight on them.

There are people who would say that students in the U.S. do not get a comprehensive education when it comes to history. So how can we understand our present and work toward our future without a clear view of our past? There may be some schools or teachers who are doing an excellent job, but in many cases we still have a very long way to go. This makes access to thorough and accurate accounts all the more important for young readers. Here are two recent books that could help fill in some gaps.

Book cover shows the outline of a raised fist. The fist is filled in with photos and items from the past including a photo of Angela Davis with a microphone.Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon (available Sept. 28) 
Review copy provided by Candlewick

Publisher summary: In this comprehensive, inspiring, and all-too-relevant history of the Black Panther Party, Kekla Magoon introduces readers to the Panthers’ community activism, grounded in the concept of self-defense, which taught Black Americans how to protect and support themselves in a country that treated them like second-class citizens. For too long the Panthers’ story has been a footnote to the civil rights movement rather than what it was: a revolutionary socialist movement that drew thousands of members—mostly women—and became the target of one of the most sustained repression efforts ever made by the U.S. government against its own citizens.

Revolution in Our Time puts the Panthers in the proper context of Black American history, from the first arrival of enslaved people to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Kekla Magoon’s eye-opening work invites a new generation of readers grappling with injustices in the United States to learn from the Panthers’ history and courage, inspiring them to take their own place in the ongoing fight for justice.

A few thoughts: Aside from the middle grade book One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia and Kekla Magoon’s own teen novels The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets, not much literature exists for young readers featuring the Black Panthers. That was why I was very excited to see this available for teens, but I think adults will also appreciate it. Revolution in Our Time begins with one of the events that brought the Panthers to national attention, but also goes back hundreds of years explaining many actions and events in history that led to that moment. Readers can see how the organization came together, shaped their collective identity, and got to work.

It’s a very comprehensive look at the members and their day-to-day activities, victories, losses, and the many challenges they ran up against. It also includes a look into the many instances of governmental opposition. The Panthers were strong and did want to be seen that way, but their opponents painted them as violent and dangerous and that image is the only picture that many folks still hold in their memories. Here people can see a much more complete and accurate view.

The actual details and the stories are awesome by themselves, but the way that Magoon connects the past to our present makes this an incredibly powerful work. The final sections of the book are a call to action. The Black Panthers’ average age was 19. Young people can do amazing things. There’s a lot to learn by looking at the past and there’s so much potential and opportunity for young people to make change happen today.

Hands are holding a large framed picture of what looks like a young man's school photo. He is smiling.

From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo
Norton Young Readers

Publisher summary: America in 1982: Japanese car companies are on the rise and believed to be putting U.S. autoworkers out of their jobs. Anti–Asian American sentiment simmers, especially in Detroit. A bar fight turns fatal, leaving a Chinese American man, Vincent Chin, beaten to death at the hands of two white men, autoworker Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz.

Paula Yoo has crafted a searing examination of the killing and the trial and verdicts that followed. When Ebens and Nitz pled guilty to manslaughter and received only a $3,000 fine and three years’ probation, the lenient sentence sparked outrage. The protests that followed led to a federal civil rights trial—the first involving a crime against an Asian American—and galvanized what came to be known as the Asian American movement.

Extensively researched from court transcripts, contemporary news accounts, and in-person interviews with key participants, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry is a suspenseful, nuanced, and authoritative portrait of a pivotal moment in civil rights history, and a man who became a symbol against hatred and racism.

A few thoughts: It’s clear that Paula Yoo did an incredible amount of research and she carefully unraveled many layers of this complicated story. Vincent Chin was brutally killed and though to some it may seem like an isolated event, it happened during a time when there was increasing anti-Asian sentiment brewing. Yoo takes the time to explain many things that had happened contributing to the creation of this environment. She uses the personal history of Vincent’s family and even goes back through U.S. history as a whole to see the threads of hatred and racism that had been there over time.

The narrative includes many people involved in the case and explores their lives and actions–and where possible–their motivations. Seeing Vincent’s friends and family up close makes the loss very difficult to witness even just via the page.

A powerful aspect of this book is seeing the way people pulled together and spoke up. They formed Asian American advocacy organizations and some aspects of the justice system were even changed as a result of the work done around Vincent’s case. Unfortunately, this book is very timely. It was published during a time of rising violence and racism against people of Asian descent in the U.S. Yoo shows readers that our present has come about because of our past, but our past can also inform and inspire us.

Here are links to a few more YA nonfiction history books that we’ve featured in the past:

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza

We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson and Tonya Bolden

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi

A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 by Claire Hartfield

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles by Tanya Stone

Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from WWII to Peace by Ashley Bryan

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, & Harmony Becker

Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School by Adam Fortunate Eagle

Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White by Lila Quintero Weaver

The March graphic novel series books 1-3 by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell

In addition to books written specifically for the YA market, there are also some fantastic historical picture books for children, teens, and even adults. Here are a few that are exceptional:

Six book covers of the picture books listed below the image.

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson illustrated by Rebecca Huang

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie

I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer illustrated by Gillian Newland

Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo illustrated by Jamel Akib

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh

The book covers of the six books listed in the text below the image.

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Tradition by Kevin Noble Mailland illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Hong, Immigrant and Artist by Julie Leung illustrated by Chris Sasaki

A Day for Rememberin’: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day by Leah Henderson illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome

Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh

If you are aware of other books we should watch for, please let us know.