Friday, December 25, 2009

Untold Histories

“In fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” This is one of the first history lessons we learn in school, and while it is factually accurate, there’s a lot of missing information—and much of it is violent, racist, inglorious, and shameful. This is the case for much of the past. Painful chapters in history are skimmed over and the voices of many are lost and forgotten, especially when it comes to war. This inequity is being rectified in history books for young readers. These histories are not dry, stale textbooks—they are vivid accounts of tough, brave choices made by survivors who have been pushed to the side but who have important, relevant stories to tell. This means that even though the audience for these books is children and teenagers, the tales they tell are sophisticated and strong enough to teach adult readers a lesson or two as well. History is written by the winner, but there are two sides to every story. The version you don’t know is often gripping, thrilling, shocking, and inspiring. You’ll close these books amazed at what you didn’t know, and you’ll be a wiser, better reader for it.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle, 2008, Henry Holt and Co. (Teen Fiction/ Poetry/ Historical Fiction)


For many of us in the United States, Cuban history begins and ends in the late 20th century with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Fidel Castro. But the real revolution took place during the Cuban Wars for Independence, when Cuba fought for freedom from the colonizing power of Spain. In 1868, a few Cuban plantation owners freed their slaves and declared independence. For the next three decades, the island was wracked by near-constant warfare. From the turmoil emerges Rosa, a slave-turned-healer who spends the tumultuous years of the war hiding in the jungle and healing anyone and everyone—runway slaves, Cuban rebels, Spanish soldiers (many who change sides after Rosa helps them) and even the legendary Lieutenant Death, the son of a slave hunter and Rosa’s most feared foe. Rosa and her husband José camp out in make-shift hospitals in huts and caves, constantly on the move but always connected to the land by the plants, flowers, and herbs that Rosa uses as medicine. Rosa, José, Lieutenant Death, and others like Spain’s General Weyler, who in 1896 called for all Cuban peasants to be herded into so-called "reconcentration camps," and Silvia, a young girl who escapes from one of Weyler’s cruel camps, take turns telling the story from their own point of view. The subtitle of this book is Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, but don’t let that fool you if you’re not a poetry reader. Told in free verse (a style that doesn’t rhyme and focuses instead on a realistic rhythm), every poem is a glimmer of light into this little-known struggle for freedom. The novel becomes an interwoven, haunting tale of brutal tragedy, quiet triumph, and above all, the story of Cuba. Author Margarita Engle writes about real historical figures, though she takes a few liberties to weave a more completely unified story. In the end, she tells a powerful story in an elegant style to create a work that won her a Newbery Honor (the first Latino author to do so), a Pura Belpré Award (for Latino authors and illustrators), and a Jane Addams Award (for children’s books that promote peace, equality, and social justice). The Surrender Tree is a book that should be ignored by no audience.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and Volume II: Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson, 2006/ 2008, Candlewick Press (Teen Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is a novel in two volumes that explores the American Revolution from a new point-of-view: that of an African American boy. When the founding fathers declared independence from British rule, they did so in the name of freedom from oppression. This is certainly something of a hypocrisy when you consider that the grand notion of freedom did not extend to the large population of African slaves  who also called America their home. Octavian is a young boy living in Boston on the eve of the revolution. Raised in near-isolation by a strange group of philosophers and scientists, Octavian receives a classical education of the finest order. Despite his privileged childhood, there’s a carefully guarded secret regarding this boy and when that secret is one day revealed, Octavian is horrified. He rebels against the men who have cared for him, only to find that his unusual upbringing has left him woefully unprepared to meet the prejudices of the real world. Octavian finds himself in the unique position of being forced to face a frightening future even while grappling with the terrors of his past—and with no time to linger in the present. There is a war on, after all, and Octavian must choose the lesser of two evils—the ruling British or the rebelling Americans, both of whom are making promises that all parties know can’t be kept. Author M.T. Anderson presents a way of life and a set of characters that don’t know the outcome of the Colonies’ war with England, and that have some very difficult choices to make. Anderson tells Octavian’s history in a forthright, intimate voice with no frills attached, and it is a story that the reader will feel utterly compelled to explore. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation asks a new set of questions about the history we thought we knew, questions that are worth asking whether we took American History last year or last decade.

My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling, 1997, Douglas and McIntyre Books (Children’s Fiction/ Teen Fiction)


It’s no secret that the United States has a troubled history with its native populations. American Indians/ Native Americans were prejudiced against, warred with, rounded up, stripped of their cultural heritage, and generally given a very raw deal. Sadly, this is not a history specific to this country. A similar story unfolded in Canada at the same time, and My Name is Seepeetza is a tale about the results of that history. Beginning in the 1940s, the Canadian government forced its native people to send their children to residential boarding schools. The goal was to teach these children how to become “civilized” members of “white society.” They were forbidden to practice their cultural traditions, speak in their native languages, or use their own names. The means to enforce this “civilization” were not gentle. Seepeetza, our young narrator, is renamed Martha at her school in British Columbia in the 1950s. Beaten if she speaks “Indian,” absued and looked down upon by her teachers, picked on by older students, and only allowed to return home for a few months in the summer, Seepeetza’s childhood is a decidedly difficult one. Her story is highly autobiographical; author Shirley Sterling is a member of the Nlakapamux First Nation of the Interior Salish tribal group in British Columbia and spent her own formative years at a residential school. The Canadian government closer the last of these schools in the 1990s and has since made reconciliation efforts with the country’s Native American population, but it’s a chapter in history that any country would be loathe to dwell on (the United States used similar schools to “reform” Native Americans). The strength of My Name is Seepeetza lies in its childish voice. Seepeetza is bewildered and afraid; she longs for home but also has a desire to please her superiors at the school. It’s a difficult conflict with no easy solution, and that makes it a history well worth learning.

Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference by Joanne Oppenheim, 2006, Scholastic Books (Teen Nonfiction/ World War II/ Japanese Americans 1942-1945)


After Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese in 1941, attitudes towards Japanese Americans turned very ugly indeed. In 1942, the U.S. government made the decision to round up all people of Japanese origin and descent on the west coast and place them in “relocation camps” for the duration of World War II. For three years thousands of people, many of them American citizens, were crowded together because of their race, even forced to cram their family members and all their possessions into horse stalls at converted racetracks. For all that, not a single Japanese American was ever found to be involved in any anti-American war effort. In San Diego, a public librarian named Clara Breed was devoted to her young patrons. When the orders came for Japanese American families to pack up and leave their homes, Miss Breed responded with characteristic generosity and support. Exchanging letters with “her children,” Miss Breed sent supplies, treats, and above all, books to the young people in the camps whose lives were indefinitely on hold. Author Joanne Oppenheim presents a book chock-full of research supported by the real letters and lives of Miss Breed and the youngsters who wrote to her. The life of forced deprivation and humiliation in the camps is highlighted, but it is the determined attempts of Miss Breed’s teenage friends to make the best of any situation that stands out as exemplary. The optimism of these young people contrasts dramatically with the shameful treatment they received, driving home the message that racism is never acceptable and giving voices back to victims. Dear Miss Breed is not only a unique resource about this period in American history, but it is an excellent read as well.

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, 2005, Scholastic Book (Children’s Nonfiction/ Teen Nonfiction/ World War II/ Germany 1933-1945)

Holocaust literature is over-flowing with poignant stories of survival from Jewish survivors and non-Jews who resisted the German war machine. The Nazi point of view is less represented, and to no surprise—Hitler’s crimes rank among the worst committed against humanity and his beliefs are difficult, to say the least, to discuss in depth. But author Susan Campbell Bartoletti accomplishes just that by focusing her Newbery Award-winning nonfiction book on the Hitler Youth. Hitler depended greatly on the German youth, whom he seduced into his service with camping trips and nature hikes before inundating them with Nazi propaganda. The Hitler Youth appeared to offer the chance for youngsters to rebel against authority and strike out on their own, but Hitler intended to mold his Aryan youth into zealots wildly devoted to his cause, and he was successful. At its peak seven million boys and girls belonged and former Hitler Youth members served in Hitler’s highest military and advisory ranks. Soon the tenants of Nazism were part of the curriculum in Germany’s schools and participation in the Hitler Youth was required by Nazi law. Bartoletti presents this forced “education” as nothing short of brainwashing. It’s not an excuse for the Nazis’ crimes, but it is a lens through which to understand the German children who grew up under Hitler’s influence. The book centers around the lives of real kids involved in the Hitler Youth, from those fanatically devoted to Hitler’s cause to those who resisted and rebelled (particularly compelling is the story of the White Rose, whose young members were executed for their actions against the Führer). This is nonfiction writing at its best—crisp prose, real testimonies, original documents, archival photographs, and varying points of view used in harmony to shed light on difficult truths.

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, 2004, Last Gasp Books, originally published 1987 (Teen Fiction/ Graphic Novel)


The United States is the only country to have used nuclear weapons. Knowing what we know today about the effects of nuclear warfare, it’s not something to be proud of, and the world’s nations have been very careful not to let it happen again. Author Keiji Nakazawa is a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing and Barefoot Gen is his fictionalized autobiography of that survival. Gen is a young boy living in Hiroshima, Japan with his family during the final days of World War II. The war effort has taken its toll on the Japanese economy and Gen’s family is poor. Gen and his little brother pretend to be orphaned beggars to keep their pregnant mother from becoming malnourished. Gen’s father has opposed the war which makes the family unpopular with their neighbors and with local government and law enforcement. When the children get excited over a few meager scraps of food, their parents are filled with guilt and shame which they, Gen’s father especially, tend to take out on the kids. It’s not an ideal family situation for sure, but readers won’t be able to resist precocious Gen as he runs amuck through the streets of the city while his little brother tags along. This, of course, makes it all the more difficult to accept what is coming: a new form of violent warfare that the world has never seen the likes of before, the near-total destruction of a thriving city, and the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children. Barefoot Gen is a multi-volume graphic novel series and an early example of Japanese manga; the following books continue Gen’s story after the bombing as he struggles to get by in a world that is forever and horribly changed. The comic-strip format is highly effective here, and not just for the shock value of showing terrifying events that words cannot describe. Nakazawa’s drawings show a time and a place that the Western world is not familiar with. The contrast between the everyday struggles of a simple family and the horrors they are about to undergo is a compelling lesson in compassion and humanity.

The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan, 2003, Simply Read Books, originally published 1998 (Children’s Fiction/ Picture Book)

The Rabbits is a picture book, but it is a beautiful and sophisticated picture book, the kind that can be read and reread from age eight to eighty. The story begins when a ship full of white rabbits arrives on a faraway shore with black muskets and other strange, wondrous technologies. The rabbits come to take rather than give, and to the marsupial-like inhabitants who have lived for generations in harmony with nature, the rabbits are terrifying indeed as they chop down trees, construct factories, and alter the land to suit their own purposes. Out of fear and anger, especially after their children are taken, the marsupials rise in rebellion against the rabbits, but by then it is too late—the rabbits are too many, the marsupials are too few, and the damage is done. Author John Marsden and illustrator Shaun Tan are from the land Down Under, and their story is an allegory for the European settlement of Australia and the destruction of the aboriginal people at the hands of the self-righteous European settlers in the 19th century. The story of colonization in the supposed name of progress and civilization is a common one that can apply to the histories of many nations, but the “stolen children” relates the tale of The Rabbits directly to Australia’s past, when aboriginal children (known as the “Stolen Generation”) were taken and given to white families to be raised. It’s a mature theme indeed, highlighted by Tan’s gorgeous, highly-stylized, intricate paintings of canon-wielding rabbits in high-colored imperialist garb marching to overcome the sand-colored marsupials armed only with their spears and their sense of right. The Rabbits is a complex history presented in a way that is child-like in its telling and elegant in its presentation. This story book is no fairy tale, and that means its powerful message hits home with eloquence and compassion.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, 2008, New Press Books, originally published 1994 (Nonfiction/ American History)

Author James W. Loewen, a sociology professor at the University of Vermont, has dedicated much of his career to exposing the inaccuracies of history textbooks used in schools across the country. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, written in 1994 and updated in 2007, Loewen exposes those inadequacies for the world to see. The bottom line is that students are not being told or taught the truth. History is taught as mythology. The point of view is almost entirely Eurocentric. Primary sources are rarely consulted by the authors of history textbooks. There are more specific faults as well: More time in classrooms is devoted to the War of 1812 than to America’s longest war, Vietnam. Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America included the extermination of the Arawak culture. History teachers rarely manage to teach any event after 1970. With titles like Land of Promise, The American Way, and The American Adventure, these texts imply that the history of the United States is one where America is right all the time and can solve all its problems. History texts don’t teach about indigenous peoples’ struggles against their colonizing powers. The alternative points of view of America’s enemies or victims are rarely heard. And yet, as the other books on this booklist prove, these voices should be heard. America is not a perfect nation; knowing that won’t keep students from loving their country. In fact, understanding how America has learned from the mistakes of the past can only inspire its citizens to keep trying to improve for the future. Lies My Teacher Told Me is the ideal read for anyone who ever fell asleep in history class and for every discerning, critical reader who knows there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present by Howard Zinn, 2005, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1979 (Nonfiction/ American History)


If history is written by the winner, then A People’s History of the United States tells the loser’s story. Author Howard Zinn doesn’t tell the usual histories of presidents, war generals, and government institutions. He tells the unknown histories of minorities, women, laborers, and immigrants. It’s the same history, really, just a different—a very different—point of view. Readers realize the arrival of Christopher Columbus from the Native Americans’ perspective; instead of “the Golden Age of Discovery,” the experience is one of betrayal and bloodshed. Readers understand the complexity of the issue of slavery during the Civil War; politics and control being the ultimate goal, not the freedom of thousands of men, women, and children. The real motives behind the Vietnam War are fully discussed instead of being dismissed and passed over in a paragraph or two. This is a history of oppression, persecution, and control, with the occasional small step in the right direction. It is decidedly not the history with the patriotic spirit that we are taught in high school. It is fascinating, complex, provoking, and persuasive. Zinn fully acknowledges that his history is biased, but he points out that the history we are taught is biased, as is all history, since it is written after the fact and generally with a specific motive or agenda in mind. Knowing that bias is there only makes the reading of history more accurate, interesting and realistic, and presenting a bias and a point of view that we rarely do see is very valuable indeed.

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