15 Middle Grade & YA History Books That Highlight Marginalized Voices

These 15 books restore the urgency and excitement of history while highlighting the marginalized voices that have so often been written out of established curricula.

Reprinted from Rad American History A-Z, by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl.
Copyright © 2020 by Kate Schatz. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Miriam Klein Stahl.
Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


As we age, we come to learn that what we once thought of as history—a rigid series of scientifically gathered facts—is in fact closer to literature, or even mythology: a ragtag collection of stories whose details could be abridged, omitted, or elaborated at the exclusion of all else depending on what subjective lens the researcher used to do the telling—one of privilege, self-interest, or something else. But many authors are now unearthing long-buried evidence and exalting hidden figures of the past to afford readers (and their educators) a more richly textured version of our collective experience. The 15 books discussed herein, which range from middle grade to YA, restore the urgency and excitement of history while highlighting the marginalized voices that have so often been written out of established curricula. In them, we find moments worth sharing, celebrating, and absorbing as we engage in the process of living the history books of the future.

AMARA, Phil & Oliver Chin. Awesome Asian Americans: 20 Stars Who Made America Amazing. illus. by Juan Calle. Immedium. 2020. pap. $17.95. ISBN 9781597021500.
Gr 6 Up –Bedecked with dynamic art that has the pop and verve of a retro comic book, this volume collects a veritable superhero team of Asian American all-stars: Olympic divers, sports moguls, scientists, tech CEOs, and movie stars. The subjects include Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino Americans, among others. The authors stack their profiles with wall-to-wall facts and quotes, making this an ideal choice for those seeking research for school reports.

BAGIEU, Pénélope. Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World. First Second. illus. by author. 2018. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781626728684.
Gr 8 Up –This graphic primer takes readers on a journey of fist-pumping sisterhood. Twenty-nine women—from Agnodice, an ancient Greek gynecologist, to Sonita Alizadeh, a 16-year-old Afghan rapper, are profiled in spreads of sequential art that range from three to seven pages. In their busting of conventions and conquering of adversity, these heroines are united, and the book’s cheeky, empowering tone will allow readers to feel that same surge of brashness.

COOK, Maria. Gender Identity: Beyond Pronouns and Bathrooms. illus. by Alexis Cornell. (Inquire & Investigate). Nomad. 2019. Tr $22.95. ISBN 9781619307568.
Gr 7 Up –At long last, the textbook many educators, and students have yearned for. While historical figures, including Christine Jorgensen, and commemorations, such as Transgender Day of Remembrance, hardly if ever appear in K–12 academic literature, in this work they are discussed and celebrated in clear, straightforward terms. Discussion points, review questions, online resources, “Vocab Labs,” and fun comics by Cornell offer a wealth of accessible information and a heartening track record of the progress made so far. Essential reading for those exploring their gender and those who wish to understand and support them.

DUNBAR-ORTIZ, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People. adapt. by Jean Mendoza & Debbie Reese. Beacon. 2019. pap. $18.95. ISBN 9780807049396.
Gr 9 Up –Many textbooks take the Eurocentric position of introducing the United States as an undiscovered land ripe for the picking. This adapted text from Dunbar-Ortiz’s original is a healthy and eye-opening antidote. Readers will learn about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their land, from the earliest claims of European manifest destiny to recent court cases over environmental mistreatment. The book’s well of knowledge is wide and deep, its lessons both bracing and inviting. A master class in understanding the true history of Native Americans and acting as an ally in the present.

HOUTMAN, Jacqueline, Walter Naegle & Michael G. Long. Troublemaker for Justice: The Story of Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the March on Washington. City Lights. 2019. pap. $13.95. ISBN 9780872867659.
Gr 7 Up –Bayard Rustin was a figure like no other: a staunch pacifist, a brilliant strategist, and an out gay man living his truth in a time when the world demanded silence. Penned by a trio of authors who learned from, loved, and looked up to Rustin, the book showcases his mission to bring harmony to the world through nonviolent resistance. This radiant biography explores his range of influence and will leave readers wondering why his name isn’t on the lips of everyone committed to the fight for equality.

LOEWEN, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers’ Edition; Everything American History Textbooks Get Wrong. adapt. by Rebecca Stefoff. New Pr. 2019. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781620974698.
Gr 7 Up –Ground zero of the history reexamination movement, Loewen’s blockbuster made waves first in 1995 and again in 2007. Stefoff’s adaptation of the 2007 edition retains the sociologist’s erudite ruminations while slicing the ponderous passages into more bite-sized morsels. Though the book underlines some of the darkest, hidden moments in U.S. history—from revelations about Christopher Columbus’s hand in the slave trade to tough questions about U.S. international policy—its real value is that it guides students toward a more complex view of history.

MARRIN, Albert. A Time of Fear: America in the Era of Red Scares and Cold War. Knopf. 2021. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780525644293.
Gr 9 Up –“Fear is a powerful emotion—perhaps the most powerful of all,” says Marrin in this commanding account of Soviet Communist infiltration into U.S, affairs. From the bloody finale of World War I through the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, Marrin discloses the ways in which the USSR attempted to kick-start a revolution in the United States, perhaps most shockingly in its attempts to instigate class warfare via the Scottsboro Boys case. On the flip side he reveals how Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts for Soviet sympathizers sowed division. A powerful exploration of the workings of propaganda and fear-mongering, as well as their relevance today.

MESSNER, Kate. History Smashers: The American Revolution. illus by Justin Greenwood. Random. 2021. Tr $12.99. ISBN 9780593120477.
Gr 3-7 –Messner lays to rest the most cherished myths about the Revolutionary War in this latest entry of her valuable “History Smashers” series. She shows how art played a heavy hand in the war’s beautification, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s error-filled ode to Paul Revere to portraits depicting dramatized moments of the time. Upstanding heroes are revealed to be hypocrites, dastardly villains are seen acting with valor, and legendary figures are proven to never have existed. A perfect choice for Nathan Hale fans looking for meatier texts fitted out with comical illustrations.

SARKEESIAN, Anita & Ebony Adams. History vs. Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know. illus by T.S. Abe. Feiwel & Friends. 2018. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781250146731.
Gr 7 Up –Sarkeesian and Adams unearth stories of women who left an indelible mark upon the world, for better or worse. While the authors pay homage to revolutionaries, scholars, artists, and warriors (among them Ida B. Wells, Maria Tallchief, Ana de Urinza, and Eustaquia de Sonza), the authors also include a section on “Ruthless Villains.” Stories of genocide, crime, and crushing political power shatter limiting notions of femininity and offer a balanced, big-picture view of the ways, good and bad, that history is made.

SCHATZ, Kate. Rad American History A–Z: Movements and Moments That Demonstrate the Power of the People. illus. by Miriam Klein Stahl. Random/Ten Speed. 2020. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781984856838.
Gr 7 Up –With the exception of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements, U.S. history lesson plans usually don’t cover reform efforts. The team behind this book reveals the importance of the work of organized “radicals,” such as Earth First, #BlackLivesMatter, and the Native protesters behind the Alcatraz occupation. Worth the price of admission for the frank, transparent, and idealistic introduction alone.

SORELL, Traci. We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know. illus. by Frané Lessac. Charlesbridge. 2021. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781623541927.
Gr 4-6 –Framed as a series of presentations given by students on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, this picture book is carried by a titular refrain that reminds us that Native American history (and all history) is not an inert artifact but a lived experience that continues today. So while past practices of allocation and Indian New Deals are discussed, so, too, are the reemergence of Native languages and tribal sovereignty. Helpful timelines, glossaries, and author notes further enhance understanding.

TAKEI, George, Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott. They Called Us Enemy. illus. by Harmony Becker. Top Shelf. 2019. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781603094504.
Gr 7 Up –From breakout television star to internet darling, Takei would seem to have led a charmed life if not for one great tragedy: When he was four, he and his family—along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans—were forcibly relocated to concentration camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Takei’s recollections, accompanied by Becker’s manga-influenced stylings, bring this unjust, overlooked chapter into sharp focus and emphasize that our nation must reckon with its past wrongs.

VOURVOULIAS, Sabrina. Nuestra América: 30 Inspiring Latinas/Latinos Who Have Shaped the United States. illus by Gloria Félix. Running Pr. 2020. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780762497478.
Gr 3-7 Up –The warm, vibrant colors of Félix’s paintings match the admiring tone of Vourvoulias’s profiles. Each entry offers enough information to feel substantial; readers will eagerly devour several entries in one sitting. The book has a celebratory vibe, as though readers are among old friends seated at a home banquet. Vourvoulias invites expected guests like Cesar Chavez, Pura Belpré, and Sonia Sotomayer, but young readers will be delighted to find new friends closer to their generation, such as activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

WIND, Lee. No Way, They Were Gay?: Hidden Lives and Secret Loves. Zest. 2021. Tr $3732. ISBN 9781541581623.
Gr 8 Up –Examining a trove of primary sources, Wind pulls back the curtain on major historical figures whose lives and loves defy the simpler narratives that readers have been told. Sections devoted to men who loved men, women who loved women, and those who lived outside gender boundaries make surprising revelations, such as Abraham Lincoln’s devotion to lifelong companion Joshua Fry Speed. The engaging, conversational text is a curative to the cover-ups that have robbed these figures of their true identities. A boon to queer youth seeking answers and ancestors.

YOO, Paula. From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial That Galvanized the Asian American Movement. Norton. 2021. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781324002871.
Gr 8 Up –When the police reports for Vincent Chin’s murder were filed, there were only two boxes under “race” that officers could check: Black or white. Asian Americans were barely acknowledged in 1982 Detroit, and when they were it was as the target of prejudice or violence. Chin’s killing—and the light sentencing of its perpetrators—rocked Asian Americans to their core and inspired many to cry out for justice. A moving present-day connection to Chin acts as the framing narrative of this important case whose lessons still echo.

José Cruz is a youth services librarian in Southwest Florida.

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