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The teen nonfiction section of a library is often one of the leanest sections, but it is not void of opportunities to engage readers of all ages in learning about a moment in history, bringing that moment to life, and providing tangible outcomes of discussion. Whether you’re working to interest a teenager who doesn’t bite at the average book club, collaborating with a classroom teacher on a curriculum tie-in, or working with a readership ranging from 15 to 75, I implore you to consider using a topical young adult nonfiction title to bring history off the page.
Though young adult nonfiction often gets a bad rap for being “less dense” or “less academic” than adult nonfiction, those very criticisms make it the ideal entry into a moment of history for a wide range of readers. Adults who lived the moment, teens just learning about an event, and the average reader in between will find that the care that authors of teen nonfiction take with their subject and their audience is perfectly suited to making history something that feels narratively tangible and interesting rather than boring, stodgy, or something more likely to be found in a history book collecting dust.
In my work as a youth services librarian who also coordinates book clubs for social organizations, I have had amazing success using teen nonfiction titles like Black Birds in the Sky, by Brandy Colbert, and Revolution in Our Time, by Kekla Magoon, as a way to introduce or re-explore a moment in time and engage readers in group conversation. The narrative styles in both of those titles capture readers looking for a traditional story, but the fact-filled pages also excite the brain’s desire for new information to digest. The fact that they are written for a teen audience also works well across the ages, too: they don’t assume any prior knowledge (ideal for younger readers), but they don’t go too in-depth into the minutiae of history (which might put off older readers who are well versed in the topic.)
Black Birds in the Sky made an excellent intergenerational read for my library patrons and book club participants in May 2022, 101 years after the Tulsa Race Massacre. The book—which comes in deftly under 250 pages—follows not only the primary players but weaves in the history that created Tulsa as it was, from slavery to the Trail of Tears to Reconstruction to WWI. With an eye for her teen readers who do not need every minute detail of slavery’s horrors, Colbert uses a writing style that also serves the older reader who has likely read many books about slavery or listened to podcasts about the failures of Reconstruction before opening this title.
These two core tenets of young adult nonfiction—the subject brevity and the audience awareness—can lead to a discussion that goes beyond the facts learned within the pages, inviting readers to bring their own experiences into the conversation. My book group that read Black Birds in the Sky quickly discussed the facts of the matter at hand—how the Tulsa Race Massacre started, the coverup and the legacy—but then also discussed when they had first learned about the event. For younger readers and teens, it was recently; with the centennial having occurred in 2020, there was no dearth of coverage in traditional news outlets or in adult nonfiction. Older readers, though, who had many history classes and nonfiction titles under their belts, found they were still learning new aspects of the event as the book unfolded before them.
The narrative style of the title invited the audience in, asking them to make the connections with the modern moment even before the author broached that in the afterword. The way the title also brought up facts and ideas without weighing itself down with explication allowed the readers and group participants to form their own “next steps,” which included researching Native boarding schools in the U.S. and wondering where the two young people in the Tulsa elevator ended up.
Library shelves are full of engaging moments of history that provide not only excellent fodder for the mind but also for conversation. Do not assume those shelves are only in the adult section—using juvenile and teen historical nonfiction titles can help bring history off the page for everyone from the youngest to the oldest patrons. These titles will allow your readers to not only imagine the scenes playing out before their eyes but invite them to have conversations about the text that a longer, more complicated title might stifle.
Included here are five young adult and teen nonfiction titles that work particularly well for bringing history off the page and encouraging intergenerational discussion.
The 57 Bus. By Dashka Slater. 2017. Farrar, $17.99 (9780374303235). Gr. 7–12.
In this gripping narrative-nonfiction account of a real-life attack on a trans/nonbinary teen, Slater’s careful prose not only looks at the impact that hatred and bigotry can have in the moment but explores the ideas and realities of restorative justice. This book provides opportunities for wide-reaching discussion about concepts of justice and forgiveness as well as unfolding plot and character arcs.
Ambushed! The Assassination Plot against President Garfield. By Gail Jarrow. 2021. Astra/Calkins Creek, $18.99 (9781684378142). Gr. 5–8.
Presidential assassinations make for great conversation among a wide variety of ages. Jarrow’s award-winning look at this lesser-known assassination helps contextualize the latter half of the nineteenth century. Part biography, part political intrigue, and part medical mystery, this nonfiction account deftly weaves the intertwined narratives of assassin and victim together and provides an insight into a lesser-known moment of history with a keen eye.
Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. By Brandy Colbert. 2021. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray, $19.99 (9780063056664). Gr. 8–12.
Colbert lays bare the facts that led to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1919 in a narrative nonfiction account that sets the stage for clear explanations of the racism, hatred, and segregation that pervaded the era. She follows the various characters of the massacre from beginning to long after the blood stopped flowing and explores not only the moment of violence but the cover up that followed. Readers well versed in American history will still find something new within the pages of this title.
A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919. By Claire Hartfield. 2018. Clarion, $18.99 (9780544785137). Gr. 7–10.
Told in graphic format, this account of the summer of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 is a great way to see history unfold visually as well as through fact-filled prose. The use of photos, documents, and firsthand accounts makes this a gripping read that works well in conversation with other nonfiction titles about the twentieth century and racism in the U.S.
Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People. By Kekla Magoon. 2021. Candlewick, $24.99 (9781536214185). Gr. 7–12.
The history of the Black Panthers is something that many teens are not aware of, and Magoon seeks to rectify that in her vibrant look at their history, focusing on key figures and moments that highlight not only the Black Panther movement but known and unknown civil rights events. Magoon’s sharp prose is ideal for this sort of history, which is both timeless and very of the moment. Teens interested in Black Lives Matter and other modern social movements will devour this title and be drawn to discuss what has changed and what hasn’t when it comes to justice.
Aryssa Damron is a youth services librarian with the Washington, DC Public Library system and a member of the Booklist Advisory Board and the 2022 Alex Awards Committee.
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