Wednesday, January 17, 2018

MLK Week: MG Historical Fiction Worth Reading

In honor of Dr. King's birthday earlier this week, I'm making book lists.  Tune in every day all week for a new list of books related to race in America, mostly  YA and MG fiction, mostly backlist, and mostly looking at the black/white issue. Yesterday I shared YA titles that deal with life as an African American teen in today's United States. Today, I'd like to share:

Backlist MG Novels that Dive Into African American History (In Roughly Historical Order)

You want to know more about how we got into this mess, and you want to equip young people with some perspective. You want to celebrate strength, courage, and resilience throughout the US's sordid history of slavery and racism. Have I got some books for YOU! 

Jefferson's Sons Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's book imagines what it would be like to grow up as a slave in the household of one of the most famous and respected men of his age--who is also your father. As author and reader Betsy Bird points out in her Goodreads review, Bradley keeps this painful and sordid story honest while still child appropriate by staying with the viewpoint of three different children over a period of several years. Not #ownvoices.

Day of Tears In this slim book, Julius Lester uses data from the largest slave sale in American history, when over 400 slaves from one estate were sold over two days, and lets multiple narrators tell their story of what happened that day. From slaves young and old, to the master's daughters, to slave sellers themselves, we experience what they were thinking and feeling on that day, and the repercussions of the day for years to come. #ownvoices

Nightjohn I started teaching Gary Paulsen's powerful little book about slavery during my first year of teaching over 20 years ago, and I still think it should be required reading for all. There's no shades of grey here--Sarny's "master" is evil personified, and there are brief but memorable scenes of rape and torture. But the book is as much about how vital literacy is to a free people as it is about slavery being bad. Nightjohn himself is my teacher hero. Would I get a toe cut off in order to be able to bring letters to the unlettered?  Not #ownvoices.

Carver: A Life in Poems The title is self explanatory. This is a biography told in free verse. I liked how it covered all periods of George Washington Carver's life, not just the peanut thing that is all I knew about him before starting this book. Marilyn Nelson also wrote My Seneca Village, another great piece of historical fiction in verse, and A Wreath for Emmett Till, which I didn't like as much. #ownvoices

Witness Karen Hesse's second-most-famous novel in verse has a cast of thousands. Well, a dozen or so, anyway. She helps you keep them straight by providing a portrait gallery at the beginning of the book with authentic 1920s portraits of people to represent her characters, and by writing each character with a unique voice and point of view. When the Klan comes to a small Vermont town in the 1920s, the local black family and the local Jewish family become targets. Rumrunners, hypocritical preachers, farmwives and disaffected youth all have their role in the story.  Not #ownvoices.

Stella by Starlight Another pick that might not be as well known as the author's Out of My Mind, Stella's story takes place in the 1930s and draws on Sharon M. Draper's family history from two generations. It begins with Stella and her little brother seeing flames flickering in the night and a crowd of sheeted men gathered around, and keeps the tension high throughout. It also explores Stella's learning differences, which as a teacher, I loved.  #ownvoices 

The Watsons go to Birmingham-1963 This book came out when I was in my twenties, the least likely era of my life to read middle grade novels. So I just read it last fall, after one of my reluctant readers told me how much he liked it. The beginning was hilarious, although big brother's level of violence is frightening. The ending, when the Watsons finally get to Birmingham--in 1963--is a serious change in tone. Like one of my favorite movies, Life is Beautiful, the comedy and family lore of the early part underscores that the targeted population weren't just victims, they were humans. #ownvoices

I haven't read, but hear great things about One Crazy Summer, set in 1968, the Countdown series, also set in the 60s, and Mississippi Trial, 1955, which takes place around the time and place of Emmett Till's murder.


  1. These are great lists, Wendy. I found The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing was a powerful read for me last year, that brought out the reality of slavery in the revolutionary North as well as the South.

    1. I agree, Lory. I read this so long ago that I couldn't quite remember if it had a magical realism or alternative history slant or was straight historical fiction. I think it was the first book I read and then logged on Goodreads!

    2. I wouldn't call it exactly "straight," it's too mannered and exaggerated in a way, and yet it's not magical realism either. But its exaggeration seemed to me worthwhile in puncturing the complacent image we have of the Northern states, which may not have had as many slaves as the south, but were absolutely part of the slave system during the Revolution. This tends to get covered up in older historical fiction, e.g. Johnny Tremain.

  2. I love the cover of Stella by Starlight. I read Witness because you told me to, and I loved it. I have vague memories of The Watsons. I’m pretty sure a teacher read it to us when I was in elementary school. The same teacher read us Bud, Not Buddy, and I remember that one better.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. Seriously.....loving your theme for MLK week! I've actually read a couple on this list, and I have an autographed copy of Jefferson's Sons that I keep meaning to get to - this post has inspired me to consider it for the #24in48 marathon next weekend!


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