YA History

FROM A WHISPER TO A RALLYING CRY: THE KILLING OF VINCENT CHIN AND THE TRIAL THAT GALVANIZED THE ASIAN AMERICAN MOVEMENT by Paula Yoo

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In 1982, Vincent Chin and several friends went to an adult night club for his bachelor party. Hours later, two men chased Vincent down and beat him to death with a baseball bat. Over the course of five years and three trials, Vincent’s death garnered national attention. While friends and family hoped for some form of justice for his death, people around the country began to ask a question that became a political movement: would Vincent Chin be alive today if he had been white?

Through painstaking research and engrossing storytelling, Paula Yoo recreates this tragedy from the 1980s in a way that is accessible and tangible for modern audiences. She includes the wealth of facts and nuances that made the trials so complex and difficult for juries to decide, but she focuses on the humans involved in the story–from Vincent and his friends to the men who killed him to the lawyers on both sides of the case to the witnesses and activists involved in the trial. She ensures that each person’s voice is accurately and fairly represented, including the men who killed Vincent. Although the two jury in the second Civil Rights lawsuit did not feel that the prosecution proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the killing was motivated by race, the story of two white men pleading out of a murder charge for chasing down and killing a Person of Color is all-too-familiar, even three decades later, and anti-Asian hate has risen alarmingly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yoo’s recounting of the political movement that Vincent’s death inspired is a rousing call for awareness and action for readers today, highlighting the need for awareness of anti-Asian discrimination and also for reforms to the justice system that allowed men who were charged with murder to escape any jail time.

THE WOMAN ALL SPIES FEAR by Amy Butler Greenfield

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Elizebeth Smith accepted a job studying Shakespeare’s First Folio on a wealthy man’s estate, her primary motivation was to escape her domineering father’s household. But this unusual opportunity would set her life on a new and unexpected course. On the estate, she met fellow employee William Friedman and the two began collaborating on code breaking projects. Their partnership would become both professional and romantic, skyrocketing them both into positions as elite cryptanalysts for the United States government. Though William would become famous for heading the team that cracked the Japanese code machine “Purple” and for his role in the fledgeling NSA, Elizebeth’s contributions to her country were less celebrated and in some cases attributed to others–men, of course. But Elizebeth’s incredible work not only saved American lives in both World Wars but broke down barriers for women in intelligence work and pushed the boundaries of code breaking.

Spanning two wars and featuring colorful characters from eccentric millionaires to rumrunning gangsters, this true story at times feels like fiction. Though marketed to teens, adults will enjoy this fascinating biography just as much as younger readers. Greenfield is honest about holes in the historical record but still manages to uncover enough information to piece together a cohesive picture of Friedman’s secretive life and contribution to counterintelligence. Bits of code included in the text along with instructions for deciphering it add a beautiful interactive element to the book. I highly recommend this one to teens and adults alike!

LAST OF THE GIANTS: THE RISE AND FALL OF EARTH’S MOST DOMINANT SPECIES by Jeff Campbell

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How would you feel if you encountered a 12 ft. tall bird? Or a 6 ft. tall, 10 ft. long ox?  As strange and potentially alarming as they might sound, these and other giant creatures ruled their ecosystems until humans hastened their extinction.  In his book, Campbell describe the origins, history, role, and extinction of thirteen “giants” of nature.  Each account is incredibly interesting, but detailed and written with a sophisticated, scientific style that may not appeal to all of the teen readers to whom it is marketed.  Despite a few half-hearted and awkward references to social media, and an occasional break in tone for an attempt at teen-speak, the book reads like a scientific article.  So while it won’t attract a broad teen audience, it is fantastic for high schoolers and adults who are interested in the subject matter and looking for a well-researched, thorough narrative about the evolution, impact, and decline of each species–as well as a glimpse into the future of possible back-breeding to restore giants into the ecosystem. 

An engaging read which I recommend to older teens and adults who are interested in biology and/or history.

AUDACITY by Melanie Crowder

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Clara always loved learning. But in her small Jewish community, women were not meant to be scholars. And her father was determined that not even his sons would ever learn Russian, the language of their oppressors.  Still Clara dreamed of being a doctor, and taught herself in secret how to read and how to speak Russian. When a violent pogrom destroyed their community, Clara and her family moved to America, and the opportunity for her to pursue her studies seemed more real than ever. But when the need to support her family forced Clara to work in a sweatshop, she discovered the horrible plight of the working immigrant woman – and child – and her dreams of becoming a surgeon began to conflict with her desire to pursue justice for the oppressed women around her.  Still a teenager, Clara formed a union, and endured terrible hardships as she pursued her new dream.

Inspired by Clara’s real life love of poetry, Crowder tells the true story of Clara Lemlich as she imagines Clara would have experienced it in beautiful poetic verse. The story is exciting, informative, and inspiring. Teen readers may see parallels between Clara’s struggle for justice and many injustice is in our world today. The book concludes with a detailed description of what is true and what is fictionalized in the novel, as well as interviews with Clara’s surviving relatives. I highly recommend this book to teen readers who enjoy historical fiction.

THE ENDLESS STEPPE: GROWING UP IN SIBERIA by Esther Hautzig

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Esther had a beautiful childhood. She shared a large home with her parents and extended family in their Polish town of Vilna. They had beautiful garden that Esther tended with her grandfather, and she attended a wonderful school. But that all ended with the German invasion. As the Polish army fought valiantly against the Germans, the Soviets began to wage war against what they considered to be internal enemies. Labeled as capitalists, Esther, her parents, and her grandparents are shuttled into cattle cars and taken to labor camps in Siberia. From age ten to age fifteen, Esther learns to survive working in the harsh, barren landscape. But as she grows and builds friendships and a life for herself, it becomes difficult to imagine ever leaving.

Esther Hautzig tells her life story in beautiful and evocative prose. Her experiences of joys and hardships are both shocking and accessible; in many ways, childhood in Siberia is no different from childhood anywhere else.  There is sadness in this story, as you can imagine, but ultimately, Esther’s story is hopeful. I highly recommend this book to middle grade readers and teens who enjoy historical novels and memoirs and who are interested in hearing a less-often-told side of the Second World War.

FREEDOM’S CHILDREN: YOUNG CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS TELL THEIR OWN STORIES by Ellen Levine

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Ellen Levine compiled the stories of over a dozen African American civil rights activists, all of whom were children and teenagers during the Civil Rights Movement in the American South.  The stories these activists tell about their childhood struggles are at times shocking but always inspiring.  Readers will learn about some of the major events in the Civil Rights Movement (such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott), as well as small victories with hometown sit-ins and day-to-day struggles with segregation.  Intended for older school-age children and teens, this book includes frank and occasionally graphic discussions of the violence during that time period, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

I used this book as the basis for a library program for children ages 7 & up and their parents.  I discussed the violence selectively–as an introduction for the younger kids that would not be traumatizing.  I did share one picture of protesters being attacked with fire hoses when we talked about peaceful protests and talked about how African American students were bullied at first when integrating schools.  I focused on the children and how they had used peaceful means of protest to help change attitudes in their country.

This program was very well-received by students and their parents.  Students were surprised to learn that children their age (and sometimes younger than they) were arrested for peaceful protests–and shocked to learn that some “colored” schools didn’t even have bathrooms or outhouses!  After the presentation, we had time for students to write or draw a reflection on what they had learned.  I gave them the following prompts:

  • One story that inspired me today was . . .
  • One time I saw injustice when . . .
  • One time I stood up for someone else when . . .
  • One time I stood up for myself when . . .
  • One time I was brave when . . .
  • If I were alive in 1950, my life would have been different because . . .

I was so impressed with their observations about injustice and bullying in their own school environments and their insights into how segregation would have impacted their lives–no matter what their race.  While the children wrote and drew, parents began a conversation about racism they had witnessed or experienced in their lifetimes.  A parent from South Korea discussed her experience with injustice and protests during her childhood and how it compared to the American Civil Rights Movement.  It was a very thoughtful and productive conversation.

This was one of the best-received programs I have ever done, and I found it personally inspiring, as well.  I highly recommend the book, and if any librarians/educators would like more information about the program, just shoot me an email!  I would be more than happy to share my presentation.

BLIZZARD: THE STORM THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Jim Murphy

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The blizzard that hit the east coast of the United States in March 1888 took the country and the fledgling National Weather Service completely by surprise and claimed hundreds of lives.  Though it was not the most devastating natural disaster the United States has ever faced, it drastically changed the way our nation viewed disaster preparedness and meteorology.  Jim Murphy tells the story of the great blizzard through the eyes of the people who experienced it–some who survived to tell the tale, and others who perished–while weaving in the science behind the storm and the big picture of the political and social climate that affected the responses of individuals and the government.  Although it is targeted for middle grade and teen readers, this fascinating and fast-paced book may be of interest to adults, as well!

FORTUNE’S BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM by Marilyn Nelson

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Commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum in Connecticut, The Manumission Requiem mourns the death and celebrates the life of a man named Fortune, a slave owned by Dr. Preserved Porter who—after Fortune’s death—dissected his body and hung his skeleton for display in his office.  Fortune’s bones passed through many hands, finally coming to rest in the Mattatuck Museum, and Fortune’s identity was only recently rediscovered.  The collection poems with which Marilyn Nelson remembers Fortune is short but powerful; it is a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book.  I would recommend Fortune’s Bones to teens and adults who are interested in reading stories about slavery or who enjoy thought-provoking poetry.

TITANIC: VOICES FROM THE DISASTER by Deborah Hopkinson

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On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths almost 1500 people (over 2/3 of those on board).  Deborah Hopkinson brings the Titanic’s tragic story to life by focusing on the stories of individual survivors.  Using their memories and words, she reconstructs the narrative of the Titanic from its initial departure to its sinking and the aftermath for the 700 survivors—most of them women and children whose husbands and fathers perished in the wreck.  Titanic: Voices From the Disaster is engaging, horrifying, and informative.  Although the book is marketed to upper-elementary school-aged children, I highly recommend it to anyone (children, teen, or adult) who is interested in learning more about the Titanic or who enjoys survival stories.   

If you liked Titanic: Voices From the Disaster, you might also like Revenge of the Whale.  

THE CROSSING: HOW GEORGE WASHINGTON SAVED THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by Jim Murphy

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How did George Washington save the American Revolution?  Basically, by sneaking around in the dark a lot.  Jim Murphy tells the story of Washington’s ragtag army–how they survived when all odds and even the weather were against them and how Washington’s brilliant leadership (and quite a bit of luck) led them to victory over the British.  This short, well-illustrated chapter book would be ideal for upper-elementary readers, both for school research and for recreational reading.