Reading for Charlottesville I

Back in the day (which was not actually all that long ago), people used to figure that the sun disappearing behind the moon was, you know, the work of darkness and demons. Given what’s happening in the world of late, I am starting to wonder if perhaps they had something right. In any case, rather than provide a list of funny and engaging books about astronomy, I am presenting reading for Charlottesville, ranging from novels to nonfiction, and from the Holocaust to America’s long, dark history of race relations. Surely, if we understand the horrors of the past, we are better equipped to go forward, not back.

Novels & Tales

Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper

Empires often enough fight against each other by freeing the other’s slaves. (This was a Thing.) In Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun, which takes for its title a quote from Countee Cullen‘s poem “Heritage,” two young women—one kidnapped from her home in Africa and enslaved, the other an indentured servant—escape together, fleeing towards Fort Mose, Florida, and a promise of sanctuary—and freedom.

Girl In the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

Hanneke, our heroine and a purveyor of black-market goods in occupied Amsterdam, is thrown into Resistance activities when she’s asked to find a missing girl—a Jewish girl, previously hidden from the Nazis by one of her long-time clients, now lost somewhere in a deadly world.

The March series by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell

Have you seen Selma? Did you ever wonder, while listening to American treasure and Georgia Congressman Rep. John Lewis, what his youth was like? His multiple-award-winning graphic novel series, The March, allows you to step into the Civil Rights movement, traveling it alongside his youthful self.

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

Many of these novels are pulled from the headlines, and Magoon’s How It Went Down, which covers the aftermath of a shooting, is no different. The victim of the shooting was black; the shooter, white; we see the aftermath—and what happened—through a Greek chorus of voices.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

I’ve gotta warn you: in this book, nobody is ever happy again. It’s still a really good book, and is, in fact, an award winner. Built around a real-life school explosion in Texas in the early 1900s, it features two teens (Mexican Naomi, African-American Wash) and their great, star-crossed love, and builds towards terrible tragedy—this one caused by racism and hate rather than Capulets and Montagues. It is, I think, even more important now than it was when it was published in 2015.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

What does “all American” signify to you? Student jocks selected for that big honor? Food? County fairs? It’s a concept at play in Reynolds and Kiely’s ripped-from-the-headlines novel All American Boys, about what happens when one young man (who happens to be black) is wrong accused of, and brutally beaten by, a white cop, who claims to be defending a white woman. A classmate, best friends with the cop’s younger brother, sees the whole thing—and as the victim is tried and found wanting by the press, the witness has to decide where he actually stands. It’s a fast and a profound read, not least for its inclusion of the subtly subverted white woman in need of protection trope—she’s apologizing and trying to help the kid in the seconds before the cop attacks him.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Chances are, you’ve heard of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, the first young adult novel to explicitly mention Black Lives Matter. When cops kill Starr’s childhood best friend, Khalil, she is thrust into the spotlight as Khalil is dragged through the mud. It’s a novel ripped from the headlines, and it should be read.

This Side of Home by Renée Watson

Renée Watson uses teenage twins as her windows into a gentrifying world in this coming-of-age tale of Maya and Nikki and what happens to their neighborhood and their lives as their part of Portland gentrifies. Gentrification is a hot-button issue—as it should be—and Watson, through Nikki and Maya, provides a strong window into what is lost, and what changes, as a place gentrifies.

Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott

Did you know that it was illegal for people in concentration camps to have paper? Which meant that when Zlatka, imprisoned in Auschwitz, made an origami heart for her friend Fania, she was risking death—as were all the other young women who signed it. Wiviott’s Paper Hearts is the story of Zlatka, Fania, and the paper heart; as a novel in verse, it is eminently readable.

And, if you are interested, you can see the real paper heart, at the Montreal Holocaust Museum.


The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

You know that movie The Zookeeper’s Wife? Well, this is its parent and original. Ackerman’s book tracks Jan and Antonina Żabiński and their son Ryszard, who, in the midst of destruction and in front of the Nazis, rescued Jews, stockpiled ammunition for the Resistance, and resisted, with everything they had.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

Anderson’s award-winning young adult book delves into the horror of the siege of Leningrad for those inside the city; he also looks at what makes people comply (Shostakovich was no hero)—and what makes compliant people (Shostakovich again) rebel, trying to save others. Oh, and it looks at the ways in which cultural production—such as music, like Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony—can boost morale and encourage people to keep on keeping on, or, in the case of Leningrad, to actually fight on.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust

Why am I including a book subtitled Death and the American Civil War? Well, because it delves into a lot more than death: it goes into American race relations, too, probing the horrors black soldiers faced if they were captured by Confederates. It is very much worth reading in its entirety, but if that cannot be done, then at least read every part about what Confederates were doing to African Americans.

When we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it.

We Will Not Be Silent:The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman

The people of the White Rose resistance movement were very young, and very brave, and doomed. Nonetheless they took their stand, and went with courage to the end. We Will Not Be Silent, on more than one award shortlist this year, is written for younger readers; it’s a good introduction to the story of a group of profoundly brave, principled young Germans, and the stand they made against evil.

Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War by Linda Hervieux

The Black Panthers weren’t the only forgotten regiment of black soldiers in WWII. In Forgotten, Linda Hervieux covers the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, which served at Normandy—and was then forgotten. (Probably kinda like how everyone assumes—or used to assume, maybe Flags of Our Fathers changed that—all those guys in the famous Iwo Jima statue are white—but one is Pima.) Like the Black Panthers, the 320th faced discrimination at home and at war, doing their duty as soldiers with honor and distinction in spite of the way they were treated.

Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in the SNCC edited by Faith S. Holsaert

You’ve maybe heard of the SNCC: it’s the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, of which John Lewis was a member, and which you saw in action in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. (In case you’ve ever wondered about his backpack, he talks about it here.) Hands on the Freedom Plow is a compilation of interviews by women in the SNCC, and gives a different—and an important—window in the Civil Right Movement.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip M. Hoose

When the Nazis invaded Denmark, nobody did much of anything—except a group of teenage boys about whom Hoose’s award-winning book is written. Knud Pedersen and his friends, ashamed and disgusted at the lack of resistance, organized themselves (Winston Churchill was their inspiration and the name of their “club”), and began to actively resist Nazi occupation. They were successful enough that the Nazis eventually hunted down and jailed all the teen saboteurs—though, unlike the resistance workers of the White Rose, they’d live to see the end of the war (and to fight again—they were a brave group). They did more than simply destroy Nazi train tracks, though: they inspired others to take up their fight, and the Danish Resistance was born.

Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905-1953 by Simon Ings

As the daughter of a biochemist, and as someone who grew up knowing people who fled oppression in the Soviet Block (and who had concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms), this book holds particular resonance for me. This is a tale of Soviet scientists—of, in the words of its subtitle, triumph and tragedy, of those who made it work and of those who were broken.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and
an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

Ever wondered what Berlin was like during Hitler’s rise to power? Erik Larson, famed for Devil in the White City (which I still haven’t read), among others, offers us a front-row seat through the experiences of the US ambassador to Berlin and his family, who were actually living it.

Be Free Or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero by Cate Lineberry

Robert Smalls was a man who had no intention of remaining a slave. He was an able seaman, having worked the sea all his life. When he was ordered to steer a Confederate vessel, he bided his time, gained the trust of the white crew—and then he, and his fellow enslaved crewmen, took over the ship, rescued their families, and hightailed it for the Union. (I’m amazed at the pure stupidity of the Confederate officers—did it really never cross their minds that people strive for freedom?) However, Smalls’ incredible journey doesn’t end with becoming a Union hero: he went on to be a South Carolina legislator, and to advocate for civil rights, education, and human services. Talk about a guy who should have a statue.

The Rest I Will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave by Brian McGinty

William Tillman was a sailor from Rhode Island and a free man of color. (As an aside, many men of color worked as sailors; the multiracial crews on Black Sails are pretty legit, even when everything else is kinda off the wall.) When Confederate privateers took over the ship on which he was working as a cook, they apparently didn’t consider him enough of a threat to lock up (they did lock up one of the white guys): they told him he’d be sold into slavery as soon as they got where they were bound, and he should just go back and do his job—he was not even considered human enough to be a threat.

Tillman, like any other normal human being, started plotting instead. Less than a month after his ship had left New York City he (and like one other guy helping him) brought it back to port, after Tillman had single-handedly taken on the Confederates and liberated the ship. He became, for at least a while, an American hero. He is an American hero, and we should still remember his name.

For more articles about Tillman:

The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Y. Moore

Chicago is a great city. Probably the greatest! Unfortunately, like every other American city, it is built on some pretty awful, racist histories. The South Side delves into the past—and present—of segregation in my great city, including the policies that—horribly—keep it alive today. (For what it’s worth, all anyone needs to do is look at a map of school closings to see segregation alive and well, or check out news coverage of the South Side.)

Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust by Doreen Rappaport

Meet some original alt-left heroes: Jewish Resistance fighters during the Holocaust. Doreen Rappaport’s award-winning book Beyond Courage delves into the stories of Jewish men and women who resisted Hitler and the Nazis, going to war without support against an enemy who did not consider them human. (Does this sound familiar?)

For those interested, here are some resources on Jewish Resistance fighters in WWII

The Grand Mosque of Paris by Karen Gray Ruelle

Did you know that Parisienne Muslims served in the French Resistance and worked to save their Jewish neighbors, even using their mosque as a space to do so? The Grand Mosque of Paris, by Karen Gray Ruelle, is a children’s book; it’s also a good introdcution to the heroism of those French Muslims.

For those interested, here is some more information on Muslim Resistance members and on the Grand Mosque of Paris and its congregation’s work to save their neighbors:

Slavery in Small Things: Slavery and Modern Cultural Habits by James Walvin

Ever wondered how the things—from foods to maps and beyond—were influenced by slavery? (Or if they were?) If you have—or if you thought that all that stuff was in the past—Walvin’s book is a good place to start. It will be hard to look at a sugar bowl the same again—which is, honestly, for the best. The past is ugly and horrible, but as we have seen time and again, the present is pretty awful too.

Let’s try to work together to make the future a little less dismal.



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