review: YA Historical Fiction

Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 7.18.32 PM.pngScreen Shot 2020-04-21 at 7.18.59 PM.pngTitle: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You
authors: Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
date: Little, Brown; 2020
young adult; historical nonfiction

title: Stolen Justice: The Struggle for African American Voting Rights
author: Lawrence Goldstone
date: Scholastic Focus 2020
young adult; historical nonfiction

Both books reviewed are advanced copies.

I didn’t begin to appreciate nonfiction until my adult years. During my childhood, nonfiction I think was primarily written for for adults; particularly white, male adults. Even more so, it was a dry, informational text, a text that led readers to think it was delivering honest, bias free, factual information.

I did enjoy reading as a teen and during my 12 years in majority white schools, I managed to develop the insight that I was not included in the history and literature books from which I was taught. (My classes were about 97% White.) I somehow began to question where Black people should be in the stories I read.

Teens today still itch for a take on US history that accurately describes how all people have participated in this democracy. In too many instances, this information continues to be something they have to actively seek out. Ibram X. Kendi hoped to remedy this when he recruited Jason Reynolds to write Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You (Little, Brown, 2020). Lawrence Goldstone felt the same and wrote Stolen Justice The Struggle for African American Voting Rights (Scholastic Focus, 2020).

Reynolds, an African American man degreed in English, is known for his award-winning middle grade and young adult novels. He currently serves as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Stamped, he says is not a history book because believes that young people don’t like history. He knows fully well what he’s working with in terms of content and audience. For him, written language is an artform that positions readers while entertaining and informing. He writes in a style that lets him connect directly with his readers.

About Jefferson. You know how I said Gomes Eanes de Zurara was the world’s first racist? Well, Thomas Jefferson might’ve been the world’s first White person to say, “I have Black friends.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m willing to make the bet. He was raised non-religious in a house where Native Americans were houseguests, and Black people, though slaves, were his friends as far as he could tell. As a young man, he didn’t think of them as less or consider slavery much at all. As a matter of fact, Jefferson didn’t even really see them as slaves. It wasn’t until he was older, when his African “friends” started telling him about the horrors of slavery–including the terror in his own home–that he realized their lives were more different than he’d even known. And how could they not be? His father had built the second-largest plantation in Albermarle County, Virginia, and I don’t know about you all, but I don’t own my friends. (p. 43)

Reynolds’ remix is premised upon Kendi’s work, but all tellings of history are premised upon truths and are confined to the facts they uncover. What the author chooses to detail and what language they choose to portray those details is how they bias their readers. Here, not only does Reynolds work to relate to his readers but, he does so with unequivocal bias. The educator and librarian in me wants to throw out all kinds of flags to be sure the readers know how they are being positioned here, but the little Black girl in me smirks and says “right on!”. I do want to know to what nation those Native Americans belong and I do want pushback on some of this history but what I really want to question is how well young readers appreciate this telling of history because, no matter what the spin it’s still a history book. Does Reynolds successfully get his readers not only to ingest this history but, to become part of it by doing the anti-racist work methodically laid out in the book?

Neither Reynolds nor Goldstone flinches when naming racism or white supremacy. They detail stories of our founding fathers that most books intended for adults refuse to admit. Goldstone writes of the inconsistencies in the US judicial system that consistently denies voter access to Blacks while Reynolds makes the courageous acts of antiracists visible. I think Stamped is flawed in a way similar to Stolen Justice in that they both span too great a time, choosing to go wide rather than deep. Goldstone begins his description of the voting rights struggle for Blacks in 1898 and moves through to the 1960s, concluding with a few paragraphs about events in the 21st century.

Is there bias in Goldstone’s book? Just consider the title: Stolen Justice.

Lawrence Goldstone is a white, Jewish, male author who writes nonfiction and fiction for adults and young people. He earned his PhD writing a dissertation on the underemphasized role of slave economics at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He’s written three previous books on the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the rights to full citizenship for Blacks in the US. Stolen Justice is part of series with Scholastic which includes last year’s Unpunished Murder: Massacre at Colfax and the Quest for Justice.

I think another way Goldstone’s book is like Stamped is that he too, writes for people like himself. Reynolds delivers “the things that I needed someone to say to me when I was 15 years old.” That’s pretty much how he always writes: with 15 year-olds like himself in mind. Goldstone seems to write for his younger self as well but, at 16 he began college and he was done by 18. His teenage self, with  degrees of privilege, was primed to question and to get answers, just as some teens are today. As someone who researches history, he knows what’s been taught and he writes to disrupt that.

Still, these same white supremacists felt as much need to justify this behavior as they had to justify slavery. Since even they knew it would not do to enslave equals-or to steal the government from them -they took the position that people of color were, as a race, simply not equal to whites.

But, just how they did this evolved. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the favored method was to employ citations from the Bible that were twisted to demonstrate that slavery was actually beneficial to barbaric, childlike Africans. Beginning in about 1840, however, biblical arguments were replaced with “scientific” theories, which “proved” that the black race was demonstrably inferior, unsuited for anything but menial labor, and needing the guiding hand of whites.” (pp 113-4)

While Reynolds and Kendi push for their readers to be anti-racists, Goldstone delivers the message that “remaining a nation that truly values freedom and justice requires that all Americans insist that their fellow citizens, no matter what their race, gender religion or political belief, be allowed to participate in choosing the nation’s leaders”. (p.217) In an interview with Cyrus Webb, Goldstone describes himself as writing to expose readers to important yet unknown events in US history that bring us to where we are today.  The adult in me appreciates the emotional distance in Goldstone’s writing, allowing crucial but little-known judicial decisions to resonate at will. Teens need the emotional tug to pull them into the narrative.

These two history books come from two different points of privilege. Written from different boundaries of experience, each author seeking to address readers in a space they know, in a space they hope to influence and inform.

In trying to move forward, we keep going back to those times when individually or collectively we were our strongest as well as when we were our weakest; those times that truly showed who we were. And then, we look forward to see who we can be. These parallel narratives take different looks back but have a very similar vision. While they are both hopeful, both also know that hope comes from believing that the young people reading their books are ready to do the work. Some teens may choose to use these books more a reference books while others will sit and digest all the information they provide. In either case, these books in their appeal to different audiences should both sit on library shelves.

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