I’ll just admit it–I have probably learned more about history from the children’s and young adult literature I have read since leaving college than anything I learned as a student. Most of the history classes I took relied on filmstrips, textbooks, and lectures to deliver content–told predominately through the points of view of white people (mostly men). Teaching social studies for so many years exposed me to ideas, experiences, and voices I didn’t know. Reading more nonfiction for my students helped me engage my students with reading nonfiction, too. Promoting and sharing nonfiction books with young people broadens their background knowledge, fosters empathy, and offers a deeper understanding of our world and themselves. The accuracy, range, perspectives, varied formats and styles of today’s nonfiction for kids far surpasses the formulaic encyclopedia sets that dominated school library collections in the last century. This year’s winners of the 2021 Nerdy Book Club Awards for Best Long Form Nonfiction take young readers around the world and through time–from the bottom of the ocean floor to the founding of the Black Panthers Movement–showing our world in its vast complexity and ongoing evolution.
Congratulations to the authors, illustrators, and publishers of these engaging and informative books!
** Book descriptions taken from Goodreads listings and publisher’s information.
Ambushed!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield (Medical Fiascoes) by Gail Jarrow
James Abram Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, was assassinated when he was shot by Charles Guiteau in July 1881, less than four months after he was elected president. But Garfield didn’t actually die until 80 days later. In this page-turner, award-winning author Gail Jarrow delves into the fascinating story of the relationship between Garfield and Guiteau, and relates the gruesome details of Garfield’s slow and agonizing death. She reveals medical mistakes made in the aftermath of Garfield’s assassination, including the faulty diagnoses and outdated treatments that led to the president’s demise. This gripping blend of science, history, and mystery — the latest title in the Medical Fiascoes series — is nonfiction for kids at its best: exciting and relevant and packed with plenty of villains and horrifying facts.
Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre by Brandy Colbert
Balzer + Bray
In the early morning of June 1, 1921, a white mob marched across the train tracks in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and into its predominantly Black Greenwood District—a thriving, affluent neighborhood known as America’s Black Wall Street. They brought with them firearms, gasoline, and explosives.
In a few short hours, they’d razed thirty-five square blocks to the ground, leaving hundreds dead. The Tulsa Race Massacre is one of the most devastating acts of racial violence in US history. But how did it come to pass? What exactly happened? And why are the events unknown to so many of us today?
These are the questions that award-winning author Brandy Colbert seeks to answer in this unflinching nonfiction account of the Tulsa Race Massacre. In examining the tension that was brought to a boil by many factors—white resentment of Black economic and political advancement, the resurgence of white supremacist groups, the tone and perspective of the media, and more—a portrait is drawn of an event singular in its devastation, but not in its kind. It is part of a legacy of white violence that can be traced from our country’s earliest days through Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement in the mid–twentieth century, and the fight for justice and accountability Black Americans still face today.
The Tulsa Race Massacre has long failed to fit into the story Americans like to tell themselves about the history of their country. This book, ambitious and intimate in turn, explores the ways in which the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre is the story of America—and by showing us who we are, points to a way forward.
Disability Visibility (Adapted for Young Adults): 17 First-Person Stories for Today edited by Alice Wong
One in five people in the United States lives with a disability. Some disabilities are visible, others less apparent—but all are underrepresented in media and popular culture. Now, just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, activist Alice Wong brings together this urgent, galvanizing collection of contemporary essays by disabled people.
From Harriet McBryde Johnson’s account of her debate with Peter Singer over her own personhood to original pieces by authors like Keah Brown and Haben Girma; from blog posts, manifestos, and eulogies to Congressional testimonies, and beyond: this anthology gives a glimpse into the rich complexity of the disabled experience, highlighting the passions, talents, and everyday lives of this community. It invites readers to question their own understandings. It celebrates and documents disability culture in the now. It looks to the future and the past with hope and love.
Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition by Anton Treuer
From the acclaimed Ojibwe author and professor Anton Treuer comes an essential book of questions and answers for Native and non-Native young readers alike. Ranging from “Why is there such a fuss about nonnative people wearing Indian costumes for Halloween?” to “Why is it called a ‘traditional Indian fry bread taco’?” to “What’s it like for natives who don’t look native?” to “Why are Indians so often imagined rather than understood?”, and beyond, Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask (Young Readers Edition) does exactly what its title says for young readers, in a style consistently thoughtful, personal, and engaging.
Updated and expanded to include:
• Dozens of New Questions and New Sections—including a social activism section that explores the Dakota Access Pipeline, racism, identity, politics, and more!
• Over 50 new Photos
• Adapted text for broad appeal
Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press
As World War II comes to a close, the United States and the Soviet Union emerge as the two greatest world powers on extreme opposites of the political spectrum. After the United States showed its hand with the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, the Soviets refuse to be left behind. With Communism sweeping the globe, the two nations begin a neck-and-neck competition to build even more destructive bombs and conquer the Space Race. In their battle for dominance, spy planes fly above, armed submarines swim deep below, and undercover agents meet in the dead of night.
The Cold War game grows more precarious as weapons are pointed towards each other, with fingers literally on the trigger. The decades-long showdown culminates in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world’s close call with the third—and final—world war.
From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement by Paula Yoo
Norton Young Readers
America in 1982: Japanese car companies are on the rise and believed to be putting U.S. autoworkers out of their jobs. Anti–Asian American sentiment simmers, especially in Detroit. A bar fight turns fatal, leaving a Chinese American man, Vincent Chin, beaten to death at the hands of two white men, autoworker Ronald Ebens and his stepson, Michael Nitz.
Paula Yoo has crafted a searing examination of the killing and the trial and verdicts that followed. When Ebens and Nitz pled guilty to manslaughter and received only a $3,000 fine and three years’ probation, the lenient sentence sparked outrage. The protests that followed led to a federal civil rights trial—the first involving a crime against an Asian American—and galvanized what came to be known as the Asian American movement.
Extensively researched from court transcripts, contemporary news accounts, and in-person interviews with key participants, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry is a suspenseful, nuanced, and authoritative portrait of a pivotal moment in civil rights history, and a man who became a symbol against hatred and racism.
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
His name is synonymous with high-stakes wilderness survival stories. Now, author Gary Paulsen portrays a series of life-altering moments from his turbulent childhood as his own original survival story. If not for his summer escape from a shockingly neglectful Chicago upbringing to a North Woods homestead at age five, there never would have been a Hatchet. Without the encouragement of the librarian who handed him his first book at age thirteen, he may never have become a reader. And without his desperate teenage enlistment in the Army, he would not have discovered his true calling as a storyteller.
Hear My Voice/Escucha mi voz: The Testimonies of Children Detained at the Southern Border of the United States (Bilingual Edition) compiled by Warren Binford, illustrated by 17 Latinx illustrators (foreword by Michael Garcia Bochenek)
Workman Publishing Company
A moving picture book for older children and families that introduces a difficult topic, amplifying the voices and experiences of immigrant children detained at the border between Mexico and the US. The children’s actual words (from publicly available court documents) are assembled to tell one heartbreaking story, in both English and Spanish (back to back). Each spread is illustrated in striking full-color by a different Latinx artist. A portion of sales will be donated to human rights organizations that work with children on the border.
Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica by Rebecca E. F. Barone
Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
In 1910, Captain Robert Scott prepared his crew for a trip that no one had ever completed: a journey to the South Pole. He vowed to get there any way he could, even if it meant looking death in the eye. Then, not long before he set out, another intrepid explorer, Roald Amundsen, set his sights on the same goal. Suddenly two teams were vying to be the first to make history—what was to be an expedition had become a perilous race.
In 2018, Captain Louis Rudd readied himself for a similarly grueling task: the first unaided, unsupported solo crossing of treacherous Antarctica. But little did he know that athlete Colin O’Brady was training for the same trek—and he was determined to beat Louis to the finish line.
RBG’s Brave and Brilliant Women by Nadine Epstein, illustrated by Bee Johnson (foreword by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
The fascinating lives detailed in this collection–more than thirty exemplary female role models–were chosen by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or RBG, as she was lovingly known to her many admirers. Working with her friend, journalist Nadine Epstein, RBG selected these trailblazers, all of whom are women and Jewish, who chose not to settle for the rules and beliefs of their time. They did not accept what the world told them they should be. Like RBG, they dreamed big, worked hard, and forged their own paths to become who they deserved to be.
Future generations will benefit from each and every one of the courageous actions and triumphs of the women profiled here. Real Wonder Women, the passion project of Justice Ginsburg in the last year of her life, will inspire readers to think about who they want to become and to make it happen, just like RBG.
Rescuing Titanic: A true story of quiet bravery in the North Atlantic (Hidden Histories) by Flora Delargy
Wide Eyed Editions
With the approaching 110-year anniversary of the ship’s sinking, Rescuing Titanic shares a unique connection with the story of the ship; having been written and illustrated by debut Northern Irish artist, Flora Delargy, whose grandfather and great grandfather both worked in the Belfast Shipyards where the Titanic was built.
In the middle of the night, the Carpathia received a distress call from the sinking Titanic. The intrepid little ship heroically changed course and headed straight into the frozen sea to help save as many people as it could. Follow the Carpathia as it risks everything to navigate remote, treacherous ice fields in the dark and come to the rescue of passengers on the world-famous ocean liner.
Along the journey, you will learn all about Morse code, navigation tools, the different roles of the crew, how the ships found each other, and by-the-minute details of exactly what happened on this cold and fateful night.
The illustrations set the scene and take the reader into the frozen eerie night in the North Atlantic. Beautiful full-bleed illustration and vignettes give great detail about how everyone on the ship made their own contribution and showed true bravery.
Rescuing Titanic shows that a glimmer of hope can be found even in great tragedy and that heroes are not always big and mighty, but can also be small and unassuming.
Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon
In this comprehensive, inspiring, and all-too-relevant history of the Black Panther Party, Kekla Magoon introduces readers to the Panthers’ community activism, grounded in the concept of self-defense, which taught Black Americans how to protect and support themselves in a country that treated them like second-class citizens. For too long the Panthers’ story has been a footnote to the civil rights movement rather than what it was: a revolutionary socialist movement that drew thousands of members—mostly women—and became the target of one of the most sustained repression efforts ever made by the U.S. government against its own citizens.
Revolution in Our Time puts the Panthers in the proper context of Black American history, from the first arrival of enslaved people to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Kekla Magoon’s eye-opening work invites a new generation of readers grappling with injustices in the United States to learn from the Panthers’ history and courage, inspiring them to take their own place in the ongoing fight for justice.
Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul, illustrated by Rachelle Baker
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Adapted from the award-winning, bestselling Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, this book takes readers on a journey from present to past and back again. Kids will discover where racist ideas came from, identify how they impact America today, and meet those who have fought racism with antiracism. Along the way, they’ll learn how to identify and stamp out racist thoughts in their own lives.
Ibram X. Kendi’s research, Jason Reynolds’s and Sonja Cherry-Paul’s writing, and Rachelle Baker’s art come together in this vital read, enhanced with a glossary, timeline, and more.
The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin
Drama, family secrets, and a KGB spy in his own kitchen! How will Yevgeny ever fulfill his parents’ dream that he become a national hero when he doesn’t even have his own room? He’s not a star athlete or a legendary ballet dancer. In the tiny apartment he shares with his Baryshnikov-obsessed mother, poetry-loving father, continually outraged grandmother, and safely talented brother, all Yevgeny has is his little pencil, the underside of a massive table, and the doodles that could change everything. With equal amounts charm and solemnity, award-winning author and artist Eugene Yelchin recounts in hilarious detail his childhood in Cold War Russia as a young boy desperate to understand his place in his family.
The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege by Brendan Kiely
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Talking about racism can be hard, but…
Most kids of color grow up talking about racism. They have “The Talk” with their families—the honest talk about survival in a racist world.
But white kids don’t. They’re barely spoken to about race at all—and that needs to change. Because not talking about racism doesn’t make it go away. Not talking about white privilege doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
The Other Talk begins this much-needed conversation for white kids. In an instantly relatable and deeply honest account of his own life, Brendan Kiely offers young readers a way to understand one’s own white privilege and why allyship is so vital, so that we can all start doing our part—today.
The Sea-Ringed World: Sacred Stories of the Americas by Maria Garcia Esperon, illustrated by Amanda Mijangos, translated by David Bowles
Fifteen thousand years before Europeans stepped foot in the Americas, people had already spread from tip to tip and coast to coast. Like all humans, these Native Americans sought to understand their place in the universe, the nature of their relationship with the divine, and the origin of the world into which their ancestors had emerged.
The answers lay in their sacred stories.
Author María García Esperón, illustrator Amanda Mijangos, and translator David Bowles have gifted us a treasure. Their talents have woven this collection of stories from nations and cultures across our two continents—the Sea-Ringed World, as the Aztecs called it—from the edge of Argentina all the way up to Alaska.
The Woman All Spies Fear: Codebreaker Elizabeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life written by Amy Butler Greenfield
Elizebeth Smith Friedman always had a penchant for solving riddles. It was this skill, and a desire to do something with her life that led her to become one of the top cryptanalysts in America during both World War I and II. She originally came to codebreaking through her love for Shakespeare when she was hired by an eccentric billionaire to prove that Shakespeare’s plays had secret messages in them and were written by Frances Bacon. Though she came to the conclusion that there were not any secret messages in the plays, she learned so much about coding that she went on to play a major role in decoding messages during WWI and WWII and also for the US Coast Guard’s own war against smugglers. Elizebeth and her husband, William, became the top codebreaking team in the US, and she did it all at a time when women weren’t a welcome presence in the workforce.
While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown
Quill Tree Books
When twelve-year-old Waka’s parents suspect she can’t understand basic Japanese, they make the drastic decision to send her to Tokyo to live for several months with her strict grandmother. Forced to say goodbye to her friends and what would have been her summer vacation, Waka is plucked from her straight-A-student life in rural Kansas and flown across the globe, where she faces the culture shock of a lifetime.
In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing in kanji, doesn’t quite mesh with her complicated and distant Obaasama, and gets made fun of by the students in her Japanese public-school classes. Even though this is the country her parents came from, Waka has never felt more like an outsider.
If she’s always been the “smart Japanese girl” in America but is now the “dumb foreigner” in Japan, where is home? And who will Waka be when she finds it?
Check out more nonfiction titles from the 2021 Nerdies winners in other categories:
Thank you to everyone who nominated books for this year’s awards!
Donalyn Miller taught upper elementary and middle school English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas for fifteen years, and currently works as an independent literacy coach, consultant, and teacher & reader advocate. She is the author or co-author of several books about encouraging students to read, including The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild, Game Changer!: Book Access for All Kids (co-written with Colby Sharp), and the Spring 2022 book, The Joy of Reading (co-written with Teri Lesesne). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer reading initiative #bookaday and co-founded The Nerdy Book Club. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.