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The political movements, influential figures, and creative atmosphere of the 1920s in the U.S. are examined in this list, which features both fiction and nonfiction titles suitable for a wide audience.
The smoky, sensual world of flappers, gangsters, and moonshiners seems, at first glance, like a gold mine for YA literature, and certainly, it has blossomed there. But the genre has seeped into books for younger readers as well. The Roaring Twenties were about far more than speakeasies and raised hemlines, and the middle-grade and picture-book landscapes have witnessed a distinct number of titles that deal with many of the related events and cultural movements. The 1920s in America was a decade saturated with radical change that, despite the indolence and sustained prosperity, simmered with manic unrest.
It was a period of great accomplishments. Women (as long as they were white) won the right to vote in 1919, beginning a period during which, if not many, at least more opportunities were afforded them. It was the age of the American hero: Charles Lindbergh’s record-breaking flight across the Atlantic occurred in 1927, and aviators shattered records in the following years. Babe Ruth rose to fame as the decade rolled over, rescuing baseball from its dead-ball era. It was the Jazz Age, where art and music flourished, the Harlem Renaissance providing a cultural locus that particularly fostered African American artists and musicians.
It was also a period of great distress. The rise of the second movement of the KKK led to uneasy race relations that would boil over in the coming decades, and were only made worse by the Immigration Act of 1924, which fostered an environment of xenophobia and anti-Semitism and all but prohibited the immigration of people desperately seeking to flee turbulent areas, especially Jews in Eastern Europe and the Chinese. It was the Prohibition era, where a power vacuum allowed crime lords to seize control and gangs to run the cities, ushering in a period of shocking violence. Then there was rural America, which remained stubbornly rooted in tradition, clashing with the changing attitudes of the cities.
In hindsight, this tumultuous period—of hedonism and racial tensions, excess and fear, progress and resistance—hastened the death throes of a country on the brink of financial disaster and of a world on the brink of war. And that, ominously, is something that feels thoroughly modern.
This may seem like a lot for young readers to take in, but it’s never too early to start teaching tolerance. The books here, both fiction and nonfiction, introduce the many faces of the Roaring Twenties. There’s plenty of fun to be had—many of the mysteries capture the indulgence and excitement of the times while educating young readers on an expansive moment in history—but somber recollections abound as well. These titles look at the world in the midst of great change, and with retrospective wisdom, they ask young readers to be more responsible than their predecessors with the world they themselves are creating.
Prohibition and Lawlessness
Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. By Karen Blumenthal. 2011. Roaring Brook/Flash Point, $18.99 (9781596434493). Gr. 8–12.
Sibert Honor–winning Blumenthal tracks the trajectory of the Eighteenth Amendment across several centuries. She looks at the seeds planted by eighteenth-century temperance that culminated in the twentieth-century political movement and discusses all that came with it, from gangster activity to the few bright effects of an otherwise disastrous amendment. Though written for older readers, this highly readable, well-designed book is accessible for a middle-grade audience as well.
Eliot Ness. By Tammy Gagne. 2015. Mitchell Lane, $25.70 (9781612289564). Gr. 4–6.
This entry in the Fact or Fiction? series shines a light on the Prohibition enforcer who helped put Al Capone in prison and how he may not be the daring figure portrayed on the screen and in books. Nicely researched and quite engaging, this promotes critical thinking and evaluative skills in young readers while educating them on one of the lesser-discussed sides of Prohibition.
Farewell, John Barleycorn: Prohibition in the United States. By Martin Hintz. 1996. Lerner, o.p. Gr. 6–10.
This well-organized entry in the People’s History series explains the Eighteenth Amendment and society’s reaction to it, the rise of organized crime, the failures and triumphs of law enforcement, and the forces that led to the end of Prohibition. Black-and-white illustrations include reproductions of engravings, posters, political cartoons, and many photographs.
Dog 4491. By Sneed B. Collard III. 2013. Bucking Horse, $16 (9780984446049). Gr. 4–7.
In this time-traveling adventure, Sam finds a gateway between his contemporary suburb to the same town in 1926, where he meets Rollie. The two soon find themselves entangled with a gang of bootleggers in the Prohibition era whose thuggish descendants, in Sam’s time, continue to have local government officials in their pockets. Gang violence and government corruption in both decades help young readers connect the past to the present.
The Gallery. By Laura Marx Fitzgerald. 2016. Dial, $16.99 (9780525428657). Gr. 4–7.
In late 1920s New York, 12-year-old Martha O’Doyle becomes a maid for Mrs. Sewell, sequestered to her bedroom along with most of her precious art collection. Determined to unravel the meaning behind the artwork and the isolation of her mistress, Martha starts snooping. Lively and inventive, this mystery shows glimpses of vaudeville acts, challenges facing immigrants, Prohibition, Hoover’s presidential campaign, and the stock-market crash. A concluding author Q&A offers further insight.
The Ghost in the Glass House. By Carey Wallace. 2013. Clarion, $16.99 (9780544022911). Gr. 5–8.
Ever since 12-year-old Clare Fitzgerald’s father died, she and her wealthy, socialite mother have been on the move. This summer, they’re at a seaside resort town, where Clare discovers a near-hidden glass house and an equally enigmatic ghost boy named Jack who inhabits it. Wallace blends 1920s flapper culture and the decade’s interest in the spirit world with Clare’s quest to discover Jack’s true identity.
Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter. By Beth Fantaskey. 2016. HMH, $17.99 (9780544582491). Gr. 4–7.
In 1920s Chicago, 10-year-old Isabel Feeney dreams of being a crime journalist. When a pal is accused of murdering her gangster boyfriend, Isabel begins an investigation that draws her into Chicago’s seamier side. Special attention is paid to the public’s fascination with murderers, bootleggers, and gangsters—in particular, the misplaced glamour associated with the women on Murderess’ Row—while Isabel’s innocence and intelligence combine to form a complex character full of moxie.
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group. By Susan Campbell Bartoletti. 2010. HMH, $19 (9780618440337). Gr. 7–12.
Multi-award-winning Bartoletti, an eighth-grade teacher for 18 years, writes in admirably clear, accessible language about one of the most complex periods in U.S. history. Through expertly selected stories of people on all sides of the violent conflicts, readers will gain a larger understanding of the conditions that incubated the Klan’s terrorism; how profoundly the freed people and their sympathizers suffered; and how the legacy of that fear, racism, and brutality runs through our own time.
White Lilacs. By Carolyn Meyer. 1993. HMH, $7.99 (9780152058517).
In 1921, the “colored” section of the Texas town of Dillon was called Freedom. When the white residents of Dillon vote to turn the area into a town park, the residents of Freedom realize their loss is a foregone conclusion. The chilling intimidation of the black community by a silent KKK march and the dismantling of the businesses and families in Freedom are related by teenager Rose Lee Jefferson.
Witness. By Karen Hesse. 2001. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780439272001). Gr. 3–7.
Using real events and 11 different voices, Hesse tells a free-verse story of the KKK in a small Vermont town in 1924. There are two new-to-town kids—Leonora Sutter, 12, black, and Esther Hirsh, 6, Jewish—as well as violent Klan bigots, antiracist crusaders, and bystanders. The story is told in five acts—particularly effective as readers’ theater—and the spare writing leaves space for readers to imagine more about that time and their own.
Written in Stone. By Rosanne Parry. 2013. Random, $16.99 (9780375869716). Gr. 4–7.
In 1923, when Makah Indian Pearl was 13, her father was lost at sea during a whale hunt. Pearl found comfort in her extended family, even as the world around them began to encroach on their traditions. Meanwhile, a supposed art collector attempts to trick Pearl’s elders into signing away valuable mineral rights in this historical novel that looks at the racially charged, rapidly changing world of the 1920s.
Immigration and International Relations
The Night of the Burning: Devorah’s Story. By Linda Press Wulf. 2006. Farrar, o.p. Gr. 7–10.
Haunted by the loss of her parents and driven from her Polish shtetl during the anti-Semitic pogroms of 1921, Devorah is taken to safety in South Africa’s Jewish community. Closely based on the real-life experience of the author’s mother-in-law, this gripping tale is a quiet commentary on separation and loss, as Devorah realizes how a black servant can be forced by law to live apart from her child. The history of persecution and immigration will echo with many American families.
Ship of Dolls. By Shirley Parenteau. 2014. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763670030). Gr. 3–6.
In 1926, 11-year-old Lexie Lewis longs for a chance to get to San Francisco, where her songbird mother is performing, and her school’s participation in a Japanese doll exchange might be her ticket. This is based on real events: the exchange of dolls between Japanese and U.S. schoolchildren was conceived as a message of peace. The companion novel, Dolls of Hope (2015), recounts the doll exchange from the Japanese side.
The Star Fisher. By Laurence Yep. 1991. Harper, o.p. Gr. 3–7.
In 1927, Joan Lee and her family become the first Chinese Americans in a small West Virginia town. Greeted with suspicion, prejudice, and threats from townspeople, the family’s transition is a difficult one. Joan Lee finds comfort in a traditional Chinese folktale about a kingfisher trapped in human form as she struggles to live with a foot in two worlds and deal with hostility.
The Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Hellfighters. By J. Patrick Lewis. Illus. by Gary Kelley. 2014. Creative Company, $18.99 (9781568462462). Gr. 5–8.
Free-verse poems and illustrated panels introduce the story of 2,000 African American men who, although treated like second-class citizens, fought so valiantly during WWI that enemies nicknamed them the Hellfighters. The lyrical text explores the men’s recruitment, training in the Jim Crow South, and courage and tenacity when finally sent into battle. Many were fine musicians as well, bringing the sound of Harlem across the ocean. A powerful tribute, useful in sparking student research.
Jazz Age Josephine. By Jonah Winter. Illus. by Marjorie Priceman. 2012. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781416961239). K–Gr. 3.
Singer, dancer, and entertainer Josephine Baker may not be familiar to younger readers, but this introduction dazzles. The biographical details, including her fervent acclaim in Paris as a “symbol of the American Jazz Age,” are covered broadly, while Priceman’s kinetic artwork conveys the spirit, as much as the life, of the subject. An author’s note supplies more concrete biographical details. Follow up with Winter’s How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz (2015).
The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue. By Suzanne Slade. Illus. by Stacy Innerst. 2016. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, $17.95 (9781629790992). Gr. 3–5.
American masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue is introduced here, along with its composer, George Gershwin. George listens for hours to the tunes pouring from supper clubs and dives in nearby Harlem. After his family gets a piano, he begins mingling what he hears with the classical music he loves. The result? Jazzy popular tunes. Swirling text wraps around inventive art, capturing the time period as well as the dazzling musical piece.
Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood. By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. 2014. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (9780807576502). K–Gr. 3.
With spare text and minimalist illustrations, Weatherford and Christie pay fine tribute to the tradition of artistic expression that bloomed during the Harlem Renaissance. Each page turn reveals a luminary of the scene with just a single line of text that gracefully sums up his or her contribution. More than anything, this is about a caring community where cultural pride and the possibility of dreams not deferred ran gloriously rampant.
Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance. By Eleanora Tate. 2007. Little, Brown, $15.99 (9780316523943). Gr. 4–7.
Thirteen-year-old Celeste is sent to live with her aunt Valentina, a singer and dancer in Harlem, only to discover that Valentina isn’t a famous performer after all—she’s barely scraping by. The Harlem Renaissance has begun, though, and Valentina introduces Celeste to the many legendary artists who congregate at the local café. Sobering and inspiring, Tate’s novel is a moving portrait of growing up black and female in 1920s America.
Dave at Night. By Gail Carson Levine. 1999. Harper, $7.99 (9780064407472). Gr. 5–7.
The year 1926 finds young Dave in the Hebrew Home for Boys (aka “the Hell Hole for Brats”). Dave, a natural-born troublemaker, sneaks out of the home and meets up with a “fortune-teller” who introduces him to the world of the Harlem Renaissance. Existing familiarity with the Harlem Renaissance will help younger readers appreciate Dave’s experiences, but this is a solid supplemental text featuring a feisty and fearless kid.
Harlem Renaissance Party. By Faith Ringgold. Illus. by the author. 2015. Amistad, $17.99 (9780060579111). K–Gr. 3.
Lonnie and his uncle travel back in time to the Harlem Renaissance. Lonnie hopes to meet Langston Hughes, his favorite poet, and he is thrilled to encounter so many giants “sharing dreams of a better life for all black people.” The pair have chicken and waffles with Jack Johnson, wave to Madame C. J. Walker in her convertible, dance to “Satchmo” at the Savoy, and meet a litany of luminaries along the way.
Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean. By Sarah Stewart Taylor. Illus. by Ben Towle. 2010. Hyperion, $17.99 (9781423113379). Gr. 4–7.
This graphic-novel biography offers a fresh view of one particular chapter of Amelia Earhart’s life. In June 1928, years before her historic solo flight, Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger. The bulk of the story takes place in a small Newfoundland village, the takeoff point for the flight. Endnotes authenticate the underlying historical significance and accuracy of some images.
Soar, Elinor! By Tami Lewis Brown. Illus. by François Roca. 2010. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374371159). Gr. 2–4.
Elinor Smith took her first flight at age 6, became a licensed pilot at 16, was voted “Best Woman Pilot in America” over the likes of Amelia Earhart, went on to be a test pilot, and, at age 89, “flew” NASA’s space-shuttle simulator. Presenting Smith as a capable young enthusiast steadfastly ignoring gender expectations, this narrative centers on the aviator’s daring 1928 flight beneath four of New York’s East River bridges.
Good-Bye, Charles Lindbergh. By Louise Borden. Illus. by Thomas B. Allen. 1998. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, o.p. K–Gr. 4.
Young Gil has the surprise of his life when he meets a famous pilot. Fascinated with aviation in general, and an admirer of Lindbergh in particular, Gil cannot believe his eyes when Lindbergh actually lands in a field by his house. This explores the complex issues of age versus youth, modern technology versus the Old World, and innocence versus experience. Allen’s colored-pencil illustrations capture the magic of the event and accurately portray the historical aspects of the 1920s.
Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse. By Torben Kuhlmann. Illus. by the author. Tr. by Suzanne Levesque. 2014. North-South, $19.95 (9780735841673). Gr. 2–5.
A curious, inventive mouse is horrified by Europe’s latest contraption: the mousetrap. The streets of his city are soon dangerous and empty of his fellow rodents. Determined to flee to safety in America, and following a trajectory mirroring the actual history of aviation, the little mouse builds himself a tiny, single-seat plane, which he promptly flies across the Atlantic—solo, no less—only to arrive in America a mini celebrity.
Becoming Babe Ruth. By Matt Tavares. Illus. by the author. 2013. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763656461). Gr. 1–4.
This exceptionally engaging chronicle recounts George Herman Ruth Jr.’s amazing rags-to-riches story, from his early family troubles and placement into Saint Mary’s Industrial School for Boys to his triumphant career with the New York Yankees. The narrative telescopes much of his baseball career, citing a few professional feats; explaining the origin of his nickname; and vividly capturing his larger-than-life celebrity status, including his enormous appetite, undisciplined lifestyle, and boyish charm.
The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton. By Audrey Vernick. Illus. by Steven Salerno. 2016. Clarion, $17.99 (9780544611634). Gr. 2–5.
This entertaining picture-book biography documents the adventures of Edith Houghton, a shortstop with the Philadelphia Bobbies, an all-girl exhibition baseball team from the 1920s and ’30s. Droll illustrations and brief, well-chosen anecdotes help readers appreciate the early twentieth-century novelty of women’s professional sports and demonstrate how women had to compete against men, due to lack of female competition.
This Is the Game. By Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander. Illus. by Owen Smith. 2011. Harper, $16.99 (9780060555221). K–Gr. 3.
This celebration of baseball is relayed in verse and illustrated with bold double-page spreads. The standout illustrations, set in the 1920s and ’30s, feature period images of American streets and stadiums and capture the excitement of the sport. This reinforces the fact that baseball was shamefully segregated during this time period. Though many books introduce the national pastime, the welcome tweak here is the unique historical perspective.
Appalachian Life and Rural America
Anybody Shining. By Frances O’Roark Dowell. 2014. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781442432925). Gr. 4–7.
Twelve-year-old Arie Mae lives in the North Carolina mountains, where she longs for a true, shining friend. She begins writing to her cousin, Caroline, whom she has never met. When two ladies begin a settlement school to teach the residents some important life skills, reception is mixed—not everyone wants change. Told as a series of letters to the never-answering Caroline, this poignantly captures Appalachian life in the 1920s while interspersing rich folklore.
The Ballad of Jessie Pearl. By Shannon Hitchcock. 2013. Namelos, $18.95 (9781608981410). Gr. 5–8.
Jessie’s family has no sooner dealt with the loss of her mother when her older sister falls ill just after the birth of her son. This is North Carolina in the early 1920s, and Jessie must leave school to help care for her hardworking farm family. When baby Ky is left motherless, Jessie wonders if she will ever have an opportunity to venture beyond home and pursue her dreams of attaining higher education and becoming a teacher.
Bo at Ballard Creek. By Kirkpatrick Hill. Illus. by LeUyen Pham. 2013. Holt, $15.99 (9780805093513). Gr. 3–6.
When Bo was a newborn, two gold miners saved her from life in an orphanage and brought her to Ballard Creek, a gold-mining camp and Eskimo village in Alaska. Set in the late 1920s, after the big Alaskan gold rushes, this is mostly a slice of life: Bo visits her kind neighbors, pitches in with the never-ending workload, and is supported in her tomboyish adventures by her two papas.
Whistle in the Dark. By Susan Hill Long. 2013. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823428397). Gr. 5–8.
In the 1920s Ozarks, Clemson Jasper Harding is turning 13. Forced to help pay for his epileptic sister Esther’s medical bills, Clem begins a dangerous life as a child lead miner, forgoing the life he would prefer—attending school and writing stories—before discovering the illicit moonshine business. In Long’s gentle rendering, what emerges from this story of overcoming obstacles are strong family bonds and Clem’s renewed resilience.
Maggie Reagan is a Books for Youth Associate Editor at Booklist.
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