If you live in the USA, you’ll probably be celebrating this Wednesday. My brother and I have this theory that they always pick the worst singer possible to sing The Star-Spangled Banner at 4th events and ball games and such. That’s why my favorite version doesn’t have any words at all!
With the usual wisdom of Americans, we celebrate our independence on the wrong day. Independence was declared on July 2nd, the Declaration was published on the 4th, and most of the delegates signed it on August 2nd.
But who said we were smart? We’re only supposed to be united.
Still, people associate the 4th with an extremely historic moment. I love history, the history of any place. I read about history for fun, when the books are interesting. Traditional textbooks make me fall asleep, but real books make me learn and think. So here are some of my favorite books about US history and/or politics!
A History of US by Joy Hakim is a series of 11 books, and yet it’s still not long enough for my tastes. Yes, these are textbooks, but they’re meant to be better than traditional textbooks, and they certainly succeed at that. The first ten books each cover an era of American history, from prehistory to the modern day. (Our edition of #10 ends with 9/11, but I believe the recent fourth edition covers 6 more years, ending with the election of Obama.) The final book includes many speechs and important documents from our history.
I love Hakim’s writing style. Intentionally or not, many authors of any kind of textbook write as if they were trying to put you to sleep. Hakim doesn’t purposely give us the weirdest stories, but she does realize that history is filled with quirkiness. Most history books try to make everyone appear Great. Hakim makes everyone appear Real. People aren’t presented as perfect; she has a way of writing that makes you feel like you’ve known all these famous people forever. And she doesn’t just stick to famous people and stories, either. Some little-known events changed the course of our history, and ordinary people shaped history too. Sure, famous people were usually powerful, but everyone has at least a little power, and there have been a lot more ordinary people than famous people.
Her writing doesn’t seem like a report. It seems like a story. I found a review on her website: “Humanizing details have made Joy Hakim the J.K. Rowling of the history world.” Her books have a ‘magazine format’ according to another review, with lots of sidebars and pictures. This is more visually interesting than regular textbook pages, which have barely any pictures at all. Pictures help you see history!
Hakim is the reason why I’m a history nerd. I wish she’d write more history books because last year was the first year when I didn’t use one of her textbooks. I hated my European History book. The history was interesting, but the book wasn’t.
Be sure to try The Story of Science, a series of 6 books about science and it’s history!
Signing Their Lives Away by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan caught my eye on a shelf at the library. I checked it out and discovered that it is 100 times better than it looked, and it already looked 100 times better than a history textbook. The book contains short biographies of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, with 13 chapters, one for each colony. If you’ve enjoyed the books by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt (Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame, and What The Neighbors Thought and more), then you’d love this book. It is written for slightly older readers, though, a YA book rather than a children’s book. However, my dad looked at it and commented that it seemed more like an adult book, so this gives you a good idea of the amount of research the authors put into it.
This book gives a great sense of how scary it must have been to sign the Declaration. From our perspective over 200 years later, it seems so easy to sign a piece of paper. “What was the problem?” We say. “There was nothing to worry about; we won the Revolutionary War.” Well, no one could have known that at the time. Those 56 men were signing something that they believed in (more or less; the book mentions that some of the signers were reluctant to sign because they weren’t sure if forming a union would even work or they didn’t like the terms of the compromise), but they didn’t know if they were going to lose their lives for what they had done. Signing the Declaration or, gosh, even declaring independence was treason against King George III, and they could have all been executed for that. So it wasn’t just as simple as, “Sign here!” (Actually, I just realized that the 13 Districts of Panem rebelled against the far-away Capitol and were horribly punished. I don’t know whether Collins meant to create that parallel, but it creeped me out just now, thinking about what could’ve happened.)
I love this book to death because it is about the weird and wonderful men who signed our nation’s most important document. I’m not exaggerating about the ‘weird and wonderful’ part. I can now name the most obscure signers, such as Samuel “Old Bacon Face” Chase and Button Gwinnett, whose signature is the most valuable of any of the signers and whose body is now lost, so you could be on the Button at any moment if you’re somewhere in Savannah, Georgia. I was half-expecting to find this book on the reading list for the Academic Superbowl about Colonial and Revolutionary War America, because it is so good. It probably would be on that list, if it weren’t so new.
While searching for a picture of this book, I came across the sequel – Signing Their Rights Away, about the 89 men who signed the Constitution! I can’t wait to read it!
Americapedia by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Daniel Ehrenhaft and Andisheh Nouraee is another book that I glanced at and impulsively decided to check out. I was so reminded of some other books that I checked the spine for the DK logo, because Americapedia has a lot in common with Pick Me Up, Do Not Open, and Take Me Back.
This book definitely takes “the dumb out of freedom.” Yes, it’s silly and goofy, but it also teaches you a lot. Americapedia is civics with a dash of history thrown in. Reading it is like talking to an eccentric social studies teacher – it discusses why we’re never friendly with Cuba, what terrorist groups have in common (from beards to strict rules), and why everyone suddenly wants to become best friends with a country that possesses an atomic bomb. (Hint: They could blow us sky-high if they chose.) I enjoyed the little anecdotes, some of which were related to politics and some of which weren’t. (Especially the one about a rival political commentator making fun of Andisheh on air because his name doesn’t give you any clues about his gender. The other guy was named Kim.)
People are determined to disagree about politics, so I thought I should mention the viewpoint of the book. The authors are definitely liberal, but if you think, “Well, they’re Democrats and I’m a Republican. This isn’t the book for me; it will just have nonsense.”, then you’ve missed the point of the book. The authors basically say, “This is what we believe, now here are a few questions so that you can figure out what you believe.”
I appreciated the section about what teens can do to help a cause, because it seems like most teens think give up after thinking, “I’m just a teen. What can I do to change the world?” Plenty. Notwithstanding John Mayer’s lyrics (“One day our generation / Is gonna rule the population / So we keep on waiting / Waiting on the world to change.”), if teens want to change the world, there are plenty of people and groups out there who would love some help. You can wait for change, or you can speed up the change by helping. ParKids required the participants to help out at some National Park events in order to qualify for the kayaking trip, and they said they really appreciated all we did, from directing people down a certain trail to explaining the Jr. Ranger program at events like as Maple Sugar Time. If you’re hardworking and not an idiot, there is plenty you can do to help your chosen cause.
Americapedia is perfect for any teenager who thinks that civics is dull. No longer will they think that the electoral college is a place they could apply to during their senior year. This book is both hip and informative, and while many books fail at being both of these, Americapedia pulls it off quite well.
Check out this snapshot I took when I stole my characters’ time machine and went back to 1776!
Well, now I’m off to go to a 4th of July party and hang out with my relatives. It’s not as bad as it sounds – I have some awesome cousins.
Happy 16th birthday to my cousin Anna! Happy 14th birthday to Malia Obama!