These three non-fiction books are highly recommended. All – despite being adapted for younger readers – are quite demanding, dealing with big and important issues. Each author is a gifted communicator, though, and each of these books is a gripping read.
- David Olusoga, Black and British (PanMacmillan)
- Michelle Obama, Becoming, adapted for younger readers (Puffin)
- Naomi Klein with Rebecca Stefoff, How to change everything (Penguin)
Obama’s is an autobiography, and, as you might expect, approachable, warm, and upbeat. She has a good word to say about everyone – except one person (no prizes for guessing). Olusoga’s writing style is straightforward and engaging, and Black and British is a treat to read – with a narrative arc that reads like a good story. Naomi Klein takes the climate emergency arguments back to basics and explains both facts and ways forward very clearly. Central to her argument is that climate justice is social justice.
This rewriting of David Olusoga’s acclaimed Black and British: a forgotten history successfully condenses the 600+ pages of small print in to just over 200 pages in a more generous typeface. This concision helps build a sense of the sweep of history, spanning Roman times to the present day. Olusoga redresses the preponderance of Black American history often found in books and schools on this side of the Atlantic. (Many British schoolchildren have heard of the Montgomery bus boycott, for instance, but not the Bristol bus boycott.) At the same time, Olusoga embeds this history within the world context. The impact of empire is key: revealing the movement of people to Britain under the rule of the Roman Empire; explaining how the enforced movement of enslaved people across the globe under the British Empire directly fuelled the industrial revolution. Olusoga clearly shows how Black history is British history, inextricably entwined: a full and honest telling of our history is not possible without grasping our interactions with the people and heritage of Africa.
The final chapter, on post-war Britain, covers discrimination, poor employment and housing opportunities, stop and search, inner-city riots and fightbacks, but also rejoices in music, culture, carnival, integration, empowerment and creativity. Sadly, this sense of hope is swiftly shattered in the conclusion, describing the joyful celebration of diversity in the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony swept away by political choices in the form of the hostile environment and the Windrush scandal.
Maps, photographs and paintings aid comprehension; vignettes and life-stories embed individual human history within economic and social change.
Michelle Robinson was raised in a working class family in the South Side of Chicago, sharing a bedroom with her brother, and surrounded by love from her hard-working, supportive family. Books, education, aspiration were nurtured, and Michelle grew up with a confidence in her own ability, alongside a realisation that owning this aspiration might move her away from her roots and childhood friends. Even as a ten year old, she is confronted with the discomfort of ‘the universal challenge of figuring out how who you are fits with where you come from and where you want to go’. There is no complacency here: giftedness must be matched by hard work, setbacks overcome, kindness matched by effort in order to be effective, and no sidestepping the role of happy circumstance in achieving success. Ultimately, this is a joyous and nourishing account of the ‘becoming’ of a warm and effective campaigner and advocate, who learnt so much from the stoic self-sacrifice of her father and the steadfast support of her mother.
Klein cites a 2018 UK study which found that more than two thirds of students want to learn more at school about climate change. The same study found that a similar proportion of teachers would like to teach more about climate change, but feel ill-prepared. This clear and comprehensive survey of argument and counter-argument will go a long way to filling that gap. Aimed at teens, it would also be accessible to interested upper primary, and be welcomed by adult readers. Taking no prior knowledge for granted, Klein lays out the case for action from first principles to workable solutions. Years of research, and experience of synthesising that research into accessible journalism, are complemented by Stefoff’s experience of writing non-fiction for young readers, resulting in an engaging account of how and why we find ourselves confronted with these urgent issues and a positive explanation of how we might find our way out. Central to this is organisation:
History has another lesson for us. It might be the most important of all. It is this: most of the changes that moved society towards greater sharing and fairness happened only because of one thing. That was the relentless pressure of large, organised groups of people.
Something these books have in common is unflashy presentation. Obama’s is a straightforward life story, with a few full-colour pages of photographs – often family snaps. Both Olusoga and Klein stick to black and white illustrations, subdividing their chapters with emboldened text and headers, and both use greyed-out blocks of text for case studies and examples that illustrate their case. (None has an index – all would benefit from one, and surely it’s not too difficult with modern technology.)
All deal with themes of social justice, and with concerns that have, in recent times, engaged, radicalised, and moved to action young people all around the world.