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Staff Picks: Books

American Treasures

December 26, 1941: “He wouldn’t fully relax until the B & O National Limited reached its final destination the following morning, but the fact that the train was leaving Washington, D.C., carrying its cargo, accompanied by two of his finest agents, was a promising milestone in the mission.”

So what was on the train? American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address describes the work to safely secure and store these documents, an effort lead by the Library of Congress. So where were they stored? I’m not giving that secret away – read this fascinating book.

I won’t say this is a page-turner but the back stories about these three documents and how they came to be, is quite interesting as are the efforts to protect, preserve, and appropriately display them over the years. 

The importance of these documents seems especially relevant in this season of political rancor. I have renewed, deeper appreciation and respect for the founding fathers and the documents they drafted.

Nat Turner and Slave Resistance

Filmmaker Nate Parker made history at this year's Sundance Film Festival when he sold his film, The Birth of a Nation, to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid at the festival. The film went on to win the festival's U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film follows the life of Nat Turner, and the slave revolt he led in Virginia in 1831. When asked in an interview why he chose to use the same title for his film as the 1915 silent film often credited as a catalyst for the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Parker responded, "I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."

When news of this film at Sundance first emerged many months ago, some friends and I were discussing our eager anticipation of the film, which opens in theaters today. Those conversations led me to think more about slave revolts and how these episodes in American history are often minimized, or completely ignored. In fact, well into the mid-20th century some white scholars of American history still claimed that Africans passively accepted enslavement. We know this isn't the case, but it's not a topic covered very thoroughly by most history courses before university-level. Wanting to learn more, I began reading more works on slave resistance.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne
Historian Gerald Horne argues the Revolutionary War was a tactic used by the founding fathers to prevent the abolition of slavery in the colonies, challenging the traditional narrative of our country's founding. Highly recommended.

American Uprising: the Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen
This book details the 1811 revolt in what is present-day Louisiana. Hundreds of slaves from several different sugar cane plantations marched together in an attempt to overtake New Orleans. It is thought the Haitian Revolution, ending in 1804, partly inspired this uprising, which was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the execution of 95 slaves.

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
This award-winning graphic novel details Turner's life, beginning with his mother's enslavement and ending with his execution for his role in the revolt.

Ardency: a Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This is a poetic retelling of the Amistad revolt by poet and scholar Kevin Young, who was long-listed for this year's National Book Award for poetry and was named director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this past August.

Banned Books Week: Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl and an Adolescent Thief

When I was eight years old, I stumbled across a book in my elementary school library that sparked a decades-long obsession for a certain period of world history and sewed the seeds for the activist I would become as an adult -- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl.

The books in my elementary school library were sorted by grade level. Students were only allowed to check out books from their grade range. A few times per week, my class would visit the school library for an hour of quiet reading. During one of these visits, as I walked up and down the aisles, an off-white book with a black and white photo of a young girl caught my eye. I remember studying her face, her large eyes, and wondering what she was thinking about at the moment that school photo was taken. Intrigued, I plopped down on a whistle chair in a private corner and started to read.

Within minutes I was sucked into the world of this 13-year-old girl and quickly lost track of time. When my teacher informed the class it was time to check out, I panicked. I knew I would not be able to check out the book, as I was not old enough. I was desperate to finish it, so I made the drastic choice to slip the diary into my backpack. I remember sweating, being terrified as I walked out of the library, waiting for a firm hand to grab my shoulder and an angry voice to call me out as a thief. I thought about how much trouble I would be in. Despite the fear, I wasn’t swayed. I HAD to finish the book.

Anne’s life was drastically different from mine, but in many ways, I related to her. I too found escape through writing. I too found relief in creating other worlds I felt safe in. I identified with her feelings of isolation and desperation for a different life -- a different, kinder world. By the time I neared the end of the diary and realized she died alone at Bergen-Belsen, I was heartbroken. I felt like I had lost a friend, a confidant.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 8 years old, I had experienced the age-old, controversial practice of book banning. Someone else deemed the material was inappropriate for someone my age. Someone else determined I was not mature enough to handle the content of the book, and demanded my school prevent students of my age access to it. This someone had no idea the impact this book would have on my life. While I absolutely do not condone stealing, I do not regret my decision. 


Since Anne’s father Otto Frank published the first edition of the diary in 1947, Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl remains one of the most challenged books in history. The original published diary, and the subsequent releases of the rest of Anne’s writings have been under constant fire by opponents, mostly Holocaust deniers, who have questioned their authenticity.

Because of the persistent accusations against the diary in the 1960’s and 70’s, Otto Frank led the charge for a number of investigations. The most extensive was executed in the early 1980’s by the Netherlands Forensic Institute at the request of the National Institute for War Documentation. The result was a 250-page report that irrefutably proved the authenticity of Anne’s collection of work.

It is ironic that ever since her death at age 16 in 1945, Anne Frank is still being persecuted. As recently as 2013, a mother of a seventh-grade girl in the Northville school district in Michigan claimed the definitive version of Frank’s diary, which includes passages left out of the original 1947 edition, is too graphic for young students. The mother felt Anne’s description of her developing body was “pornographic.” Fortunately, the school district rejected the challenge.

Anne Frank’s diary is considered one of the most influential, historical documentations of The Holocaust, which is exactly what Ann hoped to accomplish when she rewrote her diary with the intention of publishing it when the war was over. Anne wanted to “go on living, even after her death” and she has. Hatred and ignorance extinguished her life, but despite continued oppression, her voice is louder than ever.

Hispanic Heritage Month

I am a huge fan of the award winning author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month I submit these two excellent picks by this author.

The Princess and the Warrior is a re-telling of one of Mexico’s most cherished legends. It is the story of unlikely love between a princess and a lowly warrior. The king issues a challenge to the brave warrior: defeat their enemy Jaguar Claw. Will they end up together? Find out.

My other pick is Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras. This is the history of the Day of the Dead Calaveras. Calaveras are those skeletons dressed as ladies called Catrinas, and other characters that you see around the time of the Day of the Dead. The library will be hosting programs for the Day of the Dead at many locations. Check our LINK.

If you’re interested in a jump start on the history of the artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) who made the skeleton images an indelible part of these celebrations, you’ll enjoy this book.

The Upside Down Boy - El niño de cabeza

In The Upside Down Boy - El niño de cabeza, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera tells the story, in verse, of a pivotal time in his childhood when his mother and father moved their family to the city so that he could attend school. He tells the story of how his third grade teacher, Mrs. Sampson, invited him to the front of the class to sing a song. He sang “Three Blind Mice” and Mrs. Sampson told him “You have a very beautiful voice”.  The book is dedicated to Mrs. Lucille Sampson, Herrera’s third grade teacher, who, at age 95, was present at the Library of Congress when Herrera was inaugurated as the United States Poet Laureate in 2015. You can hear Herrera tell this story in front of an audience at the Kansas City Public Library on New Letters On the Air.

Juan Felipe Herrera’s Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes is a Pura Belpré author honor book.

Hidden Figures

If you liked Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars or We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, place a hold on the new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book is already being adapted for the big screen, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae.

The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright

With 446 pages printed on high-quality paper, this 2016 book is a prime example of the proverbial hefty tome, which can be perceived as a metaphor for its great content. This book is put forward as being the first one devoted to exploring Frank Lloyd Wright's designs for remaking the modern city. Contrary to most public opinion, mine included, Wright was not an architect of buildings only. Rather, he spent considerable time producing designs of what the surroundings of the buildings should look like. Filled with maps, photographs, plans, and drawings, this book is divided into three sections: 1) Suburbs in the Grid: The New Streetcar City, 2) The City in Question at the Dawn of the Automobile Age, and 3) New Visions for the City Center: Urbanism under the Hegemony of the Automobile. Anyone interested in American urban history in general or Wright's work in particular will enjoy this significant publication.

One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

 In 1980, the Chinese Government enacted a one child policy, mandating that each family could only have one child in hopes of curbing the rapid population growth of the country. This controversial policy was put into place to avoid facing another disaster like the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-1961 that killed an estimated 15 to 30 million people

However, there were unintended consequences. At the beginning of this year the one child policy was lifted, but millions of families are still have to live with the unique challenges it caused, such as the gender imbalance caused by widespread infanticide, and millions of unauthorized second children who live unacknowledged by the state, unable to attend school, or even get a library card.

In OneChild: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, Mei Fong explores the aftermath of this policy through well researched analysis, and by following families to capture the repercussions through a more personal lens. This book is a really fascinating, eye-opening read. I definitely recommend it. 

Required Reading

Toni Morrison said it best: this book is required reading.

In college I'll never forget reading one of the greatest works of African American literature ever to be put on paper: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. For a white person first understanding what it's like to be black in America, this was a powerful experience for me. I was finding my way into an empathetic and complex understanding of the greatest tragedies in America. I distinctly remember the end of the book (or was it the beginning?): the narrator sitting in a basement room, with many lights, and books, and jazz and whiskey, plotting his reemergence into the great white world.

Now, many books and years later, Between the World and Me reawakens me. This book had the same effect on me as Invisible Man and There Eyes Were Watching God and The New Jim Crow, probably greater. The weight of the words and sentences has a physical effect on the body, a sad truth that slowly settles and creeps in. It's personal. He makes it personal. Every single word and sentence of this little book was chosen carefully for maximum effect and truth.

Another fascinating theme of this book is its atheistic, materialistic, physical outlook on the issue of racism in America. He says it as plain and real and physical as possible, and he says it many times: racism is the destruction of the black body.

While you wait for The Underground Railroad...

Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, The Underground Railroad, was slated to be published next month. But yesterday, in a surprise announcement, Oprah Winfrey named the novel her latest book club selection and the book is actually available for purchase now.

KPL has the book on-order and you can place a hold using the online catalog. While you wait for your copy to become available, check out some of the following titles; some are new, some older, and some are previous Oprah picks:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Grace by Natashia Deon
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
The Coming by Daniel Black
Beloved by Toni Morrison