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Teens Behaving Historically: The Civil Rights Movement in YA Literature

Martin Luther King Jr. March on Washington
image from U.S. Embassy The Hague’s flickr

Today, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader and legend in the Civil Rights Movement of 1950s and 1960s.   And what better way to celebrate here at the Hub than to round up some of the incredible young adult fiction and nonfiction exploring this pivotal time in history?

While the major events and people of the Civil Rights Movement might be familiar, one aspect in particular is frequently under-appreciated: the incredibly significant role of children and teens.  From elementary school kids to high school & college students, young people contributed their time, energy, and passion while risking their futures, bodies, and even sometimes their lives for the fight for justice.  Nowhere does the strength of their commitment come through more clearly than in these young adult novels and nonfiction narratives.

Many of the significant civil rights events in the 1950s occurred at places central to the lives of children and teens: schools.  In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its monumental decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, unanimously declaring that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.  The ruling set into motion a renewed push for school integration across the country.

warriors don't cryWarriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High – Melba Pattillo Beals (1995 ALA Notable Book)  Drawing on memories, historical documentation, and her own teenage diaries, Melba Pattillo Beals shares her harrowing and life-altering experience as one of the Little Rock Nine–the nine black teenagers who integrated Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 amid violent protests and an eventual federal military intervention.  Her straightforward and honest prose and the inclusion of her diary entries make this monumental historical event personal and alive in a whole new way.  For another view on Central High’s integration, check out her fellow Little Rock Nine member Carlotta Walls LaNier’s memoir, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School. 

lions of little rockThe Lions of Little Rock – Kristin Levine (2013 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults)

A year after the contentious integration of Central High, tensions in Little Rock remain high. However, shy Marlee Nisbitt is mostly worried about starting middle school.  But when her new outspoken friend Liz suddenly leaves school after rumors spread that she’s a black girl passing as white, Marlee must put her newfound voice to the test to stand up for her friend–and a larger cause.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: A Day On, Not A Day Off

Most of us spend our days off by sleeping in and lounging around the house in our PJs. But on this day, Monday, January 21st, it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In his honor, this holiday is a day of service. There are lots of ways to volunteer your time for MLK Day. Many volunteer opportunities can grow into a year-round commitment with broad sweeping influence. “In 1994, Congress designated the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday as a national day of service and charged the Corporation for National and Community Service with leading this effort.” Dr. King believed that service strengthened our relationship with neighbors and broke down prejudices, all of which got us closer to his ideal “Beloved Community.”