Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

News Literacy: Not Just Another Education Buzzword, a guest post by Jamie Gregory

Remember that assignment in junior high to watch the nightly news and keep a journal of what you watched? That was pretty simple for me; all I had to do was turn on CNN and get my notebook.

But that was the 90s. Now as an educator, I wonder if my teachers ever encountered any student pushback about “fake news” or had trouble with students using less-than-credible news sources.

Currently, we have movements across our country to create media literacy legislation mandating instruction. But beware: don’t allow news literacy (a subset of information and media literacy) to become merely a buzzword in education. It indicates our young people’s need to learn how to navigate the rapidly-evolving information landscape. And within that, yes, #FactsMatter.

What’s at stake? Consider real-life consequences of mis/disinformation:

  • The Pizzagate conspiracy theory caused an armed man to open fire inside the Comet Pizza restaurant. Thankfully no one was injured.
  • How about determining whether or not an event actually happened? Alex Jones used his InfoWars platform to claim the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and has lost in court. But imagine the emotional impact of his “theories” on a family who has lost a child to murder.
  • A 4 year-old died of the flu after the mother sought medical advice from an anti-vaccination group on Facebook
  • In the fall of 2020, wildfires ravaged areas of Oregon. Rumors and misinformation caused funds and efforts to be diverted from the actual cause. The FBI and other local officials released statements debunking the false rumors (and utilized social media).

Teachers often feel like they don’t have time to incorporate information, media, and news literacy, mostly due to testing and the need to cover content. Others may feel news literacy is too political or polarizing. However, if teachers do collaborate with school librarians on these skills, news literacy education cannot fall into the traps of “drill and kill” instruction, or library “drive-by” instruction (e.g. practice involving only pre-selected websites; visiting the library one time a year for brief instruction). It won’t work.

How to avoid those pitfalls? Embed and integrate news literacy into what you’re already doing. Design activities requiring students to engage in critical thinking using real-world examples. Take the time to find out your students’ current habits. Meet them where they’re at. For example, they aren’t going to drop Google and solely use databases. They aren’t going to forego news apps and YouTube news channels to start watching news on television or purchase the print edition like “the old days.” And that’s okay. That’s the evolving information landscape.

Below are some ideas I’ve implemented in some form over the past several years. And like any librarian, I don’t think I came up with a single one of these on my own! Be sure that, as you plan programming, you plan for your own professional development. Librarians must keep their own skills up-to-date as well as frequently and honestly reflect on their own habits and biases.

  • Design activities for students to discover the differences among news aggregators, news media outlets, and user-generated content.
    • Show Google or Apple News, the BBC website, and a social media platform. Can students tell you that news aggregators do not do original reporting? Why does that matter?
    • Here’s an example of user-generated content. Can students identify it as such and take steps to debunk it?

  • Similarly, have students contrast news formats from a single news outlet.
    • Idea from News Literacy: The Keys to Combating Fake News by Michelle Luhtala and Jacquelyn Whiting – create stations for students to analyze the format of the New York Times (or other publication) print edition, website, app, YouTube channel, and social media accounts on Facebook/Twitter.
  • According to the most recent report in October 2020 released by the Stanford History Education Group, two-thirds of students could not tell the difference between news stories and ads. Ninety-six percent of students could not analyze how ties to the fossil fuel industry might influence the credibility of a climate change website. Create a Google Form to administer the latest SHEG assessment to students/patrons. Analyze results and share. Then share national results.

  • Design an event for a Q&A panel with local journalists. Help students learn how professional journalists follow a code of ethics and why local journalism is vital to communities.
  • Replicate this Common Sense Media teen news consumption survey. I did that with my journalism newspaper class, and the students compared their class answers to the results of the national survey, which I condensed into this infographic.
  • Quick quiz or trivia questions – show headlines from a variety of credible and satirical news outlets. Can students distinguish what’s credible and what’s satire?
  • A great beginning activity is to use the Infozones infographic from the News Literacy Project. Either give students/patrons an example of each information type to sort on their own according to the infographic, or have them find their own examples of each.

  • Memes are not news! Show examples of people sharing memes purporting to be news and how to use lateral reading to debunk them. Have students/patrons make their own examples of social media posts which accurately reflect a news article to model digital citizenship.
  • I love interactive bulletin boards! Create a lift-the-flap display titled “Is It Trustworthy?” and post an image or headline with the debunked information under a flap.
  • Host digital scavenger hunts for examples of types of mis/disinformation so we go beyond using the blanket term “fake news.”
    • There are many infographics available for showing students the nuanced categories of mis/disinformation.

  • My students enjoyed a virtual visit with Greta Pittenger, fact-checker with NPR. She did this activity with my students: hand out a straight news article. Ask students/patrons to highlight anything they think would need to be fact-checked. Then demonstrate reliable resources they could use for fact-checking (lateral reading). You can connect with local journalists through the News Literacy Project’s virtual platform, Checkology.
  • My amazing colleague, school librarian Tamara Cox (@coxtl), recently shared a clickbait lesson she completed with students. This is a great way to incorporate fiction into your misinformation discussions!
  • I’m not the first person to caution educators about using media bias charts. They may oversimplify and even misrepresent some credible news media outlets. For example, the AllSides chart states it only evaluates the perspectives of online content, not accuracy or credibility! It can be helpful for students to find opinion pieces from a variety of outlets, and these charts may give a false sense of authority. Try having students adopt a critical stance and develop some critical habits no matter which news media outlet they choose to interact with.

Again, the most important factor in news literacy education is your own professional development. Sign up for free newsletters from the News Literacy Project, First Draft, and the Center for News Literacy. Be willing to learn about and adapt your own news literacy habits in order to create meaningful learning experiences for students.

Meet the author

Jamie is the Upper School librarian and journalism newspaper teacher at Christ Church Episcopal School in Greenville, SC. She is a National Board Certified teacher in Library Media, finishing her 8th year as a high school librarian. She spent her first 8 years in public education as a high school English and French teacher, journalism teacher, yearbook and newspaper adviser, and AP English Language and Composition teacher before earning her MLIS degree from USC in 2012. She served as the 2019-2020 chair of the SC Book Awards programs, a judge for the 2021 YALSA Morris Award, and is currently in her 3rd year of blogging for ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom blog. She has presented sessions on high school literacy, guided inquiry-based learning, and news literacy at the South Carolina Association of School Librarians’ annual conferences. She has also published articles in School Library Monthly, VOYA, Teacher Librarian, and School Library Connection. Follow her on Twitter @gregorjm.

The Kids Might Be Alright: Bringing Media Literacy to the Classroom, a guest post by Olivia Tompkins

I am a relatively recent MLIS grad and early on in my program, I took a “pilot” class on Information Literacy in Libraries and fell in love with it—as much as one can fall in love with a field born out of an infuriating element of society. The class both taught information literacy to us as students, and taught us how to teach our library patrons and/or students.

Fast forward to my graduation capstone project: “piloting” an information literacy class for the seventh graders in the school in work, related to their big year-end project. I built a lesson around identifying misinformation online and used a viral, blatantly incorrect TikTok about—ironically—COVID-19 (the original video has been removed, but is still visible through this “duet” video). This is early March 2020.  

Now, pause: the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, the world shuts down, and as my school goes remote, the 7th grade project is cancelled—as are my info lit lessons.  

Fast forward again: I am granted time and resources to build, you guessed it, a “pilot” information literacy curriculum for my school.

Everything about teaching information literacy seems to be in pilot mode, despite us being well beyond the time where a pilot lesson would do the trick.

Students today know what they’re doing online. They may be prone to creating dance TikToks in the library, but they also know how to create thoughtful, intelligent content to share that doesn’t involve dances I would not dare to attempt.

That said, they are not star students when it comes to fact-checking and verifying what they read online. Insert defeated sigh here.

There is hope, though!

As a librarian-educator who wants to teach crucial information literacy skills to my students, it is hard to know where to start. Not only are there an overwhelming number of skills for them to learn, there are an overwhelming number of books, lesson examples, and organizations on the topic for me to sift through. The picture below is only a fraction of resources I sifted through to find best practices.

(Andy the cat would like to brush up on his media literacy skills, too!)

I have to figure out where to start and I need to consider the complexity of the matter. What I began to teach seventh graders in early 2020 (identifying incorrect information and the basics of lateral reading) was a lot to ask of them. But when I was asked to visit an advanced journalism class of 10th-12th graders, I needed to include those basics and then some. 

The scaffolding of this kind of curriculum is something I am still figuring out and is something I assume will involve a lot of trial and error.

It’s at this point that I finally understood why all of this is in “pilot” mode—the only way to know what works is to jump in the deep end and see what works, or doesn’t work (not to mix my metaphors, but here we are).  

So what does work?

With a class of older students, I knew we could tackle a more nuanced information literacy skill: identifying and understanding bias in the media.

My visit was scheduled for right after our return from spring break, so the teacher and I assigned a brief lateral reading exercise before their time off—without calling it lateral reading. Each student picked a current event they found interesting and found three distinct articles about it.

With the assignment, they were given thought-starter questions to reflect on their three sources: (1) Are any facts reported differently between outlets? (2) Are you able to find any obvious political affiliations or opinions within the article? (3) Did your opinion on or reaction to the topic change between the different coverage you read? (4) Does any article feel more “correct” than the others?

I tried to keep the word “bias” out of the questions so they could get a sense of these differences without ascribing them to a specific definition. Then the night before class, their homework was to find one more article on their topic published during their spring break and consider the same questions.

In a class of 15 students, the students consulted 23 distinct outlets with repeated use of NYT, Fox, BBC, CBS, and CNN.

We were virtual on this particular day, I started class with breakout room discussions for the students to share what they read and any observations they had. I sat in on one of the groups and they had a lively conversation without any prompting. We came back as a group to do a quick share of any key observations and then I began my presentation.

I retroactively introduced the assignment as lateral reading and discussed that it’s a great way to verify information itself, but also is an early step to identifying bias. The students all had a general understanding of what bias means, though my volunteer to give a definition looked at it more as an opinion or preference.

This is where I leveraged one of the incredibly well-done “Who, Me? Biased?”videos from The New York Times to introduce implicit bias: “Peanut Butter, Jelly and Racism.” I paired implicit bias with an overview of confirmation bias and filter bubbles, like how algorithms show you more of the fun content you like, and then how that applies to the news (ie. radicalized groups, qanon, etc.).

And as I told my students, the reality that we all have bias is the biggest hurdle to overcome when you’re trying to pay attention to the insidious kind.

Screenshot from Peanut Butter, Jelly, and Racism

The next set of breakout conversations was my big “Yeah, okay, these kids are going to be alright,” moment. Here I was being a huge downer and discussing the ways that confirmation bias can go really wrong, and how the algorithms can make it even worse, and one of my students brought up something they noticed during their spring break. While we were at home, there was the terrible attack against Asian American women in Georgia and with this news came a lot of resources to help those affected and that do great work for Asian American community as well—as long as you knew where to look for it.

To paraphrase my student, they said, “One thing I noticed was that once a few people I followed posted those good resources, more and more of that information came up in my newsfeed, either from other people I followed, or from suggested posts. So that’s a positive way that the algorithm works, right?”

And, yes, they absolutely were right.

I really lucked out with this class; they were engaged, had great conversations about how media can influence social justice, and seemed to take away from the lesson what I had hoped for: an elevated awareness of bias in their media.

There is a long way to go with how we teach information literacy skills to teens and younger students, but this generation has shown that they are ready and willing to be civic-minded, and they aren’t afraid to jump right in. They’ll be alright, we just need to guide them.


Meet the author

Olivia Tompkins (she/her) is a middle & high school librarian at a K-12 independent school in Connecticut, who switched to the LIS field after realizing the corporate life was not for her. She loves to read YA fiction, memoirs, historical fiction, or any book with strong, badass female protagonists. When not building LibGuides or teaching media literacy, Olivia is often trying to read and write while her cats demand lap space, or reorganizing the tower of books that she cannot fit on her bookshelves. You can find her trying to keep up with her TBR list on Instagram at @livinthestacks.

#FactsMatter: Great Graphic Nonfiction for Students Who Love Information and Real World Stories, by Librarian Alison

Today, as part of our #FactsMatter spotlight on nonfiction, we have a guest post by a librarian in New York City named Alison. She is here today to talk with us about nonfiction presented in graphic novel format.

In elementary school libraries, the nonfiction section is just as popular, if not moreso, than the fiction section. Students love learning new information about the world and sharing those new facts with others. When they have time to browse, they’ll happily rush to the nonfiction shelves to grab books about animals, or space, or sports, or whatever topic seems interesting to them at the moment.

As students get older, I’ve noticed, that love for nonfiction isn’t as obvious in the library anymore. While this is purely anecdotal, I’ve observed that middle and high school students are far less likely to rush to the nonfiction section when looking for their next book to read. Is this because their love of facts and information has waned with age? This seems unlikely. Rather, I think it could be the result of a few different factors. First, I think sometimes librarians focus their nonfiction collection development efforts on books that will support their school’s curriculum needs, rather than books students may want to read for fun. While this is absolutely important, it can mean that students associate the nonfiction section with stuff they have to do for school instead of things they want to read about. Second, nonfiction books can be more challenging for students to read. They can have dense text and specialized vocabulary, and just generally seem more intimidating to students.

So, is there a way for our middle and high school students who have gravitated away from the nonfiction section to rediscover, or discover for the first time, their love of nonfiction? Definitely! And I think one great way to do that is through graphic nonfiction. While there are lots of great narrative nonfiction books and informational texts being written for tween and teens these days, books in graphic format are an accessible and engaging way for students to (re)discover nonfiction. Graphic nonfiction, with its reliance on pictures telling the story as much, if not more, than words, presents facts and information in a way that can be easier for students to grasp, especially visual learners, English language learners, and others who might struggle with more traditional formats of nonfiction.

Many students are already big fans of graphic novels; they love reading stories told in both words and pictures, and so this format is familiar to and beloved by many tweens and teens. These graphic novel lovers may be more interested in and willing to try a nonfiction book if it’s in a format they already enjoy, so this is another way to guide students back to the nonfiction section. Students who love graphic novels set in space, for example, may enjoy graphic nonfiction texts about astronauts, while those who enjoy historical fiction might be excited to pick up Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, and students who love realistic fiction could really get into many of the graphic memoirs available.

While graphic texts are an excellent way for tweens and teens to access nonfiction for pleasure reading, they are also a useful teaching tool. Graphic nonfiction not only uses visual storytelling and engaging writing to help students understand complex topics and take in information, but this medium can also be a good way to introduce difficult ideas or topics. Graphic nonfiction texts can help ease students into discussions and lessons on particularly challenging or distressing topics. Additionally, the use of graphic nonfiction in the classroom may serve as encouragement for students to pursue their personal interests in nonfiction as well.

So, where should you begin when it comes to graphic nonfiction? Well, I’ve created a list of some great graphic nonfiction texts full of interesting and engaging content, all of which would make great additions to many middle or high school library collections. (Note: I have chosen not to include some more well known graphic nonfiction, like Persepolis and the March Trilogy, because they are already quite popular, but please know that despite their absence from this list, they are great choices too!) So, here are some wonderful graphic nonfiction texts (all book descriptions are from the publishers):

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (Gr. 7 & Up)-For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated.

Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends in Seoul and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily, and worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.

This nonfiction graphic novel with four starred reviews is an excellent choice for teens and also accelerated tween readers, both for independent reading and units on immigration, memoirs, and the search for identity.

Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks (Gr. 5 & Up)-The U.S. may have put the first man on the moon, but it was the Soviet space program that made Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space. It took years to catch up, but soon NASA’s first female astronauts were racing past milestones of their own. The trail-blazing women of Group 9, NASA’s first mixed gender class, had the challenging task of convincing the powers that be that a woman’s place is in space, but they discovered that NASA had plenty to learn about how to make space travel possible for everyone.

Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s Journey to Justice by Debbie Levy and Whitney Gardner (Gr. 6 & Up)-Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a modern feminist icon—a leader in the fight for equal treatment of girls and women in society and the workplace. She blazed trails to the peaks of the male-centric worlds of education and law, where women had rarely risen before.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has often said that true and lasting change in society and law is accomplished slowly, one step at a time. This is how she has evolved, too. Step by step, the shy little girl became a child who questioned unfairness, who became a student who persisted despite obstacles, who became an advocate who resisted injustice, who became a judge who revered the rule of law, who became…RBG.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu (Gr. 8 & Up)-Throughout history and across the globe, one characteristic connects the daring women of Brazen: their indomitable spirit.

With her characteristic wit and dazzling drawings, celebrated graphic novelist Pénélope Bagieu profiles the lives of these feisty female role models, some world famous, some little known. From Nellie Bly to Mae Jemison or Josephine Baker to Naziq al-Abid, the stories in this comic biography are sure to inspire the next generation of rebel ladies.

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War by Jessica Dee Humphreys, Michel Chikwanine, and Claudia Davila (Gr. 5 & Up)-Michel Chikwanine was five years old when he was abducted from his school-yard soccer game in the Democratic Republic of Congo and forced to become a soldier for a brutal rebel militia. Against the odds, Michel managed to escape and find his way back to his family, but he was never the same again. After immigrating to Canada, Michel was encouraged by a teacher to share what happened to him in order to raise awareness about child soldiers around the world, and this book is part of that effort.

Told in the first person and presented in a graphic novel format, the gripping story of Michel’s experience is moving and unsettling. But the humanity he exhibits in the telling, along with Claudia Dávila’s illustrations, which evoke rather than depict the violent elements of the story, makes the book accessible for this age group and, ultimately, reassuring and hopeful. The back matter contains further information, as well as suggestions for ways children can help. This is a perfect resource for engaging youngsters in social studies lessons on global awareness and social justice issues, and would easily spark classroom discussions about conflict, children’s rights and even bullying. Michel’s actions took enormous courage, but he makes clear that he was and still is an ordinary person, no different from his readers. He believes everyone can do something to make the world a better place, and so he shares what his father told him: “If you ever think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (Gr. 8 & Up)-Gene understands stories—comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins.

But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it’s all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.

Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well.

The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendrix (Gr. 7 & Up)-Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party is gaining strength and becoming more menacing every day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor upset by the complacency of the German church toward the suffering around it, forms a breakaway church to speak out against the established political and religious authorities. When the Nazis outlaw the church, he escapes as a fugitive. Struggling to reconcile his faith and the teachings of the Bible with the Nazi Party’s evil agenda, Bonhoeffer decides that Hitler must be stopped by any means possible!

In his signature style of interwoven handwritten text and art, John Hendrix tells the true story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to help free the German people from oppression during World War II.

The History of the World in Comics by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu and Adrienne Barman (Gr. 5 & Up)-A paleontologist and a storyteller take two children through the birth of our planet, the beginning of microbes, and through the heydays of protozoans, dinosaurs, and early mammals with unfailing enthusiasm.

The art accurately portrays animal species and prehistoric landscapes, includes maps and infographics, but also adds humorous touches: a google-eyed prehistoric fish looking startled to be walking on land and the children popping out of a tree top to surprise a Brachiosaurus.

The combined expertise of author Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, a science writer and biologist, and illustrator Adriene Barman, the creator behind Creaturepedia and Plantopedia, makes for a science read you can trust.

Fans of Maris Wicks’s Human Body Theater and Nathan Hale will be pleased.

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña (Gr. 7 & Up)-Graciela Iturbide was born in Mexico City in 1942, the oldest of 13 children. When tragedy struck Iturbide as a young mother, she turned to photography for solace and understanding. From then on Iturbide embarked on a photographic journey that has taken her throughout her native Mexico, from the Sonora Desert to Juchitán to Frida Kahlo’s bathroom, to the United States, India, and beyond. Photographic is a symbolic, poetic, and deeply personal graphic biography of this iconic photographer. Iturbide’s journey will excite readers of all ages as well as budding photographers, who will be inspired by her resolve, talent, and curiosity.

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks (Gr. 6 & Up)-Jim Ottaviani returns with an action-packed account of the three greatest primatologists of the last century: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. These three ground-breaking researchers were all students of the great Louis Leakey, and each made profound contributions to primatology—and to our own understanding of ourselves.

Tackling Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas in turn, and covering the highlights of their respective careers, Primates is an accessible, entertaining, and informative look at the field of primatology and at the lives of three of the most remarkable women scientists of the twentieth century. Thanks to the charming and inviting illustrations by Maris Wicks, this is a nonfiction graphic novel with broad appeal.

A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities by Mady G and J.R. Zuckerberg (Gr. 9 & Up)-In this quick and easy guide to queer and trans identities, cartoonists Mady G and JR Zuckerberg guide you through the basics of the LGBT+ world! Covering essential topics like sexuality, gender identity, coming out, and navigating relationships, this guide explains the spectrum of human experience through informative comics, interviews, worksheets, and imaginative examples. A great starting point for anyone curious about queer and trans life, and helpful for those already on their own journeys!

(Note: There are several more books in the ‘Quick & Easy Guide’ series that would also be great additions to graphic nonfiction collections: A Quick & Easy Guide to Asexuality, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, A Quick & Easy Guide to Consent, and A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability)

Smash! Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe with the Large Hadron Collider by Sara Latta and Jeff Weigel (Gr. 7 & Up)-What is the universe made of? At CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, scientists have searched for answers to this question using the largest machine in the world: the Large Hadron Collider. It speeds up tiny particles, then smashes them together—and the collision gives researchers a look at the building blocks of the universe.

Nick and Sophie, two cousins, are about to visit CERN for a tour of the mysteries of the cosmos. Sophie’s a physics wiz. Nick, not so much. But by the time they’re through, Nick and Sophie will both feel the power of hidden particles, fundamental forces, dark matter, and more. It’s all a blast in this mind-blowing graphic novel!

Strange Fruit Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill (Gr. 8 & Up)-Strange Fruit Volume I is a collection of stories from early African American history that represent the oddity of success in the face of great adversity. Each of the nine illustrated chapters chronicles an uncelebrated African American hero or event. From the adventures of lawman Bass Reeves, to Henry “Box” Brown’s daring escape from slavery.

The Stuff of Life : A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon (Gr. 10 & Up)-Let’s face it: From adenines to zygotes, from cytokinesis to parthenogenesis, even the basics of genetics can sound utterly alien. So who better than an alien to explain it all? Enter Bloort 183, a scientist from an asexual alien race threatened by disease, who’s been charged with researching the fundamentals of human DNA and evolution and laying it all out in clear, simple language so that even his slow-to-grasp-the-point leader can get it. In the hands of the award-winning writer Mark Schultz, Bloort’s predicament becomes the means of giving even the most science-phobic reader a complete introduction to the history and science of genetics that’s as easy to understand as it is entertaining to read.

Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown (Gr. 9 & Up)-It is, perhaps, the perfect video game. Simple yet addictive, Tetris delivers an irresistible, unending puzzle that has players hooked. Play it long enough and you’ll see those brightly colored geometric shapes everywhere. You’ll see them in your dreams.

Alexey Pajitnov had big ideas about games. In 1984, he created Tetris in his spare time while developing software for the Soviet government. Once Tetris emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, it was an instant hit. Nintendo, Atari, Sega—game developers big and small all wanted Tetris. A bidding war was sparked, followed by clandestine trips to Moscow, backroom deals, innumerable miscommunications, and outright theft.

In this graphic novel,New York Times–bestselling author Box Brown untangles this complex history and delves deep into the role games play in art, culture, and commerce. For the first time and in unparalleled detail, Tetris: The Games People Play tells the true story of the world’s most popular video game.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Gr. 7 & Up)-George Takei has captured hearts and minds worldwide with his captivating stage presence and outspoken commitment to equal rights. But long before he braved new frontiers in Star Trek, he woke up as a four-year-old boy to find his own birth country at war with his father’s — and their entire family forced from their home into an uncertain future.

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard.

They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

What is American? Who gets to decide? When the world is against you, what can one person do? To answer these questions, George Takei joins co-writers Justin Eisinger & Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker for the journey of a lifetime.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown (Gr. 8 & Up)-In the tradition of two-time Sibert honor winner Don Brown’s critically acclaimed, full-color nonfiction graphic novels The Great American Dust Bowl and Drowned City, The Unwanted is an important, timely, and eye-opening exploration of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, exposing the harsh realities of living in, and trying to escape, a war zone.

Starting in 2011, refugees flood out of war-torn Syria in Exodus-like proportions. The surprising flood of victims overwhelms neighboring countries, and chaos follows. Resentment in host nations heightens as disruption and the cost of aid grows. By 2017, many want to turn their backs on the victims. The refugees are the unwanted.

Don Brown depicts moments of both heartbreaking horror and hope in the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Shining a light on the stories of the survivors, The Unwanted is a testament to the courage and resilience of the refugees and a call to action for all those who read.

What Does Consent Really Mean? by Pete Wallis, Thalia Wallis, and Joseph Wilkins (Gr. 8 & Up)-While seemingly straightforward, Tia and Bryony hadn’t considered this subject too seriously until it comes up in conversation with their friends and they realize just how important it is.

Following the sexual assault of a classmate, a group of teenage girls find themselves discussing the term consent, what it actually means for them in their current relationships, and how they act and make decisions with peer influence. Joined by their male friends who offer another perspective, this rich graphic novel uncovers the need for more informed conversations with young people around consent and healthy relationships. Accompanying the graphics are sexual health resources for students and teachers, which make this a perfect tool for broaching the subject with teens.

I hope this list has given you some ideas for adding graphic nonfiction to your collection. If you have a favorite graphic nonfiction text that wasn’t included, please share in the comments!

Meet Our Guest Blogger

Alison is the Middle and Upper School Librarian at an independent school in New York City. She has worked in school libraries for 8 years, with students from ages 3-18. She loves reading and learning, and helping students find the perfect book. When she’s not in the library, she enjoys baking, traveling, and spending time with her two cats, Molly and Minerva. You can find more of Alison’s musings about books and libraries on her website msginthelibrary.com, on Twitter @msginthelibrary, or on Instagram @msginthelibrary.

Information Literacy Skills in the Digital Citizenship Classroom: Teaching Lateral Reading, a guest post by Jennifer Hanson

How do you teach information literacy skills in a remote class setting? When the pandemic hit last spring, all of my digital citizenship classes suddenly became asynchronous classes. This gave me the opportunity to redesign how I was going to teach information literacy skills in my 8th grade classes. Without the face-to-face interaction, I knew I needed some solid videos to explain evaluating information. I could either make those videos myself or use something that already existed. Through the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program, I was familiar with the Stanford History Education Group Civic Online Reasoning lessons. I really liked their video from Crash Course with John Green explaining lateral reading.

If you are unfamiliar with lateral reading, the basic concept is to open a new tab or tabs on your device and search for information about a website. Rather than scrolling down a webpage or reading the About Us page, lateral reading provides other sources of information about the website you might be viewing.

For my asynchronous lesson, I put together a Google Form lesson with a series of videos for my students to watch, asking them evaluate a source for its authenticity using lateral reading, then applying their new lateral reading skills to another video. Because the activity included no interaction with a teacher, students struggled at the end to provide evidence for whether or not this video of a snowboarder being chased by a bear was real or fake. I asked them to watch the video, then read laterally to determine if the video was real or fake and provide evidence of their decision. Of the 39 students who completed the assignment, 15 noted their strategy to read laterally and cited Snopes or National Geographic as their evidence the video was fake. The other students tried to analyze the video itself, determining if the bear looked real and if the girl was bothered by the presence of the bear.

I felt like this lesson had some merit, so when we returned to school in the fall, I modified it a bit. The fact that we now had a Zoom-based synchronous class helped me provide a level of guidance and context that the asynchronous format did not accommodate. In order to practice their lateral reading skills more, I added an activity from the Stanford History Education Group lesson “Intro to Lateral Reading.” After analyzing the snowboarder video as a class and practicing lateral reading to provide evidence of whether the video is real or fake, I ask students to complete an activity about the Odyssey Online website. This activity is more challenging than the snowboarder activity as it asks students to evaluate the reliability of a website that has published an article about the minimum wage.

One challenge students faced immediately with the Odyssey activity was the first question of “who is the sponsoring organization?” Sponsor sounds like advertiser, and lots of ads pop up at the top and on the right side of the page. Students were responding that the sponsoring organization was a variety of advertisers like The New York Times and Starbucks instead of the organization Odyssey. If big names like The New York Times and Starbucks advertise on the site, it must be good, right? This gave me the opportunity to help students understand the difference between sponsor (the owner of a website) and advertisers (other entities who buy space/time in a variety of venues without vetting everything their advertisements are attached to). The second time I taught the lesson, I prefaced the activity with that discussion so that students didn’t get off track from that central question.

In December, I attended Jennifer LaGarde and Darren Hudgins’ ISTE presentation “Evaluating Bias and Truth in the Fake News Era.” One question LaGarde asked during the session was “how do we teach students to read laterally on mobile devices?” Since then, I have added a discussion on reading laterally when we are on Instagram or Snapchat, emphasizing that lateral reading isn’t just done on a laptop or for websites, but for all media we consume.

Teaching remotely, both in an asynchronous and synchronous environment, pushed me to reevaluate how I was teaching information literacy skills with my students. I think the changes to my instruction have been positive overall and have given students stronger evaluation skills. How have you adapted your instruction this past year? What strategies will you keep?

Meet the author

Jennifer Hanson is the Director of Library Services at Worcester Academy and has over a decade of experience teaching information and technology literacy skills. She is also an Educational Consultant for the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Eastern Region Partner at Waynesburg University and has written for School Library Journal.

THIS IS NO GAME: WHEN FACTS MATTER, SPORTS NON-FICTION IS A GOOD PLACE TO TURN, a guest post by Andrew Maraniss

Everything we hunger for in this country right now – racial and economic justice, environmental sustainability, a stable democracy, managing COVID – requires a fundamental commitment to seeking the truth and acknowledging basic facts.

As this year’s theme for Teen Librarian Toolbox states, #FactsMatter.

It’s such a timely theme. And such an indictment of so many of our neighbors that we even have to say it.

With so many powerful institutions profiting from lies, “alternative facts,” and conspiracy theories  – from Fox News to corners of the Internet to the Republican Party  — it falls on the rest of us to push against the rising tide of misinformation and hate in whatever ways we can.

I’ve chosen to do it by writing books for young readers that extol the enduring values of truth, equity, and justice through the lens of sports.

Maraniss with Perry Wallace

My first book, STRONG INSIDE, is the story of Perry Wallace, the Vanderbilt basketball player who desegregated the Southeastern Conference in the 1960s and later became an esteemed law professor. My second book, GAMES OF DECEPTION, is the story of the first U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, which played at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. My third book, which just came out this week, SINGLED OUT, is a biography of Glenn Burke, the first openly gay Major League Baseball player and inventor of the high-five. I’m writing a book now on the first U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team, to be told in the context of the women’s rights movement of the 1970s.

Why sports? First, I’ve been hooked as long as I can remember. I taught myself to read as a five-year-old by examining the back of baseball cards. The first time I cried of happiness came when I was 12 years old and Cecil Cooper delivered a game-winning hit for the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1982 playoffs. One of the biggest thrills of my life came in 1998, when I was able to take batting practice at Yankee Stadium as a member of the media relations staff for the Tampa Bay Rays. I went to college on a sportswriting scholarship and my ‘day job’ today is in the Athletic Department at Vanderbilt University.

But more important than any of that, what I value most about writing about sports is that it’s a genre that is highly accessible to just about anyone. When a young person picks up a book with a baseball or basketball player on the cover, it’s likely that they’re not going to feel intimidated by the subject. But once they dig into the story, they’ll realize the stories are not about scores and statistics or tired sports clichés– but about the denial of justice to so many in America and around the world, whether by racism, fascism, antisemitism, homophobia, or sexism, and the critical difference between being a bystander and upstander in the face of such injustices.

Because sports-related nonfiction offers “windows and mirrors,” (the term originated by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop) a peak into the lives of other people or a reflection of the reader’s own place in the world, they provide valuable opportunities for empathy and understanding. And the audience for sports books is probably as broad or broader than any other genre –  no parameters on age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, geography, academic achievement, race, or religion.

But within that universality, there is also a subversive element to the best sports books. For many people, the sports world has been seen as American as hot dogs and apple pie – where old-fashioned notions of patriarchy, patriotism, and white supremacy have traditionally gone unchallenged. So what better genre than sports to shine a light on the everyday elements of American life that have perpetuated injustice? These are the stories where the truth shines the brightest.

The lasting lesson of both STRONG INSIDE and GAMES OF DECEPTION, books that deal respectively with the civil rights movement here and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, is the same: the profound danger of standing by and doing nothing when injustices are perpetrated against others. I think of that lesson often when I hear people criticize modern-day athletes for taking a stand for justice, whether it’s NFL players taking a knee or WNBA players supporting a Senate candidate. If the big truth to be learned from these monumental periods in world history is to speak up, then how can one fault athletes, citizens like anyone else, for using their platforms to call out injustice? When Fox commentator Laura Ingraham tells LeBron to “just shut up and dribble,” we see clearly that she’s not just missing the lesson of history, but actively suppressing the truth.

For those who haven’t succumbed to the notion that the truth is irrelevant, it’s easy to spot the liars. But we must also to turn a skeptical eye toward those who call for unity or civility. Of course, both concepts sound reasonable and are desirable long-term outcomes. But as Perry Wallace once told me, “reconciliation without the truth is just acting.” Any efforts toward unity and civility must include truth-telling and acknowledgement of facts as necessary preconditions. Unity and civility without justice are just other names for oppression.

The best nonfiction books – even sports books! — name the problem, praise the real-life heroes, call out the real-life villains, and pose direct questions where facts determine the right answers.

Now more than ever, #FactsMatter.

Meet the author

New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss writes sports-related nonfiction for adult, Middle Grade and Young Adult readers. His books have received the Lillian Smith Book Award, RFK Book Awards Special Recognition Prize, and Sydney Taylor Honor Award. Andrew lives in Nashville and manages the Sports & Society Initiative at Vanderbilt University. Read more about his books at www.andrewmaraniss.com and follow him on Twitter @trublu24, Instagram @amaraniss, and on Facebook at /andrewmaranissauthor.

About Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke

From New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss comes the remarkable true story of Glenn Burke, a “hidden figure” in the history of sports: the inventor of the high five and the first openly gay MLB player. Perfect for fans of Steve Sheinkin and Daniel James Brown. 

On October 2nd, 1977, Glenn Burke, outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, made history without even swinging a bat. When his teammate Dusty Baker hit a historic home run, Glenn enthusiastically congratulated him with the first ever high five. 

But Glenn also made history in another way—he was the first openly gay MLB player. While he did not come out publicly until after his playing days were over, Glenn’s sexuality was known to his teammates, family, and friends. His MLB career would be cut short after only three years, but his legacy and impact on the athletic and LGBTQIA+ community would resonate for years to come. 

New York Times bestselling author Andrew Maraniss tells the story of Glenn Burke: from his childhood growing up in Oakland, his journey to the MLB and the World Series, the joy in discovering who he really was, to more difficult times: facing injury, addiction, and the AIDS epidemic.

Packed with black-and-white photographs and thoroughly researched, never-before-seen details about Glenn’s life, Singled Out is the fascinating story of a trailblazer in sports—and the history and culture that shaped the world around him.

ISBN-13: 9780593116722
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 03/02/2021
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Bringing a New Wartime Diary to Light, a guest post by Ann Bausum

Welcome to the Ensnared Blog Tour!

To celebrate the release of Ensnared by Ann Bausum on January 12th, blogs across the web are featuring exclusive articles from Ann, plus 5 chances to win a hardcover copy!

Mention the topic of World War II diarists, and Anne Frank will probably be top of mind. When I was a schoolgirl I became so inspired by her account that I started my own diary (a decidedly short-lived endeavor). Frank’s record has become so synonymous with childhood diaries that, decades later, I caught my breath when I learned about another German-born girl who had kept a wartime diary.

One of Frank’s last entries was about the subject that introduced the writings of Christa von Hofacker. Both girls were gripped by news of the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. “I’m finally getting optimistic,” Frank wrote the next day. If German military officers were trying to kill Hitler, she surmised, then surely Hitler’s demise was imminent. 

Christa von Hofacker, at age 12, had a more immediate concern. She began her diary after her father was arrested for his involvement in the July 20 plot to topple the Nazi regime. Cäsar von Hofacker, who had played a leading role in Paris during the coup, was among hundreds imprisoned afterwards in consequence. Later on, he and more than 150 others were murdered by the regime.

When Christa began to write, she had no idea of the fate that would befall her father. But her worries didn’t stop there. In early August Gestapo agents had appeared unexpectedly at her family home and arrested her mother, older brother, and older sister. Then, weeks later, the agents returned. 

The last photo ever taken of Cäsar von Hofacker with his children (from left), Liselotte, Christa, Eberhard, Alfred, and Anna-Luise, April 1944

“I’ve come on orders from Berlin to fetch the three children,” the man declared. Christa recorded these words in her diary. In the pages that follow she documented how she and her two younger siblings were taken without explanation on an extended rail journey. Their travels landed them at a remote hideaway in central Germany where they were held with other children under indefinite detention. Her text is riveting, visceral, and astounding. It stands as the definitive eyewitness account of the experiences she and 45 other young children shared as part of Hitler’s revenge for the actions of their fathers.

© Ann Bausum, all rights reserved


I gained access to Christa’s diary thanks to the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin. An offshoot of this museum maintains outreach to families tied to Hitler’s post-coup revenge. Staff there helped me approach several of these eyewitnesses as part of my research. My book was immeasurably improved by interactions with Christa and these other now-octogenarians. (Hint: Check out the next post in this blog tour to learn more.) 

In a series of interviews, conversations, and emails, Christa and I picked up where her diary left off. She filled in gaps, ruminated about what she had witnessed, and added further context to the words she had recorded more than 75 years earlier. Christa’s diary has gained a measure of recognition in Germany during recent decades, but few knew of it beyond. I am honored to be able to share excerpts from her account and to be able to introduce American readers to this history through Ensnared in the Wolf’s Lair

Would you help spread the word? #AnnBausumEnsnared

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Meet the author

ANN BAUSUM is an award-winning children’s book author who brings history alive by connecting readers to personal stories from the past that echo in the present day. Ensnared is her 11th book for National Geographic Kids and her fourth look at international history. While researching the book, she traveled twice to Europe to get to know the people and places that became intertwined in 1944 after the failed effort to kill Hitler at the Wolf’s Lair. Previously Bausum has explored international history with such works as Stubby the War Dog; Denied, Detained, Deported; and Unraveling Freedom. Many of her books highlight themes of social justice, including her National Geographic title The March Against Fear. In 2017, her body of work was honored by the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC. Individual titles have won numerous starred reviews and been recognized with a Sibert Honor Award, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Carter G. Woodson Award, and the SCBWI Golden Kite Award, among other distinctions.

Blog Tour Schedule:

February 8th – Teen Librarian Toolbox

February 9th – Christy’s Cozy Corners

February 10th – Bookhounds

February 11th – From the Mixed-Up Files

February 12th – Ms. Yingling Reads

Buy: Amazon | Indiebound | Bookshop

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Follow Ann Bausum: Website | Twitter | Facebook

About Ensnared in the Wolf’s Lair

“I’ve come on orders from Berlin to fetch the three children.” –Gestapo agent, August 24, 1944

With those chilling words Christa von Hofacker and her younger siblings found themselves ensnared in a web of family punishment designed to please one man—Adolf Hitler. The furious dictator sought merciless revenge against not only Christa’s father and the other Germans who had just tried to overthrow his government. He wanted to torment their relatives, too, regardless of age or stature. All of them. Including every last child.

During the summer of 1944, a secretive network of German officers and civilians conspired to assassinate Adolf Hitler. But their plot to attack the dictator at his Wolf’s Lair compound failed, and an enraged Hitler demanded revenge. The result was a systematic rampage of punishment that ensnared not only those who had tried to topple the regime but their far-flung family members too. Within weeks, Gestapo agents had taken as many as 200 relatives from their homes, separating adults and children.

Using rare photographs and personal interviews with survivors, award-winning author Ann Bausum presents the spine-chilling little-known story of the failed Operation Valkyrie plot, the revenge it triggered, and the families caught in the fray.

Don’t Believe Everything You See: A Discussion of Deepfake by Sarah Littman with Lisa Krok

Having seen some deepfake videos, I was curious to read Deepfake by Sarah Darer Littman. This book is a fictionalized account of how this synthetic media can have drastic consequences.

First, what exactly is a deepfake? The term itself comes from a combination of “deep learning” and “fake”. Deepfakes are AI (artificial intelligence) generated media where someone’s likeness can be swapped with another, or manipulated with the intent or likelihood of being deceptive about the recorded person’s words or actions. A creator of this would first need to train a neural network to understand what the person looks like in different lighting and angles. This can be constructed by using many hours of real video footage to make a realistic deepfake video. This process was invented by Ian Goodfellow, a Ph. D. student in 2014. Popular Mechanics reports that he now works at Apple.

In the novel, seniors Dara and Will are not only competing for valedictorian, but they have also been dating on the sly. When a video posts to the school’s gossip site, Rumor Has It, Will is stunned to see Dara accusing him of paying someone to take the SAT for him. Feeling betrayed and falsely maligned, he breaks up with Dara and is facing an investigation that could rescind his college acceptance. Here’s the catch: Dara knows she did not say those things or share that video. Leave it to this valedictorian candidate to scrutinize the video and surrounding evidence to discover what is really going on. This disturbing tale grips readers, who will be turning pages to find out how, why, and who is responsible for this.

According to a recent report from University College London,“Deepfakes are the most dangerous form of crime through artificial intelligence…This is because while deepfake detectors require training through hundreds of videos and must be victorious in every instance, malicious individuals only have to be successful once”. This leads to the question of the legality of these videos. Clearly, spreading misinformation via this manipulated media is very concerning. Anything pornographic is subject to defamation or copyright suits, but deepfakes with deceitful or controversial statements that were never said currently remain legal.

Tips to spot a deep fake from MIT’s Detect Fakes project:

 (retrieved from https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/detect-fakes/overview/)

“The Detect Fakes experiment offers the opportunity to learn more about DeepFakes and see how well you can discern real from fake. When it comes to AI-manipulated media, there’s no single tell-tale sign of how to spot a fake. Nonetheless, there are several DeepFake artifacts that you can be on the look-out for. 

  1. Pay attention to the face. High-end DeepFake manipulations are almost always facial transformations. 
  2. Pay attention to the cheeks and forehead. Does the skin appear too smooth or too wrinkly? Is the agedness of the skin similar to the agedness of the hair and eyes? DeepFakes are often incongruent on some dimensions.
  3. Pay attention to the eyes and eyebrows. Do shadows appear in places that you would expect? DeepFakes often fail to fully represent the natural physics of a scene. 
  4. Pay attention to the glasses. Is there any glare? Is there too much glare? Does the angle of the glare change when the person moves? Once again, DeepFakes often fail to fully represent the natural physics of lighting.
  5. Pay attention to the facial hair or lack thereof. Does this facial hair look real? DeepFakes might add or remove a mustache, sideburns, or beard. But, DeepFakes often fail to make facial hair transformations fully natural.
  6. Pay attention to facial moles.  Does the mole look real? 
  7. Pay attention to blinking. Does the person blink enough or too much? 
  8. Pay attention to the size and color of the lips. Does the size and color match the rest of the person’s face?

These eight questions are intended to help guide people looking through DeepFakes. High-quality DeepFakes are not easy to discern, but with practice, people can build intuition for identifying what is fake and what is real. You can practice trying to detect DeepFakes at Detect Fakes.”

Creating deepfakes is surprisingly easy with the right app/software, and can be created for fun or learning purposes, rather than used fraudulently. Here are some examples:

Princess Leia Deepfake

Bill Hader Pacino Schwarzenegger Deepfake

Queen Elizabeth Deepfake

Home Alone “Home Stallone” Deepfake

If you would like to try making a fun video of your own, check out these apps and websites:

Best Deepfake Apps and Websites

There is a teaching guide for this book available here: https://sarahdarerlittman.com/teacherreading_guides/deepfake_guide_-copy.pdf

Meet Librarian Lisa Krok

Lisa Krok, MLIS, MEd, is the adult and teen services manager at Morley Library and a former teacher in the Cleveland, Ohio area. She is the author of Novels in Verse for Teens: A Guidebook with Activities for Teachers and Librarians. Lisa’s passion is reaching marginalized teens and reluctant readers through young adult literature. She recently concluded a term on the Best Fiction for Young Adults committee (BFYA 2021), and also served two years on the Quick Picks for Reluctant Reader’s team. Lisa can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.

Why I Wrote Strongman. Facts Matter. So Does History, a guest post by Kenneth C. Davis

What makes a country fall to a dictator? How does an entire nation follow an authoritarian leader –a Strongman—down a dangerous and deadly path? How does democracy die?

These are difficult questions in ordinary times. But in recent years, as the United States has confronted serious threats to its democratic institutions, these questions have become more pressing. It is no longer an interesting academic exercise to worry about democracy. It is a grave concern that involves the very existence of our most precious rights and freedoms.

Since I was a small boy, I have always loved questions, history, and books. No surprise then that I made a career out of writing books that ask questions about history. In the past, for instance, I asked the question: “How did the men who conceived and fought for the Declaration of Independence go back to lives utterly dependent upon enslaved labor?” That question became the basis for my book In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives (2016).

Kenneth C. Davis in the studio, recording a part of the audio edition of More Deadly Than War (2018 Photo courtesy of PenguinRandomHouse Audio)

Later I asked: “How did a deadly war early in the twentieth century contribute to the worst pandemic in modern history?” The answer was explored in my book More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War (2018).

But raising questions about dictators and the fate of democracy that form the core of my latest work, Strongman, may be the most difficult and important questions I have ever posed.

The book Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy profiles Benito Mussolini of Italy, Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. My intent was to demonstrate exactly how these men were able to seize power. The book lays out the tactics and techniques they used to secure complete control over a nation – with murderous results.

For many people, these are merely names in history books. Certainly, they are notorious names. Yet who these men were and what they did is a vague memory. Today, some people make pilgrimages to the tombs of Mao, Mussolini, and Stalin – misguidedly believing them to be heroic leaders and honoring the memory of despots who caused such misery and death in their own countries and around the world. In writing Strongman, I wanted to raise awareness of what these ruthless men did. And I wanted to explore their lives and times to understand how they were able to bring millions of followers down such destructive paths.

Throughout my career, I have always contended that history is more than dates, battles, and speeches. It is the story of real people doing real things in real places. When we learn history as a human story it becomes less abstract and dry and far more meaningful. Not only does it help us to understand how the past shaped the present. But I also believe that the lessons of the past can guide us to make good choices in our own times.

Kenneth C. Davis in his New York City office during a recent webinar with school teachers.

Having written about history for some thirty years, I certainly was aware of the role these Strongmen played in shaping the modern world. But as I began to research their lives, I was surprised by how ordinary they were in many respects as young men. As a boy, Adolf Hitler loved stories of the American West and then dreamed of becoming a painter. Joseph Stalin was in a seminary school and worked for a time keeping weather statistics. Mao Zedong defied his father who had arranged a marriage for him at age fourteen and he later applied for work in a soap factory before becoming a librarian’s assistant. They were in many respects typical, rebellious teenagers who gave no clue of their vicious destinies.

My research took me down many dark roads filled with cruelty, torture, secret police, deliberate starvation, concentrations camps, and mass murder. The degradation and death that each of these men was responsible for became clearer in the horrific toll of destruction they left in their wakes. It is not an easy story to tell. But we cannot look away.

My research also revealed the way these men — and their legions of followers– were able to seize power using a playbook of tactics that many autocrats and tyrants rely on– propaganda, purges of enemies, elimination of the free press and other safeguards to basic rights, and ultimately stamping out dissent. In the process, they destroy any glimmer of hope for democracy.

For much of the thirty years since my book Don’t Know Much About® History was first published in 1990, I remained fairly optimistic about the future of democracy – both in the United States and around the world. At the time the book appeared, the Soviet Union was crumbling, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, and South Africa’s apartheid system would be vanquished. As budding democracies took root around the globe, the world appeared to enter an exciting moment in history. U.S. President George H.W. Bush even pronounced a “New World Order.” Prospects for greater freedom and more human rights seemed brighter as dictatorships fell away, replaced in many nations by “People Power.”

Finalists for the 2017 YALSA Awards ALA Midwinter, Atlanta, GA.
Left to right: Linda Barrett Osborne, the late Karen Blumenthal, Kenneth C. Davis, the late John Lewis, Gareth Hinds, Pamela S. Turner.
(Photo courtesy of Macmillan School and Library Marketing)
 

Despite the acts of terror and financial crises that followed in the early years of a new century, that optimism appeared secure when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Like many Americans, I was surprised and gratified that the United States had made the great leap of choosing a Black man for the nation’s highest office. Whether one agreed with Obama’s political policies or not, many conceded that Barack Obama’s victory seemed to signal a new stage in American democracy.

But something changed. The steady progress toward widening freedom, especially in the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European Communist-bloc, halted somewhat abruptly. The movement towards global democracy slowed and then went into reverse. Authoritarian leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, stepped into the breach.

That movement has only accelerated over the past two decades. Populist, nationalist leaders have secured power in several former Communist countries that had emerged as free market democracies and joined the European Union.  Authoritarian leaders also took power in nations in Asia and South America.

These growing global threats to human rights, basic freedoms, and democratic principles were the reason I considered it a crucial moment to focus on how an authoritarian dictator –- a Strongman – could take control of a country and quickly dismantle democracy. How does such a leader take power? How do they win millions of willing believers? What are the tactics and techniques they use to destroy the freedoms and rights that come with democracy? And could it happen here?

Meet the author

Author Photo Credit Nina Subin

Kenneth C. Davis is the New York Times–bestselling author of Don’t Know Much About® History, which gave rise to the “Don’t Know Much About®” series of books and audios.  He is also the author of the critically acclaimed In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four President, and Five Black Lives, a Finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award and a Notable Book of the American Library Association in 2017. His book More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of The Spanish Flu and the First World War wasnamed a Notable Trade Book for Young People by the Children’s Book Council and National Council for the Social Studies.

His latest book, Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy, was published on October 6, 2020. It was named a “Best Children’s Book of 2020” by the Washington Post and among the “Best Young Adults Books of 2020” by Kirkus Reviews,

Davis has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Smithsonian magazine, among other publications. A frequent media guest, he has appeared on CBS This Morning, Today, CNN, and NPR. He was recently featured in the CNN documentary “Pandemic: How a Virus Changed the World in 1918.”

Davis enjoys both in-person and virtual visits with readers, teachers, students, librarians, and members of the general public. He lives in New York City.

Twitter: @kennethcdavis

Website: dontknowmuch.com 

Davis recommends buying books at Left Bank Books in Belfast, Maine.

© Copyright 2021 Kenneth C. Davis All rights reserved

About Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy by Kenneth C. Davis

From the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About® books comes a dramatic account of the origins of democracy, the history of authoritarianism, and the reigns of five of history’s deadliest dictators. 

Washington Post Best Book of the Year!

What makes a country fall to a dictator? How do authoritarian leaders—strongmen—capable of killing millions acquire their power? How are they able to defeat the ideal of democracy? And what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

By profiling five of the most notoriously ruthless dictators in history—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein—Kenneth C. Davis seeks to answer these questions, examining the forces in these strongmen’s personal lives and historical periods that shaped the leaders they’d become. 

Meticulously researched and complete with photographs, Strongman provides insight into the lives of five leaders who callously transformed the world and serves as an invaluable resource in an era when democracy itself seems in peril.

ISBN-13: 9781250205643
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Age Range: 12 – 18 Years