It’s been a difficult summer in the United States, marred by a string of heartbreaking and inexplicable killings. After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of law enforcement officers earlier this month, there were the retaliatory killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Last week, on July 20, another unarmed black civilian was shot while trying to assist an autistic man.
“Only we can prove that we have the grace and the character and the common humanity to end this kind of senseless violence, to reduce fear and mistrust within the American family, to set an example for our children,” said US president Barack Obama in a July 17 statement.
Over the past year, librarians around the country have been working to do that, creating lists of the books that Americans can read in order to take a step back from tragedy and gain perspective and history on the nation’s complex issues of race, policing and civil rights. With their help, Quartz has compiled a broad syllabus of Black Lives Matter readings, spanning from fiction for young adults to history tomes.
As New York teacher and conservationist Algeria Barclays writes in a blog post, fiction has a unique power to create empathy—especially when it comes to divisive and deeply personal issues like race and inequality. “You step into someone’s life when you read a novel, even when you’re reading the story of someone who is radically different from yourself,” she says.
In the syllabus below, Quartz includes 52 titles recommended by California Oakland Library’s list Institutional Racism: History and Context, created by librarian Amy Sonnie; Minnesota’s Hennepin County Library’s Read This: #BlackLivesMatter Reads for Teens by Chelsea Couillard-Smith; the Kansas’s Lawrence Public Library’s Black Lives Matter book list by Polli Kenn; and the Young Adults Library Services Association’s Black Lives Matter: Building empathy through reading by Barclays.
But first, here are a few recurrent titles, from the books that were most frequently recommended:
1) Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 bestseller, Between the World and Me: The book of letters from a father to his teenage son is Coates’ reflection on race in America through personal experience and deep history. “It is at turns very academic, but also very personal, so I think it covers the whole reading experience,” says Kenn, who included the title in her recommendations for the Lawrence Public Library.
2) Kekla Magoon’s 2014 novel How it All Went Down is another librarians’ favorite, in which a chorus of narrative voices describe police brutality, showing the complexity of weaving a single truth from different perspectives.
3) Jason Reynold and Brendan Kiely’s 2015 teen fiction All American Boys is told from the alternative narratives of a black and a white teen: After one is brutalized by a police officer, the other finds himself torn between the man who raised him and loyalty to his classmate.
4) Michelle Alexander’s 2012 non-fiction work, The New Jim Crow, argues that black success—as embodied by celebrities like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey—does not reflect the realities of an enduring “racial caste” in the US, perpetuated by the US criminal justice system.
5) US Congressman John Lewis’s March: Book One, published in 2013, is a graphic novel and the first tome of the trilogy that recounts Lewis’s childhood, how he came to meet Martin Luther King and became the youngest leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Couillard-Smith says this title is on her top recommendations for teens. “Just because they are teenagers doesn’t mean they do not have an important role in social justice,” she says.
6) Walter Dean Myer’s 2009 novel Monster recounts the tale of a teenage boy trapped in the juvenile criminal justice system after being accused of involvement in a murder-robbery. The novel comes in form of a screenplay interspersed with journal entries written in the voice of the protagonist.
7) Marilyn Nelson’s 2009 A Wreath for Emmett Till is a series of of 15 sonnets, written in memory of the 14-year-old boy whose 1955 lynching in Mississippi spurred the Civil Rights Movement. His killers were acquitted for the murderous crime.
The full list: