Typical textbook chapter divisions notwithstanding, history never divides neatly into decades—but the giddy era that kicked off with the worldwide euphoria following the end of World War I in 1918 and crashed along with the stock market near the end of 1929 certainly came close. If it wasn’t exactly Party Time for everyone in America, the Roaring Twenties merits its general reputation as an era of sweeping social change and rising prosperity. It was a time of grand experiments, from the failed one dubbed “Prohibition” to the wildly successful, hard-won constitutional amendment that guaranteed voting rights to U.S. women. It was also a time of portable machine guns and bathtub gin, flappers and hot jazz, technological innovations from talking movies to television, Art Deco, the beginning of baseball’s home-run era, and the revolutionary development of frozen foods.
The books below will effectively sharpen readers’ knowledge and understanding of those colorful times. Most incorporate period photographs, documents, and other primary-source material; others filter careful research through the sensibilities of talented writers and illustrators to convey events, attitudes, and details of daily life from a variety of compelling angles. With a concentration on nonfiction, the first section gathers broad historical surveys, while the second offers a highly select assortment of closer looks at particular events and people. The final portion presents particularly perceptive examples of historical fiction.
CORRIGAN, Jim. The 1920s Decade in Photos: The Roaring Twenties. (Amazing Decades in Photos Series). Enslow. 2010. PLB $27.93. ISBN 978-0-766-03131-9.
Gr 5-7—Grouped in topical chapters, the photographs in this visual history really make the decade’s mobsters, musicians, movie stars, flappers, financial tycoons, celebrities, and ordinary folk come alive. Both casual browsers and serious students of the times will find plenty to pore over in this gallery of faces, fashions, and events.
FEINSTEIN, Stephen. The 1920s: From Prohibition to Charles Lindbergh. Enslow. 2006. ISBN 978-0-766-02632-2. (OP)
Gr 6-8—Enhanced by color photos and other illustrations, this survey provides a broad overview of the decade’s high and low points. Along with important historical events, it covers social changes, developments in science and technology, the early years of the Harlem Renaissance, fads and fashions, and an array of related topics in a clear and readable way.
HILL, Laban Carrick. Harlem Stomp!: A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance. Little, Brown. 2004. PLB $24.50. ISBN 978-0-316-81411-9; pap. $12.99. ISBN 978-0-316-03424-1.
Gr 6 Up—Jazzy page design boosts the visual energy of this heavily illustrated survey of the distinctive art, music, and literature that fueled Harlem’s cultural ferment. Hill fills in the historical background from the Great Migration on, adds select passages from contemporary writers, and closes with a generous bibliography.
LINDOP, Edmund & Margaret J. Goldstein. America in the 1920s. (The Decades of Twentieth-Century America Series). Lerner/Twenty-First Century. 2009. PLB $38.60. ISBN 978-0-761-32831-5.
Gr 5-8—Along with highlighting significant figures and historical “Turning Points,” this solid survey offers students a coherent overview of the decade with chapters on politics, the economy, Prohibition, literature, the arts, and sports, enhanced by plenty of illustrations and leads to additional sources of information.
STANLEY, George E. An Emerging World Power, 1900-1929. (Primary Source History of the United States Series.) World Almanac Library. 2005. PLB $31. ISBN 978-0-836-85828-0; pap. $14.05. ISBN 978-0-836-85837-2.
Gr 5-8—Particularly valuable for its extensive use of contemporary letters, reports, news stories and other primary documents, this volume offers a broad view of our country’s political, economic, and social history leading up to and through the decade of the 1920s.
BAUSUM, Ann. With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote. National Geographic. 2004. Tr $21.95. ISBN 978-0-792-27647-0; PLB 32.90. ISBN 978-0-792-26996-0.
Gr 5 Up—The 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment marked a revolutionary moment in our country’s political and social history. In vibrant prose and engrossing period photos, Bausum chronicles the down and dirty battles that led to ratification and taught a generation of women how to shake off traditional constraints on their rights, lives, and minds.
BLUMENTHAL, Karen. Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. Roaring Brook/Flash Point. 2011. Tr $18.99. ISBN 978-1-596-43449-3. ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-1-466-80158-5.
Gr 6-9—Opening with multiple bangs—the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, to be exact—this rousing account of Prohibition’s history and its immediate and long-term effects on our society makes colorful reading. Profusely illustrated and well documented, Blumenthal’s narrative paints vivid pictures of both the era and memorable figures from Al Capone to Carrie Nation.
BLUMENTHAL, Karen. Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929. S & S/Atheneum, 2002. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-0-689-84276-4; ebook $13.84. ISBN 978-1-4424-8891-5.
Gr 6 Up—This searching, informative examination of the watershed event that brought the Roaring Twenties to a precipitate close not only analyzes the causes of the disaster, but also conveys a sharp sense of its devastating economic and emotional effects. For readers with an awareness of contemporary financial woes, Blumenthal’s account creates a link between that seemingly distant time and our own.
BRIGHTON, Catherine. Keep Your Eye on the Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton. illus. by author. Roaring Brook. 2008. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-596-43158-4.
Gr 3-5—“Face,” his father would say to remind him to keep the frozen expression that in later years helped to make him one of the greatest comic actors of the silent film era. Keaton’s distinctive style of comedy and his fascination with the possibilities of the movie camera infuse this droll visual presentation of his semilegendary early life and career.
BURGAN, Michael. The Scopes Trial: Faith, Science, and American Education. (Perspectives On Series). Marshall Cavendish/Benchmark. 2010. PLB $39.93. ISBN 978-0-761-44981-2.
Gr 7-9—In a close study of one of the most dramatic and significant trials in this country’s history, Burgan presents a clear picture of the issues that drove it, recounts the trial’s course and events leading up to it, and profiles the figures involved from Scopes himself to William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.
BURLEIGH, Robert. Flight: The Journey of Charles Lindbergh. illus. by Mike Wimmer. Philomel. 1991. pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-698-11425-8.
Gr 1-3—Celebrating one of the most renowned feats in aviation history, this soaring tribute to Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight features a terse first-person narrative that heightens the drama in Wimmer’s luminous illustrations. Readers will be swept along on the adventure, as both the Spirit of St. Louis and its intrepid, ultimately exhausted young pilot positively pulse with life.
FINKELSTEIN, Norman H. Three Across: The Great Atlantic Air Race of 1927. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek. 2008. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-590-78462-4.
Gr 5-8—Though Charles Lindbergh deserves credit for being the first to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, the story of his adventure is joined in this exciting, high energy account by those of the equally daring aviators who came in second and third. Finkelstein folds in plenty of photographs and infuses his tale with a compelling feeling for the journey’s deadly hazards.
FLEISCHMAN, Sid. Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 2010. Tr $19.99. ISBN 978-0-061-89640-8; PLB $20.89. ISBN 978-0-06-189641-5.
Gr 5 Up—In this outstanding profile, Fleischman incorporates careful research and archival photos into a playful, nuanced biography of a complex man who rose from unlikely beginnings to become the greatest film comedian ever. Audio version available from AudioGo.
GOURLEY, Catherine. Flappers and the New American Woman: Perceptions of Women from 1918 through the 1920s. (Images and Issues of Women in the Twentieth Century Series). Lerner/Twenty-First Century. 2007. PLB $38.60. ISBN 978-0-822-56060-9.
Gr 6 Up—Combining sharp analysis with a generous array of period photos and advertisements, this study traces changes in the public images of women through the decade. Drawing examples from a wide range of social classes as well as racial and ethnic backgrounds, the author includes profiles of iconic figures such as Zelda Fitzgerald along with less-well-known game changers.
HINTON, Kerry. The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Primary Source Account. (Great Trials of the Twentieth Century Series). Rosen. 2004. PLB $31.95. ISBN 978-0-823-93973-2.
Gr 6-8—Based on photos, court transcripts, and other contemporary documents, Hinton’s account of the then-sensational and enduringly controversial trial and execution sheds a light on that time’s attitudes toward immigrants and political activists. Thoughtful readers will find those attitudes discomfitingly familiar.
KRULL, Kathleen. T he Boy Who Invented TV: The Story of Philo Farnsworth. illus. by Greg Crouch. Knopf. 2009. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-375-84561-1; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-94561-8.
Gr 2-5—Krull tells the inspiring story of a brilliant, if obscure, electronics geek who parlayed an idea that came to him while plowing a potato field into one of the 20th century’s most revolutionary inventions. Smoothly modeled, sometimes fanciful illustrations give visual expression to the scientist’s searching intelligence and vivid imagination.
NIVEN, Felicia Lowenstein. Fabulous Fashions of the 1920s. (Fabulous Fashions of the Decades Series). Enslow. 211. PLB $23.93. ISBN 978-0-766-03551-5; pap. $7.95. ISBN 978-1-59845-275-4.
Gr 5-8—In lively observations festooned with stylish, full-color and black-and-white period photographs and advertisements, Niven surveys the decade’s changing fashions in men’s and women’s clothing, footwear, hairstyles, and accessories.
PINKNEY, Andrea. Duke Ellington, the Piano Prince and His Orchestra. illus. by Brian Pinkney. Hyperion. 1998. pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-786-81420-6.
Gr 1-5—Though Ellington’s orchestra made music for decades, it was his historic New York gigs and recordings in the 1920s that jumpstarted his career. The story of this jazz pioneer is told in language and illustrations that evoke the smooth elegance of the music he wrote and played.
TAVARES, Matt. Becoming Babe Ruth. illus. by the author. Candlewick. 2013. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-763-65646-1.
Gr 1-4—Looking appropriately larger than life and glowing with good cheer in Tavares’s painted illustrations, baseball’s greatest player steps up to the plate in this quick and engaging run through his upbringing and spectacular career. The author closes with a stat box and a tribute to the Babe’s awesome stature, both in his time and in ours.
Catching The Flavor
HALL, Bruce Edward. Henry and the Kite Dragon. illus. by William Low. Philomel. 2004. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-399-23727-0.
K-Gr 4—Set in New York City in the 1920s, this tale of a peacefully resolved clash between young people in Chinatown and the adjacent Little Italy not only makes a point about the causes of intolerance, but also conveys a clear sense of place and time—thanks particularly to Low’s vivid, atmospheric illustrations.
HESSE, Karen. Witness. Scholastic. 2001. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-439-27199-8; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-439-27200-1.
Gr 6 Up—Inspired by actual events and shaped into a free-verse, multivoiced narrative, this intensely felt account of the arrival of the KKK in a small Vermont town in the mid-1920s effectively sets both the broader social and historical stage and the smaller, local one, on which a mix of triumph and tragedy plays out. Audio version available from Listening Library.
HUGHES, Shirley. Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella. illus by author. S & S. 2004. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-689-87399-7.
Gr 1-4—Dressing her figures in elegant fashions based on period styles, Hughes crafts a 1920s Cinderella variant starring a dress-shop seamstress named Ella Cinders and Buttons, a humble delivery boy whom she chooses over the aristocratic Duke of Arc because he “could always make her laugh, even if her mouth was full of pins.”
LEVINE, Gail Carson. Dave at Night. HarperCollins. 1999. pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-06-440747-2.
Gr 4-6—In a novel based on the author’s family history, young Dave escapes his harsh life in an orphanage for the swinging night life of Harlem’s streets and speakeasies. An absorbing, fast-paced tale rich in period detail. Audio version available from Listening Library.
MYERS, Walter Dean. Harlem Summer. Scholastic. 2007. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-439-36843-8; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-439-36844-5.
Gr 6-9—A teenager bumps up against Fats Waller, Langston Hughes, and additional Harlem Renaissance luminaries—as well as bootleggers and other shady characters—in this high-spirited historical novel. Myers artfully blends historical figures into a rollicking urban adventure.
TARPLEY, Natasha. Joe-Joe’s First Flight. illus. by Earl B. Lewis. Knopf. 2003. (Note: print ed. seems to be OP, but Kindle ed. is available.)
Gr 2-4—Featuring illustrations rich in period detail, this tale of a young lad in a 1920s small town who dreams of flying to the Moon highlights the historical struggle of African Americans whose own hopes of becoming aviators were hobbled by racial prejudice.
TATE, Eleanora E. Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance. Little, Brown. 2007. Tr $15.99. 978-0-316-52394-3; pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-0-316-11362-5; ebook $4.99. ISBN 978-0-316-04046-4.
Gr 4-7—Fresh up from the South in 1921, young Celeste is shocked to discover that Harlem isn’t quite the glamorous place she had supposed—but amid the ferment of new music, culture, and ideas she finds keys to her own coming of age. Tate’s tale is livened with historical detail and an authentic sense of period.
TIMONY, Peter. The Night Owls, Bk.1. illus. by Bobby Timony. DC Comics/Zuda. 2010. pap. $14.99. ISBN 978-1-401-22673-2.
Gr 5-8—With panels rich in period style, these web-comic episodes feature three New York detectives—a scientist who is allergic to daylight, a flapper with a mean punch, and a Coney Island gargoyle who will eat just about anything—who fight vampires, evil masterminds, and other supernatural threats at the height of Prohibition.
WEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. Dear Mr. Rosenwald. illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Scholastic. 2006. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-439-49522-6.
Gr 2-5—In free verse paired to Christie’s strong, expressionistic illustrations, Weatherford delivers a moving account of how a rural Southern community came together, sparked by seed money from a Sears business executive, to build a school for African American children. Inspired by a true story.
On the Web
American Women Through Time: 1920s. capone.mtsu.edu/kmiddlet/history/women/time/wh-20s.html. Ken Middleton. Middle Tennessee State University Library. (Accessed 2/5/13).
Gr 6 Up–Created and maintained by a reference librarian at the Middle Tennessee State University Library, this no-frills resource list is nonetheless rich in links to online exhibitions, oral histories, and other resources.
Harlem Renaissance Multimedia Resource. www.jcu.edu/harlem/index.htm. John Carroll University, Ohio. (Accessed 2/5/13).
Gr 4 Up–More limited (but also more digestible) than the Library of Congress’s massive “A Guide to Harlem Renaissance Materials” (loc.gov/rr/program/bib/harlem/harlem.html), this site supplements overviews of authors, educators, performers, and others associated with the Harlem Renaissance with photos as well as select audio and video files. See also the “Interactive Map of Harlem” on the Web page created to accompany the PBS program A Walk Through Harlem. (www.thirteen.org/harlem/highlights.html)
The Roaring Twenties. www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/games/game_0_1920s. McCord Museum, Montreal. (Accessed 2/5/13).
Gr 5-8–Though created for the McCord Museum in Montreal, this daffy interactive game uses period photographs and Monty Python-style animations to immerse visitors in the era’s fashions, entertainments, occupations, and recreations.
Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade Through Literature and Art.www.hrc.utexas.edu/educator/modules/teachingthetwenties. Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. (Accessed 2/5/13).
Gr 5 Up–With copious primary-source material, this collection offers a rich gathering of period photos, audio files, and documents with notes along with lesson plans on American history, society, and popular culture through the decade.
John Peters is a Children’s Literature Consultant in New York City.