History Remixed: How Young Adult Authors Are Revisioning History

Three recent YA nonfiction works—Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and YouAn Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People; and A Queer History of the United States for Young People—are "remixing" history to put marginalized people front and center. 

I used to work in textbook publishing, specifically books for the social sciences and humanities. Many of these titles covered technical writing or global history and the rise of Western civilization. I was familiar with these works before my publishing career started.

As a student, I heaved these books to and from class trying to absorb as much as I could because a test was always looming. The chapters I read often concluded with an assumed finality of wars and elections won, bills signed into law, new countries created, and regimes toppled. But questions remained.

While my assigned texts provided an abundance of facts, there was so much more to learn: Even though slavery “ended” and “freedom” was granted, what were the immediate and lasting after-effects for Black people in the United States? What was actually outlined in the treaties Indigenous tribal communities signed and how were U.S. laws weaponized against Native people? Which groups were erased at the Stonewall Inn Uprising? What were the reasons for the police raids?

As a student, I could churn out papers regurgitating the same facts I’d read, yet I also yearned for more explanation of the “whys.” I wanted to know what happened next. The history of marginalized people, and how they became marginalized in America, is a winding road, not easily surmised with so many names left out.

As the rights of religious, LGBTQ+, and refugee communities are stripped and marginalized groups are discussed with a myopic and dangerous finality by members of the U.S. government, the past doesn’t feel so far. In fact, we, as a nation, never really put it behind us.

Thankfully, more titles are publishing that focus on U.S. history from and about marginalized perspectives, covering stats of Latinos in America in the 21st century to notable women in history to voting rights. And the list continues to grow. Children’s literature as a whole maintains an increase in annual sales. The incentive to publish more stories about underrepresented communities can be traced to the success of adult titles that have expanded on these topics. Trade publishers are realizing there’s not only a market but a need for young people to build their own awareness through accessible titles outside of their school-issued textbooks.

While young reader editions are intended for a different audience, they do not forgo the honesty and focus of the original text. These editions provide an outlet for readers to formulate their own understanding. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a “remixed” version of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. Two-time National Book Award finalist Jason Reynolds was tapped to adapt it, though “adaptation” isn’t how Dr. Kendi would describe it at all.

“There’s no adapting Stamped from the Beginning for young people. We first needed to transform the book for young people.”

Reynolds took the task very seriously, as he does all his writing, but recreating a book of history—though the refrain “This is not a history book” or “not not a history book” comes up frequently in Stamped—isn’t the same as writing fiction with contemporary characters. Reynolds’s care for readers is evident from the first page of Stamped. He invokes his colloquial and approachable style, inviting readers to sit and listen around the fireside to a tale that features twists and turns, hypocrisy, and recognition of the important people in U.S. history who not only enforced racism but continually pushed against it. It becomes abundantly clear that lawmakers’ thought processes weren’t as black and white as one would like to assume.

An example includes Black intellectuals in history; W.E.B. DuBois is cited as being an assimilationist (readers will learn more about an assimilationist tactic called “uplift suasion” in these pages). DuBois believed that Black people had to assimilate to white preferences rather than pushing against white supremacy. “I think racism will always be hard to talk about,” Reynolds said. “No matter how important this information is I still put kids first and want them to remain engaged and open enough to take all this in.”

Read: Nikole Hannah-Jones Talks to Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi About Their Book, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Steady engagement comes about through textual check-ins with “Breaks and Breathing,” as well as repetition to ensure readers read what they thought they read. Stamped as a remix doesn’t soften history in order to make it more palatable. Like the original text, this book seeks to encourage young readers to open up a conversation and recognize that this information can be overwhelming.

Dr. Kendi understood this all too well with his book. “I can’t tell you how many adults have told me they had to take breaks as they read Stamped from the Beginning,” he said. “Stamped [the remix] has a rhythm to it with some crucial breaks that allow young readers and thinkers to get through it all, to be transformed by it all.”

Other parts of history are being reexamined, deconstructed, and “remixed” in these radical young readers’ editions. Native children and their experiences were the core focus for Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza when it came to adapting the best-selling An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. (The young readers’ edition was recently honored with an American Indian Youth Literature young adult honor at this year’s ALA youth media awards and was an SLJ Best Book of 2019.)

“We knew they would be reading the book and [we] wanted to make sure we affirmed their existence as descendants of Native people who fought colonization and subsequent efforts to destroy Native Nations,” the co-authors said. “Political Rhetoric,” “To Do,” and “Did You Know?” call-out boxes separate the young people’s edition from the original source material by breaking down the particulars in word usage by President Andrew Jackson on the removal of Indigenous communities or by encouraging students to learn more about unfair treaties via the UN investigation—entitled “Rights of Indigenous Peoples” published in 1999.

Both Reese and Mendoza said they felt younger readers wouldn’t necessarily have previous knowledge of the information Dunbar-Ortiz presents in her book. “We knew there were some topics we wanted to emphasize in some way. We’re both former teachers and professors, and our experiences in the classroom gave us a lot of knowledge regarding what causes a reader to pause and seek more information.”

While staying close to the source material is somewhat of a given for an adaptation, or remix, the recreation is a thorough process and one that may result in a different book altogether. Both Stamped and An Indigenous People’s History discuss history chronologically, allowing reference points to build as one reads. But Richard Chevat who adapted A Queer History of the United States said, “[the] original text was very different. The young reader version is almost entirely short biographies.” Chevat noted that he didn’t have a special approach to re-visioning history versus other topics.

“I think all effective writing, fiction and nonfiction, relies on a strong narrative. In Queer History that meant establishing a premise at the beginning, the idea that the narrow categories of gender and sexuality accepted by mainstream society have never encompassed the reality of the human experience.”

The book’s audience was very clearly meant for preteen and teen readers who could find more information on names not consistently given prominence in LGBTQ+ history. BIPOC figures in LGBTQ+ history are credited during the “seeds” of protest in the 1970s, including civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and Pauli Murray as well as Chicana scholar Gloria Anzaldúa. Chevat’s approach in this regard was “to make sure the sentences weren’t too complex and for young readers, I try to avoid long digressions or tangents.”

On an individual level, the books mentioned uniquely encapsulate the complexity of history without worrying too much about packing in an entire group's history. Collectively these titles also work in conjunction to showcase how erasure, the ongoing fight for equality, and the range of people pushing against oppression in myriad ways makes for not only a lengthy battle but an opportunity to learn the different methods of revolution, especially at a time when rights are being blatantly and quietly stripped. Those questions I had as a student are blueprints in revisioned texts.

All three books begin with the past, end with the present, and look to the future—one that begins with the young reader the book was created for.

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, contributing editor to Electric Literature, editor of Everyday People: The Color of Life--A Short Story Anthology, and creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast. Her website is jennifernbaker.com.

Click to read our review of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and YouAn Indigenous People's History of the United States for Young People; and A Queer History of the United States for Young People.

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