The Names We Know (and the ones we don’t)

As I read the ARC of Untwine by Edwidge Danticat back in 2015, I found myself scribbling notes to myself. Names, mostly. The book is full of references to art, music, and history that were new to me. I had to Google Jean-Jacques Dessalines to find out that he was a leader in the Haitian Revolution. Other names dropped into the story turned out to be real contemporary artists whose work connected to the story or the characters in some way. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo were the only names that I knew.  By the time I finished the book I had a list of names—all people about whom I wanted to know more.

Imagining that teen readers of Untwine might be similarly inspired to seek out the stories behind these names, I looked for biographies I might recommend as an “If you liked Untwine” kind of reading list. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be found on teen nonfiction shelves for any of these names beyond Frida Kahlo. While I highly recommend Catherine Reef’s dual biography Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life or Carmen Bernier-Grand’s poetic tribute to the artist Frida: Viva la Vida! Long Live Life! to teen readers who want to read about artists of color, two books aren’t enough to make a list or a display in a library.

It was, however, more than enough to make me think more critically about the biographies and histories I recommend for teen collections. There is power in art, music, and history that resonates with your own life, and I want those stories to be accessible to young people.

Perhaps no other book I’ve read has made the power of connecting with history more clear than Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, which I read recently. In this book, another one I finished with a scribbled list of names to Google, Jade discovers and explores African-American history and art that inspires her own art and gives her the strength to speak out. She says after a trip to the symphony with a mentoring group for at-risk young women, “I did not know about James DePreist, and I’d never heard of Marian Anderson. But tonight I feel myself dancing with them. Feel myself traveling the world.”

An “If you liked Piecing Me Together” reading list might include biographies of Marian Anderson, Romare Bearden, and York (the enslaved African explorer who traveled with Lewis and Clark) among others if there are any. It would be a small list. Perhaps Russell Freedman’s The Voice that Challenged a Nation would be the only title on it. That isn’t enough. There isn’t nearly enough for teen readers searching for themselves, for their own histories, to connect the pieces of their lives together.

As Jade, in the book, spoke out about what she deserved, I had to consider how I might use my position to speak up. I’ll be talking about Untwine and Piecing Me Together for sure. I’ll be recommending the biographies listed above and watching upcoming publishing seasons for new teen books featuring artists and musicians of color and other little known history regarding marginalized groups.  I’ve reviewed, booktalked, and recommended books like Answering the Cry for Freedom and Rad Women Worldwide. It may never be enough, but I’ll keep speaking up because I am more convinced than ever that we need these stories.