A Young People’s History of the United States

A Young Peoples History of the United StatesA Young People’s History of the United States. Written by Howard Zinn.  Adapted by Rebecca Stefoff. Seven Stories Press, 2009. 464 pages. Recommended for ages 10 and up. ISBN: 9781583228692.

Howard Zinn lived a left of center life. This is a left of center book. It’s adapted from the adult version “A People’s History of the United States.” Let me say at the outset that this book would be best suited for kids from liberal families. This book would also be best suited for kids who have already studied the basics of American history because, I suspect as part of the adaptation, bits and pieces of events are left out so a neophyte in American history might become confused.

Zinn is interested in the power equation between conquerors and those conquered, between those with wealth in this country and those without, between the rich and powerful in this country and everyone else, between this country and the countries with which we engage in war.

Instead of celebrating Christopher Columbus as the person who discovered the New World, Zinn vilifies him for his treatment of the Indians he encountered. Zinn paints a terribly grim picture of the way the US treated Indians who were here before us.  His view of those who wrote the Constitution is that they were trying to preserve the position of the wealthy and powerful.

This quote sums up the book quite well:  “The greatest March of economic growth in human history took place in the United States in the late nineteenth century. The wealth it produced was like a pyramid. The supporting layers, those who built the pyramid and held it up, where the workers: blacks, whites, Chinese and European immigrants, women. At the top where the new American multimillionaires.” (p171).

I was incredulous as I read about the American Revolution. According to Zinn the rich and powerful Americans redirected lower-class anger about inequality aimed at them towards the British so that they could maintain their position of power. This goes against my “We the People” view of the American Revolution. However, as I continued reading and moved into the period of time I’ve lived through, I found his telling of the story to be exactly right. I will re-examine my views about the American Revolution.

The book is fascinating and very readable. It has full page black and white photos and drawings throughout. There’s a glossary and a thorough index at the back. I wish there had been footnotes. A bibliography of books for further reading would also have been helpful.

As a testament to the power of the book, let me say that I have been reading it for a week (I read slowly), and I’m ready to go out and work to change our society so that wealth is better distributed, and so that everyone will have access to an excellent education and excellent healthcare and nourishing food and shelter that maintains their privacy.

Nonfiction Monday


15 thoughts on “A Young People’s History of the United States

  1. Great, I still haven’t read Zinn’s history book in its entirety for adults, yet, now there’s a kids version…my to-do list keeps getting longer. 🙂

    I have read similar positions regarding the founding fathers and the real story behind the American Revolution. When you think about where we are now as a country and how we got here, it actually makes more sense that it all was founded on the few profiting from the human misery and suffering of the many from the very beginning, as opposed to the rose-colored glasses perspective most of us have been taught from an early age. How inspiring such a text could be for teens and young adults to instill a sense of social justice for other.

    Thanks for the great review as always!

    • Thanks, Jeff! I clearly need to read more about the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution. If you know of books I could read please let me know! I think you’re right, Zinn’s view makes more sense than the “We the People” idea that’s really done a disservice to all of us by mollifying us and thus keeping us quiet.

    • Thanks, Alex! The book really is powerful. Yesterday I found a Pacifica news app for my iPhone. Today I found a Democracy Now app. I’m glad it’s been so important to your daughter. Gives me hope for the next generation!

  2. I use the Zinn book with my upper elementary class as one resource. They are thoroughly engaged by his “no frills” style. The first few chapters enraged some and truly roused their interest in the beginnings of our nation. It was a good balance to some of the more traditional
    resources we read. It added greatly to our ongoing discussion on who’s telling the story in history. Kadir Nelson’s wonderful picture book (The Story of America) was a good companion to Zinn’s.

    • I really like the idea of discussing who’s telling the story when teaching history. I was just taught history, and it was history, and that was that. In everything we read, it’s so important to know who’s writing it. I’m glad to be reminded of Kadir Nelson’s book. He’s one of my favorites, and the book is now on my Goodreads list.

      • Yes, as one of my friends just commented on FB – “A view of U.S. history for kids that doesn’t echo the government-approved ‘history as written by the victors’ version issued by the school systems.”

  3. The current shift in public school curriculum to the Common Core State Standards emphasizes the need for students to acquire the ability to think critically and be aware of point of view and bias. A book like this is useful in teaching students to see an event or theory from another perspective. It’s impossible to form an educated opinion without looking at a something from all sides. If no one thinks “outside the box,” we will all be destined to remain within one. Thanks for joining in the Nonfiction Monday roundup today.

    • You’re absolutely right, Lisa! Zinn sees most of US history from a different perspective than the one I was taught in school many years ago. It causes one to question, and to evaluate sources, and to wonder. Thanks for hosting Nonfiction Monday today!

  4. I really enjoyed reading it! Zinn’s book “A People’s History of the United States” is geared towards adults. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, but at 650 pages of small type its a rather daunting prospect.

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