8 Books for Insight and Inspiration
Finding our way through these challenging times depends on a steady relationship with hope, a constant practice of engaging with reality while also imagining what could be. That intersection is as important for those of us who work at YES! as it is for our readers. So here, we share new and old books that made us think and inspired us to take action this year.
The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige
In her inspirational, sweeping, and yet deeply personal manifesto, Chinese American thought leader and civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs describes how we can keep fighting the necessary fight in the face of despair and apathy. I’m inspired in my work by how YES! enacts Boggs’ philosophy that although small actions may feel small, they are actually how we create a better world by bringing forth our humanity in systems that seek to diminish and silence us. Boggs compares social impact to quantum physics and writes, “Acting locally allows us to be inside the movement and flow of the system, participating in all [its] complex events occurring simultaneously”—one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever read of why local community and local changes matter. Her vision for communities centered around supporting each other and meaningful work is truly the world I want to live in, and I encourage everyone to read her book and reflect on what it means for how we live our lives. —Julia Liao
White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America by Margaret A. Hagerman
White Kids is based on a sociological study that followed the lives of middle-school-aged children from affluent white families in the Midwest around the time of highly publicized police killings of Black people and the rise of BLM protests. The children speak about how they formed their understanding of race, and they reveal their honest opinions and beliefs about racism, inequality, and privilege. It’s enlightening.
I went through a lot of emotions when I read this in early 2022. As a Black woman who grew up in an overtly racist, upper-middle-class neighborhood in the ’70s, it made me reassess some of my own childhood experiences. But it was eye-opening to peer into the lives of white families and see how these racist ideas develop. It showed me how strategic decisions white parents make to provide “safe” environments, “the best” environments, or to provide advantages for their children can, ultimately, support and perpetuate systemic racism.
It’s important to note that not only did these kids have little to no interactions with people of color, but when they did (through charitable works and school exposure), they were exposed to those from the poorer economic levels of society. As a result, the ideas they formulated about who Black people were and how they lived was extremely narrow. And if I remember correctly, there was one child, I think it was Charlotte, who had parents who were committed to anti-racism work and educated her about racial inequality at home. This was the only child who had a comprehensive understanding about how the systems of racism worked, based on reality, and had formulated concrete ideas of how to combat it.
My hope is that white parents and adults read this book and really examine how they raise or influence the children around them, particularly if they’re serious about dismantling racism. What the voices of children reveal in this book may be eye-opening, and adult readers may have a rude awakening. —Natalie Pryor
Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis
As someone who became a new parent in March of 2020, I have a complicated relationship with hope. The arrival of my daughter brought forth a whirlwind of possibilities, hopes, and dreams for what her life could be—but that wind was swiftly met by the brick wall of early pandemic isolation, anxiety, and fear. In the nearly three years since, some of those fears have subsided, but I still grieve the loss of the world I had hoped my child would grow to discover.
On a recent masked trip to the library, she selected Sweetest Kulu, a heartwarming bedtime poem written by Inuit throat singer Celina Kalluk, with stunning illustrations by Alexandria Neonakis. The book is powerful in its simple lyricism, and its reminder of the innate connection between humans and our animal and elemental relatives soothed my worried parental soul. My voice broke several times when we first read the book together, reflecting on the blessings of kindness, love, and respect bestowed upon little Kulu by creatures great and small. If my toddler can understand these messages and carry forward these values generously shared with us by a culture that is not our own, perhaps there is still hope for her future—and all of ours.
Sweetest Kulu would make a perfect gift for new parents, and for any of us who need a reminder that we are part of something bigger, and more beautiful, lasting, and resilient, than any one person, family, or nation. —Sunnivie Brydum
The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System, edited by Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman
As a journalist motivated by furthering justice, I always look to what Black women say is needed to make the world a better place. Black women, existing at the intersection of race and gender, have marched, organized, resisted, and spoken up time and again for justice. When they are free, we are all free. It is in this spirit that I highly recommend the 2022 anthology The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System, edited by Ghanian American writer, and founder of The Sadie Collective, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman.
It is a book that I, a non-Black person of color, have referenced again and again in my work as racial justice editor at YES! Although not limited to Black women writers, The Black Agenda centers the expertise of women like Tressie McMillan Cottom, who wrote the book’s foreword. Cottom offers a bold test for those of us striving for justice, saying, “If you are a space, a platform, an institution that is part of the infrastructure of the public discourse, and you are not at this point affirmatively putting forward Black expertise as one of the valences of your institution or organization, you are de facto a part of the white counter response to Blackness.”
From health care and wellness to climate change, the economy, and the criminal justice system, The Black Agenda identifies central questions of injustice and, more importantly, answers them with clear-cut and necessarily radical solutions. It isn’t just for solutions-oriented journalists like me. Think of it as a modern civics guide, a reference book for hopeful change, particularly for those among the tens of millions of Americans who marched under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” during the summer 2020 racial justice protests and who remain in search of a way to realize racial equity.
“Black experts should be driving the narrative instead of waiting to be called in,” writes editor Gifty Opoku-Agyeman in explaining what drove her to craft the anthology. She adds, “This book is not a short-lived read to pacify guilt. This is about a way forward, one that includes us all.” —Sonali Kolhatkar
No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies by Julian Aguon
The title of No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies sounded damning to me, especially knowing it was a book about climate change. The connotations that came to mind were hopeless, not hopeful. But over the course of just 104 pages, author Julian Aguon quietly proved me wrong and made me a true fan of his work.
Aguon approaches the climate crisis with such tenderness: “Indeed, the world we have inherited comes to us bruised, a tender shard of its former self, having passed clumsily through the well-intentioned hands of our mothers and fathers, seeking a generation it can trust enough, and long enough, to drop its shoulders.”
He does not acquiesce, though. Aguon both emphasizes and encourages outrage, while making it clear that “indignation is not nearly enough to build a bridge. To anywhere. It’s useful, yes. But we need to get a hell of a lot more serious about articulating alternatives.” That’s what this book is all about: building bridges of hope—to our ancestors, between our communities, and within our global ecosystem.
I picked up Aguon’s book for some light Saturday morning reading and didn’t get up until I had read it in its entirety. I sipped stories about his home in Guam—family memories, creation stories of his Indigenous Chamorro people, and lucid tales about the relentless ravages of U.S. militarization. I savored his smattering of essays, reflections, commencement speeches, and poems:
“We have no need
for scientists to
tell us things
The inundated need no instruction in inundation.
We have eyes
of our own
we are busy
off our grandfathers’
Aguon’s words are not flowery or rhetorical or effortful. They are simply the right ones. And after drinking in every one of them, and letting the taste infuse on my tongue, I got up out of my chair feeling buoyed by their earnest hope. —Breanna Draxler
How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family by Sonora Jha
When I found out I was going to have a son, I was worried about whether I was equipped to bring him up to be different than the capitalist, colonialist, white supremacist men I see exerting unearned and unjust power over our bodies, our choices, our society, and our planet.
So, when a friend offered me Sonora Jha’s How to Raise a Feminist Son, I was pleased to find that the book is not just another judgment-steeped “how-to” manual to make parents agonize over their every choice and action. Billed as “a memoir and manifesto,” the book relates anecdotes from Jha’s experience raising her son by herself in a new country and culture. Jha very intentionally chose to raise her son outside the patriarchal system that shaped her childhood in India and continues to influence her parents and brothers today.
Reading about the ways in which Jha consciously guided her son helped me realize that a male child is not inevitably going to become a despot or a misogynist or an asshole. These things are observed and learned and reinforced. Or not. She reminded me of my agency—and that of every person with whom my son interacts. Raising feminist boys is a collective task.
“We can snuff out toxic masculinity,” Jha writes. “We can build a gentle and vital masculinity from the ground up.” And that offered me great hope for my son and for the future world he and I and our community are shaping together.
Jha makes clear that there are some non-negotiables in this shared endeavor: “Respect and equity for women are not things I was willing to have him evaluate, cautiously weighing the pros and cons. Rape and violence are not something you mull over before you take a stand,” she writes. “To raise a feminist son, you take away this choice.”
It was empowering to be reminded that I know the difference between just and unjust, and that I am perfectly capable of drawing and holding those lines for my son. It’s a matter of making it part of our everyday reality—the daily choices and experiences and interactions and interpretations.
Simply put, “Feminism is how we roll.” —Breanna Draxler
Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis by Greta Thunberg, Svante Thunberg, Malena Ernman, and Beata Ernman
Our House Is on Fire contains a parenting story so painful that Malena Ernman hesitated to write it: “Because between the lines there is a story that can’t be told. A story that absolutely no one wants to document, because those who have been there never want to turn back and be reminded about how it actually was. It’s too tough. It’s too ugly. It’s too messy. The story is way too humiliating for all involved—and that’s why I have to tell it.”
The story begins with Ernman blacking out from stress. She’s an acclaimed Swedish opera singer about to go on stage, but all she can think about is the crisis at home. At age 11, her eldest daughter is starving herself, shutting down, and disappearing. Help finally comes in a diagnosis of autism, revelations of extensive bullying at school, and treatment for anorexia and depression. But just as her eldest child begins to heal, Ernman’s youngest, Beata, explodes with expansive, violent meltdowns that make family life impossible.
The media soundbite resolution of this story is well known—Ernman’s eldest child, Greta Thunberg, embraces her autism as “a superpower” and becomes a famous teenaged spokesperson against global warming. But there’s little of Greta-as-celebrity in this book. Most of the scenes in Our House Is on Fire take place in the years before Greta’s groundbreaking school strike for climate in front of the Swedish parliament. As Malena and her husband, Svante, respond to the urgency of their children’s mental health needs, they also see the need for a broader social awaking to inequality, authoritarianism, racism, and the climate crisis. The book, told mostly from Malena’s point of view but co-authored by the entire family, is about the process of daring to go beyond social conventions in the search for answers. In an emergency, the only hope is to face up to reality and take action for survival, whether personal or planetary. —Valerie Schloredt
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler was an awarded and respected writer during her lifetime. But her work has been gaining a broader audience in recent years, with new readers marveling at how her science fiction novels from earlier decades offer a philosophical and spiritual alternative to the 2020s America of violent racism and insurrection.
Kindred, the first television series based on Butler’s work, premiers this month. Peek into the novel for comparison with the series and you’re likely to be hooked. With the publication of Kindred in 1979, Butler, a Black woman writer, took a genre that had been dominated by white men and fashioned it for her own revolutionary purposes. The novel combines historical narrative with the devices of fantasy and science fiction to investigate what we Americans have inherited from the foundations of slavery, and what we might do with that inheritance.
Kindred begins with disarming realism as Dana, a young Black woman, settles into her new house in California. Suddenly, she is pulled back, very unwillingly, to the South during slavery, specifically to the plantation where her ancestors were both Black enslaved people and white slave holders. Why is she caught in such an unacceptable place and time? As Dana becomes enmeshed in the lives of her ancestors, she realizes that, much as she wants to, she can’t change their actions or fates. The necessity instead is that she free herself, and the injustice is that she must pay a cost for that freedom. Butler does a kind of magic in making the novel a fast-paced and compelling read. It is elegantly simple in style, complex in character, and deep in human understanding that resonates long after you’ve finished the final page. —Valerie Schloredt