Essentially what we have here is a book written about the children of the 50s and 60s for the children of the 00s, reviewed by a child of the 80s. Now let me tell you a little story. My husband is friends with a former Black Panther. It’s New York. You can meet anyone here. And as a result, for years now I’ve been searching desperately for child and YA novels and works of non-fiction that mention the Panthers. Until now I’ve come up bone dry, but then, lo and behold, I heard about “America Dreaming: How Youth Changed America in the ’60s”. It wasn’t precisely what I was looking for, but the essential conceit was so fascinating that I felt inclined to check it out in and of itself. After all, there’s a blurb from Howard Zinn on the cover and one from Peter Seeger as well. Author Laban Carrick Hill takes a step back with this book and views The Sixties purely within the context of the youth who defined it. He examines where these kids came from, the state of America at the time, and then systematically takes a closer look at the Civil Rights Movement, the Radical Youth Movement, the Hippie and Alternative Lifestyle Culture, Black Nationalism, the Women’s Movement, Native American Rights, South-American Movements, and the start of environmentalism. What’s more, he does this within 165 pages in a bright, colorful, consistently eclectic format. The result is a book that kids will be inextricably drawn to with subject matter that is beautifully researched and impeccably honed.
The public perception of the 50s, 60s, and 70s sort of feels like this: The 50s were a picture perfect suburbia time of tract housing and post-war delights, the 60s early rebellion, and the 70s late rebellion. “America Dreaming”, fleshes these stereotypes out, showing just exactly how important this time period was in our history. The Boomer Generation was “Wilder than Gen X, more activist than Gen Y,” and it changed the world like no other. With an eye squarely on these young people, Hill shows us the myth of 50s perfection, the ugly truth beneath the surface, and the different ways that Boomers decided to do something about it. It is magnificently difficult to draw together everything from the Bay of Pigs to the Redstockings Manifesto, but Hill somehow does so without confusion or even leaving much out. Kids who have never learned about the Native American Rights movement or the story of the Young Lords will find a plethora of information. At the same time, Hill never lets go of the ball, also taking time to look at both our progress and the ways we can still improve the world in which we live. With any luck, it will inspire our own young people to do the same.
Though there is much to admire here, it’s Hill’s mythbusting that I think I liked the best about this book. Kids today, if they know what hippies are, just think of them as all pot-smoking dropouts who marched in protests and put flowers into guns. Grill the kids a little more and they may start to get confused. So the Civil Rights Movement was entirely made up of hippies? Really? Hill gives a little more form and context to these vague ideas we’ve all bought into. The structure of the book complements this. Considering how time and influences flow in and out of one another, the fact that Hill limits his backing and forthing, keeping the book moving in a consistent and practical direction, is notable. Aside from mythbusting, Hill also draws attention to historical details that many kids, and probably more than a few adults, might not have known. Levittown didn’t allow in African-Americans until 1957. Elvis only walked into Sam Phillips’s Sun Records to make a record of gospel songs for his mom. The significance of The Albany Movement. The term “hippie” was created by the Beats and meant, “young people who were trying to be hip, but weren’t.” Until 1966 LSD was legal in the United States. GOON squads are actually Guardians of the Oglala Nation squads. And I liked that Hill acknowledged Elvis’s debt to black culture. He even puts the Watts riot into great perspective, giving us an understanding of not only why it happened but also why people even riot at all.
The book’s design deserves a certain amount of attention too. Hill’s previous title, “Harlem Stomp” was also a large formatted coffee table work of teen non-fiction that utilized an eclectic mix of photographs, patterns, inserts, and other eye-catching details. With the full range of the 60s at their fingertips, the book’s designer (Elise Whittemore-Hill?) was able to spread out and use every color, font, and pattern they wanted. Some might have gone a little crazy with this freedom and given too little attention to necessary white space, but this book is an even-handed mix, never detracting from the words and always legible in the end. Some have complained that the inserts add little to the overall narrative, but I would argue that they are a necessary feature if you want kids to be drawn in. I don’t envy the search that must have occurred to find a Robert Crumb cartoon that could be put in the book without unreasonably shocking the young people who found it, though.
I’m a sucker for back matter. Show me a well laid out Index or finely honed Bibliography and I am yours for life. Hill doesn’t skimp on these details, providing a magnificent Timeline or “A Brief Chronology of Events” spanning 1946 to 1975 and taking up a good 11 pages or so. Thumbs up on the Index, and the Selected Bibliography and Web Sites for further reading provide a nice mix of older reference works and newer definitive titles.
As with any historical work, you’re going to have some differences of opinion regarding motivations and what we can learn in hindsight from the organizations of the past. It happens. And Maynard G. Krebs is misspelled as “Maynard Grebs” here, which is a goof but a correctable one. Only a couple things got my goat as I read. The book does make it appear that Rosa Parks was physically tired when she sat on that bus in 1955, without mentioning her participation in the Civil Rights movement before that time. That myth has always bugged me a little. And I did wish that the Panthers had had a larger section here. Hill balances out the good and the bad of the Panthers pretty well, but it ends without mentioning the ambush and murder of Fred Hampton by the cops as he slept, which I found disappointing. Instead, Hill ends with a fairly inconclusive, “The party platform became a front to rip off and terrorize their own black neighbors,” which is the last thing you read about the group. I understand that Hill was just giving a cursory look at the Panthers, but surely the section deserved a summary that was a little more thoughtful than that. For someone who puts the Watts riots into such clear perspective, you would think the same could be done for the Panthers. But maybe this is just my own personal bugaboo.
In the end, I can’t think of a better book to bring to any tween or teen interested in history, particularly that of the recent past. Because of the layout and the voice of the narration, young people will find themselves drawn to a book that is neither fuddy nor particularly duddy. Near the end of the book Hill deftly plays off a quote from Dick Armey regarding the Sixties against one from Tom Hayden, showing how there is still debate regarding the legacy of that time period. Best of all, he cleverly ties in the Gay Rights movement, which continues to this day, showing that not everyone has achieved their civil rights quite yet. With all the parallels that currently exist between the state of our government now and back then, “America Dreaming” will hopefully appear attractive to enough young people so as to keep them from being doomed to repeat many of history’s past mistakes.
Notes on the Cover: I don’t normally critique the covers of works of non-fiction. I’ll make an exception in this particular case, however. Standing at an impressive 11.4″ x 9.8″, it’s a coffee table book for teens. The cover is a particularly up-to-date white background with and explosion of people and things bursting from the center. Great color scheme, nice use of imagery, and I’m fond of the daisy in the gun right smack dab in the middle. Who could ask for anything more?
Other Blog Reviews: The Excelsior File
Misc: Hear Mr. Hill chat with Judyth Piazza, CEO of The Student Operated Press.