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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

They Called Themselves the KKK

Susan Bartoletti Campbell’s latest sat on the top of my to-read pile for a while. I tend to read in public places (in a busy lunch spot, on the bus), and it was hard for me to take this book cover out in public.

Once I made time, however, to sit with it at home (also kind of disturbing, to have that cover invade one’s home), I found it totally engrossing, powerful, terrifying, and illuminating. I felt changed, physically, the way you do after a really really good thriller on a huge screen in a packed theater.

This survey of the early history of the KKK is simultaneously a story of Reconstruction told from a different and engaging perspective. It is full of first hand narratives and political analysis. It is a bizarrely quick read. And it is a painful and difficult read, as Campbell minces no words or pictures. She uses narratives from previously enslaved people that were recorded in writing by white historians to approximate dialect, and will sound offensive to many.  She uses period engravings and illustrations that show the reader exactly how bigoted and hateful many people were towards Africans.  These are essential parts of the story.

This is not a book that everyone will want to read, nor probably should, if they’re not up for it.  It doesn’t, however, make it any less award worthy.  I’m daring to ask to you to try it.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I loved They Called Themselves the kkk. I actually liked reading it in public. Let people know the truth is out there. What really stood out for me was how detailed the author was in citing her sources. Its also written in such a way that I didn’t want to stop reading.

  2. David Ziegler says:

    I found They Called Themselves the KKK a fascinating, illuminating and compelling read. Bartoletti’s remarks regarding her attendance at a Klan Congress are particularly chilling. With problems such as bullying and hate speech so prevalent today, this is a subject that deserves to be discussed. Reconstruction and the KKK need to be studied, imo, along with topics like the treatment of Native Americans on this continent, and the Holocaust.

    I certainly hope that many people read this book and that it gets purchased across the country in both school and public libraries. I believe it deserves awards, and consideration for the Newbery.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I find this one to be excellent, too. I’m surprised there aren’t more comments on this one. It’s been out for a couple months now.

  4. I’m re-reading it now (and paying more attention this time), I’ll comment when I’m done.

    Maybe it’s not getting as many comments because there’s more positive consensus, as opposed to disagreement?

  5. I just got my hands on a copy and read the first few chapters – so far, I think it’s excellent and more approachable than I first thought. But like Nina said, I don’t necessarily want to take it out in public, and I’ve been distracted by other books.

  6. Okay, my more-detailed reread has been done and it definitely keeps its spot as one of my October nominations. I really liked the book; it was fascinating and added so much detail to something I’ve mostly only been taught in broad swathes. Difficult to read because of the emotional impact of the subject matter, but easy to read because of the writing.

    Organizationally I had some little quibbles, but nothing that really took away from the impact of something so important being so well told. I wished that the images and their captions were more smoothly integrated into the main text; stories and thoughts were disrupted because I wanted to read the caption of the image. And it sometimes felt jumpy when it returned to the story of the KKK after a digression to explain the context; it flowed really well from “The KKK was doing this as all this stuff was happening politically” but when it was done with “all this stuff” there was often a “meanwhile, back at the KKK” moment that didn’t quite work. But overall, the book really worked.

    I did find myself subconscious reading it in public, but as it hadn’t occurred to me that that would be an issue until Nina mentioned it (my first hurried read of the book was not in public), there’s some cause/effect issues there. (Was I self-conscious because I was trying to be aware of my reaction to reading it in public and other peoples’ reaction to what I was reading, I was a self-conscious because I was reading it in public? Or was it because its size makes it a harder book to read on the subway?).

  7. susan norwood says:

    I had an Advanced Reading Copy in my 8th grade Reading/Language Arts classroom library. The principal told me to remove it, because a parent had objected to it. He told me that he found it offensive and lost sleep because of the images. The book is being challenged. What a shame. People should react strongly to the cover – it was meant to be intimidating. But people shouldn’t stop there. They should go on to read the whole book.

    A fellow teacher- an African American female–strongly supports having the book in schools. She says that students need to know the facts.

    Although, I had skimmed the book, I am now reading it more carefully. The problem is that I have given away at least 3 copies of the book. Every time I start it, someone asks to read it, and it’s too important not to share. I have given a copy to my African American son-in-law (I am white, if that matters), a teacher friend, and my librarian, Diane Chen.

    We’ll see what happens with the book. Diane and I are not quietly submitting to banning.

  8. I finally got my hands on this one and read it yesterday. I agree with the general consensus that this is an important book and wonderful addition to any libraries nonfiction section. I also feel that the book succeeds in delivering its information in a straightforward manner. Aside from a few of the captions in the early chapters which felt jarringly redundant I didn’t have any issues with the layout or book design.

    I did however have some concern with the way Bartoletti’s text uses, however accurately it might be, the political parties as the heroes and villains. I kept hoping that somewhere towards the end of the book Bartoletti would explain to contemporary readers that the political parties as we know them today do not share the same political ideas that these same parties held during the civil war and reconstruction and in many ways have both done 180s on ideas about equality and civil rights. A note that the Republican party of LIncoln and Grant bares little resemblance to the current GOP and that the racist Klan supporting Democratic party of the same time period has no resemblance to the modern progressive democractic party of the 20th and 21st century would have been helpful to students who are likely just beginning to decipher the political universe. I worry that without this information children might make assumptions about the current political parties based on the parties depicted in the book.

    In the timeline section at the end of the book Bartoletti points out key civil rights milestones of the 20th and 21st century. On some occasions Bartoletti includes and R or D next to an elected official in the time line but more often than not she doesn’t. For example, in noting the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Bartoletti could have mentioned that it was democratic legislation signed by a democratic president. Or when noting Obama’s election to president in 2008 she might have mentioned his political affiliation. (I don’t have the book in front of me here, but I do recall the inclusion of an R when noting the first african american congressman elected since reconstruction.)

    Admittedly I read this book on election day so that might have affected my reading. Did anyone else come away from this book with similar concerns?

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      Eric, I did find myself expecting to have more present day analysis/tie-ins…and was surprised it wrapped up with so little. But then I realized that Bartoletti told us, in the subtitle, exactly what the book was going to be about, and she delivered it. She gives readers what they need to make their own analyses/connections. Bartoletti’s style is very different than, say, Marc Aronson’s style. Hers is much more of a “just the facts” presentation, and I think she’s top notch in that style. “Just the facts” kind of simplifies it, because what she does is strive to impart facts that haven’t been heard before by her audience, and are broadbased in their perspective. She builds a rich context with enough information for her readers to start making their own analyses. I’m a fan of both her writing style and Aronson’s, and actually think these two (KKK and Sugar Changed the World) will make great discussions….likely to happen at both the Newbery and Sibert (and Printz?) award tables. We may have that comparative discussion ourselves, after Dec 12th.

      (Don’t you think readers who don’t already know will be able to figure out, from this book, the difference between the Dems/Reps of then and now? The book also clearly expects readers to have some basic knowledge of the Civil War era, and I think that’s fair.)

  9. Eric, while I remember being confused about the Democrat/Republican issue the first time I read Gone With the Wind as a child (though my parents were one of each, so I didn’t really have a horse in the race then), I think if anything that led me to dig deeper. I don’t think we need to be concerned that any child or teenager who makes it through and understands this somewhat dense book is likely to use it as the primary source for understanding what the Democratic and Republican parties are about. (I also have a conviction that allowing children the opportunity to have and resolve misconceptions is important developmentally.) Also, the majority of Republicans would probably take issue with the idea that the party has turned away from ideas about civil rights; they are proud of that history. I don’t know that Bartoletti could have said much about this that wouldn’t come off as inappropriately partisan AND that wouldn’t make the book dated; the political parties will continue to evolve, and this is, perhaps, a book for the ages.

    As for my own thoughts about the book: it’s been very difficult for me to separate this in my mind from Hitler Youth, and it suffers in comparison. But I’m trying. The writing is excellent, so clear and concise; Bartoletti conveys drama without seeming manipulative. I think she creates a great sense of atmosphere and setting. But like others, I wasn’t crazy about the organization of the book. Miriam says it perfectly with “meanwhile, back at the KKK”. At times, it felt like the book lacked focus; I forgot I wasn’t reading a history of Reconstruction. I was thrown off by not having a clear sense of where the book was going. (I, too, would have been more interested in a book that contained more information about the 1920s-30s era and some of the present-day, but tried to abide by Nina’s precepts about judging a book according to what it is, and not what it isn’t.)

  10. I did actually find that somewhat frustrating, Eric, though you articulated it much better than I could. I ended up deciding that it was a minor objection, because what she says *is* historically accurate and it’s fine that she picked a time period and focused on it. But I did want to be able to tell all its readers “But the parties flipped in 1964 so don’t hate on the Dems!”

    Maybe next year she’ll write a sequel?

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Studies show that children tend to adopt the political views of their parents. Of course, later as teenagers and adults, we often question and abandon those views. So . . . I really don’t think children are going to read this book as an endorsement of either political party, and it really should not aim to either. It’s not Bartoletti’s job to tell children who to vote for.

    Like Wendy, I find myself liking HITLER YOUTH more, but that is beside the point. I’ll pay more attention to the organization of the book on a reread, but will say that BARBIE, WAR, and KKK all follow a similar organization. A chronological sequence of events: (the life of Ruth Handler, the assassination of the Archduke, the establishment of the Klan) that segues to a broader spectrum of experiences that tend to be arranged thematically. The narrative still needs to move forward through time so there are some transitions between a chronological narrative and a thematic narrative throughout the later stages of each book.

  12. Really interesting discussion on a really interesting book! I do agree with Eric’s comment regarding his feeling that the author might have “explain(ed) to contemporary readers that the political parties as we know them today do not share the same political ideas that these same parties held during the civil war and reconstruction and in many ways have both done 180s on ideas about equality and civil rights.” Very well said, indeed. I reviewed this book, as well, on my site Check it out if you have time! :)

    Jill MacKenzie

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