Reading Lists Aren’t Just For Summer — These Books Inspire Year-Round

Discover timeless stories that fortify, provoke and guide us, recommended by the Made By Us coalition

Made By Us
Sep 15, 2020 · 10 min read

From Made By Us partners

To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. History has been unevenly written and unevenly shared, but it is our aim to do better, to make the tent bigger, to understand a more multifaceted perspective. We use our Made By Us Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.

Without a doubt, we’re in tough times. While we recognize that we’re living through an important chapter in history right now — and we tip our hats to the 500+ cultural organizations around the world working to document and preserve this moment — that can be cold comfort when navigating the day-to-day challenges brought on by the pandemic.

One place to go for inspiration, escape and guidance? Reading. Our favorite books can help us imagine the past and all kinds of possible futures. Sometimes, by zooming out — or in, to another life and time — we can gain critical perspective that helps us today. Books are so important to shaping our civic identity and flexing our empathy muscle that we teamed up with First Book and American Heritage Chocolate to give away 20,000 books to Title I teachers who share their wish for America’s future at (Interested in winning books? Get more info here).

Here at Made By Us, we work to connect the dots of past, present and future across a coalition of the nation’s history sites and museums. We know that if anyone has an appreciation for context, perspective, and shelves full of beloved books, it’s this crowd of researchers, story-sharers, learners and educators! So we turned to our partners to create a crowdsourced, digital version of an annotated bookshelf.

Just in time for back-to-school, here are our favorite reads to turn to in tough times, books that help us better understand our world — how we got here and how we might shape it going forward.

Our Recommendations

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey

In 10th grade, my history teacher had us read this short detective novel as part of our study of the Renaissance. The time period doesn’t really resonate with me any more, but this book more than any other opened my eyes to how art and history are political and not at all neutral. In it, Detective Alan Grant is confined to his bed recovering from an accident when he becomes intrigued by a portrait of Richard III. How could this kind man have been the monster portrayed in Shakespeare’s history play? It turns out that Shakespeare’s portrayal was likely influenced by the politics of the day. It was the first time I saw the need to question the biases of the author in how they tell their story — whether fiction or non — and it started me on my path into the public history field.

– Sarah Jencks, Director of Education and Interpretation, Ford’s Theatre Society

Voices for the Railroad: Stories by Descendants of the Chinese Railroad Workers

Edited by Sue Lee & Connie Young Yu

This book reveals the stories of Chinese railroad workers, often overlooked in the recorded history of the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad, and their descendants. Until now, these stories have never been told outside of their families. No longer nameless, faceless workers lost to history, their stories will shatter misconceptions about the Chinese who helped build America.

— Lori Hanley, Communications Manager, California State Railroad Museum

Hell and Other Destinations by Madeleine Albright

She is an unstoppable force that inspires, encourages, empowers and educates. — Sarah Jane Wick, Director of the Museum Store, National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library

Private Yankee Doodle by Joseph Plumb Martin

The book captures the thoughts and experience of a young man growing up in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Despite the age of this memoir, Martin’s voice reads like a contemporary friend today, describing the reality of his service. It stands as a reminder of the common humanity we share with common people from the past and underscores aspects of military service that transcend time.

— Stuart Lilie, Vice President of Public History, Fort Ticonderoga Association

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

I first read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in my high school U.S. History class, and have reread it a number of times since. Because the narrative spans several decades, I am able to relate to Harriet Jacobs at a different stage of life each time I read it. At 15 I identified with the teenaged Jacobs, who was fighting off unwanted sexual pursuit from her enslaver. As a college student I felt for the young wife and mother, about my age, who risked her life and the safety of her family left behind when she fled from the plantation. And as a young mother I marvel at how Jacobs accomplished the breathtaking feat of hiding in an attic room not big enough to stand up in for seven long years, watching her children as they came to the house where she was hiding but unable to embrace or even speak to them. This determination to persist under the most difficult of circumstances has inspired me during my own challenges, most recently the COVID-19 epidemic. Jacobs’ story of tenacity and perseverance has been a source of strength and comfort for me during difficult times, as I believe it can be for others.

— Beth Folsom, Program Manager, Cambridge Historical Society

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The story of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy is a timepiece for sure, showing the struggles of life in America post Civil War. But the coming of age struggles the sister endure and overcome — as well as the powerful bounds between them — are timeless. Louisa’s honest story is also decidedly about female empowerment, specifically illustrated how that looks different for woman. Headstrong, fiercely independent Jo was always my hero, but the older I get the more I appreciate that eldest sister Meg. She chooses a more traditional family arrangement, but it is clear in the story that she made the decision for herself. And you have to love that Louisa was so sure of herself as an author, just as her alter ego Jo, given that women were not exactly encouraged to have literary ambitions at the time. #GirlPower

— Kate Doak Keszler, Social Media Manager, Made By Us

Venture Smith’s Colonial Connecticut by Venture Smith, Elizabeth Normen

I was inspired to bring Venture Smith’s 1798 narrative to today’s middle school children and above because he tells a compelling and true story of freedom in the Revolutionary era — from his enslavement as a young boy in West Africa, to his self-emancipation, to becoming a successful farmer, fisherman, and trader in colonial Connecticut. Smith tells readers a great deal about colonial America and the southern New England maritime economy, too, encompassing New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. As a primary source, students have said they love learning from a real person’s experience. This book foregrounds the African and African American experience in the northern colonies and provides additional primary source material on a companion website so that students may explore the Native American experience, too.

– Elizabeth J. Normen, Publisher, Connecticut Explored

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

This book was suggested to me by my friend, Jordan Weber, who is a local black artist in Iowa. He suggested it to help me be a better educator for BIPOC students and it has deeply impacted me and I think all educators should read it, particularly white educators.

– Sarah Henderson, Associate Director for Lifelong Learning, National Czech and Slovak Museum & Library

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

It is remarkable to see the leadership of Lincoln during arguably the most trying episode of our national history. With the Union splitting, he appointed his chief political rivals, many of whom felt they were more deserving of the presidency, and worked with them to preserve the Union. The lessons of humility, of leadership during a time of national crisis, and of the ability to unite for a common purpose are as important today as they were in the moment.

— Tony Pennay, Chief Learning Officer, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom

In this memoir, Sarah M. Broom tells the story of her family and their history through the house she lived in growing up, but the house and the family are just one part of the story of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. With America facing so many problems, from climate change to racial inequity, Broom shows how all of those things collide to create the disaster that was, and still is, the response to Hurricane Katrina. Broom uses her personal family history to make you feel what it is like to be in New Orleans East where she grew up, which is nothing like the French Quarter that most people think of when they imagine “The Big Easy”.

— Katie Erickson, Museum Educator, Aurora History Museum

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

I first read All The King’s Men in high school, thanks to the world’s best English teacher Mrs. Gober. The book gave me an appreciation for the long view, the infinite links between past, present and future. From the last line, relevant to our social-distanced situation today: “We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay…But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”

– Caroline Klibanoff, Program Manager, Made By Us

Ajax Penumbra: 1969 by Robin Sloan

This is a prequel to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a fictional tale that weaves speculative histories into the real fabric of our society. I fell in love with the characters, who tie together the import of people who tend our memories in the form of books and traffic in the rare and powerful knowledge that books can contain. It delighted me that I was hooked enough to want to know more about the past of this fictional character, but his struggles were so universal and so relatable. And San Francisco in 1969 — the summer of drugs, music and a new age dawning — comes to life. A young, earnest Ajax Penumbra has been given his first assignment as a Junior Acquisitions Officer — to find the single surviving copy of the Techne Tycheon, a mysterious volume that has brought and lost great fortune for anyone who has owned it. Books have always felt like portals into new worlds for me, and this one is like a fun house in that sense, as it taps directly into the promise of what happens when you find just the right one to unlock more mysteries.

— Kaz Brecher, Innovation Strategist, Made By Us

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

As a young college student studying business administration I had the rare and wonderful opportunity of taking a science class taught by an environmentalist that rocked my world. She opened my eyes to how fragile and interconnected the fabric of the earth really is, and how arrogance and greed were racing to destroy it. Fifty-eight years later Silent Spring still holds up as a light in the darkness.

— Valerie Donati, Brand Strategist, Made By Us

(History) Made By Us

Powering our future with history.

(History) Made By Us

To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. That’s where Made By Us comes in. We use our Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.

Made By Us

Written by

Powering our future with history.

(History) Made By Us

To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. That’s where Made By Us comes in. We use our Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.