The best books about American heroes to inspire your teenager

Victoria Golden Author Of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir
By Victoria Golden

Who am I?

I’ve spent my life fascinated by stories about people. My mother, maybe seeing something in me early on, took me to get my own library card when I was three. The librarian protested but finally agreed. And so I became not only a reader but a writer of books, a book reviewer, and a book editor. Then one day this story about William Walters fell into my lap. For four years he told me about his extraordinary life spanning nine decades, and we turned it into a memoir. Now, more than ever, I treasure well-told stories about little-known folks who’ve accomplished great things, and I love the idea of sharing them with you.


I wrote...

A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

By Victoria Golden, William Walters,

Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Homeless at age four, William Walters embarked on an extraordinary journey through nine decades of U.S. history when he boarded one of the last American Orphan Trains. From 1854 to the early 1930s, these trains transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West, sometimes providing loving new families, other times delivering kids into nightmares. Taken by a cruel New Mexico couple, William faced a terrible trial, but his strength and resilience carried him forward into remarkable adventures.

Whether escaping his abusers, jumping freights as a preteen during the Great Depression, or infiltrating Japanese-held islands as a teenage Marine during WWII, William’s astonishing quest paralleled the tumult of the twentieth century—and personified the American dream.

The books I picked & why

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A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

By Sonia Purnell,

Book cover of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

Why this book?

When I read this book, I couldn’t believe that I and most other people knew nothing about the one-legged American the Nazis called the most dangerous of all Allied spies. This biography is as exhilarating as any good thriller. Throughout Virginia Hall’s sensational career, she dealt not only with the enemy but with needless obstacles posed by men who were her colleagues. With only brief training in spy craft and short-lived college education, the 35-year-old Hall masterminded prison breaks for Allied agents, organized French resistance to that country’s German occupiers, and re-established a broken chain of radio operatives throughout the region. As the Nazis closed in on her in winter 1942, she limped to freedom on her wooden leg across “one of the cruelest mountain passes in the Pyrenees.” Within two years she was back in Nazi-occupied France to risk her life again supplying money, weapons, and organization to French Resistance fighters. 


Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II

By Daniel James Brown,

Book cover of Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II

Why this book?

If you and your family were ordered from your home by your government, deprived of your constitutional rights, and sent to a remote internment camp, would you volunteer to risk your life fighting for your country? Thousands of young Japanese American men did just that when they were isolated as possible spies and traitors after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Eighteen thousand of these young men signed on as members of the Army’s 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans, and distinguished themselves as some of the bravest Americans who ever lived. Sent into battles that at times looked purely suicidal, the 442nd became “the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in American history.” Brown’s riveting account follows four of these young men and a fifth who became a conscientious objector and eventually landed in prison, all the while fighting for civil rights. 


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

By Daniel James Brown,

Book cover of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Why this book?

It’s been years since I read this book, but I remember vividly the thrill of this unlikely crew of kids from working-class families in Washington state shocking Hitler by beating his rowing team on his home turf at the Olympics, an extravaganza designed to display German superiority. Add to that, the nine-man crew’s earlier upset victories against the American Ivy League teams that dominated one of the most popular American sports in the days before television, and you’ve got the makings of a wonderful underdog-come-from-behind story. Which it is, in the hands of this author, and is why I’m recommending two books by him. Brown builds drama by explaining who these kids were, the daunting personal challenges some of them faced, and how, in the hands of the right coaches and a talented boat-builder, these “nobodies” became world champions.


Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

By Margot Lee Shetterly,

Book cover of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Why this book?

The movie made from Hidden Figures was compelling and surprising: The U.S. government employed brilliant black women to help get men into outer space. In Shetterly’s book, you’ll find a story that is bigger. Shetterly introduces far more people than the three women spotlighted in the movie. Where did all of these women come from? How did they get beyond the entrenched racism in Virginia, the state surrounding Langley Research Center, where some counties even closed their public schools for years to both white and Black children rather than allow integration? How did these mathematicians gradually win the respect of white male engineers that dominated Langley’s research facilities? What spurred their initial employment well before the U.S. pushed to come from behind in the 1950s space race with the Russians? It’s an inspiring tale, all the more powerful than the movie, because it is comprehensive and entirely true.


My Own Country: A Doctor's Story

By Abraham Verghese,

Book cover of My Own Country: A Doctor's Story

Why this book?

If someone else wrote this story, they’d say Abraham Verghese was a hero. He doesn’t. Instead, he describes his quest as a member of a foreign minority to become an American doctor, one who ironically finds himself striving to help young men who are outcasts in their own country. When AIDS first arrived in Johnson City, Tennessee in 1985 there was no way to test for the virus and no effective treatment. Fear ran rampant. A local undertaker didn’t want to put socks on the feet of a victim because he was afraid to touch the corpse’s bare feet. Some medical personnel refused to touch AIDS patients. Verghese became both physician and friend to his 81 patients, risking social and professional standing and endangering his marriage. Eventually, the burden of repeated patient death and of his family’s terror about his work led him to quit his post and study writing. This was not a cop-out, only a brief respite. He returned to the treatment of infectious diseases and wrote this poignant book. 


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