The best activist books

9 authors have picked their favorite books about activists and why they recommend each book.

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A Lie Too Big to Fail

By Lisa Pease,

Book cover of A Lie Too Big to Fail: The Real History of the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy

In A Lie Too Big to Fail, longtime Kennedy researcher (of both JFK and RFK) Lisa Pease lays out, in meticulous detail, how witnesses with evidence of conspiracy were silenced by the Los Angeles Police Department; how evidence was deliberately altered and, in some instances, destroyed; and how the justice system and the media failed to present the truth of the case to the public. Pease reveals how the trial was essentially a sham, and how the prosecution did not dare to follow where the evidence led.

A Lie Too Big to Fail asserts the idea that a government can never investigate itself in a crime of this magnitude. Was the convicted Sirhan Sirhan a willing participant? Or was he a mind-controlled assassin? It has fallen to independent researchers like Pease to lay out the evidence in a clear and concise manner, allowing readers to form their theories about…


Who am I?

I am a  true-crime author. Most recently, I have released a pair of related books: The Making of a Serial Killer: 2d Ed, by Danny Rolling as told to myself; and Danny Rolling Serial Killer: Interviews. Before that, I published Good Little Soldiers: A Memoir of True Horror. Coauthored with Dianne Fitzpatrick, it relates her tale of murder & mind control under the US Army MK Ultra program. Earlier, I wrote True Vampires, an encyclopedic compendium of bloody crimes, and Knockin' on Joe: Voices from Death Row. I also collaborated with serial killer GJ Schaefer on Killer Fiction, a volume of psychopathic musings he wrote for me.


I wrote...

The Making of a Serial Killer

By Sondra London, Danny Harold Rolling,

Book cover of The Making of a Serial Killer

What is my book about?

The man convicted of the vicious murders of five college students in Gainesville, Florida, discusses his motivations and actions in committing the crimes, reflects on what made him into a killer, and his struggle to come to terms with what he did.

On Gallows Down

By Nicola Chester,

Book cover of On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging

An unusually honest, rural memoir by the RSPB’s longest-serving female columnist. Chester’s writing has a lovely elasticity, dancing between wonder, introspection, and anger as she moves from the particular to the universal. I learned a lot about how Britain’s countryside is managed. I also enjoyed her more eccentric impulses, such as lying down in the snow on the edge of a field one night, just to see what might happen. She belongs to the disappearing English rural working class, and is intent on handing this baton to her three children. Chester also explores the familiar tension between wanting to write and being needed at home. The heady ecstasy of time carved out alone, in nature. The scrabble to earn a precarious living, and the insecurities of occupying a tied cottage. The idea of ‘home’ lies at the heart of this fierce, beautifully written, immersive book about one’s place within the…


Who am I?

I’m an investigative journalist and social historian who’s obsessed with ‘invisible’ women of the 19th and early 20th century, bringing their stories to life in highly readable narrative non-fiction. I love the detective work involved in resurrecting ordinary women’s lives: shop girls, milliners, campaigning housewives, servants. . . The stories I’ve uncovered are gripping, often shocking and frequently poignant – but also celebrate women’s determination, solidarity and capacity for reinvention. Each of my two books took me on a long research journey deep into the archives: The Housekeeper’s Tale – the Women Who Really Ran the English Country House, and Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds.


I wrote...

Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds

By Tessa Boase,

Book cover of Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds

What is my book about?

Etta Lemon is the formidable woman who built the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Her surname suited her. She was bitter in her opposition to the plumage trade, acid in her scorn for women’s vanity. Her RSPB colleagues called her ‘The Dragon’, but to the public, she was simply ‘Mother of the Birds.’ Where she led, the Audubon Society would follow. Her legacy is Britain’s biggest conservation charity. But she has not been remembered by history.

Etta’s bird protection crusade was eclipsed by the more glamorous campaign for the vote, led by the elegantly plumed Emmeline Pankhurst. This fast-paced book shines a light on the interlinked (and often fractious) movements for women's rights and animal rights, showcasing two formidable heroines and their rival, overlapping campaigns.

A Spy in the Struggle

By Aya de Leon,

Book cover of A Spy in the Struggle

At this point in the reading list, hopefully, you’re feeling more grounded in your climate grief and energized to fight for what’s left of the natural world. A Spy in the Struggle is a fast-paced novel about activism at the intersection of racial and environmental justice. Yolanda Vance is a ruthless, capitalist FBI agent who infiltrates a Black activist group organizing against a biotech corporation that’s poisoning their neighborhood. 

By making the protagonist start off as an enemy of the climate movement, De León demonstrates the kinds of experiences and messaging that can win over new allies. This book also centers the Black communities that are doing some of the most critical organizing against environmental racism in the U.S. and reveals the interconnectedness between police brutality, racial capitalism, and the climate crisis. In most cities in the U.S., you’ll find communities of color organizing against environmental racism, and I hope…


Who am I?

I’ve been panicking about environmental destruction ever since a fateful day in eighth grade, when I stayed home with the flu binge-watching Animal Planet, realizing that every ecosystem on earth was in decline. In college, unable to hack it as an environmental scientist, I switched majors to writing, and now I tell stories to try and help the planet. I’m an environmental journalist for One Breath Houston, covering the racist, illegal polluting of the petrochemical industry in Houston, Texas. I’m also a climate fiction author, and my debut novella, Depart, Depart! was an Otherwise Award Honor List book. The first installment in my YA cli-fi trilogy Seeds for the Swarm is forthcoming from Stelliform Press in Fall 2022.


I wrote...

Depart, Depart!

By Sim Kern,

Book cover of Depart, Depart!

What is my book about?

When an unprecedented hurricane devastates the city of Houston, Noah Mishner finds shelter in the Dallas Mavericks’ basketball arena. Though he finds community among other queer refugees, Noah fears his trans and Jewish identities put him at risk with certain “capital-T” Texans. His fears take form when he starts seeing visions of his great-grandfather Abe, who fled Nazi Germany as a boy. As the climate crisis intensifies and conditions in the shelter deteriorate, Abe’s ghost grows more powerful, and Noah must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to survive.

“Kern shows the necessity of compassion, empathy, and community in the face of crisis.” — Publishers Weekly starred review

Generation Brave

By Kate Alexander,

Book cover of Generation Brave: The Gen Z Kids Who Are Changing the World

The first generation of young people raised on the internet has faced gun violence, climate change, and a pandemic. They also understand diversity, are adept at digital platforms, and want to change the world. The inspiring stories in this book gave me the good kind of chills. These young people are marching for social justice, working to change laws, giving speeches, starting nonprofits, and more. But they need your help. After you read this, you’ll be inspired to make a difference, too.


Who am I?

As a writer, I’ve found that learning about other writers and their processes helps me. Over the years, I’ve devoured the memoirs and letters of writers like Madeleine L’Engle, Audre Lorde, and Zora Neal Hurston. In 2006, when I started a writing program for young people in my city, I brought these writers’ words to use as writing prompts. When I researched my book, Mightier Than the Sword, I read dozens of anthologies to find people who used writing to make a difference in their fields—science, art, politics, music, and sports. I will always be grateful for those anthologies—because they broadened my knowledge and introduced me to so many interesting people.


I wrote...

Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World Through Writing

By Rochelle Melander, Melina Ontiveros (illustrator),

Book cover of Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World Through Writing

What is my book about?

Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing is a middle-grade social justice book that tells the stories of historical and contemporary writers, activists, scientists, and leaders who used writing to make a difference in their lives and communities. The stories are accompanied by writing and creative exercises to help readers discover how they can use writing to explore ideas and ask for change. Sidebars explore types of writing, fun facts, and further resources.

Reclaiming 42

By David Naze,

Book cover of Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson's Radical Legacy

Perhaps no one is more readily identified with racial integration than Jackie Robinson. Our culture now lionizes Robinson for his accomplishments, but also for having “guts enough not to fight back” (as his general manager Branch Rickey reportedly said to him) against the bigotry and insults that surrounded him. In many ways, the story of Jackie Robinson as a quiet, passive figure who just let his playing do the talking is incomplete. This book reveals more of the story of Robinson’s historic and sometimes surprisingly “radical” work in breaking baseball’s color barrier.


Who am I?

I am a theater historian whose research focuses on African American theater of 1940s-50s. While other periods and movements—the Harlem Renaissance (1920s), the Federal Theatre Project (1930s), the Black Arts Movement (1960s), and contemporary theater—have been well studied and documented, I saw a gap of scholarship around the 1940s-50s; I wondered why those years had been largely overlooked. As I dived deeper, I saw how African American performance culture (ie. theater, film, television, music) of the later-20th Century had its roots in the history of those somewhat overlooked decades. I’m still investigating that story, and these books have helped me do it.


I wrote...

The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

By Jonathan Shandell,

Book cover of The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

What is my book about?

You may know of the American Negro Theatre (ANT), a neighborhood theater company in Harlem that lasted for about ten years. The writers this company produced—Abram Hill, Theodore Brown, Owen Dodson—are not household names. You may not recognize the title Anna Lucasta: a comedy about an African American family that the ANT turned into a runaway Broadway hit in the 1940s. But the legacy of this theater company—and the work of its writers, its actors, and its productions—was key for creating the popular African American culture we all do know.

To fully understand the emergence of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and The Cosby Show, you need to know about the American Negro Theatre and its transformative artistic legacy.

Malala

By Raphaële Frier, Aurélia Fronty (illustrator),

Book cover of Malala: Activist for Girls' Education

Malala Yousafzai inspires me because she never lost sight of the importance of education and continues to work for justice in the world. Malala was a young student in Pakistan when the Taliban took over her nation and prohibited girls from going to school. Malala spoke out against Taliban actions, advocating for universal education. That was enough to make the Taliban afraid of her. They tried to kill her; she almost died in the attempted assassination. That would have caused many people to retreat in fear, but not Malala. Once she recovered, she became an even more outspoken activist for female education and won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. 


Who am I?

Ever since I read Island of the Blue Dolphins in 5th grade I’ve loved historical fiction. I am inspired by amazing humans who lived across centuries and around the globe and left their mark on the world. My 2023 book I’m Gonna Paint: Ralph Fasanella, Artist of the People is about a social activist artist. Future published books include middle grade novels on the 1838 Trail of Tears, a day on Ellis Island in 1907, and a 1935 book about Eleanor Roosevelt and the planned community of Arthurdale, WV. Like I said, I love exploring history! I read in many genres, but still enjoy learning about history through fiction.


I wrote...

Priscilla and the Hollyhocks

By Anne Broyles, Anna Alter (illustrator),

Book cover of Priscilla and the Hollyhocks

What is my book about?

Based on a true story, Priscilla and the Hollyhocks follows a young enslaved girl from her early years on a Southern plantation to her forced march along the Trail of Tears to the chance encounter that leads to her freedom. On her journey from slave to free woman, Priscilla carries something precious with her: hollyhocks seeds… and hope. Nikki Giovanni said, “Priscilla and the Hollyhocks tells a story too often ignored or overlooked—a story of how the West was not won but captured. Reading about Priscilla’s remarkable life makes all our hearts a bit warmer of filling our hearts with a much-needed piece of American history.”

Moments of Silence

By Thongchai Winichakul,

Book cover of Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok

What happens when a society is unwilling to acknowledge acts of barbarism in its past? In 1976, while leading a student protest at Thammasat University, Thongchai Winichakul watched in horror as government forces and rightist elements stormed the campus, killing over eighty of his fellow students and committing unspeakable acts on the living and the dead. He wrote this book to help process memories of an atrocity that took the lives of his friends and haunted his career as a Thai historian. To this day, the Thammasat massacre is marked only by silence from official sources. As a result, Thongchai observes that Thai society is trapped in a state of ‘unforgetting,’ unable to either remember or forget the trauma.


Who am I?

As a teacher and historian, I’m interested in the collision of cultures that resulted from western intervention in Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For young Asian nationalists, historical writing was a weapon to be wielded in the fight against imperialism. It is equally important for us to understand the forces that shape our collective memories and to recognize that historians don’t just uncover the past—they produce it. 


I wrote...

The Lost Territories: Thailand's History of National Humiliation

By Shane Strate,

Book cover of The Lost Territories: Thailand's History of National Humiliation

What is my book about?

Like the titles I’ve suggested, this book delves into how states manipulate historical memory to produce narratives that reinforce their own power. The grand narrative of Thai history celebrates the monarchy for preserving the nation from western imperialism. This selective memory ignores important episodes of loss and victimizationfor example, the perceived loss of territory that still forms the basis of irredentist sentiment in Thailand. I argue that Thailand’s twentieth-century history cannot be understood without accounting for this ‘National Humiliation’ narrative, which has generated support for border conflicts, Anti-Catholicism, and the country’s war-time alliance with Japan.

Dark Money

By Jane Mayer,

Book cover of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

It’s quite a trick to overthrow a government without firing a shot. It’s an even better trick to do it without most people noticing what you’ve done. Dark Money shows how a cadre of American oligarchs, who believed the US had gone too far in reining in people like them, poured barrels of cash into undermining the average American’s economic, labor, and civil rights progress. They created think tanks. They bankrolled TV pundits. They funded departments at top universities—and micro-managed the curriculum—intent on influencing new generations of politicians, economists, and judges. In the end, they completely reshaped American thought and jurisprudence.

Ever wonder how the US of FDR and JFK could have taken such a sharp turn to the extreme right? I recommend you read Dark Money.


Who am I?

I'm a long-time contributor to Reader's Digest (and former contributing editor), specializing in narrative nonfiction who has covered social and geopolitical issues for the magazine. I'm also a political junkie who loves to dig into little-known aspects of history and current events. 


I wrote...

Siege: An American Tragedy

By Anita Bartholomew,

Book cover of Siege: An American Tragedy

What is my book about?

My goal in writing Siege was to show the human side of the January 6, 2021, US Capitol insurrection. Plenty of other authors of January 6th-related books were writing the inside story of Trump and his high-placed enablers. I wanted to tell the inside story of the people they hurt. 

I also cover the negligence of officials who, though warned, did nothing to prevent or mitigate the chaos. And I delve into the biographies of several insurrectionists. But my focus is on those trapped in the building, and the cops who risked their lives in brutal hand-to-hand combat to save them. While the January 6th House Committee hearings were a powerful overview, they left large gaps. Siege fills many of those gaps. 

Making History/Making Blintzes

By Mickey Flacks, Dick Flacks,

Book cover of Making History/Making Blintzes: How Two Red Diaper Babies Found Each Other and Discovered America

Mickey and Dick Flacks enjoyed a 60-year marital and political partnership that featured blintzes along with activism. Their joint memoir traces a century of American left history as they and their families created and lived it. Raised in the rich but insulated culture of the communist “old left” in the Bronx and Brooklyn, these founding figures of the "new left,” helped construct a post-sixties progressive movement in a once-conservative region of California. They have been trailblazers in the struggles for affordable housing, and leaders and mentors—including mein the on-going efforts to democratize higher education. Their activist left perspective on American possibilityunimaginable for too many Americansbelongs on our bookshelves. 


Who am I?

Over the past 50 years, I've been one of those “tenured radicals” the right-wing loved to bash. But before that, during the 1960s, I worked, often full-time, in the social movements that did change America: civil rights, anti-war, feminism. I was older, so I became a “professor-activist.” As a teacher, I applied what I had learned in the movements to reconstruct ideas about which writers mattered—women as well as men, minorities as well as whites: Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass, Adrienne Rich as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway. Using that principle, I led a team that created a very successful collection, The Heath Anthology of American Literature.     


I wrote...

Our Sixties: An Activist's History

By Paul Lauter,

Book cover of Our Sixties: An Activist's History

What is my book about?

My memoir, Our Sixties, is a social history of the 1960s activities in which I was lucky enough to participate: for instance, Mississippi Summer in 1964, the Selma-Montgomery March, Students for a Democratic Society, draft counseling, demonstrating, and resistance to oppose the war on Vietnam, the founding of Resist in 1967 and of The Feminist Press in 1970, the GI anti-war movement. While I received my Ph.D. (in literature) in 1958, I got my political education working in the Movement I describe—with all its joys and warts—in Our Sixties. I came to these challenges ill-prepared, often scared and ignorant, but Movement people taught me unstintingly and well. My book is an effort to share their wisdom and hopes. 

Women Against Cruelty

By Diana Donald,

Book cover of Women Against Cruelty: Protection of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Victorian women were at the forefront of Britain’s animal protection movement. We owe our compassionate reflex to their hard-fought battles against cruelty. Women founded the Battersea Dogs’ Home, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the many groups that opposed vivisection. They lobbied for better treatment of animals, both through practical action (demonstrations, gruesome shop window displays, pamphleteering) and through writing, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Yet their male opponents dismissed their efforts as sentimental and hysterical. For an overview of women’s struggles under the patriarchy (eg, patronisingly menial tasks dished out by a male RSPCA council) this is a fascinating read.


Who am I?

I’m an investigative journalist and social historian who’s obsessed with ‘invisible’ women of the 19th and early 20th century, bringing their stories to life in highly readable narrative non-fiction. I love the detective work involved in resurrecting ordinary women’s lives: shop girls, milliners, campaigning housewives, servants. . . The stories I’ve uncovered are gripping, often shocking and frequently poignant – but also celebrate women’s determination, solidarity and capacity for reinvention. Each of my two books took me on a long research journey deep into the archives: The Housekeeper’s Tale – the Women Who Really Ran the English Country House, and Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds.


I wrote...

Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds

By Tessa Boase,

Book cover of Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds

What is my book about?

Etta Lemon is the formidable woman who built the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Her surname suited her. She was bitter in her opposition to the plumage trade, acid in her scorn for women’s vanity. Her RSPB colleagues called her ‘The Dragon’, but to the public, she was simply ‘Mother of the Birds.’ Where she led, the Audubon Society would follow. Her legacy is Britain’s biggest conservation charity. But she has not been remembered by history.

Etta’s bird protection crusade was eclipsed by the more glamorous campaign for the vote, led by the elegantly plumed Emmeline Pankhurst. This fast-paced book shines a light on the interlinked (and often fractious) movements for women's rights and animal rights, showcasing two formidable heroines and their rival, overlapping campaigns.

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