The best books about identity

25 authors have picked their favorite books about identity and why they recommend each book.

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New Babylonians

By Orit Bashkin,

Book cover of New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq

Iraq was home to about 150,000 Jews until 1948-1951. Baghdad was a very much Jewish city. Iraqi Jews were very assimilated, but there was very little known about the political and social history of Iraqi Jews beyond the Zionist story. While many of the Iraqi Jews did indeed view Zionism as a viable solution for them, overlooking Jewish involvement in Iraqi national and communist organizations misses several of the most fascinating transformations of any Jewish community in the world. In this book, Bashkin analyzed the social, cultural, and national participation of Iraqi Jews from within the perspective of Iraqi society. Interestingly, many of the patterns continued even after their migration to Israel.


Who am I?

I always felt that Middle Eastern studies is different from other fields of history. Its ever-presence in our life, the news cycle, religious life, political life, yet, because of language barriers and other filters, there’s a gap in knowledge that is highly conspicuous when forming one’s opinion. When I started my academic training, I felt like I was swimming in this ocean of histories that were completely unknown to me. I studied the Jewish histories of the region only later in my training and found that this gap is even more visible when talking about the history of Jews in the Middle East, because of misconceptions of antisemitism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, political tilt of media outlet, and more. For me, entering this field was a way to understand long-term processes in my own society, and expand the body of scholarship to enrich the public conversation on top of the academic one.


I wrote...

Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran

By Lior B. Sternfeld,

Book cover of Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran

What is my book about?

Iran is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East, outside of Israel. At its peak in the twentieth century, the population numbered around 100,000; today about 25,000 Jews live in Iran. Between Iran and Zion offers the first history of this vibrant community over the course of the last century, from the 1905 Constitutional Revolution through the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Over this period, Iranian Jews grew from a peripheral community into a prominent one that has made clear impacts on daily life in Iran.

Females

By Andrea Long Chu,

Book cover of Females

A short, powerful investigation of how we construct and succumb to the lies of gender. Chu explores our fears of desire and how we allow politics to corrupt identity, believing gender to be so constructed that it can only be given and not created. Female is a quality we all carry, whatever label we use. Chu forces the reader to look in the mirror with a question instead of a statement, always uncertain about who that person really is. 


Who am I?

As a writer, I’ve always been interested in ambiguity and ambivalence. How does that apply to the self? What does it mean to present myself to others? How do I appear to the world and how close is that to what I see myself to be? Are we ever truly seen—or willing to be seen? In a world where cameras exist everywhere and we are encouraged to record rather than simply be, how do we look in a mirror? Hannah Arendt said that we could tell reality from falsehood because reality endures. But I feel that nothing I experience endures; nothing remains the same, including the reflection. If anything lasts, it may be my own make-believe. Everything I write is, in some way, this question. Who is that?


I wrote...

The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

By Sallie Tisdale,

Book cover of The Lie about the Truck: Survivor, Reality TV, and the Endless Gaze

What is my book about?

Reality television is easy to dismiss, but it is one of the most popular entertainments in the world. Despite a long history of sexist and racist casting and appalling cultural appropriation, Survivor thrives. As it approaches its 41st season in twenty years, the show remains wildly popular, franchised into many languages. The players watch each other, the cameras watch the players, we watch the show even as it absorbs its fans like an amoeba. Survivor is a superb example of how our culture has become one of the endless gaze. We live, watch, and imagine ourselves onscreen and off, and cannot always tell where one begins and the other ends.

How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America

By Karen Brodkin,

Book cover of How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America

Now that I’ve raised the issue of whiteness – ways in which American structures and institutions reflect the agendas and interests of white people, and the role those structures play in shaping opportunity and life experiences -- here I want to bring it front and center. Many white people don’t recognize how they benefit from having white skin (called “white privilege”) and many white ethnic groups, including many white Jews in the U.S., deny their white privilege altogether, insisting that they too have been the victim of white discrimination, and that anti-Black racism is no different. Brodkin offers a powerful counter-narrative, pointing out the many important ways that American Jews of European descent did indeed benefit from their white skin even when they did not realize it. 


Who am I?

I am a professor who teaches and works in the field of African American History. Because I am both white and Jewish, I’ve been repeatedly asked to give talks about relationships between African Americans and white Jewish Americans, and about what “went wrong” to shatter the “grand alliance” of the civil rights movement embodied by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I had no answer, but I suspected that none of the stories that we had been told, whether good or bad, were fully true. So I went back to the sources and uncovered a complex and multilayered history. Black and Jewish collaboration was never a given, and underlying tensions and conflicts reflected the broader realities of race and class in the U.S. In the book I explored how these historical and political forces operated, and continue to resonate today.


I wrote...

Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century

By Cheryl Lynn Greenberg,

Book cover of Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century

What is my book about?

Was there ever really a black-Jewish alliance in twentieth-century America? And if there was, what happened to it?

My book examines the history and significance of what was less an alliance than a tumultuous political engagement. That engagement advanced the civil rights revolution and helped shape the agenda of liberalism, but it also laid bare the realities of racial and class divisions in our society, which divided the two communities even as they tried to make common cause. These tensions and conflicts persist today; my goal in writing this book was to better understand the past so we may learn how better to move forward with that yet unfinished work.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

By Andrew Peterson, Joe Sutphin (illustrator),

Book cover of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

When my family read On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness together, we were captivated! The story is a unique fantasy tale full of friendly humor, children's characters who go on adventures they never asked for, and plot twists you’d never expect! This book is gripping for readers of all ages while interweaving truth and opening the door to wonder and dream up stories all my own. The fantasy world was fun to dive into, and I left the story inspired to be courageous, to prioritize family, and to understand sacrificial love and living for a kingdom in a personal way. It made us laugh, cry, and bond as a family and individuals.


Who am I?

As a child, I roamed the forests and imagined I was on epic adventures to change the world with a sword, live epically, and be part of a Kingdom. I dove into stories like that, stories that whetted my appetite to see Truth discovered and the world’s eyes opened to the beauty and purpose one has when following that Truth. As I followed Jesus and fell in love with Him, He guided me to create those stories, and I love writing beautiful words in novels, poems, and children’s books. I hope you become a dreamer again and believe there’s a Kingdom that’s calling.


I wrote...

The Torch Keepers

By Hosanna Emily,

Book cover of The Torch Keepers

What is my book about?

The king's blue flame quivers as a new fire arises, and Kadira must hold fast to his torch. It's destiny; she's a torch keeper.

A fiery revolution sweeps across the kingdom of Érkeos, and each person must choose a side. Kadira, a girl set apart to serve the king, finds her city engulfed in the Liberation's emerald flames. Her blue eyes mark her as the enemy, and she flees from death. It stalks her anyway. When she meets Rekém, the Liberation warrior sent to kill her, she rebels against the king's ways. Two armies collide; indecision isn't an option. As hearts and lives hang in the balance, Kadira and Rekém could bring destruction or liberation to the entire kingdom.

Where Are You From?

By Yamile Saied Méndez, Jaime Kim (illustrator),

Book cover of Where Are You From?

Where Are You From? boasts breathtakingly gorgeous text and expansive illustrations. I love this book because it first draws attention to how our world wants to simplify a person’s story. The book then counters with the beautiful reality that we are complex. As the child of immigrants, I could relate to this little girl seeking answers to the narrow question people keep asking her. She turns to Abuelo, who refuses to answer in ways that might categorize her. Instead, his poetic words sweep her up in a triumphant story rooted in deep ties to generations past and ongoing connections with place. Ultimately, this story transforms that feeling of not belonging into a celebration of who you are. What a joy!


Who am I?

As the Black American daughter of Jamaican immigrants born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, I love stories that depict the beauty of being multifaceted human beings. Stories steeped in broad understandings of place and home. Stories that encourage us to delight in being the people we are. I also believe our children are natural poets and storytellers. Lyrical picture books filled with rich language and sensory details encourage the thriving of such creativity. In addition to writing All the Places We Call Home, I'm the author of All the Colors We Will See, an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging. 


I wrote...

All the Places We Call Home

By Patrice Gopo, Jenin Mohammed (illustrator),

Book cover of All the Places We Call Home

What is my book about?

Where do you come from? Where does your family come from? For many children, the answers to these questions can transform a conversation into a journey around the globe.

In her first picture book, author Patrice Gopo illuminates how family stories help shape children, help form their identity, and help connect them with the broader world. Her lyrical language, paired with Jenin Mohammed's richly textured artwork, creates a beautiful, stirring portrait of a child's deep ties to cultures and communities beyond where she lays her head to sleep. All the Places We Call Home is a quiet triumph that encourages an awakening to our own stories and to the stories of those around us.

The Moorchild (Aladdin Fantasy)

By Eloise McGraw,

Book cover of The Moorchild (Aladdin Fantasy)

I absolutely love this book and have both listened to it and read it more than once. There are so many layers and insights especially for those who feel out of place and are bullied for being different. It is about a girl who is half-human and has Moorfolk (faerie) banished from the fae for her inabilities and exchanged for a human baby. As she grows, her odd abilities are noticed and feared. Despite the taunting and blood-thirsty actions of the village folk, she gives of herself and ultimately takes the risk to retrieve her adopted parents’ human baby. She has the inner strength to venture out and be her unique self.


Who am I?

Like most children, I’ve experienced being teased for appearing different in some way. I learned to defend the strange outfits my mother made for me and the bizarre hairdo of eight pigtails my older sister dared me to wear to school. As a teen, I wore a patchwork jacket made of quilt scraps to my new school and came home in tears. I’ve always felt that if we really knew one another on a deeper level and shared each other’s stories we would realize that we’re all made up of the same stuff inside and would not feel prejudice or the need to scorn outward aspects that don’t matter.


I wrote...

Minna's Patchwork Coat

By Lauren A. Mills,

Book cover of Minna's Patchwork Coat

What is my book about?

Lauren Mills reimagines her beloved picture book, The Rag Coat, in an expanded story about a resilient little girl in 19th century Appalachia. Minna’s family is too poor for her to have a coat to go to school, but "people only need people," Papa reminds her. When Papa’s miner’s cough takes him away forever, Minna has a hard time believing that anything will be right again...until her neighbors work tirelessly to create a coat for her out of old fabric scraps. Minna must show her teasing classmates that her coat is more than just rags--it's a collection of their own cherished memories. She is wearing her entire community, with the insight that even some of the bullies have their wounds and secret joys.

The Search for Wondla, 1

By Tony Diterlizzi,

Book cover of The Search for Wondla, 1

One of my kid-lit heroes, and clearly a writer/illustrator who grew up (like me) with a love for the vehicles we saw in science fiction. He has Eva Nine and her pals (and enemies) flying around in ships that are clearly inspired by pod-racers, x-wing fighters, the Millennium Falcon, and Flash Gordon. (Then, as the series goes on, we even get airships!)

But the thing that anchors the series is the wonderfully drawn characters. Eva Nine is all of us as kids… eager to break away but also tied to the adults around us. That tension between knowing when to hold on and knowing when it’s time to say goodbye is what really kept me with her on her journey.


Who am I?

Am I an expert on transportation? No. But I’m fascinated by movement. Physical movement (how do bike gears actually work?) and metaphorical (how does life actually work?) I did enjoy a brief moment as the kind of unofficial bike traffic reporter when I was on CBC Radio here in Canada. I’d report on my 4 am commute to work. But as a writer and illustrator for kids, I know the freedom transportation represents. We all want to fly. In MINRS I write about spaceships. We all want to see the world. In The Fabulous Zed Watson! I write (with my kid Basil) about epic road trips.


I wrote...

MINRS, 1

By Kevin Sylvester,

Book cover of MINRS, 1

What is my book about?

MINRS combines things I loved as a kid – space, science, pirates, stuffed toys, and survival. A community of miners and their families have moved to a new planet – Perses. During a communications blackout with Earth, the miners are attacked. Only a handful of children survive. Christopher is not the kid to be the leader. He’s shy, a bit of a geek, and very anxious. But along with his friends Elena and Fatima he’ll make discoveries about the mining company and himself…discoveries that might save the kids…or get them all killed. The other fun thing about MINRs is that I created my own underground high-speed vehicle… part submarine, part Horta, and part Formula One race car. It’s called a Digger and it’s the car a 12-year old me wishes he had.

For Black Girls Like Me

By Mariama J. Lockington,

Book cover of For Black Girls Like Me

This novel is about eleven-year-old Makeda, who is adopted and Black and her parents and big sister are White. Keda is a great character and I loved this coming of age story that touches on family and identity. Also, the writer is an adoptee and I’m always looking for more adoption stories written by adoptees.


Who am I?

I went into foster care at nine months old, was adopted three years later, and as an adult I was reunited with five siblings I never knew I had. I’ve spent my whole life wondering or searching for the truths about my past. 


I wrote...

The Name She Gave Me

By Betty Culley,

Book cover of The Name She Gave Me

What is my book about?

Rynn was born with a hole in her heart—literally. Although it was fixed long ago, she still feels an emptiness there when she wonders about her birth family. As her relationship with her adoptive mother fractures, Rynn finally decides she needs to know more about the rest of her family. Her search starts with a name, the only thing she has from her birth mother, and she quickly learns that she has a younger sister living in foster care in a nearby town. But if Rynn reconnects with her biological sister, it may drive her adoptive family apart for good.

This powerful story uncovers both beautiful and heartbreaking truths and explores how challenging, yet healing, family can be.

The Zanna Function

By Daniel Wheatley,

Book cover of The Zanna Function

Perfect for embracing your inner science geek. Not every school in a children’s book has to be for wizards, and this book proves it perfectly. The story is about smart people doing crazy things with their deep connections to science and how it shapes our world, and how the results of meddling with the building blocks of the universe can be both wondrous and scary. Even though I have a huge stack of books waiting to be read, I would happily take the time to read this one again.


Who am I?

I’ve always described myself as a lifelong geek. I grew up reading King Arthur legends, watching Star Wars and The NeverEnding Story until I could recite every line, running secret science experiments in my room, and burying my nose in every book I could get my hands on. As I grew, I came to appreciate that there are many different varieties of geeks. Being a geek generally means that you have a true, deep passion for something, and you pursue it unapologetically and with joy. So I wanted to give book recommendations that will appeal to whatever kind of geek you consider yourself.


I wrote...

This Last Adventure

By Ryan Dalton,

Book cover of This Last Adventure

What is my book about?

In This Last Adventure, a boy uses storytelling and shared fantasies to save his grandfather’s memories from Alzheimer’s. After Grandpa is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the hero that Archie’s known all his life starts disappearing. Using Grandpa’s old journal entries as inspiration, he creates role-playing fantasies with epic quests for them to tackle together–helping Grandpa to stay in touch with his fading memories.

But there’s a limit to the power of the fantasies. And not all the memories in the journal are happy. When Archie learns a secret about Grandpa’s past, he questions everything he thought he knew about his hero. As Grandpa’s condition worsens, Archie must come to terms with what he’s losing and decide what it means to live a life worth remembering.

The Leaving

By Tara Altebrando,

Book cover of The Leaving

So, what are the ingredients that make a thriller thrill? Well, let’s see. I’d probably start with suspense. It’s suspense that has us turning the pages late at night long after we should have turned out the lights and floated off into dreamland. Then there’s believability. I have to be able to believe that the things going on in the story actually happened or at least that they could have happened. Otherwise, why would I care? Then mix in characters that matter to me, twists and turns to set the mind spinning, and a well-told story…and that thriller should work. The Leaving works. The story of six kindergarten kids who disappear one day with five of them returning eleven years later—wow, that premise gives me chills just thinking about the possibilities. And Tara Altebrando takes us on a heart-grabbing thrill ride, brimming with suspense, believability, and those twists and turns…


Who am I?

And Then the Sky Exploded came about after I traveled to Japan when my novel, Numbers, was awarded the Sakura Medal, a readers’ choice award voted on by the students in English speaking high school students in Japan. During my time touring and giving author presentations to schools in that wonderful country, I became interested in Japanese culture and history and eventually decided to write a novel exploring one of the most devastating moments of the 20th century—the exploding of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima during World War ll.


I wrote...

Numbers

By David A. Poulsen,

Book cover of Numbers

What is my book about?

Numbers is a gripping account of a group of students in a high school where the most popular teacher in the school is also a holocaust denier. Fifteen-year-old Andy Crockett is one of those students. Andy wouldn't call himself the luckiest kid on earth. At home, his brother got all the looks and the smarts. And at school, he doesn't exactly fit: not with the Goths, not with the athletes, and certainly not with the brains. Not even, really, with The Six, a group of misfits who hang out with each other only because they can't stand hanging out with anyone else. Andy starts to realize that Mr. R's version of history doesn't quite match everyone else's, and that acing this particular class may cost more than he's willing to pay.

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