The best books about revolutionaries

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

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I, Rigoberta Menchú

By Rigoberta Menchú,

Book cover of I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

When this title first appeared in English shortly after the original Spanish edition it caused a real furor. One US anthropologist, David Stoll, raised doubts about the factual aspects of this biography of a poor Guatemalan peasant woman, and he was even more energetic in casting aspersions on its ‘editor’ Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, a Venezuelan writer of high profile because of her marriage to the radical thinker Regis Debray. Stoll’s motives were widely discussed and often decried, but some of his points proved to be factually accurate, and he certainly raised the profile of Menchú, who became a Nobel Laureate. There are always issues of ‘authority’ about autobiography, especially that which has been developed with an editor, but it seemed strange to home on this one with quite so much vigor. The ensuing debate had its own volume.


Who am I?

My passion for Central American politics and history derived quite directly from the conflicts in the region from the late 1970s onwards. Previously I had worked in Bolivia, where I had studied as a doctoral student, and although many people still view Latin American countries as pretty homogenous, I quickly discovered that they are very far from being so. I had to unlearn quite a bit and acquire new skills, although luckily, indigenous languages are really only dominant in Guatemala. Now we can be rather less partisan although many injustices remain.


I wrote...

Power in the Isthmus

By James Dunkerley,

Book cover of Power in the Isthmus

What is my book about?

The political history covered here opens in 1820 when the Spanish forces had either left or were about to retreat from the region, and the republics of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica were forming. Panama, which became independent in 1903 with secession from Colombia, is often considered part of Central America. The book treats the region as a unit in the first five chapters and then considers each state individually in the next six, paying particular attention to the Nicaraguan Revolution. It doesn’t cover the last thirty years, some of which are considered in my shorter follow-up, The Pacification of Central America, Verso 1994.

Shaking Things Up

By Susan Hood, Sophie Blackall (illustrator), Emily Winfield Martin (illustrator), Shadra Strickland (illustrator), Melissa Sweet (illustrator), LeUyen Pham (illustrator), Oge Mora (illustrator), Julie Morstad (illustrator), Lisa Brown (illustrator), Selina Alko (illustrator), Hadley Hooper (illustrator), Isabel Roxas (illustrator), Erin Robinson (illustrator), Sara Palacios (illustrator)

Book cover of Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World

This highly browsable picture book uses poems, quotes, and short bios to tell the stories of young change agents like spies Jacqueline and Eileen Nearne, student Ruby Bridges, and scientist Angela Zhang. Fourteen artists illustrated the book, providing readers with an exciting new image on each page. I love this book because it’s for younger children—and they are hungry to learn about history, 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.

A Vietcong Memoir

By Truong Nhu Tang,

Book cover of A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath

This fascinating book provides insight into the mind of a cultured, erudite Vietnamese man who grew up in French Indochina. Truong Nhu Tang, simultaneously a South Vietnamese government official and a clandestine Viet Cong urban organizer, has inspirational encounters with Ho Chi Minh in Paris and Viet Minh guerrillas in the jungle. Captured by South Vietnamese police in 1968, he was released to the North in a US-Viet Cong prisoner exchange. After the War, becoming disillusioned with political repression and economic mismanagement by the new communist government, he escapes from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and ends up living in exile in Paris.

Who am I?

After retiring from academic medicine, I moved to the ocean and learned of WWII Japanese submarine and balloon bomb attacks on Oregon. With extensive research, consultation, and trips to Europe, Latin America, and Asia, I have now published three historical fiction novels on Amazon: Enemy in the Mirror: Love and Fury in the Pacific War, The Osprey and the Sea Wolf: The Battle of the Atlantic 1942, and Night Fire Morning Snow: The Road to Chosin. My website is intended to promote understanding of America and her enemies in wartime.


I wrote...

Night Fire Morning Snow: The Road to Chosin

By Mark Scott Smith,

Book cover of Night Fire Morning Snow: The Road to Chosin

What is my book about?

In 1941 a Korean medical student, chafing under Japanese colonial rule, joins guerrillas fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria. In 1944 a young American GI fights the Japanese in New Guinea. Both men suffer great personal losses before returning to their private lives after the war with Imperial Japan. Just as they each attain happy relationships and satisfying careers, war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. Now two men who fought a common enemy in the Pacific War become enemies. Their paths crisscross and ultimately converge at the tragic battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

Notes from the Burning Age

By Claire North,

Book cover of Notes from the Burning Age

Post-apocalyptic novels based on eco-disaster aren’t new, but Claire North goes a step further and imagines what kind of society might emerge from the ashes of our current one, should things go really wrong. Her world-building is frenetic and detailed, but never loses the reader in its creation. What I love about North’s writing is her often lyrical style and vivid descriptions, there’s plenty of that in this novel. Above all this is an oddly spiritual novel, asking what role religion might play in a world where the old gods appear to have deserted humankind. 


Who am I?

I was a political journalist in London for the BBC and HuffPost for many years, so thinking about our current politics, and where we are headed kind of fixates me! From the day I read 1984 as a twelve-year-old, I’ve been obsessed with how novels set in the near future or an alternate past can be intensely political, and instructive. I enjoy sci-fi, but it’s the extrapolation of our world into a similar yet different one that can tell us so much about our own society. 


I wrote...

Weeks in Naviras

By Chris Wimpress,

Book cover of Weeks in Naviras

What is my book about?

Weeks in Naviras is a speculative fiction novel set in the near future, where the worlds of British and American politics converge in a Portuguese fishing village. The narrow streets of Naviras are the backdrop to the secret life of Ellie, the wife of the British prime minister. Now she’s back to remember her time there, recalling the secrets which sprang up at Casa Amanha, the home of a weather forecaster where her love for two men begins and ends.

Ellie has returned to Naviras just as a conspiracy to destabilise the Middle East is erupting. The village is the first and last place she ought to be, but Naviras has saved its biggest and deadliest secret for last.

In the Time of the Butterflies

By Julia Alvarez,

Book cover of In the Time of the Butterflies

A novel based on the real-life story of the three Mirabal sisters, known as las mariposas (the butterflies) who became national heroes for their resistance to the dictator Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. The murder of these three courageous women by Trujillo’s henchmen helped to catalyze his downfall after more than 30 years of iron-fisted rule. When my publisher sent her an advance copy of my book in 1999, Julia sent me a lovely hand-written note that began more than two decades of friendship. Readers particularly interested in the contemporary relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti will find her non-fiction book, A Wedding in Haiti, well worth a read.


Who am I?

A summer with relatives in Belgium—a country divided by language and culture—inspired me to travel to Santo Domingo in 1988 to learn Spanish and study the fraught dynamics of two countries speaking different languages but sharing an island. My time in the Dominican Republic and Haiti inspired a lifelong exploration of complex issues using many lenses and stories. Today I write mainly about risk, drawing on psychology, culture, policy, and economics. The third book, The Gray Rhino, calls for a fresh look at obvious, looming threats. My fourth book, You Are What You Riskexplores risk perceptions and attitudes using a comparative, socio-cultural lens like the one I used in Why the Cocks Fight.


I wrote...

Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola

By Michele Wucker,

Book cover of Why the Cocks Fight: Dominicans, Haitians, and the Struggle for Hispaniola

What is my book about?

Like two roosters in a fighting arena, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are trapped by barriers of geography and poverty. One French-speaking and Black, one Spanish-speaking and mulatto, the two countries co-inhabit the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. They share a national symbol in the rooster and a favorite sport in the cockfight. Just as the owners of gamecocks contrive battles between their birds as a way of playing out human conflicts, Haitian and Dominican leaders often stir up nationalist disputes and exaggerate cultural and racial differences in order to deflect other tensions. Why the Cocks Fight explores the relations of each nation with each other and with colonial powers including the United States, and how their shared history impacts contemporary dynamics. 

Still Life with Woodpecker

By Tom Robbins,

Book cover of Still Life with Woodpecker

I like the sheer disregard that Tom Robbins shows for traditional ways to tell a story. This one is about a romance that takes place in a package of cigarettes and it runs through a smorgasbord of strange characters and unlikely situations that pretty much sum up the hopelessness of a world too complex and out of control to understand.

I particularly like the casual tone of the storyteller and this is something I strive for in my own writing.


Who am I?

Surrealism and magical realism are the blood of my art. All my novels, and especially my short stories, jump in and out of the world of schedules, deadlines, and certainty. It’s what I read and how I think, and it flows through my writing, drawing, and photography. I can’t imagine a world without magic, a world in which everything has a logical explanation and nothing moves beyond a set of rules that can be measured and accounted for. It’s the unaccountable rules, the ones that hint of something going on just under the surface of what we see, that rule my art.


I wrote...

Blowing Up

By Biff Mitchell,

Book cover of Blowing Up

What is my book about?

Welcome to the World You Live In. It’s a mess. It’s diseased, polluted, over-populated, and too close to the sun. But it’s all we have and we’re losing it fast, so we may as well have a good laugh before the sun reaches out and reclaims us.

Nothing is sacred, nothing is spared. Nothing is safe in a world accumulating too much ammunition for too few targets. Welcome to Mitchell’s world of ghosts who have to get the last word, ball-busting muses who torture for the hell of it, a woman who sheds rabbits from her eyes instead of tears, an office of petty-minded workers fused together in a nuclear holocaust and a world where you write grammatically correct essays or starve to death. But there will be laughter.

Marriage and Revolution

By Siân Reynolds,

Book cover of Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur and Madame Roland

Jean-Marie Roland and Marie-Jeanne Phlipon (later Madame “Manon” Roland) were the Revolution’s power couple, their lives both entwined and contrasting with Robespierre’s. Their fascinating and tragic story, expertly researched and retold by Siân Reynolds, has much to tell us about the power and passions of the Revolution and the personal relationships at its heart. We also learn much about provincial life, parenthood, and a companionate marriage. The Rolands were initially political allies of Robespierre, and “Manon” sought to cultivate personal friendship with him, but their bitter falling-out would be fatal for them in November 1793 – and ultimately for Maximilien in July 1794.


Who am I?

I have been intrigued by Maximilien Robespierre ever since, as a student, I pondered how it could be that someone who articulated the highest principles of 1789 could come to be seen as the personification of the “Reign of Terror” in 1793–94. This is the great conundrum of the French Revolution. Was this a tragic case of the dangers of ideological and personal rigidity, or rather an extreme example of how great leaders may be vilified by those they have served and saved? Or, as I found while researching and writing my biography, something quite different, the tragic, human story of a vulnerable but determined young man who put himself at the heart of one of the world’s greatest upheavals?


I wrote...

Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

What is my book about?

For some historians and biographers, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94) was a great revolutionary martyr who succeeded in leading the French Republic to safety in the face of overwhelming military odds. For many others, he was the first modern dictator, a fanatic who instigated the murderous “Reign of Terror” in 1793–94. My biography seeks a fresh understanding of the man, his passions, and his tragic shortcomings.

I give special attention to Robespierre's formative years and the development of an iron will in a boy conceived outside wedlock and on the margins of polite provincial society. We discover not the cold, obsessive Robespierre of legend, but a man of passion with close but platonic friendships with women. Soon immersed in exhausting revolutionary politics, he suffered increasingly lengthy periods of nervous collapse correlating with moments of political crisis. As revolutionary armies triumphed in 1794, so he became more vulnerable to his detractors. His horrible death and posthumous vilification should not detract from his contribution to the Revolution’s successes.

The Country Under My Skin

By Gioconda Belli,

Book cover of The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War

What prompted an upper-class, Catholic mother to become an armed revolutionary in Nicaragua?

The poet and writer Gioconda Belli shares her journey, including her time living in exile and her later break with the Sandinistas. She details how her experiences differed from her comrades because of her status as a woman and a mother and how they often underestimated and mistreated her because of her gender. Although Belli does not center faith as her primary motivation, she often references her Catholic upbringing and schooling.


Who am I?

I am fascinated by the relationship between people’s religious and political identities. As a kindergartner, I heard about the hunger strikers at our local Irish Center, I was taught anti-communist songs at my Catholic Ukrainian school, and I listened as my dad explained Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers as we passed by the grapes while grocery shopping. Catholicism was not something I saw as just happening inside the walls of a church. It was about how one related to the world and was part of a global community. Those early experiences inspired me to become a human rights lawyer and activist, and later, a U.S. foreign relations historian.


I wrote...

Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict Over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

By Theresa Keeley,

Book cover of Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict Over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

What is my book about?

Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns argues that debates among Central American and U.S. Catholics over the church’s direction influenced Ronald Reagan’s policies toward Central America. The flashpoint for these intra-Catholic disputes was the December 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. missionaries in El Salvador: Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan. Once Reagan entered office, conservative, anticommunist Catholics played instrumental roles in crafting U.S. policy to fund the Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras, while liberal Catholics protested against it.

Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns highlights religious actors as human rights advocates and decenters U.S. actors in international relations by showing the interplay between Central American and U.S. Catholics. The book won the 2020 Duke University Human Rights Center’s Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America.

The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

By David P. Jordan,

Book cover of The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Jordan’s is probably the most elegantly written of the five studies and stands out for providing a particularly generous allocation of space to Robespierre’s voice, telling the story of his life as much as possible through his own words. At the same time, Jordan’s intellectual biography is quietly attentive to providing a sense of the complex political environment in which any French revolutionary statesman had to act.


Who am I?

France has always been my special inspiration in life and I am lucky to have made a career writing about its history. Many of my books are framed in a long-term perspective. Paris: Biography of a City (2004)  and The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (1994), for example, take the story back to the earliest times and comes up to the present. Wanting a complete change and a new challenge, I shifted focus dramatically in my current book: the history of a city in a single day – the dramatic day in the French Revolution when the Parisians overthrew Maximilien Robespierre.


I wrote...

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

By Colin Jones,

Book cover of The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

What is my book about?

More than any other political figure from the French revolutionary era, Maximilien Robespierre divides historians: some see him as an embodiment of totalitarian evil, others the shining champion of the popular cause and of individual freedoms. In my recently-published The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris (Oxford University Press), I tried a novel approach by exploring how this enigmatic figure behaved over the 24 hours of the political crisis that led to his overthrow and death by guillotine.

As he saw his plans for the Revolution rejected point-blank not only by fellow politicians but also by the ordinary people of Paris whose welfare he had always championed, his fall took on the features of Greek tragedy. 

Mistborn

By Brandon Sanderson,

Book cover of Mistborn: The Final Empire

I’m a sucker for heroes who rise from obscurity. Vin’s path from a street urchin to a pretend noblewoman to a blazing revolutionary kept me on the edge of my seat. She grapples with trust and treachery, power and corruption, and the authenticity of found family, all while her cruel older brother’s warnings play inside her head: trust no one, expect betrayal, accept abandonment as inevitable. 

But do her tragic origins really dictate her fate? Hers is a journey of hope, and I love every minute of it.


Who am I?

I come from a large family, both immediate and extended. As a result, my writing often includes a spectrum of family relationships, from the functional to the toxic. Nurturing or gaslighting? Supportive or undermining? Fantasy is my genre of choice for playing with these dynamics because its otherworldliness creates a safe space to consider true-to-life patterns, including the default trust we grant to those closest to us, how quickly that crumbles when expectations fall short, and the echo effect our earliest interactions have upon the rest of our lives.


I wrote...

The Heir and the Spare

By Kate Stradling,

Book cover of The Heir and the Spare

What is my book about?

Tormented at home and bullied during her studies abroad, second-born Iona of Wessett hides in the quiet corners of her father’s castle. When the neighboring country proposes a marriage alliance between its crown prince and Iona’s venomous older sister Lisenn, Iona sees it as a promise of reprieve and retribution. The would-be groom is her former bully, Jaoven of Deraval, who deserves Lisenn’s malice as much as Lisenn deserves his.

But although it seems like a poetic match, Jaoven, humbled by the war that elevated his rank, appears to have reformed. Now the fate of two kingdoms hinges on the disastrous union he’s about to make, and Iona is the only person who might intervene. 

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