The 2023 Summer of Democracy Reading List

We asked, and Nebraskans delivered by nominating more than 100 titles for our annual summer reading list on democracy, civics, history, and the social sciences. Here are our favorites from the bunch.

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Since 2018, Civic Nebraska has kicked off the summer with some suggested reading, nominated by our staff and by you, our loyal supporters. Thank you to everyone who nominated a title this year for our sixth annual Summer of Democracy Reading List! We encourage Nebraskans to dive into these books about civics, history, politics, and the social sciences this summer.
Happy reading!

Nonfiction

The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens
Richard Haas (2023)

The Bill of Rights is at the center of our Constitution, yet our most intractable conflicts often emerge from contrasting views as to what our rights ought to be. Rights alone cannot provide the basis for a functioning, much less flourishing, democracy. But there is a cure: to place obligations on the same footing as rights. Haass’s 10 obligations are essential for healing our divisions and safeguarding the country’s future. These obligations re-envision what it means to be an American citizen.

Decent Discourse: Saving Your Country by Loving Your (Wrong?) Neighbor
Jay Jackson (2022)

A hopeful, helpful, and historical way to push back against the war-like language and echo chambers of today’s political discourse. Families and friendships are being torn apart. 
Attorney and veteran Jay Jackson builds the case for decent discourse, showing how Americans have solved immense challenges with truth, humility, and compassion. Decent Discourse IDs five critical problems with the state of our political discourse and offers solutions to each, including action items for all readers.

Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World
Jennie Allen (2022)

In a world that’s both more connected and more isolating than ever before, we’re often tempted to do life alone. But consistent, meaningful connection with others has a powerful impact on our well-being. So many are hiding behind emotional walls, though, that we’re experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. You were created to play, engage, adventure, and explore – with others. In Find Your People, readers discover how to experience the full wonder of community.

Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity
Lilliana Mason (2018)

Group identifications have changed the way we think and feel about ourselves and our opponents. Even when Democrats and Republicans can agree on policy outcomes, they tend to view one another with distrust and to work for party victory over all else. Although the polarizing effects of social divisions have simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement, they have not been a force that is helpful for U.S. democracy. Combining political science and social psychology, Uncivil Agreement describes this “social” type of polarization in American politics and what can be done to challenge it.

Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Civil Rights of Returning Citizens
Desmond Meade (2020)

The deeply moving personal story of Desmond Meade’s life and the movement he led to restore voting rights to citizens who had served their terms. Surviving a tough childhood only to find himself with a felony conviction, Meade found the strength to pull his life together. But because of his conviction, he was not allowed to sit for the bar exam in Florida. When his wife ran for state office, he was filled with pride but not permitted to vote for her. Meade’s journey from homeless shelters to 2018, when Amendment 4 passed with 65 percent of the vote, proves to readers that one person really can make a difference.

Wisdom’s Foresight: From Cataracts to Pandemic Vaccines
Preston Love Jr. (2021)

Preston Love Jr., a longtime advocate and activist in Omaha, frequently presents to groups on topics from voting to business, to community involvement and philanthropy. He was a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2020, and the essays that make up his 2021 book have been collected from his columns in the Omaha World-Herald and other sources into a single edition. This collection brings his view of the state of Black America, North Omaha, voting rights, civil rights, and more.

And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle
Jon Meacham (2023)

The story of Lincoln from his birth on the Kentucky frontier in 1809 to his leadership during the Civil War to his tragic assassination in 1865: his rise, his self-education, his loves, his bouts of depression, his political failures, his deepening faith, and his persistent conviction that slavery must end. In a nation shaped by the courage of the enslaved of the era and by the brave witness of Black Americans, Lincoln’s story illustrates the ways and means of politics in a democracy, the roots and durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to shape events.

The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy
Anand Giridharadas (2022)

America is suffering a crisis of faith in persuasion that is putting democracy at risk. Americans increasingly write one another off instead of seeking to win one another over. Debates are framed in moralistic terms, with enemies battling the righteous. Movements for justice build barriers to entry. Political parties focus on mobilizing the faithful rather than wooing the skeptical. And leaders who seek to forge coalitions are labeled sellouts. Giridharadas takes us inside these movements and battles, seeking out the dissenters who continue to champion persuasion in an age of polarization. 

Poverty, By America 
Matthew Desmond (2023) 

Sociologist Matthew Desmond  shows how affluent Americans knowingly and unknowingly keep poor people poor. Those of us who are financially secure exploit the poor, driving down their wages while forcing them to overpay for housing and access to cash and credit. We prioritize the subsidization of our wealth over the alleviation of poverty, designing a welfare state that gives the most to those who need the least. And we stockpile opportunity in exclusive communities, creating zones of concentrated riches alongside those of concentrated despair. Some lives are made small so that others may grow. This compassionate book gives us new ways of thinking about and solving a morally urgent problem.

When Everyone Leads
Ed O’Malley, Julia Fabris McBride (2023)

Leadership is engaging others to solve daunting challenges. Those challenges appear in our professional lives, in our communities, our families―and they seem unsolvable, beyond our ability to see what needs to be done or outside our capacity to make the changes needed. They are not. Because leadership is an activity―small actions taken in moments of opportunity. And as you start to look around, you can begin to see more of those moments, seize the opportunity in those moments. That’s why everyone can lead and the real power to solve our most important challenges is when everyone leads.

Fiction

The Seed Keeper: A Novel
Diane Wilson (2021)

Rosalie Iron Wing has grown up in the woods with her father, Ray, who tells her of the origins of the Dakhóta people. One morning, Ray doesn’t return from checking his traps. Rosalie is sent to live with a foster family where she meets Gaby Makespeace, a friendship transcending the damaged legacies they’ve inherited. Years later, Rosalie returns to her childhood home. Now a widow and mother, Rosalie confronts the past in a search for family, identity, and a community where she can belong. Along the way she learns what it means to be descended from women who have protected their families, traditions, and a precious cache of seeds through generations of hardship, loss, war, and the insidious trauma of boarding schools. A story of reawakening, recalling our relationship to the seeds and through them, our ancestors. 

Hestia Strikes a Match
Christine Grillo (2023)

The year is 2023, and things are bad. Hestia Harris is 42, abandoned by her husband (he left to fight for the Union cause), and estranged from her parents (they’re leaving for the Confederacy). Yes, the U.S. is in a second civil war and again it’s Unionists against Confederates. Hestia has left journalism for a job at a Baltimore retirement village on the Inner Harbor. She’s adrift, save for her coworkers and Mildred, an 84-year-old, thrice-married resident who gleefully supports Hestia’s attempts to find love again in a time of chaos and disunion. Equal parts wise and hilarious, it fills the heart, fortifies the spirit, and will help to fend off despair. In the face of the everyday wildness of our times, it asks and answers that constant question: How do we make a full, wonderfully ordinary life when the world is clattering down around us?

Young Readers

Punching The Air
Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam (2020)

Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white. Suddenly, at 16, Amal’s future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it? Author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam tell a deeply profound story about how one boy maintains his humanity and fight for the truth in a system designed to strip him of both.

How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other
Naomi Klein (2022)

Warmer temperatures. Fires in the Amazon. Superstorms. These are just some of the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing. The good news is that we can all do something about it. A movement is underway to combat the environmental effects of climate change and to fight for climate justice and make a fair and livable future possible. Young people are not just part of that movement – they’re showing us this moment of danger is also a moment of opportunity to change everything. Full of empowering stories of young leaders all over the world, this information-packed book offers young readers a comprehensive look at the state of the climate and how we got here, while providing the tools they need to join this fight to protect and reshape the planet they will inherit.

The Circles All Around Us 
Brad & Kristi Montague (2020)

This is the story of a circle. When we’re first born, our circle is very small, but as we grow and build relationships, our circle keeps getting bigger and bigger to include family, friends, neighbors, community, and beyond. Brad Montague originally created Circles as an Instagram video adorably narrated by his kids, and now this picture book adaptation is the perfect way to start a conversation about how to expand our worlds with kindness and inclusivity, even if it seems scary or uncomfortable.

Democracy for Dinosaurs: A Guide for Young Citizens
Laura Krasny Brown & Marc Brown (2020)

Democracy for Dinosaurs takes key values on every parent’s mind and gives them tools to show young readers how things they do every single day can be guided by principles we must share in a democratic society: freedom, fairness, the rule of law, equality, respect for free speech, and respect for the truth. Kids will see they are part of their country and that they have an important role to play. 
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