There are lots of great books about Prohibition out there, but not all of them are kid or teen friendly. Here’s a list of books that wouldn’t look out of place in a high school or middle school research paper—and which have value for ANYONE looking for a decent, brief introduction to the Roaring Twenties.
1) Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal
If you’re going to read only one book on this list, this is the one. Bootleg starts off with a literal bang—the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—and then goes back to tell the story of the rise and fall of the Volstead Act, sprinkled throughout with colorful characters like Carrie Nation, Al Capone, and Clarence Darrow. Unlike many other writers on this topic, Blumenthal makes sure to draw clear connections between Temperance groups and modern-day organizations like MADD, showing how history connects everything and making the material more relevant for the modern reader. And for those looking for more, she offers an excellent bibliography with an emphasis on primary sources. If you’re looking for a place to start learning about the real 1920s, you could truly do no worse than this book.
Want a second opinion? Try this book review over at The Fourth Musketeer.
2) Prohibition by Jeff Hill
Part of the Defining Moments series of historical non-fiction for kids, Jeff Hill’s book is a balanced, clearly written account of the rise and fall of Prohibition. Besides outlining the basic history of the Volstead, Hill offers short biographies of many important political and cultural figures and tons of great black and white pictures. One of his major strengths, however, are the many snippets of primary sources he offers throughout the book. Because of this emphasis on historical voices, Hill’s book gives readers a strong feel for the times. As an added bonus, Hill also offers an annotated bibliography, which is a boon for anyone looking for more resources.
Ever wondered what school was like during the 1930s? Or what it was like to drive a Model T? David Kyvig’s book answers all these questions and more as he discusses how everyday folks lived in America throughout the 1920s and 30s. Starting with basic topics—such as the rise of the automobile—he moves on to discuss larger issues of urban versus rural, race, and the general social upheaval that Prohibition wrought. While Kyvig’s book is geared more towards adults, his solid research and engaging details of daily life could be just the stuff a teen or kid might need to add a dash of color to their research paper.
4) Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen
A classic for anyone doing research on the 1920s, Allen’s book is a wonderful resource—as long as you take it with a grain of salt. Originally written in 1931, it is very much a product of its time. This is both good and bad. While Allen talks about events with an immediacy which is lacking in other books thanks to his direct personal experiences, he also sometimes has trouble separating his topics from his personal opinions. From what I recall, Allen had strong negative attitudes towards former Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, among others, which seeped into his narrative in odd ways. But if you can look past Allen’s lack of objectivity, you’ll find an engaging “insider” look into a tumultuous time in American history that covers just about everything, from politics to everyday life.
5) A Travel Guide to Al Capone’s Chicago by Diane Yancey
This is probably the oddest book on this list. Written as a fake travel guide for Chicago in 1929, it takes child readers around Chicago, pointing out interesting people, places, and events—including “must-see” murder sites, like the garage where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre happened (really?). While it might not get all its facts straight—at one point, it claims that State and Dearborn are actually the same street—it makes up for it with a fun tone and a unique take on its topic. It might not be the best resource to quote, but it might inspire some neat Twenties-themed school projects in the end. If nothing else, it has some really nice period maps of the subway system and thee like—which is why I bought a used copy on Amazon!
6) Tommy: The Gun That Changed America by Karen Blumenthal
Though it doesn’t focus exclusively on the Roaring Twenties, Blumenthal’s riveting study of the rise and fall of the Thompson sub-machine gun is worth reading by anyone interested in the time period. Originally created for soldiers fighting in the trenches of WWI, the Tommy gun found fame and fortune in the hands of Prohibition gangsters, where it terrorized the country for over a decade–and eventually led to the creation of gun laws in America. Just like in Bootleg, Blumethal draws readers in by showing how history relates to their lives today—in this case, by asking questions about the relationship between American culture, guns, and who should use them and how. If you’d like a more adult version of this topic, try Bill Yenne’s very readable, enthusiastic history of the Thompson submachine gun, Tommy Gun.
These biographies on presidents of the 1920s are short, insightful, and often eye-opening. Rather than simply describing their lives, each book seeks to offer a fresh perspective on their president. In his book on Calvin Coolidge, Greenberg argues that despite his taciturn nature and policies, Coolidge’s attitude became the model for every Republican that came after him,particularly Ronald Reagan. John W. Dean rehabilitates Warren G. Harding’s terrible image to great effect, uncovering his progressive racial policies and low-key life (the total opposite of his common image as a boozy, smoking, gambling womanizer) before he was caught off-guard and drowned in the Teapot Dome Scandal. And H. W. Brands clearly shows the power of Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic worldview to shape United States policy internationally. If you’re looking for some quick, keen insights on these Roaring Twenties presidents, look no further than these excellent books, which at less than 200 pages each totally beat out those giant, dictionary-sized biographies you find elsewhere.
Are there any more books you feel should be on this list? Please let me know in the Comments section below! 🙂 I’d love to hear from you.