120 pages 4 hours read

Howard Zinn

A Young People's History of the United States

Nonfiction | Book | YA | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


A Young People’s History of the United States is based on author Howard Zinn’s acclaimed A People’s History of the United States, written for an adult audience and originally published in 1980. Rebecca Stefoff adapted Zinn’s text to suit a young audience of middle school to high school ages. This adaptation has been in print since 2007.


The key word in the title is “People’s.” Zinn (and Stefoff) deliver a history about the masses in the US, starting with the first contact between Europeans (Columbus and the ensuing “conquistadors”) and Indigenous groups in the Americas. This most recent edition of the book covers US history through the Iraq War and the social pushback against it. While the author names and describes the big figures typically associated with historical eras like presidents and politicians, social leaders, and military figures, he recasts the standard characterizations of these “American heroes” to correct the mythology surrounding them—and makes room to discuss lesser-known historical actors. He devotes entire chapters to expounding the views and plights of marginalized social groups, including enslaved Black people, Native nations facing European and American colonialism, poor people, immigrants, political dissenters, and women (who legally had little control over their lives for much of American history).

Each chapter is about 20 pages, and the book includes illustrations, anecdotes about related topics sectioned off from the main narrative, and excerpts from primary sources, which are documents, photographs, or other materials produced within the historical period in question. In addition to replicating speeches, statements, documents, and more, Zinn provides brief explanations of trends in historiography, or the recorded study of history as an academic field. Zinn discusses breakthroughs and controversies that historians have created during decades of examining and reexamining the past.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is how it challenges popular narratives of American history through surprising interpretations of historical figures, events, systems, movements, and entities (including the US government, both world wars, and capitalism). For example, Zinn’s interpretation of capitalism presents it as a guiding principle of American life—but not one to celebrate. Some of the historical actors that the book most often discusses are groups of lower-class laborers that, for generations, protested their deplorable working and living conditions and pushed for socialism, which they hoped would bring more equality to American life. Indeed, Zinn is sympathetic to centuries of calls for systemic change, though he recounts steadily how the government and ruling class in the US has completely resisted such fundamental reform.

The book is also critical of US nationalism, which often persists under the guise of patriotism. Attitudes of American superiority, Zinn explains, have long created suffering around the world.

In the years since the book’s publication, some of these critical narratives have become more popular in the mainstream. Certain topics—like systemic racism and sexism—have emerged even in some political discourse as shameful patterns of history. Zinn’s work provides a quick-paced but thorough chronical of American people in action against the forces that threatened to oppress them.

Related Titles

By Howard Zinn

Study Guide


A People’s History of the United States

Howard Zinn

A People's History of the United States

Howard Zinn