The Books Briefing: The Writers Whom History Forgot

Beloved but overlooked works from the past provide a rich source of reading material: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Claude McKay
Interim Archives / Getty

In 1928, Gay Neck, which depicts the adventures of a young boy and his carrier pigeon, became the first novel written by a person of color to win the prestigious Newbury Medal. Yet nearly a century later, the book and its author, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, are largely overlooked, seldom referenced even in discussions about diversity in children’s literature.

Mukerji is not the only author to have found great success and then seemingly disappeared from historical memory. Gayl Jones wrote experimental novels about the legacy of slavery that were praised by literary greats such as Toni Morrison, John Updike, and James Baldwin. Jones was also a finalist for the National Book Award, but few still remember her. Herman Wouk wrote about World War II with startling realism, earning a Pulitzer Prize and multiple film and TV adaptations of his books—but few still celebrate his work today. Kuniko Tsurita published manga that shattered gender norms and drew from influences as diverse as Greek art-house film and American wordless novels. Yet she, too, has not received lasting critical attention.

The Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s novel Amiable With Big Teeth actually did disappear—until a graduate student found the work nearly 70 years after it was written. Reading the masterful book now, one finds an expansive yet deeply grounded portrait of an understudied moment in American history: Black radical organizing in 1930s Harlem.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

Cover of "Gay Neck"


What a forgotten kids’ book reveals about U.S. publishing
“The rise and quiet disappearance of Gay Neck is not only a reminder of how publishing success waxes and wanes with shifts in groups’ social and economic capital, but also how erasure hurts and representation does, in fact, matter to contemporary narratives about art.”

📚 Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, by Dhan Gopal Mukerji

Gayl Jones

(Johnalynn Holland)

The best American novelist whose name you may not know
“At her best, [Gayl] Jones wields the words of a larger literary tradition with a subversive power that is rare in its all-encompassing purity.”

📚 Palmares, by Gayl Jones
📚 Corregidora, by Gayl Jones
📚 Eva’s Man, by Gayl Jones
📚 Mosquito, by Gayl Jones
📚 The Healing, by Gayl Jones
📚 Liberating Voices, by Gayl Jones

Herman Wouk


The great war novelist America forgot
“Give [Herman] Wouk’s books to someone who knows little of the Second World War, and when they finish, they will feel almost as if they had lived through it.”

📚 The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk
📚 The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk
📚 War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk
📚 Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk

panels in Kuniko Tsurita's manga


The groundbreaking female artist who shaped manga history
“While the comics assembled here are uneven in quality, and though the introductory essay may seem intimidatingly academic to readers unfamiliar with early manga, the book is overall a fantastic, continually surprising look at one of Japan’s most innovative—and least remembered—manga artists.”

📚 The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud, by Kuniko Tsurita

A vendor shows his wares at a bookstall on 125th Street in Harlem, New York, in June 1943.


A forgotten novel reveals a forgotten Harlem
“As a creative work and a historical document, Amiable With Big Teeth is nothing short of a master key into a world where the intersection of race and global revolutionary politics plays out in the lives of characters who are as dynamic and fully realized as the novel itself.”

📚 Amiable With Big Teeth, by Claude McKay

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.

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