Strongman – Book Recommendation

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Title: Strongman The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy

Author: Kenneth C. Davis

 Publisher: Henry Holt and Co., 2020

Ages: 12+

Themes: fascism, Communism, genocide, democracy, communism, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Hitler, Saddam Hussein, authoritarianism,

Genre: Nonfiction


What makes a country fall to a dictator? How do authoritarian leaders—strongmen—capable of killing millions acquire their power? How are they able to defeat the ideal of democracy? And what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

By profiling five of the most notoriously ruthless dictators in history—Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein—Kenneth C. Davis seeks to answer these questions, examining the forces in these strongmen’s personal lives and historical periods that shaped the leaders they’d become. Meticulously researched and complete with photographs, Strongman provides insight into the lives of five leaders who callously transformed the world and serves as an invaluable resource in an era when democracy itself seems in peril. (publisher)


I am going to quote the ending, as I love it.

In the beloved children’s book, “The Cat in The Hat”, after two children spend an afternoon of chaos and messiness with a mischievous cat while there mother is out, a boy wonders whether he and his sister Sally should tell her what took place. His question is the same one these terrible stories force us to ask:

“What would YOU do if your mother asked YOU?”

Why I like this book:

This book is soundly researched, clearly structured, and written in a way that students from middle school and up can gain a strong introduction to the five dictators included and make connections to the past and present threats to democracies such dictators pose. The chapters are short and make engaging reading as well as being packed with dates, photos, political explanations and especially the correlation often to wars that create the opportunity for these “Strongmen” to flourish.

The author doesn’t avoid depicting the genocidal policies pursued by these men, nor does he shy away from the alarming parallels between the dictatorships discussed and present day American politics. It is a wake up call, not to be passive when faced with such attacks on democracy. In the final chapter, “Never Again”, Davis offers a call to active resistance. Protests, writing letters to elected officials, and asking lots of questions are depicted as requirements of citizens in a healthy democracy. Ultimately it is asking the reader, “If faced with a Strongman what would I do?”

This book would be great addition to units about the dictatorships of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Saddam Hussein, or any lessons looking at the rise of democracies and republics from their roots in in ancient civilizations. Or, lessons of a more philosophical and societal nature, looking at complicity. A solid introduction to dictators, despots and democracy and a terrific addition to middle and high school libraries.

I felt that Election Day, 2020, was an appropriate date on which to post this book review.
Highly recommended, and thank you to the publisher for my review ARC.


The author draws from an extensive lineup of thinkers and writers, from Primo Levi, Thucydides, Madeleine Albright, and Dr. Seuss to George Orwell and more. The book concludes with an extensive bibliography and endnotes, providing a wealth of resources for further research

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2 Responses to Strongman – Book Recommendation

  1. Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    Yes, so timely, Joanna. This sounds like an informative and important book that we need right now. I’m reading an adult book, called “Broken Heartland,” by Osha Gray Davidson. It was published in 1990 after the author spent three years researching rural poverty in the Midwest. What he found fully explores and explains many facets of rural issues, including our current political situation and the path we took to get here. And I think too few, including me and those working for Hilary, read it at the time. It was a harbinger, and it could have helped Democrats speak to those living in rural areas instead of denigrating them. And now, between that book and Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, I think it’s clear how turning a blind eye to the plight of rural citizens has come back to haunt us. So well researched, it’s important to see how people who have little hope and living in economic chaos reach for authoritarian rulers to guide them out of entrenched poverty. The trouble is, those very rulers exploit the most vulnerable with empty promises that end up serving only those who are already doing just fine. We need kids to think critically about these subjects, reach into our history to avoid the very things that have been promised and failed. I will stop there, because I am reading the final chapter of Broken Heartland, and I’m not sure I am able to muster hope at this very moment. Perhaps tomorrow, I will feel differently.

  2. Joanna says:

    Jilanne, thank you for this thoughtful response and for raising the important issue of understanding the different communities in this nation z as ne the history. I think I shall buy both these adult books for the HS library. Critical thinking is one of the greatest tools we can give our children.

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