When my family moved to Chicago in the late 1960s, our neighbor Ginny, picking up on my mother’s Southern accent, missed no opportunity to criticize “Rebel” racism. But when my mother described her loving relationship with Sally, her grandmother’s black cook, Ginny gasped: “You touched one? How could you touch one?”
The ugly truth of Northern bigotry is just one of the facts no longer off-limits for children’s books. This month, Black History Month, brings scores of books dealing with the black experience in America. Here are several worth reading at any time of the year.
“Miles to Go for Freedom: Segregation and Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years” (by Linda Barrett Osborne; Abrams, 128 pages, ages 12 and up, $24.95) explores Northern bigotry along with the familiar pain of the Southern variety. The illustrations, from historic photos to a 1926 rejection notice from a famed music school (“I am sorry, but no colored students are accepted at the Peabody Conservatory.”) help to tell the tale.
For younger readers, “We March” (story and illustrations by Shane W. Evans; Macmillan, 32 pages, ages 4 to 7, $16.99) gives a simply worded, colorfully illustrated view of a family’s preparation for and participation in the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I have a dream” speech. Another Evans book, “Underground,” last month won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration.
When Henry Brown’s wife and children were sold, the slave was desperate enough to have himself nailed into a box and shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia. “Freedom Song: The Story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown” (by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls; HarperCollins, 40 pages, ages 4 to 8, $17.99) tells Brown’s true story in terms of the songs he sang: work songs, freedom songs and psalms. Qualls’ watercolors are joined seamlessly with the story, a quietly powerful indictment of the evils of slavery.
“Jazz Age Josephine: Dancer, singer—who’s that, who? Why, that’s MISS Josephine Baker, to you!” (by Jonah Winter, illustrations by Marjorie Priceman; Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 40 pages, ages 4 to 8, $16.99) is long on title but short in length. The story, written in bluesy verse, tells of Josephine Baker’s hard early life in St. Louis, and her life as a Jazz Age icon in Paris. Priceman’s vivid, fun-filled illustrations are the best part of the book.
Family heirlooms come in all varieties. “Ellen’s Broom” (by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Daniel Minter; Penguin, 32 pages, ages 5 to 8, $16.99) makes a humble implement into a treasure. Slaves could not be legally married, but they announced their commitment in a broom-jumping ceremony. When the government recognizes those marriages as binding, Ellen’s parents go to the courthouse to register, and Ellen and her sister Ruby transform the broom into something special. Minter’s linoleum block prints give the book a homespun feel.
Belle’s Grandmama can’t read, but she sings like an angel. Belle, 8, can read, and when Grandmama gets a chance to tour the South with a jazz band, Belle gets to go along to help her. “When Grandmama Sings” (by Margaree King Mitchell, illustrations by James E. Ransome; HarperCollins, 40 pages, ages 5 to 9, $16.99) tells its story of traveling in the segregated South with effective subtlety, its evocative watercolors saying as much as the text.
William was fascinated with machinery. When the rain stopped and famine struck his Malawi village, he went to the library and figured out how to build a windmill out of junk to bring light, water and possibilities to his home. The inspiring true story of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” (by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon; Penguin, 32 pages, ages 6 and up, $16.99) is aided by Zunon’s effective collages.
Fifteen poems, written in black dialect in “Freedom’s a-Callin Me” (by Ntozake Shange, illustrations by Rod Brown; HarperCollins, 32 pages, ages 8 to 12, $16.99), tell the story of a trip on the Underground Railroad, from conception to freedom. There’s one glaring historical error: one poem, “Death or Freedom,” depicts Sojourner Truth leading a group of escaped slaves and pulling a pistol on one who wants to give up. Truth was a remarkable woman who accomplished many things, but the leading and the pistol belong to Harriet Tubman. Otherwise, this is a most effective work by Ntozake Shange, who spent some of her childhood in St. Louis and wrote about it in the adult novel “Betsey Brown.”
“What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors” (by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld, illustrated by Ben Boos and A.G. Ford; Candlewick Press, 44 pages, ages 8 to 14, $17.99) goes beyond George Washington Carver in a highly readable tale full of fun facts about creators of color, from incandescent lighting genius Lewis Howard Latimer to Lonnie Johnson, the man responsible for the Super Soaker.
“Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans” (story and illustrations by Kadir Nelson; Balzer + Bray, 108 pages, ages 9 and up; $19.99) is a remarkable achievement, a fictional family history with a lot of truth in it. The “Everywoman” narrator tells the black experience from slavery to the present, noting some rarely remarked-upon elements including the wide extent of black intermarriage with American Indians, and ex-slaves’ efforts to establish towns of their own in the West. Published last fall, this book won the Coretta Scott King Award for author and a King honor for illustration.
Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault not only lived through the Civil Rights era; she helped make that history, as one of the first two black students admitted (reluctantly) to the University of Georgia. “To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement” (Flash Point, 208 pages, ages 12 up, $22.99) is her first-person account of that era, taking readers through the pivotal years of freedom riders and marchers and school integration. Pages from The New York Times help to set the tone. (The full texts of the relevant articles are in an appendix in the back, along with a full index and list of quotation sources, to make this book an excellent resource.)