Greetings on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2014. Each year I find more good books than I have space for which share King’s dream of civil rights and illuminate its importance over time. This list of five is packed with strength! We start with a burst of beauty from 2013…
Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song, by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
Do colors sing?! It sure feels like they do in this gorgeous, jubilant book by the Pinkneys. The melding of line and color with Mahalia’s music and Martin’s oratory is like a fountain of sound.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a preacher, whose strong, stirring voice awakened, emboldened, inspired. Mahalia Jackson was a gospel singer, whose rich, powerful voice rang, riveted, exhilerated. Their roads merged in 1955 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and for the next decade they used their vocal gifts mightily for a common cause — civil rights. This included their joint participation at the 1963 March on Washington.
Far from a sterile account of these two people and the events they were a part of, this juicy book bursts with life, color, joy, camaraderie, and hope. Andrea’s text has a free-verse feel, a pulsing, moving forward, rhythm, filled with moxie and vigor. And Brian’s art! Wow! The streaming motion and burbling music and tropical sweetness of his colors and lines, his ribbons of peace, his warm, strong figures, are simply stunning.
Excellent choice for ages 6-ish and up. Included are a lengthy author’s note with information for older readers and adults about King and Jackson, a fascinating explanation of Brian’s thoughts in creating the art, many book suggestions, a selected discography, and an illustrated timeline of their lives. Magnificent!
These Hands, by Margaret H. Mason, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Quieting things way down…I hear Morgan Freeman’s velvet voice in my head narrating these opening lines.
It’s a tender conversation between Joseph, who looks about 4 years old, and his grandpa. “Look at these hands, Joseph,” Grandpa says, and then tells the many ways he’s used those strong, capable hands down through the years. These are piano-playing hands, waterfall-shuffling hands, throwing-a-curve-ball hands.
But here’s something those hands could not do: they could not touch the bread dough in the Wonder Bread factory during the 50s and 60s. The boss said no white person would want to eat that bread if Grandpa or the other African Americans touched the dough. What?! Thanks to the freedoms won through the work of Grandpa and many others, Joseph can look forward to all manner of work in this wide world.
The sparse, dignified, mellow text in this book underscores the iron strength of Grandpa, his activism, and his good life. At the same time, the dear relationship between grandpa and grandson envelops us in security. These are really beautiful lines which a preschooler can easily engage. An Author’s Note adds the historical background for older readers. Floyd Cooper’s remarkable illustrations caress us with softness and golden light adding another layer of warmth to the story. His figures are full and handsome and real. Grandpa displays an incredibly engaging persona. I love this one.
Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown, by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls
Henry Brown was born a slave on a Virginia plantation. As a child, his great fear was that his master would sell him away from his mama. Maybe the songs Henry sang, his pea-picking, tobacco-chopping, family-loving songs, helped hush those fears, ever kicking around in his chest.
Henry’s worst fears were realized, though, when he was a papa. One out-of-the-blue day, he came home from work to find his dear wife and children had been sold. Helplessly, in anguish, he watched them loaded into a farm wagon, and driven away.
Determined to win his freedom and search for his family, Henry came up with an escape plan. An extraordinary, dangerous, excruciating plan. It required wood and nails; a railway, steamboat, and wagon; a secret code; and absolute silence. You have to read it to believe it! This true story of Henry Brown’s daring and fortitude, is a riveting, harrowing read for ages 6 and up. An added Author’s Note and historical letter are included.
Sean Qualls’ mixed media illustrations bring alive the gripping mix of harmony, fatigue, love, grief, and peril that swirl through this account. It’s an incredible story that will stick in your heart for years to come.
This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration, by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome
Do you have any family heirlooms? I love looking around our home and seeing the cedar trunk my grandfather built for my grandmother when they were married, the christening gown my mother-in-law wore, the thick sepia photos carried here from Sweden when my grandparents immigrated in 1900.
The family heirloom in this book is a weather-beaten, grayish rope. It’s a precious rope because of the long journeys it has made since grandmother used it for skipping rope in the shade of a sweet pine in South Carolina. That rope journeyed to New York City when grandmother was a young woman, loading life up in the 1960s-era station wagon, in search of freedom and opportunity in the North.
The little girl in this story narrates the course of the rope as she briefly tells us her family’s history, their journey as part of the Great Migration of African Americans. In her Author’s Note, Jacqueline Woodson tells us that “from the early 1900s until the mid 1970s, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to northern cities.” This compelling introduction to that slice of history glows with family togetherness, optimism, and the satisfaction of achieving dreams.
James Ransome’s handsome oil paintings are realistic, strong, and warm, beautifully illustrating the passing eras in Brooklyn, and this growing, changing family. Don’t miss the Author’s Note which comes at the beginning of the book. Ages 5 and up.
Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Duane Smith
Robert Small was born into slavery in 1839 on a South Carolina plantation. He was a lively, upbeat, sharp-minded boy who earned a place as a house servant, giving him an easier life than most slaves. Yet he recoiled at the cruelty he saw towards others, yearned for freedom in the north where, he’d heard rumor, “colored people were free to learn to read and write.”
As a young man, Robert began working at the waterfront, working his way up by means of his intelligence and initiative to become a wheelman on a ship. He married, had a child, worked tremendously hard to save enough money to buy his own child back from his master, and then…
…the Civil War broke out. As a wheelman, Robert was given tasks along the coast in aid of the Confederate army. As his navigational skills grew, Robert began hatching a plan. A daring, heartstopping plan to win his family’s freedom.
In 2004, the United States Army christened a ship, the Major General Robert Smalls, the first army vessel named after an African American. Read this gripping story, for ages 7 and up, and the historical Afterword to find out how Smalls made such a name for himself! It’s the stuff that movies are made of, and it’s all true!
Duane Smith’s impressionistic oil paintings are full of power and focus with thick, bold strokes of paint in a dramatic color palette — rich chocolates, oak browns, and ocean blues. Together, this team gives us a riveting story about a heroic man.
There are lots more titles in the archives. Search in the Subject Index under Martin Luther King Jr. Day/Black History.
Martin and Mahalia: His Words, Her Song was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2013
These Hands was published by HMH Books for Young Readers, 2011
Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown was published by HarperCollins, 2012
This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration was published by Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013
Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story was published by Lee and Low Books, 2008
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