A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream, by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
published in 2014 by Philomel Books
“On November 13, 1951, four years before singer Marian Anderson’s Metropolitan Opera debut, dancer Janet Collins became the first African American hired to perform under contract with the Metropolitan Opera.”
This fictional story tells of a little girl who was in the audience that night, who was inspired to dream big by Miss Collins’ soaring achievement.
She’s the daughter of a seamstress who cleans and stitches costumes for a ballet school. Long days spent near the dancers during fittings and rehearsals have sparked a dream to dance. When the Dance Master notices her talent he arranges for her to join the lessons.
But the color-barrier means she has to practice in the back of the room; can’t perform onstage with the white girls. It’s hard to keep hope alive when the barriers are so high and ugly. Little wonder, then, that while watching Janet Collins perform, “hope puffs up [her] chest just a bit.”
It’s a lyrical, optimistic story, with a strong mama helping her daughter find wings to fly. Floyd Cooper’s tender paintings combine the softness and dazzle of a dream with the retro-realities of 1950s New York City. Great story for all girls and their mamas, ages 5 and up.
Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome
published in 2014 by Holiday House
Two boys, growing up in parallel universes:
On Chicago’s West Side, Benny Goodman plays his clarinet in the synagogue marching band, practices long hours, listens to jazz.
In Tuskegee, Alabama, Teddy Wilson plays violin, oboe, clarinet and piano, practices long hours, listens to jazz.
As young men, the two make their way to New York, and there they meet up. Now their clarinet and piano swing together with the cool, mellow jazz sounds they both love. Along with their drummer, they begin recording as The Benny Goodman Trio. People love them!
But they can’t play on stage together. Black and white bands have never done such a thing. Until one evening in 1936, when they went onstage together in Chicago, and made history.
The text of this story is as snappy and jazzy and swingin’ as the music it describes. James Ransome’s vivid paintings also dance and blare with motion and color and hip 1930s crowds. It’s a stylish, energetic read for ages 6 or 7 and up.
More complete bios of Goodman and Wilson are included in the end pages, written for 12 and up, as well as a time line and 11 mini bios in a Who’s Who of Jazz.
The Great Migration: Journey to the North, by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist
published in 2011 by Amistad
Decades before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, more than a million African Americans left the South and moved North in the Great Migration.
Award-winning author Eloise Greenfield’s father boarded a train for Washington, D.C. in 1929, sending for baby Eloise and the rest of his family a month later when he’d saved enough money for their train fare.
In a series of emotive, free verse, poems, Greenfield explores the process of uprooting and journeying north towards hope and unknown. Written in various voices, we hear of the threat of the KKK that prompts people to say goodbye to loved lands; hear from grown ups and children, men and women, each with her own perspective. We ride with them on the long trip and experience the doubts, newness, dreams, weariness, hope and courage they felt.
Striking collage art by Jan Spivey Gilchrist contributes enormous strength and poignancy to the page. Combining snatches of historical photo with grainy textures, warm faces, color schemes that enhance the nostalgia, determination, and even the alone-ness of this journey, she nails the mood of each stage. Great read for ages 6 and up.
Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrations by R. Gregory Christie
published in 2014 by Albert Whitman & Company
One result of the Great Migration, was that Harlem, in New York City, became a hub of new black culture and the Harlem Renaissance.
The Sugar Hill neighborhood within Harlem pulsed with the optimism, creativity, jazz and pride of its newest residents. Folks like Duke Ellington and W.E.B. Dubois, Thurgood Marshall and Lena Horne, were singing and dancing and writing and discussing — who knew who you might encounter on a sunny stroll in Sugar Hill!
This book fairly sings with the toe-tapping rhythms of life and hope. The rhyming text surges along, just a short line on each page, before repeating a catchy refrain: Sugar Hill, Sugar Hill, Where Life is Sweet!
And sweet are the illustrations! Tangy! Gorgeous, vibrant color; bold lines and shapes that zigzag with motion; people alive with exuberance; cool fonts that accentuate the pizzazz of this star-studded neighborhood.
An Author’s Note tells about the Harlem Renaissance, and a Who’s Who of Sugar Hill provides mini-bios of a dozen of its most famous residents. Awesome book. Brief enough for a two-year-old, but the history in here will sail over their heads. Consider using this to whet the appetites of older elementary students (and yourself) to explore the Harlem Renaissance in more detail.
Freedom Summer: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer, by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue
published in 2001; updated with a foreword in 2014 by Atheneum
John Henry Waddell and Young Joe are best buddies.
They shell butter beans together. Swim in Fiddler’s Creek together. Slurp ice pops together. Shoot marbles together.
But they don’t go to the picture show together. Or to the Dairy Dip. Or to the town swimming pool. Because John Henry is black, and he’s not welcome in any of those places.
When a new law is passed, and Mississippi is ordered to desegregate such things as the town pool, John and Joe are elated, racing to the pool together that first morning. Joe is jazzed to be able to swim with his friend. John can hardly imagine diving into the deep, clear water.
Their hopes are crushed, however, when town officials fill the pool with asphalt rather than adhere to the law. The sting of racism strikes both boys — white and black — in this compelling cameo of Mississippi 1964.
Deborah Wiles has written a full-length novel about Freedom Summer which I’ll be featuring later this week. Having grown up in the Deep South, she experienced Jim Crow laws as a white child. The tumultuous feelings and thoughts she had at the time were hard to sort out, but she has returned to Mississippi 1964 as an adult and award-winning author, and both this picture book and her novel are powerful, well-crafted pieces growing out of her research and experience.
Gorgeous acrylic paintings by Jerome Lagarrigue add immense warmth and power to the story. His palette of sun-drenched greens, summer-sky blues, nostalgic golds saturate the pages with warm camaraderie and Southern heat. Handsome figures and faces communicate dignity, glee, dejection, solidarity. Love this guy’s work.
Excellent choice for ages 4 or 5 and older. A foreword to this anniversary edition tells more about Freedom Summer for older readers.
You can find more Black History via my Subject Index. Look under History — Civil War/Slavery, and History — Black American History/Civil Rights.