February is Black History Month and I’m so happy to pass on these five excellent titles. The more we seek to understand others, the more we are enriched and the more harmonious and peaceful society can become. This is what we all want!
I love the breadth of contributions to society and our common history these stories introduce and represent. Although they are all picture books, today’s set seems best for ages 7 and up. You can find lots more Black History titles including those well-suited for younger readers, in my Subject Index.
A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson published in 2016 by Viking
I’ve always felt that The Snowy Day is one of the truly perfect picture books out there. Its art, understanding of the child, genius economy of words, continue to stand the test of time. With all the absolutely stunning work that’s been published since this book came out in 1962 — still, it’s at the top of my list of what to give a new baby upon entrance into our world.
And those aren’t the only elements that make Ezra Jack Keats’ book such a gem. It was unheard of at that time for a black child to be the main character of a story. Having his sweet brown face featured on the book’s cover was an important step forward in children’s literature and our society.
Read this lilting, expressionist, free-verse story to learn all about Keats and how his particular life led him to create that “brown-sugar boy” named Peter, to place an urban world in our hands and help us embrace the formerly-invisible . The illustration work in this book, incorporating Keats’ distinctive vibe and media, is fabulous.
This is a picture book best appreciated by those who have met Keats’ work. I’d hand it to kids ages 8 and up. Adults — it’s for you, too.
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie published in 2015 by Carolrhoda Books
Lewis Henri Michaux was a feisty, independent-minded soul from the start, and he had something in common with me, and probably with you: He loved books.
All of which led him on a winding pathway to create something sadly unusual: a bookstore in Harlem. Michaux had a hard go of it. He was turned down for a loan on the premise that “Black people don’t read.” Good thing Michaux had the moxie to discard such ignorance and push ahead.
Michaux was full of pithy advice for all: “Knowledge is Power. You need it every hour. Read a book!” And his shop — the National Memorial African Bookstore — was full of books, conversation, ideas, and famous folk. Muhammad Ali. Langston Hughes. Malcolm X.
This biography, crackling with the same grit and gumption as Michaux, introduces readers ages 8 and up to a man who believed in the intellect of his fellow African Americans and challenged them to make their mark through knowledge and independent thinking. Christie’s robust, vigorous artwork easily bears the weight of his rugged subject.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, written by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo published in 2016 by Candlewick Press
In 1958, a fellow named Art Kane came up with a wild scheme to gather as many jazz greats as he could and take their picture.
The magazine he worked for was doing a jazz issue. It seemed like the perfect place for that kind of historic photo. But getting in touch with all these folks, finding a date when they could join up, all in the days before e-invitations — that was a challenge. Happily for Kane, and for us, a river of jazz musicians flowed into Harlem one hot summer day and cooperated — mostly — with the photo session.
Click. A moment, and an entire movement, preserved.
Roxane Orgill has ingenuously recreated the unfolding action from Kane’s initial idea to the arrival on the newsstands of a magazine with a crisp photo of 57 musicians: black and white; male and female. Plus 12 little neighborhood boys who just happened to be there, too.
She’s done this through a series of poems from the perspectives of a number of folks involved. Massive, delightful, effervescent personalities exude from her pieces which are accompanied by gorgeous, stylish portraits by artist Francis Vallejo. I love his work!
This is an outstanding picture book that older children and adults will thoroughly enjoy. Ages 8 through adult.
How to Build a Museum, by Tonya Bolden published in 2016 by Viking and Smithsonian
Are you one of the lucky ones who has had a chance to visit the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture? I understand its popularity right now makes that a tricky ticket to get ahold of.
Historian Tonya Bolden is here to tell us how this museum came about and I’m telling you — it will whet your appetite to go!
If you can believe it, this is a 100-year-long dream-come-true. A vision that began in 1915 and persevered through lots of halts and left turns and snags until finally, on September 24, 2016, the museum was open for visitors.
Learn the history of this long process and go treasure hunting to find all manner of items. A beautiful gown designed by Ann Lowe and a plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. Satchmo’s trumpet and Michael Jackson’s fedora. Gabby Douglas’s leotard and a couple of Woolworth’s lunch-counter stools from Greensboro. Posters. Photos. Medals. Harriet Tubman’s hymnal.
Illustrated with photographs. If you are making a trip to D.C. and hope to visit the museum, you should definitely read this first. Ages 8 to adult.
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn published in 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Finally, a collection of bite-sized biographies of some persevering, courageous women. Chosen after long hours of reading, research, and conversation, these 10 women represent hundreds of others who have set aside their own comfort and security, who have gone out on a limb, to fight for freedom and equality.
In her preface, Pinkney discusses the breadth of freedoms she considered as she chose her subjects. What is striking is how basic these freedoms really are. Freedom to choose housing. Freedom to ride public transportation. I hope that by reading Black History, we can put to rest the simplistic notion that “all you have to do in America is work hard to change your future.” No, the cards have been stacked against certain populations. The opportunities have been made unavailable to some and granted to others. Women and men and children have been beaten and killed for trying to improve their lot in life.
In about five pages each, Pinkney tells the compelling stories of both famous and lesser-known women: Sojourner Truth, Biddy Mason, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Josephine Baker, Dorothy Irene Height, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Shirley Chisholm.
Each bio is accompanied by one full-page and one small-sized painting, bursting with vibrancy and strength. These accounts make great additions to anyone’s grasp of American history. Ages 8 and up.