February is Black History Month,
a time when we purpose to read and learn about the Black experience and about gifted Black individuals in our world.
As I read to gather titles for this post, I was struck by how much richness we all lose when these mighty individuals, their strength of character and important contributions to the world, are marginalized or erased from view.
Even if it has not been your habit, I encourage you to enrich your own heart, mind, soul along with the children in your sphere, by dipping into a number of these superb stories this year.
The Bell Rang, written and illustrated by James E. Ransome
published in 2019 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
*Winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for Illustration*
Ransome’s glorious oil paintings sing out from every page of this striking book, pulling us right into the center of one young enslaved girl’s world.
The monotonous rhythms of her family’s life on the plantation sync to the pealing of the morning get-to-work bell. This week, though, a gash disrupts the routine as her beloved brother runs away.
Her family’s abject fear and uncertainty over his fate provide a differing perspective than we’re used to reading in accounts of those making the journey North. It’s a riveting, transformative account, highly recommended for ages 4 and up.
The Women who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives, written by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Daniel Minter
published in 2019 by Alazar Press
Hats off to Alazar Press for publishing this exceptional book with such unusual subject matter.
The book begins with a lengthy introduction, accompanied by historic, sepia-toned photos, sketching a fascinating history of midwifery in the African American community. Greenfield’s information is child-friendly yet immensely respectful. She does no talking down.
Then follow seven free-verse poems which journey chronologically from slave ships through emancipation, the early 1900s, and the early 2000s, including one endearing entry about the woman who “caught” Greenfield herself back in 1929. Minter’s illustrations are sober, powerful, symbolic. It’s a book some children, ages 5 and up, will find particularly absorbing, and many adults will cherish.
By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, the Father of Gospel Music, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Bryan Collier
published in 2020 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
I so appreciate the subjects that Carole Boston Weatherford chooses to pursue in her excellent books for children. Here, in her own verse, punctuated at times with snatches of lyrics from Tindley’s hymns, we learn about a man who has blessed so many people through the powerful music he composed.
Born into poverty, set to work as a little boy, Tindley had a thirst for learning and the necessary grit to teach himself to read and pursue an education over many tough years. In 1902 he realized his dream and became a pastor in Philadelphia where he composed dozens of rich gospel songs, including the forerunner to the Civil Rights anthem, We Shall Overcome.
Bryan Collier, as always, imbues every page with strength and dignity in his gorgeous watercolor and collage illustrations. My, oh my, what a collaboration! You’ll want to listen to some of Tindley’s hymns sung by gospel choirs after you’ve read his story. I found several on Youtube. Ages 6 and up.
Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations, written by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Keith Mallett
published in 2019 by Nancy Paulsen Books
Witness the journey of another inspirational hymn of the Black American community as it is passed down from one generation to another.
Beginning with the crafting of the hymn by schoolteacher James Weldon Johnson in 1899, this story stops in at various moments of Black history as child after child learns the song and sings it for her children, who grow up to do the same.
It’s a warm story, full of the very hope and resolve Johnson imbued in his anthem. An Author’s Note tells of her own experience growing up with the song. Both a sweeping history and a series of intimate portraits, it’s a great choice for ages 5 and up.
Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James
published in 2019 by Carolrhoda Books
I’m always glad to see titles about someone I know nothing about, and this story of George Fletcher, an African American cowboy ticks that box with flair!
Fletcher originally traveled west on the Oregon Trail, spent copious time in his childhood on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, took to bronco-busting like a fish to water, and began competitive rodeo riding at age 16. The climax of this story is his entry in the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, an account that both stings with injustice and soars with exoneration.
It’s a vivid, somewhat lengthier account, with brilliant paintings throbbing with the heat and dust of the corral, a grand choice for readers ages 6 and up.
Carter Reads the Newspaper, written by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Don Tate
published in 2019 by Peachtree
I love this fascinating story honoring the man known as the Father of Black History. Carter Woodson was an integral part of that history as he grew up absorbing stories like a thirsty sponge, doggedly pursuing education, researching and advocating for Black History to be known and celebrated.
Hopkinson keenly brings her subject to life and I’ll bet that after reading this you’ll wish, like me, that you could have known this man! Don Tate’s appealing illustrations incorporate dozens of Black leaders who are listed for us in the end pages.
I am grateful to have learned about Carter Woodson. A recommended read for ages 6 and up.
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by Raúl Colón
published in 2019, A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
The movie Hidden Figures is one of my favorites. This beautiful biography traces the life of one of the stars of that story, Katherine Johnson. Another of the women, Dorothy Vaughn, pops up in the account, too.
Johnson was a brilliant mathematician. As one who does not have the most congenial relationship with numbers and math, I stand in awe of her! Her inspiring life of learning, barrier-breaking, and scientific success is one every American should celebrate.
This lengthier account features Colón’s radiant, always gorgeous illustrations. Hand it to kids ages 8 and up, or check it out for yourself.
Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson, written by Jennifer Bryant, illustrated by Cannaday Chapman
published in 2019 by Abrams Books for Young Readers
Jen Bryant’s compelling, lyrical biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson is one that adults will enjoy as well as older children.
Bryant wisely chooses key moments in Wilson’s life with almost half the book focusing on his childhood and youth — his early gift for reading and writing, his tussles with the education system and self-education via the library, and his awareness of the buzz of life around him.
The latter half of the book guides us through Wilson’s path from poet to playwright, from the East Coast to Minnesota, as he forages bits and pieces of the human conversation swirling around him. Beautifully laid out, adorned with Chapman’s pristine, print-like illustration work, the book concludes with a lengthy Author’s Note, meaty time line, selected bibliography, and list of Wilson’s plays. Ages 8 and up.
Lizzie Demands a Seat!: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights, written by Beth Anderson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
published in 2020 by Calkins Creek
I had not read Elizabeth Jennings’ story before and am so glad to have met this stalwart, courageous, justice seeker.
Long before Rosa Parks sat on the bus, Lizzie Jennings boarded a streetcar, suffered abuse for her insistence on equitable treatment, and used her privilege as an educated, free black woman to take her case to court and win equal rights for black passengers on public transit in New York City.
E.B. Lewis’s paintings, radiating light and color, bring to life this soul-stirring account. A lengthy Author’s Note provides a great deal more of her story as well as suggestions for further reading. Ages 6 and up. A much lengthier account was published last year for middle grade and up: Streetcar to Justice by Amy Hill Hearth. It’s going on my reading list now!
Overground Railroad, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome
published in 2020 by Holiday House
Whenever you see this couple team up on a book, there is only one thing to do: grab it! And here again they have produced an absolute gem.
The title of the book stops us in our tracks. We expect to read “Underground Railroad,” and instead bump into something else: a silver passenger train carrying members of The Great Migration to the North, to the promise of a better, more equitable life, a parallel journey to the one taken by those escaping in earlier days.
In the voice of one young passenger, Lesa Cline-Ransome’s lyrical text carries us along with velvet richness, while James Ransome’s gorgeous multimedia illustrations make every page one to linger over, soaking in the warmth of hope and the dignity of the travelers. An absolute glory from cover to cover, for ages 5 and up.
Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner, written by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
published in 2019 by Calkins Creek
Black Americans continue to be vastly underrepresented in the life sciences, so I was especially happy to find this energetic biography of biologist Charles Henry Turner.
Turner began life as so many do who gravitate towards STEM careers, as a small boy buzzing with questions. He gobbled up facts from books, then pursued his investigations as the only brown-skinned student at his college. He grubbed around searching for spider webs, splodged around searching for tiny crustaceans, scrabbled around searching for ants, in the course of satisfying his boundless curiosity.
The book sparkles with enthusiasm for exploring, observing, and wondering over the natural world, besides lifting up the indomitable spirit of Turner as he broke color barriers in his field. An excellent choice for ages 6 and up.
Find dozens more fabulous books about Black American history on my list here.
And dozens of fascinating books set in countries throughout the continent of Africa on my list here.