November 18, 2017

Subscribe to SLJ

A Salute to Black History: Celebrate with Audiobooks | Listen In

SLJ1202w_LI_JohnHenry(Original Import)

During National African American History Month, we recognize the extraordinary achievements of African Americans and their essential role in shaping the story of America. In honor of their courage and contributions, let us resolve to carry forward together the promise of America for our children…I call upon public officials, educators, librarians, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities

–President Barack Obama, February 1, 2011

In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, historian, author, and the son of freed slaves, designated the second week in February as Negro History Week. Fifty years later, President Gerald Ford expanded it into a month-long celebration called Black History Month. Since then, every American president has issued an official annual proclamation declaring February as Black History Month (or National African American History Month).

The observance of Black History Month presents an opportunity to highlight some recent audiobooks, both fiction and non-fiction, that focus on the African American experience seen from African American perspectives. From sports to the arts to social issues and people in history, these titles for elementary and middle school students offer inspiration, tears, smiles, and a treasure trove of narrative performances.

In schools today, there is a shift away from fact-based projects in order to promote higher level critical thinking in student work. Teachers have become aware that the mere recitation of facts isn’t enough—asking questions that make students discover how to find the answers to problems can be a key component to their education. Audiobooks can definitely be included in this approach to learning.

Since the titles below, all written by African Americans, lend themselves to problem-based learning, we pose this essential question as the building block for a thought-provoking history project: How did the desire for African American equality affect American society? Curriculum standards incorporated for each title will guide skill-building and the creation of assessment tools. Web links and selected videos provide further instructional connections.

Bad News for Outlaws. By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Narrated by Kevin R. Free. CD. 30 min. with hardcover book. Recorded Books. 2010. ISBN 978-1-4498-0620-0. $38.75. Gr 2-5.
Bass Reeves was a big man: he was tall, sported a bushy moustache, and rode a giant horse. Born a slave, he became one of the most dreaded Deputy U.S. Marshals of the old West, with over 3,000 arrests, including that of his own son. Free interprets Nelson’s exciting story, featuring Christie’s robust illustrations, with sturdy pacing and just the right amount of tonal gravity to showcase Reeves’s forthright personality. This Wild West story packs a lot of history.
Standard: Students will recognize how diverse individuals have changed their communities.
Instructional extension: Discover more about Bass Reeves at the Oklahoma Historical Society’s online Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History: http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/R/RE020.html.

Bird in a Box. By Andrea Davis Pinkney. Narrated by Bahni Turpin, S‘Von Ringo, and J.B. Adkins. CD. 4:55 hrs. Listening Library. 2011. ISBN 978-0-3079-1718-8. $30. Gr 5-8.
During the Depression, three African American children—each dealing with sorrow and loss—root for their hero, boxing great Joe Louis. Turpin’s rhythmic pacing depicts feisty Hibernia, who dreams of becoming a jazz singer. Ringo’s subtle use of dialect portrays Willie’s despair over hands crippled by his drunken, abusive father. Adkins’s soothing cadence embodies Otis’s sorrow as he clings to the precious Philco radio—all that is left of his parents. Their stories, told in alternating chapters, come together through music and boxing, giving listeners access to African American life in the mid-1930s. In an afterward, Pinkney describes family members whose lives intersect with the story and how she trained as a boxer to get the fight sequences right.
Standard: Students will understand how the social and economic changes of the early 20th century, including the Great Depression, affected community life.
Instructional extension: Information about the PBS film, The Fight, describing the background and history surrounding the 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling prize fight, including primary sources, a timeline, and a teacher’s guide: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/fight/index.html.

Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson. By Charles R. Smith, Jr. Illus. by Shane W. Evans. Narrated by Dion Graham. CD. 14:29 min. with hardcover book. Live Oak Media. 2010. ISBN 978-1-4301-0974-7. $29.95. Gr 2-5.
A read-along biography of Jack Johnson, whose courage and strength broke the boxing “color line” in the early 1900s, bringing him notoriety and fame. Dion Graham’s performance of Johnson’s rise to become the first black heavyweight champion relates the rhyming text with expression and emotion. Sound effects and music enhance the production, drawing listeners into the world of boxing and the fight for civil rights. An afterward includes additional information about Johnson.
Standard: Students will identify the contributions of Africa American athletes to the history of sports.
Instructional extension: Library of Congresss’s American Memory provides students with primary source documents, including many photographs, to further investigate “who was Jack Johnson?” (http://www.loc.gov).

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave. By Laban Carrick Hill. Illus. by Bryan Collier. Narrated by Kevin R. Free. CD. 15 min. with hardcover book. Recorded Books. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4618-1710-9. $37.75. Gr 1-5.
The remarkable story of a 19th-century potter and poet who transcended slavery through his craft exemplifies the integration of story, illustration, and audio interpretation. Free’s finely-tuned reading of the lyrical text expands the rhythm of the poetry while telling the story of Dave’s unique artistic journey. Bryan Collier’s glowing watercolor and collage illustrations complete the experience, bringing one aspect of African American culture and art to students.
Standard: Students will realize the contributions of African Americans to art history.
Instructional extension: Two excellent websites are listed in Dave the Potter, offering a springboard for class response: a biography of Dave, including photographs of his surviving pots from the McKissack Museum, University of South Carolina (http://www.usca.edu/aasc/davepotter.htm) and a teacher’s guide to Dave the Potter that includes a listing (Appendix 6) of 27 of Dave’s inscribed poems (http://www.digitaltraditions.net/html/D_Resources.cfm).

Ghetto Cowboy. By G. Neri. Narrated by JD Jackson. 4 CDs. 4 hrs. Brilliance. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4558-2150-1. $49.97. Gr 5-9.
After several weeks of skipping school, 12-year-old Cole unwillingly travels to Philadelphia to live with the father he has never met. There he finds a group of urban cowboys who rescue race horses to help street kids like Cole. The relationship between Cole and his father gradually builds through shared experiences with the horses, as Cole gains self-respect and learns “the cowboy way.” Based on African American history, themes of family, growing up, and cowboy culture are seen through the lens of a community that stands together. Jackson’s fully-voiced performance brings to life the diverse cast of characters in a wonderful audio experience.
Standard: Students will understand and explain the history of African American cowboys and their role from emancipation to the present day.
Instructional extension: Students can compare and contrast the information in these interviews with urban cowboys in New York to the Ghetto Cowboy story (http://tinyurl.com/7at2xcc).

John Henry. Written by Julius Lester. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. CD. 18 min. with paperback book. Weston Woods. 1998. ISBN 978-1-55592-749-3. $18.95. K-Gr 5.
Lester’s tall tale, based on an old black ballad, begins with John Henry’s birth and rise to mythic status—an incredible character who can tunnel through a mountain faster than a steam drill. Pinkney’s award-winning, luminous illustrations capture the decency and resilience that make up John Henry’s character, while Jackson’s expressive interpretation of the text’s melodic tempo elevates the story to an even higher level. A lilting musical background with supporting singers completes this wonderful read-along introduction to a legendary folk hero.
Standard: Students will recount stories from diverse cultures, determining the central message or moral.
Instructional extension: How is John Henry the same and/or different from other tall tale characters? Students may write a response, citing details from the story.

Looking Like Me. By Walter Dean Myers. Illus. by Christopher Myers. Narrated by Dion Graham and Quincy Tyler Bernstine. CD. 8:02 min. with hardcover book. Live Oak Media. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4301-0872-6. $29.95. K-Gr 5.
A joyful celebration of individuality delivered with happy energy by Graham and Bernstine. As the central character, Jeremy lyrically describes his many personae—brother, son, dancer, artist—and the underbed of jazzy music enhances the poetic riff and embraces each personal characteristic. The narrators provide counterpoint to each other with compelling pacing and expressive vocal timbre. Add the vibrant collage illustrations to the mix and you’ve got a tour-de-force package.
Standard: Students will recognize and describe various forms of poetry.
Instructional extension: This cries out for a writing activity. Students can describe their personal characteristics in a poetic form. When their “verbal portrait” is complete, students may share their writing, and/or make their own collages to exhibit their qualities.

The Other Half of My Heart. By Sundee T. Frazier. Narrated by Bahni Turpin. 7 CDs. 7:50 hrs. Listening Library. 2011. ISBN 978-0-3078-7963-9. $45. Gr 4-6.
Minerva and Keira King, 11-year-old twins, have always lived in a small, artsy community in Washington and are accustomed to the stares they get. Minni has white, freckled skin and red hair like their dad, while Keira has brown skin and kinky hair like their mom. Summoned to North Carolina by their overbearing maternal grandmother to compete in the Miss Black Pearl pageant, shy Minni worries that she will be ostracized for being too white, but Keira delights in fitting in for the first time. Issues of racism and civil rights are integrated smoothly. Turpin’s expert use of accent, pacing, and inflection makes each character very real.
Standard: Students will determine the main idea of a text and show how it is supported by the key details.
Instructional extension: When Minni and Keira visit their grandmother in North Carolina, they learn about her participation in the Civil Rights Movement. The PBS series, Eyes on the Prize (available from shoppbs.org, $39.99), broadens the learning experience with detailed historical background (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/).

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down. By Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Brian Pinkney. Narrated by Myra Lucretia Taylor. CD. 30 min. Recorded Books. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4498-6817-8. $37.75. Gr. 2-5.
The talents of three African American artists—author, illustrator, and narrator—showcase the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in. Listeners are drawn into the story through Taylor’s impassioned performance of Pinkney’s musical free verse, with her soft southern accent carrying the powerful message against segregation. The hurt, anger, resilience, and courage of the sit-in participants is palpable in the combination of read-along text, bold illustrations, and fine performance.
Standard: Students will describe the struggle for equal rights for all people.
Instructional extension: Students will enjoy seeing Andrea and Brian Pinkney talk about the creation of Sit-In: http://www.hachette
bookgroup.com/kids_books_9780316070164.htm. Another recent audiobook about the Civil Rights Movement, Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary, written by Elizabeth Partridge and narrated by Alan Bomar Jones (Brilliance Audio, 2011, Gr 6 Up) could be paired with Sit-In, providing a springboard for creating a time line of events from 1954 to 1968.


Sharon Grover is the Head of Youth Services at the Hedberg Public Library, Janesville, WI. Lizette (Liz) Hannegan, a former elementary and middle school librarian and district library supervisor for the Arlington (VA) Public Schools, is the 2012 Odyssey Award Chair. They are co-authors of Listening to Learn: Audiobooks Supporting Literacy (ALA Editions, 2011).

Share