June 23, 2017

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Celebrating African American History

Arranged chronologically, these informational picture books highlight trailblazing African Americans and significant moments throughout history. In addition to relating historical facts, these titles blend dynamic text and striking artwork to tell compelling stories, create a riveting sense of immediacy, and provide insightful and emotionally perceptive introductions to individuals of great courage and conviction. Use these books as a starting point for more in-depth treatment of the individuals and events presented and to initiate discussion of the African American experience throughout history.

congo squareSeeking Freedom

Carole Boston Weatherford’s rhythmic verses and R. Gregory Christie’s folk-art-style illustrations provide a poignant snapshot of enslaved individuals in 19th-century Louisiana as they anticipate an afternoon of Freedom in Congo Square (Little Bee, 2016; Gr 2-5). “Mondays, there were hogs to slop,/mules to train, and logs to chop./Slavery was no ways fair./Six more days to Congo Square.” Dramatic scenes painted in muted tones show stylized silhouette figures scrubbing floors on hands and knees, plowing and planting, and bent in fields beneath an overseer and his “dreaded lash.” Finally, it’s Sunday, legally designated as “a day of rest,” and slaves and free blacks flock to New Orleans’ Congo Square, “a market and a gathering ground/where African music could resound.” Here, “Grouped by nation, language, tribe/they drummed ancestral roots alive,” freely sharing African rhythms, languages, culture, and customs. Now, the figures move gracefully and gleefully against bright-hued backdrops, reveling in unbounded self-expression and hope in a place “…a world apart./Congo Square was freedom’s heart.” Front and back matter provide historical background about this site, now a part of Louis Armstrong Park in the city’s Tremé neighborhood, its importance in preserving and cultivating African American culture, and its role in the evolution of new musical styles including jazz.

Turner, Ann. My Name Is TruthMy Name Is Truth (Harper, 2015; Gr 2-5), an affecting read-aloud, introduces abolitionist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), born into slavery in New York as Isabella Baumfree. Ann Turner’s lyrical text utilizes a first-person voice that works hand in hand with James Ransome’s expressive artwork to paint this story with intimacy, immediacy, and emotional punch. Isabella frankly describes the dehumanizing and brutal treatment she endured as she was sold from owner to owner (“Once he fired up a bunch of green/sticks in the fire hardened like stone/and beat me until the blood ran”); her escape with babe in arms after a master broke his promise to free her; her battle to rescue her still enslaved five-year-old son who was illegally sold down South. Her courage and faith shine through as she builds a life, finds her calling as preacher and civil rights advocate, and chooses her own name and destiny (“now I am Sojourner because I travel far and long/to tell the news of God’s truth”). An author’s note about Sojourner Truth and the power of her words to “change the hearts of men and women” can be used to provide context for students. Initiate a discussion about why Turner chose to utilize a first-person narrative for the book.

Robbins, Dean. Two Friends Susan B. Anthony and Frederick DouglassComrades in Ideas

Dean Robbins imagines what it would have been like when Two Friends (Scholastic/Orchard, 2016; Gr 1-4), Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) and Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895), met for tea, cake, and conversation one snowy day in Rochester, New York. The economical text briefly introduces these compatriots and champions of freedom: Anthony, who defied societal expectations and campaigned for women’s rights, and Douglass, who secretly learned to read as a boy enslaved in the South, escaped to the North, and fought for African American rights.

Repeated phrases eloquently underscore the parallels between their lives, emphasizing how both individuals dared to think differently, spoke their hearts despite opposition, and worked tirelessly for a better world. Set against handsomely textured backgrounds, Sean Qualls and Selina Alko’s mixed-media paintings blend historical details with winsome touches. Whether neatly penned onto Anthony’s ink-splattered bloomers, reproduced into a dialogue balloon as Douglass speaks eloquently before a crowd, or incorporated into a collage on a tree, written words are seen throughout the artwork, underscoring the world-transforming power of language, and the pledge, made by these two true-life friends at book’s end, to work together—giving speeches, writing articles, and changing minds—so that “one day all people could have rights.”

chasing freedomSimilarly, Nikki Grimes’s Chasing Freedom (Scholastic/Orchard, 2015; Gr 3-6) envisions a meeting between the famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and well-known suffragette Susan B. Anthony as they sit down before a 1904 women’s rights convention to share tea—and battle stories. Quite a bit more detail is provided here; illustrated spreads alternate between their stories to highlight specific accomplishments and important historical events, reveal the unexpected ways their lives intersected, and emphasize their shared passions. The fictional dialogue resonates with the two women’s deep religious convictions, unwavering dedication to their calling, and willingness to risk personal safety for the good of others. Michele Wood’s full-page folk-style paintings, inspired by American patchwork quilt designs and African motif patterns, are visually majestic and emotionally affecting. Words and images harmonize to bring Tubman and Anthony, their work, and their times to life. Clearly written endnotes provide additional factual background about the featured individuals and happenings, providing a springboard for further study.

The-First-Steps_GoodmanWalking the Road to Justice

In April of 1847, four-year-old Sarah Roberts strode into Boston’s all-white Otis School and took The First Step (Bloomsbury, 2016; Gr 2-5) toward ending school segregation. When officials found out, she was removed from the classroom by a police officer and told not to come back. Refusing to have their daughter attend a separate school for African Americans as mandated by law, one much further away and much inferior, Adeline and Benjamin Roberts fought back. In 1849, Robert Morris, the nation’s second African American attorney, and Charles Sumner, a white lawyer and skilled orator, argued the case before the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Though the judges ruled to uphold segregation, change was on the way, and in 1855, Boston became the first major city to integrate its schools.

Susan E. Goodman’s engaging narrative and E. B. Lewis’s luminous watercolors skillfully draw readers into the events, conveying emotional perspectives along with historical details. In a scene set in front of the school, for example, tiny Sarah walks away from a stiffly standing police officer, her head cast slightly down, face in shadow, each step echoing her state of mind (she “must have felt surprised and frightened when she was forced out onto the sidewalk”). Both words and images trace the next steps in the “march toward justice,” culminating with brief look at Linda Brown and the historic Brown v. Board of Education case. Useful back matter includes a timeline, brief biographies, resources, and a thoughtful author’s note about writing nonfiction.

LillianJonah Winter and Shane W. Evans celebrate Lillian’s Right to Vote (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2015; Gr 2-5) in a poignant and powerful picture book. The eponymous character, a 100-year-old African-American woman, is ready and willing to make the long trek up “a very steep hill” to cast her ballot at an Alabama courthouse. Throughout her slow climb, a journey both physical and symbolic, she recalls the struggles faced by her family and other activists as they fought for voting rights.

Clothed in rich hues and depicted with shimmering strength in the stunning mixed-media artwork, she strides through faded, often translucent historical tableaux that resonate with emotion: her great-great-grandparents (holding their baby, Edmund), standing together on an auction block, hands shackled; Edmund, now grown and “owned by another man,” toiling endlessly in cotton fields; her grandpa Isaac, given the right to vote by the 15th Amendment (1870), but unable to pay the required poll tax; her parents (and herself as a child) chased by an angry mob as they try to register to vote; her own first attempt, dashed by a impossible-to-pass test; individuals marching in peaceful protest, often sacrificing their lives. Now, stepping into the booth on Voting Day, Lillian remembers doing so for the first time as a citizen protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then, in a moment of remarkable potency, touches her finger to the lever.

Share this captivating picture book with students and pause along with Lillian to provide historical context for each of these hard-won steps. Use this story, inspired by a real-life woman, to reiterate the importance of this sacred citizen’s right and discuss the impact of “voter ID laws” recently enacted in many states.

“Knowledge Is Power”

book itchVaunda Micheaux Nelson’s The Book Itch (Carolrhoda, 2015; Gr 2-5) introduces Lewis Michaux (1895-1976) and the Harlem bookstore he launched in the 1930s. The text is presented from the viewpoint of Michaux’s young son Louie, who describes how his father started out with “Five books and a mission,” sold volumes from a pushcart and saved his pennies (he was denied a bank loan), and eventually opened the National Memorial African Bookstore, which became a social, cultural, and intellectual gathering place. The accessible narrative, along with R. Gregory Christie’s bold-hued artwork, conveys the exciting day-to-day world of this Harlem landmark, which drew many visitors, as well as the elder Michaux’s passion for empowering others to seek knowledge and think for themselves; his skill for coining poetic and potent phrases (“If you don’t know and you ain’t got no dough, then you can’t go, and that’s for sho”); and his dedication to providing a discussion forum (keeping the doors open all hours or hosting rallies on a storefront platform). Words and images also blend eloquently to express shock and despair when Malcolm X, family friend and frequent platform speaker, was assassinated in 1965. Nelson’s author’s note provides more background and explains her personal connection to this project (Michaux was her great-uncle). A rousing tribute to the importance of reading, the potency of words, and the life-changing impact an individual can make on his or her community.

An Extraordinary Voice

voiceA compelling picture book for older readers introduces civil rights champion Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) and her clarion Voice of Freedom (Candlewick, 2015; Gr 6 Up). Powerful free verse poems are told in a vivacious first-person narration that seamlessly incorporates quotations from Hamer (citations are appended). Born the youngest of 20 siblings to a sharecropping family in Mississippi, young Fannie Lou was forced to leave school after the sixth grade to labor in the fields, gathering “newspaper scraps/along the roadside and magazines from the plantation’s trash” to satiate her enduring hunger for knowledge. Hardship and poverty continued into her adulthood and her marriage to Perry Hamer (the text unflinchingly describes how she received a hysterectomy while undergoing surgery to remove a growth, without her knowledge or consent). Her career as activist began during a meeting at her church in 1962, when she answered a call from grassroots organizers to register for the vote—an act that left her stymied by unfair tests and poll taxes, forced out of her home, and harassed and terrified by “night riders.” Nevertheless, she took on a leadership role with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), touring the South and “fir[ing] up many a rally” with “words from my heart/and spirituals I learned at my mother’s knee.” Despite being brutally beaten while in custody in 1963, Hamer continued to utilize her powerful voice to bring about change, entering politics and taking a frontline position in protests. Carole Boston Weatherford’s moving poetry and Ekua Holmes’s dynamic, sun-lit collage artwork pay tribute to this courageous woman, her belief in community, and her commitment to forging a better world.

Eds. note: For additional recently published titles related to African American history, read Joy Fleishhacker’s companion article, “Celebrating African Americans: The Arts,” published in last month’s issue of Curriculum Connections.

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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