33 Titles To Jump-Start Black History Month

In an effort to make our coverage of Black History Month a more nuanced and valuable experience, we'll be posting several related roundups throughout January and February.

When asked about Black History Month in a 1994 interview with MTV, the late, great Whitney Houston— always a source for exactingly crafted replies, effortlessly delivered—quipped "We need a longer month." Much of the recent, though by no means new, discussion on how media channels, SLJ among them, cover Black History Month has noted the tokenizing effect of book lists such as the one below, and what little steps the media and publishing industries have taken to promote and support Black authors and illustrators throughout the year.

In my experience as SLJ's nonfiction editor, picture book biographies and other informational texts about Black Americans, all with January and February publication dates, start to come across my desk around November/December. I wonder why I don't receive many of these titles—mostly from "The Big Five"—further in advance as I do with other nonfiction works (typically three to four months), raising the question: How can publishers effectively market, promote, and nurture these books with such a seemingly short lead time? What message does this send to readers?

This systematic behavior is not limited to publishers; professional reviews outlets are just as guilty. The effect on collection development and readers' advisory decisions cannot be understated. These are the kinds of essential questions that White publishers, reviewers, editors, and librarians must be asking of themselves and their White colleagues all the time.

In an effort to make our coverage of Black History Month a more nuanced and valuable experience, we'll be posting several roundups throughout January and February and the rest of the year. In the interest of transparency, the featured books are selected with attention to quality and an emphasis on highlighting Black creators first and foremost.

We're kicking off with nonfiction. Stay tuned for roundups on middle grade and YA fantasy, realistic and historical fiction, poetry, picture books, and more in the coming weeks. If there are any titles that we miss, please do not hesitate to leave comments below.

redstarABDUL-JABBAR, Kareem & Raymond Obstfeld. Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court. 304p. Little, Brown. Nov. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316555388. POP Gr 7 Up –The NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, traces his path to becoming a basketball superstar and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. Born in Harlem in 1947, shy, thoughtful Abdul-Jabbar was not on anyone’s “most likely to succeed” list at the start. In this intimate narrative, he reveals how the influence of selfless, wise coaches and role models helped shape him into a proud man who scored big in basketball and grew confident as an African American and a practicing Muslim. While the tone of the work is understated and contemplative, the memoir contains powerful ideas for reflection and discussion about racism, politics, identity, and religion. The book is about so much more than a single basketball star’s rise to fame. Abdul-Jabbar intertwines his narrative with that of other people who railed against injustice such as Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Bruce Lee. Students who enjoy sports will appreciate the details of Abdul-Jabbar’s talent and acclaim, as will those who gravitate toward insightful contemporary reads from authors such as Jason Reynolds. ­VERDICT  This timely and unforgettable memoir is essential for middle and high school collections, and affords rich opportunities for classroom and book club discussions.–Melissa Williams, Berwick Academy, ME This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2017 issue.

AHMED, Roda. Mae Among the Stars. illus. by Stasia Burrington. 40p. HarperCollins/Harper. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062651730. POP K-Gr 2–Born in Alabama, Mae Jemison dreamed of going to space. When she grew up, she attained a degree in chemical engineering before finishing medical school in the 1980s. After a stint in the Peace Corps, Jemison wasn’t content with just being an engineer or doctor—she satisfied her love of the stars by becoming an astronaut—the first African American female astronaut and the first African American woman in space. Ahmed and Burrington have created a love letter to Jemison with this appealing picture book biography. The recurring line, “If you can dream it, if you believe in it, and work hard for it, anything is possible” is a chorus sure to resonate with children. The emphasis on Jemison’s lifelong passion for space science will inspire readers to have confidence in the trajectory of their own interests. Burrington’s bright, kid-friendly illustrations were created with ink and Adobe Photoshop. An epilogue provides the dates and details of Jemison’s life and career. VERDICT A starry addition to picture book biography collections.–Deidre ­Winterhalter, Oak Park Public Library, IL

This review was published in the School Library Journal December 2017 issue.

BARDHAN-QUALLEN, Sudipta. The United States v. Jackie Robinson. illus. by R. Gregory Christie. 40p. bibliog. chron. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062287847. Gr 3-6–Bardhan-Quallen does not mince words when retelling how Jackie Robinson, not yet the iconic ball player, was arrested and subject to a court-martial when he was in the army for sitting at the front of a bus. The author reiterates throughout that many white people “didn’t see an officer in the United States Army. They only saw a black man.” In Christie’s acrylic gouache painted illustrations, Robinson is usually placed in the center, surrounded by often-angry white faces. Christie elegantly shows readers a visual representation of how Robinson must have felt everyday—different, out of place, resented. A substantial amount of back matter reinforces the storylike narrative. Bordhan-Quallen includes a time line of the history of segregation in the United States along with Robinson’s life, in addition to a bibliography. An author’s note with commentary on the importance of standing up for what’s right is also included. VERDICT There are many biographies on Jackie Robinson, but this is a worthy addition that focuses on a period of his life before baseball.–Kerri Williams, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

BARTON, Chris. Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. illus. by Don Tate. 32p. Charlesbridge. May 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781580892971. Gr 2-5–As a child, Lonnie Johnson was a “tinkerer,” or an avid collector of pieces and parts—all things that were considered scrap but that to Johnson were perfectly ripe for new applications. Early projects included rockets, a robot, and a powerful sound system for parties. Johnson’s engineering degree took him to NASA, where he worked on the Galileo orbiter and probe. What Johnson really wanted to do, however, was build his own inventions. When trying to find an environmentally friendly solution to refrigerator and air-conditioning cooling systems, he stumbled upon what would eventually become his opus, the Super Soaker. Readers follow the many obstacles and setbacks Johnson experienced as he tirelessly worked to launch his invention. The narrative—based primarily on personal interviews the author had with Johnson—adeptly captures the passion and dedication necessary to be an engineer. The cartoonlike illustrations, rendered digitally with Manga Studio, combine child appeal with enough realism to accurately convey various scientific elements. Great care is taken to portray the institutional racism Johnson experienced, such as school tests that tried to dissuade his interest in engineering and his competing in a 1968 science fair in the newly desegregated but unwelcoming University of Alabama. The author’s note explains Barton’s mission to diversify common perceptions of what scientists and engineers look like and who they can be. This engaging and informative picture book exploration of Johnson’s life succeeds in that right. VERDICT Highly recommended for STEM and maker collections.–Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher’s School, Richmond, VA

This review was published in the School Library Journal May 2016 issue.

BEALS, Melba Pattillo. March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine. illus. by Frank Morrison. 240p. photos. HMH. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781328882127. Gr 6 Up–Now in her seventies, Beals recalls growing up in Little Rock, AR, before she became one of the Little Rock Nine, an experience she penned earlier in Warriors Don’t Cry. In this latest, Beals describes how as early as age three, she questioned the fear and constant oppression of black people by whites and the U.S. legal system. “I sensed from the very first moment of consciousness that I was living in a place where I was not welcome.” Beals remembers such indignities as being locked for hours in a pantry by her grandmother’s white employer, and being besieged by angry police while using a department store bathroom for whites as her grandmother begged forgiveness. She also details a horrifying episode when Ku Klux Klan members barged into her church service, barricaded the doors, and lynched a congregant from the church rafters. As a preteen, Beals narrowly escaped being raped by Klan men who found her alone alongside the road and drove her to a gathering in the woods. These horrendous experiences, contrasted with the love and support of her family and community, shaped Beals’s determination to volunteer for the integration program that would cement her legacy as a beacon of civil rights. An epilog provides a synopsis of the Little Rock Nine, and black-and-white childhood photos and illustrations by Morrison appear throughout. VERDICT Beal’s recollection of white oppression and her rise above it will haunt readers. A must-read for teens.–Vicki Reutter, State University of New York at Cortland

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarBOLDEN, Tonya. Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick

Douglass, a Monumental American Man. 208p. bibliog. chron. index. notes. photos. reprods. Abrams. Jan. 2018. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781419725463.

Gr 7 Up –Bolden successfully demonstrates in this biography how monumental a figure Frederick Douglass is in U.S. history. Rather than provide readers with a straightforward chronological account, Bolden begins Douglass’s story with his first speaking engagement and the publishing of his autobiography. She tells of Douglass’s work as a publisher, a diplomat to Haiti, a bank president, and a prolific writer. The chapter titles are quotes from Douglass; each section features excerpts from his publications, quotes from Douglass or his contemporaries, and images, making the read even more engaging. Bolden immerses students in Douglass’s world, effectively capturing the atmosphere of the times: “As bombs, bullets, and bayonets bloodied and blew away lives, Frederick ratcheted up his rhetoric on slaveholders.” Bolden supplements her text with photographs, drawings, and images of his publications. What elevates these visuals are Bolden’s meticulous descriptions of each one (albumen print, daguerreotype, watercolor, lithograph, etc.). VERDICT Bolden adroitly demonstrates the wealth of Douglass’s life and accomplishments with this stellar biography. A must for all nonfiction collections.–Hilary Writt, Sullivan University, Lexington, KY

This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2017 issue.

how-to-build-a-musuemredstarBOLDEN, Tonya. How To Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. 64p. index. notes. photos. Viking. Sept. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780451476371.

Gr 5 Up –One hundred years ago, the National Memorial Association was formed to establish a monument honoring African American veterans of the Civil War. It took years to get Congressional support, but finally, in the late 1920s, a bill was passed to create a committee to establish a museum dedicated to African American contributions to our nation. While the committee was abolished during the Depression, the dream was not. However, it took another 70 years of urging by activists and politicians to renew interest in the project. Bolden investigates this history and the search for a museum director and artifacts, including the national call for “treasures” and the related national tour by curators in search of items for the collection. In addition, she discusses the museum’s location on the National Mall, a place once bordered by “holding pens for enslaved people bound for the Deep South.” Archival and contemporary photos and reproductions of artwork and other materials enhance this clearly written, well-documented book. The images increase in the second half and highlight the museum’s permanent collections devoted to slavery and freedom; segregation; African American religious, civic, and educational institutions, communities, military experience; and other topics. Here, introductory paragraphs discuss the focus of the exhibits and the questions they ask, while captions add fascinating detail about the items presented. VERDICT An important, profusely illustrated account of the history, building, and collections of a national treasure.–Daryl Grabarek, School Library Journal

This review was published in the School Library Journal October 2016 issue.

nf-sp-bolden-pathfindersredstarBOLDEN, Tonya. Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls. 128p. bibliog. glossary. index. notes. photos. Abrams. Jan. 2017. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781419714559.

Gr 5-8 –The lives of 16 fascinating and innovative black men and women are given due recognition in this masterly work. Bolden makes use of a variety of features to convey information in an accessible yet deeply enlightening manner. For instance, sidebars titled “In His/Her Time” provide historical context without burdening the main text with lengthy exposition. With a variety of subjects in different fields, from a magician to a mathematician, a bank founder to a race car driver, there is plenty of fresh report material within these pages. The clean layout and the smart design make for a book that is not only expertly researched but attractive as well. (Each chapter receives its own color palette, visually linking the content within that section together.) VERDICT Teachers and librarians seeking to further develop their history and biography collections will be thrilled with this fine offering.–Erinn Black Salge, Saint Peter’s Prep, Jersey City, NJ

This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2016 issue.

BOWMAN, Donna Janell. Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness. illus. by Daniel Minter. 48p. bibliog. photos. Lee & Low. Oct. 2016. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781620141489. Gr 2-6–A profile of William “Doc” Key and his relationship with animals, specifically his skilled horse Jim. Key was born a slave in Shelbyville, TN, in the 1830s. After the Civil War, he stayed in Shelbyville and built a veterinary where he sold his homemade remedies, and became very successful. Referred to as “Doc” Key, he traveled extensively while pursuing various entrepreneurial goals. Key eventually trained a clumsy colt named Jim to amaze audiences with his uncanny ability to spell and do math. He donated portions of his proceeds to humane societies and was instrumental in raising awareness for the compassionate treatment of animals. Minter’s linoleum block prints, painted with acrylic, add the perfect historic feel to an incredible true story. The extensive back matter will be useful for student reports. VERDICT A solid purchase for most collections with an interest in biographies and animal rights.–Jennifer Steib Simmons, Anderson County Library, SC

This review was published in the School Library Journal October 2016 issue.

redstarCLARK-ROBINSON, Monica. Let the Children March. illus. by Frank Morrison. 40p. bibliog. chron. notes. HMH. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780544704527.

K-Gr 3 –The youth of the Birmingham civil rights movement take center stage in this historical picture book. Clark-Robinson narrates from the voice of an unnamed girl, using simple language to tell the story of the momentous events surrounding the arrest and jailing of hundreds of children protesting racial segregation. The narrator states bluntly, “There were so many things I couldn’t do.” Much of the text will provoke questions and important conversations between children and adult readers. The experiences of segregation are sensitively depicted by Morrison. A playground behind a tall sharp fence sets the stage, while portrait-quality oil paintings of the children and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. fill the rest of the pages. The defiance, determination, and passion comes through clearly on the faces of the figures. An afterword and author’s and illustrator’s notes provide additional information, as does a cleverly illustrated time line on the endpapers. VERDICT A highly readable historical account which deserves a place on picture book and nonfiction shelves alike.–Clara Hendricks, Cambridge Public Library, MA

This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2017 issue.

redstarCLINE-RANSOME, Lesa. Before She was Harriet. illus. by James E. Ransome. 32p. Holiday House. Nov. 2017. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780823420476.

Gr 3-6 –Before and after Harriet Tubman became the stalwart conductor leading enslaved people to freedom on the Underground Railroad, she played many remarkable roles during her long life. Cline-Ransome honors Tubman in lyrical verse, beginning when the heroine is “tired and worn/her legs stiff/her back achy.” In each stanza, Tubman looks back to the time “before she was an old woman.” She recalls speaking out against injustice as a suffragist providing “a voice for women/who had none/in marriages/in courts/in voting booths.” She recollects everything she accomplished during the Civil War, spying for the Union and nursing the wounded. Looking back even farther, she remembers leading her people out of bondage and then her own arduous years in the slave owners’ fields. Before all of this, Tubman was a little girl named Araminta who dreamed of the time she would “leave behind slavery/along with her name/and pick a new one/Harriet.” Each episode in her compelling life is illustrated by a luminous watercolor. The expertly done expressive paintings evoke Tubman’s strength and integrity showing “the wisp of a woman with the courage of a lion.” VERDICT This lovely tribute effectively communicates Tubman’s ­everlasting bravery and resolve, and will ­inspire curious readers to learn more.–Linda L. Walkins, Saint Joseph Preparatory High School, Boston

This review was published in the School Library Journal October 2017 issue.

COPELAND, Misty. Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina Young Readers Edition. 192p. S. & S./Aladdin. Dec. 2016. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781481479790. POP Gr 4-7–Although Copeland didn’t begin her ballet training until the age of 13, she transcended the competition in just five years’ time and became a professional dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. Despite Copeland’s extraordinary natural talent, her dance career has not been an easy one. In this young readers edition of her 2014 autobiography, she relates her experiences growing up in a low-income, single-parent family and recounts the custody battle between her mother and her dance teacher. Copeland goes on to describe the challenges of her life as a professional ballerina, most notably her isolation as a black artist in a predominantly white field. She writes that “some people still notice [her] skin color before they notice [her] talent” and that others “simply don’t believe brown girls have a place in classical ballet.” While Copeland’s overall tone is conversational, her frank discussion of race is serious and relevant to tween readers. She expresses gratitude for her numerous friends and supporters and recalls her delight at certain opportunities and roles, such as her collaboration with Prince and her landmark performance as the Firebird in 2012. Copeland closes her book by saying that she wants young dancers to “look at what I’ve accomplished and realize they can achieve this dream, too.”  VERDICT Copeland’s story will interest, inform, and inspire budding ballerinas and deserves a place in every library that serves middle grade readers.–Magdalena Teske, Naperville Public Library, IL

This review was published in the School Library Journal December 2016 issue.

GOLIO, Gary. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song. illus. by Charlotte Riley-Webb. 40p. bibliog. notes. photos. Millbrook. Jan. 2017. lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9781467751230. Gr 3-6–Singer Billie Holiday had a knack for jazz improvisation and dramatic performance, but she emerged from a difficult childhood into a world that didn’t support black success. In 1938, she found a singing home in an integrated Greenwich Village club called Cafe Society. When its owner asked Holiday to sing Abel Meeropol’s haunting song “Strange Fruit,” she made it her own, eventually performing it throughout the country. While a song about lynching may seem a challenging choice for a picture book subject, the combination of words and images here is strikingly effective. Riley-Webb’s emotionally expressive illustrations are as forceful as the topic. Done with acrylic paint and tissue collage, they are full of rough textures, curved lines, and grasping hands. In a smoothly written text, with important ideas emphasized in a larger font, Golio briefly summarizes Holiday’s early life and career. He leaves out most of the seamier details and concludes his narrative with accounts of two early performances of this haunting song, the first in a private apartment in Harlem and the second in the club. Back matter includes the lyrics and two pages of exposition that define lynching and describe the subsequent history of the song and the singer. VERDICT This is not an easy book, but it is powerful—just like its theme. Consider for guided in-depth discussions on Billie Holiday and U.S. history.–Kathleen Isaacs, Children’s Literature Specialist, Pasadena, MD

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2017 issue.

redstarHARRISON, Vashti. Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. illus. by Vashti Harrison. 96p. filmog. further reading. notes. websites. Little, Brown. Dec. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780316475112. POP K-Gr 4 –An artist’s social media sensation is lovingly brought to life in this standout title. Initially a personal project for Black History Month, Harrison’s collection highlights 40 notable black women throughout U.S. history. Each entry includes two to three paragraphs of biographical text, opposite which nearly identical figures (most are drawn facing forward with cherubic smiles and closed eyes) hold center stage of their full-page portrait, framed by simple yet clever backgrounds that contextualize their achievements. Audre Lorde, for example, stands before muted brown bookshelves—keen eyes will discern that the books displayed feature her poetry and prose. Leadership is embraced in forms past and present and across various disciplines; renowned abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are joined by Air Force General Marcelite J. Harris and filmmaker Julie Dash. A concluding “More Little Leaders” segment addresses the difficulty of selecting 40 women to represent a historical legacy and offers miniature renditions of additional icons, including Gabby Douglas, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Williams sisters. Useful back matter provides multimedia sources for inevitably curious readers. The amount of information included makes this book ideal for budding researchers or for small groups, although the heartwarming digital images will garner a younger audience, too—kids of all ages will love poring over Harrison’s tender artwork. VERDICT Beautifully designed and chock-full of information, this is a fantastic survey of black women who made and continue to make history. A must-have for youth nonfiction collections.–Ashleigh ­Williams, School Library Journal

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

HOOKS, Gwendolyn. Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. illus. by Colin Bootman. 32p. bibliog. further reading. glossary. notes. Lee & Low. May 2016. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781620141564. Gr 2-5–A picture book biography about the genius and research of Vivien Thomas, who pioneered open-heart surgery for infants, specifically to treat newborns afflicted with tetralogy of Fallot, or blue baby syndrome, a previously fatal condition. Trained as a carpenter and working alongside his father by age 13, Thomas dreamed of going to college. After losing his savings in the October 1929 stock market crash, Thomas accepted a job at Vanderbilt University as a research technician under Dr. Alfred Blalock. Expressive watercolor illustrations depict Thomas’s dedication. He is shown practicing techniques, working in the lab, and researching in the library. The narrative covers many examples of the racism that Thomas faced, including less pay, housing discrimination, and the press’s failure to acknowledge his development of what was later named the Blalock-Taussig shunt. By focusing on the enormous talent and skill of Thomas and depicting instances in which he was dismissed by white coworkers and by the media, the text is an insight into not only this innovator’s life but the social and institutional conditions that allow for African American contributions in medicine and science to go largely unrecognized. Extensive author’s notes provide more information about tetralogy of Fallot and about Thomas himself. VERDICT An important addition for STEM or biography collections for its exceptional coverage.–Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher’s School, Richmond, VA

This review was published in the School Library Journal May 2016 issue.

KELLER, Shana. Ticktock Banneker’s Clock. illus. by David C. Gardner. 32p. Sleeping Bear. Sept. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781585369560. K-Gr 2–This cheerfully illustrated volume centers on Benjamin Banneker’s invention of a striking clock. The story begins just as Banneker (1731–1806) has finished his farm chores for the day. He decides to take a moment to study a pocket watch lent to him by a friend. Inspired by the tiny, dazzling machine, he imagines a much larger version, one that chimes. Readers watch him over a number of seasons as he works toward completing his invention. The rich illustrations highlight Banneker’s spirit and the beauty of his farm. (A faithful hound dog appears on nearly every page.) This book offers a glimpse into the brilliant mind and hard work of an engineer. An author’s note provides more information on his life.  VERDICT A concise introduction to Banneker and a welcome addition to any picture book biography collection.–Megan Kilgallen, Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2016 issue.

March- Book Three by John Lewis & Andrew AydinredstarLEWIS, John & Andrew Aydin. March: Book Three. illus. by Nate Powell. 192p. Top Shelf. Aug. 2016. pap. $19.99. ISBN 9781603094023.

Gr 8 Up –In the final installment in the trilogy, Congressman Lewis concludes his firsthand account of the civil rights era. Simultaneously epic and intimate, this dynamic work spotlights pivotal moments (the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marches) through the lens of one who was there from the beginning. Lewis’s willingness to speak from the heart about moments of doubt and anguish imbues the book with emotional depth. Complex material is tackled but never oversimplified—many pages are positively crammed with text—and, as in previous volumes, discussion of tensions among the various factions of the movement adds nuance and should spark conversation among readers. Through images of steely-eyed police, motion lines, and the use of stark black backgrounds for particularly painful moments, Powell underscores Lewis’s statement that he and his cohorts “were in the middle of a war.” These vivid black-and-white visuals soar, conveying expressions of hope, scorn, and devastation and making storied figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer feel three-dimensional and familiar. VERDICT This essential addition to graphic novel shelves, history curricula, and memoir collections will resonate with teens and adults alike.–Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal

This review is published in School Library Journal’s August 2016 issue.

LONEY, Andrea J. Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! illus. by Keith Mallett. 40p. bibliog. further reading. notes. photos. Lee & Low. Jun. 2017. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781620142608. Gr 1-3–James VanDerZee (1886–1983) was a prolific photographer who used his camera to capture the beauty and dignity of his subjects. This picture book biography not only introduces readers to VanDerZee’s life but also provides a glimpse into the Harlem Renaissance and highlights some techniques used in early photography. As a young man, VanDerZee was the second person to own a camera in his small town of Lenox, MA. His love of his family and neighbors fueled his passion. The evenly paced narrative describes how VanDerZee moved to New York City and became a successful photographer, despite racism. Although he took pictures of a wide array of people, he focused mainly on the black middle class and occasionally on celebrities, such as Joe Louis and later Jean-Michel Basquiat. The refrain, “Take a picture of me, James VanDerZee!” echoes throughout. Through photography, VanDerZee was able to create a nuanced depiction of life in Harlem in the 20th century. The attractive illustrations, acrylic on canvas, skillfully convey the expressions and sentiments of the images that inspired them, with some original photographs included in the afterword. VERDICT Vivid visuals and comprehensive text combine for an excellent resource for biography collections.–Jamie Jensen, Coy Miller Elementary School, Little Elm, TX

This review was published in the School Library Journal June 2017 issue.

nf-sp-mckissack-letsclapetcredstarMCKISSACK, Patricia C. Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood. illus. by Brian Pinkney. 184p. bibliog. ebook available. index. Random/Schwartz & Wade. Jan. 2017. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9780375870880; lib. ed. $27.99. ISBN 9780375970887.

Gr 2-6 –Children’s literature powerhouses McKissack and Pinkney team up for the second time, creating a dynamic collection of songs, rhymes, and stories with origins in the African American diaspora. McKissack recalls most of the examples from her childhood in Missouri and Tennessee and shares her own versions as well as memories and anecdotes. However, this volume is far from just a trip down memory lane. The extensive research, much of which the author attributes to her late husband in the thorough back matter, highlights the histories behind these classics. McKissack weaves this research together fluidly in a storylike format with accessible language. Many pieces have changed over time, and she acknowledges this evolution by presenting different versions and iterations. The content represents a wide range of formats and includes performance poetry by Langston Hughes, Anansi trickster tales, Christian spirituals, Underground Railroad hymns, proverbs, and such standards as “Miss Mary Mack” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Pinkney’s artistry brings even more joy to this lively assortment. His distinctive broad brushstrokes, bright watercolors, and playful characterizations add a splash of color and light. Each section heading features a large, vibrant illustration, with other color and black-and-white vignettes peppered throughout the chapters. VERDICT Part songbook, part research text, this work is perfect for families to share together or for young scholars who seek to discover an important piece of cultural history. McKissack and Pinkney capture the essence of the songs, stories, and play of an African American childhood.–Clara Hendricks, Cambridge Public Library, MA

This review was published in the School Library Journal December 2016 issue.

frederick-douglassredstarMYERS, Walter Dean. Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History. illus. by Floyd Cooper. 40p. bibliog. chron. HarperCollins. Jan. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780060277093.

Gr 2-5 –This picture book biography draws on Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies to examine his motivations and his lasting impact on U.S. history. Using erasers and oil on board, Cooper conveys Douglass’s determination, portraying him as strong and serious even as a child. The artwork depicts Douglass’s growing awareness that a life outside of slavery might be possible. The events covered are well chosen to give young readers insight into the essence of his life and accomplishments. In a child-appropriate manner, the text describes beatings, but the illustrations do not show scars. When Douglass was 16, his owner realized that the teen’s independent spirit might be problematic. The owner sent Douglass to another man, Edward Covey, whose mistreatment of slaves often caused them to back down. In a dramatic spread, Douglass is shown standing over Covey as the older man crouches on the ground, Douglass clearly the victor in their confrontation: an image that emphasizes the spirit that drove him to stand up for himself and other African Americans through the abolitionist movement. A time line provides context and further details about Douglass’s life. VERDICT Although this title is similar in scope to Doreen Rappaport’s Frederick’s Journey, the two books complement each other. Recommended for collections looking to further explore Douglass’s legacy.–Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher’s School, Richmond, VA

This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2016 issue.

redstarNELSON, Vaunda Micheaux. Dream March: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington. illus. by Sally Wern Comport. 48p. (Step into Reading: Step 3). Random. Dec. 2017. lib. ed. $12.99. ISBN 9781101936702; pap. $4.99. ISBN 9781101936696. POP

K-Gr 3 –The narrative opens with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, then traces the March on Washington back to the 1950s and 60s when “black Americans organized and fought extra hard. Their fight was called the civil rights movement.” Early protests and famous civil rights activists are mentioned, along with more information on King. The narrative eventually returns to the march and provides finer details about the day (“The marchers crowded the Mall’s Reflecting Pool. Some took off their shoes and socks to soothe their feet in the cool water.”). The text is surrounded by partial and occasional full-page illustrations. The artwork, done in muted tones with soft lines and washes of color, conveys the somberness of the mentioned events and depicts famous civil rights moments, protestors, marchers, politicians, and King with sensitivity. The text uses words and terms most emergent readers will know in a thoughtful and descriptive way. The author’s note provides a paragraph on the 1964 signing of the Civil Rights Act. VERDICT A smart narrative and skillfully done illustrations make this introduction to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement one all libraries will want to consider.–Tamara Saarinen, Pierce County Library, WA

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2017 issue.

STAR-NF-Rubin-TheQuiltsofGeesBendredstarRUBIN, Susan Goldman. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. 56p. bibliog. index. notes. photos. Abrams. Jun. 2017. Tr $21.95. ISBN 9781419721311.

Gr 6 Up –A quilt “represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history.” In this handsomely designed volume, Rubin shares the history of the Gee’s Bend families, who, for more than 100 years, have been designing and creating bold and brilliant quilts. From 1845, when plantation owner Mark Pettway and his household settled in Alabama, to the present, African American women in this rural village have been piecing together scraps of fabric salvaged from old clothes, flour sacks, or corduroy pillow covers, while their daughters, nieces, and granddaughters have watched and learned. Through the years, as they endured and eventually rose above abject poverty, back-breaking work, and inequality, the women continually found community in picking up their needles to help one another sew quilts to keep their families warm. As they witnessed tumultuous moments in history, from the Civil War and the Great Depression to the civil rights movement, the quilters were eventually recognized for their artistry by the outside world. Rubin captures the voices of the inhabitants of Gee’s Bend, weaving quotes and memories of current residents throughout the engaging narrative. Vibrant photos of the most striking quilts and archival images complement the text. In the spirit of passing on the tradition, simple instructions for making a quilt square appear at the end of the book. VERDICTCombining history, memoir, and quilting, this fascinating portrait of an indomitable community will appeal to readers, artists, and crafters of all ages.–Linda L. Walkins, Saint Joseph Preparatory High School, Boston

This review was published in the School Library Journal April 2017 issue.

RUBINI, Julie K. Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller. 152p. (Biographies for Young Readers). bibliog. chron. glossary. notes. photos. Ohio Univ. Pr. Ju1. 2017. Tr $28.95. ISBN 9780821422687; pap. $14.95. ISBN 9780821422694. Gr 6 Up–A biography of Virginia Hamilton—the award-winning author of such classics as Zeely and M.C. Higgins, the Great—for middle schoolers. Rubini presents Hamilton’s life story as one filled with both triumphs and struggles, focusing on what it was like to be an African American woman author in the 1960s. The work offers insight into what inspired Hamilton to craft her groundbreaking books. “Did You Know?” inserts accompany the text and provide background on the civil rights movement and more, though the boxes occasionally disrupt the narrative flow. By contrast, the photographs and back matter contribute greatly to the reading experience. VERDICT A general addition to nonfiction biography collections, especially wherever Hamilton’s titles are in demand.–Aileen Barton, Choctaw Public Library, OK

This review was published in the School Library Journal July 2017 issue.

SCHUBERT, Leda. Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson. illus. by Theodore Taylor III. 40p. bibliog. glossary. little bee. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781499805925. Gr 2-5–Schubert lovingly tells the life story of Raven Wilkinson, the first African American ballerina to tour with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. From the age of nine, she was enamored and determined to make it as a dancer after an uncle gave her the gift of ballet lessons. Schubert chronicles the many injustices Wilkinson experienced over the course of her career because of racism, including segregation, violence from the Ku Klux Klan, and being denied prominent roles. After performing for several years in the United States, she moved to Holland where “people were far more interested in who I was rather than what I was,” but she later returned to the States and performed with the New York City Opera until the end of her career at age 50. Taylor’s animation-style use of heavy outlines and muted tones captures the poise and athleticism of Wilkinson. A foreword by Misty Copeland, who credits Wilkinson for being a friend and a mentor, addresses Wilkinson’s legacy and importance for future ballerinas, especially in regards to the lack of diversity in classical ballet. VERDICT The importance of hard work and pursuing one’s dreams is the loud-and-clear message of this engaging biography. A great addition to nonfiction picture book collections, especially where there are fans of ballet.–Maryann H. Owen, Oak Creek Public Library, WI

This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2017 issue.

SHEPARD, Ray Anthony. Now or Never!: Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry’s War To End Slavery. 144p. bibliog. chron. further reading. index. notes. photos. Calkins Creek. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781629793405. Gr 6 Up–George Stephens and James Henry Gooding, two African American writers and soldiers, answered and extended Frederick Douglass’s “Now or Never” call to arms to help mobilize troops for the 54th Massachusetts. The disparity between the pay, conditions, and perceptions of African American Civil War soldiers is delineated well throughout the narrative, and Shepard realistically presents Stephens’s and Gooding’s reactions to the inequalities. The author will captivate readers with masterfully built suspense, exemplified in the regiment’s march through the streets of Boston and the battle for Fort Wagner, and with phrases like, “proud Charleston fell with an earth-rattling boom.” The context of the war and the political climate of the country are interjected along with the complexity of sentiments about African Americans, whether through the discussion of the riots in Philadelphia and New York City, or through excerpts from letters that reveal individual prejudices. The inclusion of a time line, maps, drawings, and photographs (none of Stephens or Gooding exist) further enriches the narrative, and Shepard explains his inclusion of epithets and the capitalization of the words black and white when referencing groups of people. VERDICT While books, such as Clinton Cox’s Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment have been published on the subject, this is an excellent addition to the history.–Hilary Writt, Sullivan University, Lexington, KY

This review was published in the School Library Journal August 2017 issue.

SOUZA, Pete. Dream Big Dreams: Photographs from Barack Obama’s Inspiring and Historic Presidency. photos by Pete Souza. 96p. Little, Brown. Nov. 2017. Tr $21.99. ISBN 9780316514392.

Gr 4-6 –An archive of historical and candid photographs snapped during President Barack Obama’s two terms in office. Former chief White House photographer Souza provides young people with a glimpse of Obama’s presidential legacy and tells a behind-the-scenes story of a leader who made time to engage with kids, encouraging them to “Dream big dreams.” Souza commemorates eight years of hope and change through 75 iconic images. The inclusion of key historical moments and the red, white, and blue palette complement and enhance the overall patriotic design. The work ends on an upbeat note, with sections “Have Fun” and “Dream Big Dreams” filled with images of Obama with his family and with children. Overall, the book effectively communicates the lasting human and emotional impression of Obama’s presidential legacy. VERDICT A powerful and intimate photo diary of President Obama that will empower onlookers to “be their best and do their best.”–Angelina Bair, Willoughby-Eastlake Public Library, OH

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarSTEPTOE, Javaka. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. illus. by Javaka Steptoe. 40p. bibliog. Little, Brown. Oct. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316213882.

Gr 1-5 –One extraordinary artist illuminates another in this textured, heartfelt picture book biography of the 1980s cultural phenom. Employing signature features of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work—vibrant colors, found objects, repeated motifs—Steptoe allows his own emotionally rich style to shine through the artistic and biographical references dotting the illustrations. Pieces of discarded wood from Basquiat’s stomping grounds fit together to form the painted surfaces for Steptoe’s scenes of the Afro Puerto Rican artist, each unfolding within a colored frame. Occasional collage elements of newsprint, photographs, and art materials add dimension and immediacy, highlighting both artists’ immersion in their work and surroundings. Adhering to a straightforward chronology, Steptoe addresses events in Basquiat’s life primarily as they affected his artistic growth from young boyhood in Brooklyn through the triumphant years as a critical and popular success in Manhattan. With minimal detail, the author sensitively touches upon his subject’s childhood car crash and his mother’s mental illness, though the story avoids his drug use and stops before his early death. Crucial back matter provides context for readers in every respect. Additional biographical information fleshes out the lyrical text of the main narrative, and an introduction to symbolism in Basquiat’s work helps readers appreciate the layers at play in Steptoe’s illustrations. An author’s note articulates feelings that radiate from every page of the book: Steptoe’s admiration for and attachment to Basquiat and his personal investment in depicting a complicated, loving relationship between a child and a mentally ill parent. VERDICT Pairing simple text with expressive, encompassing illustrations, this excellent title offers a new generation a fittingly powerful introduction to an artistic luminary.–Robbin E. Friedman, Chappaqua Library, NY

This review is published in School Library Journal’s August 2016 issue.

redstarVEIRS, Laura. Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten. illus. by Tatyana Fazlalizdeh. 48p. bibliog. photos. Chronicle. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781452148571.

K-Gr 3 –As a child, Elizabeth Cotten, or Libba, heard a song everywhere she went, reverberating through the clear North Carolina air around her home. Sneaking into her brother’s room one day, she began to play his guitar—upside down and backwards, since she was left-handed and the guitar was for right-handers. What came afterward is the beginning of a chapter in music history: “Freight Train,” a song that lives in the annals of U.S. folk music. Veirs details Cotten’s early determination to play guitar and the long deferment of that dream by daily life (“But even trains get derailed. Time swept Libba up”). Cotten would eventually be hired as a housekeeper for the Seeger family, her passion for song would be rekindled, and her childhood creation “Freight Train” would become a sensation. (“The Seegers believed in Libba…But it was Libba’s perseverance, her love of music, and her belief in herself that gave the world her voice.”) Veirs breaks up the narrative with poetic passages and with actual lyrics from Cotten’s songs. Fazlalizadeh’s earth-toned palette and softly blurred illustrations are imbued with warmth and contribute to the dreamy atmosphere. An extensive author’s note provides a more detailed account of Cotten’s life, the social and institutional barriers African Americans faced in the South, and the role the Seegers played in Cotten’s fame. VERDICT The message of never giving up on a dream, no matter the circumstances, will resonate deeply with readers—purchase for all picture book biography collections.–Amanda C. Buschmann, Carroll Elementary School, Houston

This review was published in the School Library Journal December 2017 issue.

redstarWALLACE, Sandra Neil. Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery. illus. by Bryan Collier. 48p. further reading. notes. reprods. websites. S. & S./Paula Wiseman Bks. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481443876. Gr 1-4 –The pursuit of dreams and the resilience of the human spirit shine in this illustrated biography of one of the world’s greatest sports artists. Growing up in the segregated south, Ernie Barnes loved to draw and rarely left home without his sketchbook. Shy, quiet, and often picked on, Barnes found his voice by painting what he observed in his surroundings: families walking, an old man snoring, the junk man peddling. When he grew to be six foot three, he was recruited for the high school football team and eventually earned a sports scholarship to an all-black university. Still, Barnes was discouraged: he wanted to be an artist instead of an athlete. His art teacher inspired him to paint what he saw, and suddenly his calling was realized: he will paint football, seeing the beauty in what before was ordinary. Barnes would go on to make the NFL, play for the Colts, and paint his first football painting, The Bench, a work that would define his career for years to come. After leaving football for good, his professional dream was fully realized when he was invited to become the official artist for the American Football League: “When I became an athlete, I didn’t stop being an artist.” Collier’s illustrations are storytellers on their own, blending emulations of Barnes’s work with dynamic, mixed-media imagery that enhances the book’s historical relevance. VERDICT An absolutely indispensable illustrated biography that will remind readers of all ages that it’s never too late to pursue their dreams.–Natalie ­Romano, Denver Public Library

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarWEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You. illus. by James E. Ransome. 40p. Bloomsbury. Jan. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780802723680.

K-Gr 3 –In this book inspired by the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Weatherford and Ransome offer advice to a new generation of change-makers. In each spread, Weatherford repeats the refrain “You can be a King” and encourages young readers to continue Dr. King’s work by taking such actions as getting a good education, standing up to bullies, believing in important causes, doing one’s best, having a dream, and helping others. Each piece of advice alludes to Dr. King’s life, and in some cases, recalls his speeches and writing. Ransome’s art, rendered in acrylics, colored pencils, oils, and gouache, adds depth to the deceptively simple text. The illustrations alternate between full spreads depicting important events from Dr. King’s life and the civil rights movement and a contemporary classroom in white space, in which a diverse group of children paint a mural of Dr. King and prepare their own march for social justice. There is a shift in the style of the art here as well; the historical scenes maintain a serious tone, while the contemporary scenes evoke a more childlike quality. An author’s note provides a brief biography of Dr. King and also offers insight into both Weatherford’s text as well as many of the historical moments captured in Ransome’s illustrations. As such, while the book is accessible as an inspiring primer on social justice and taking action, it also challenges more sophisticated readers to make connections between the art, the text, Dr. King’s life, the civil rights movement at large, and the continuing struggle to affect change. VERDICT A first purchase, this book is sure to spark discussion and empower readers of all ages.–Lauren Strohecker, McKinley Elementary School, Elkins Park, PA

This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2017 issue.

redstarWEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. Freedom in Congo Square. illus. by R. Gregory Christie. 40p. glossary. Little Bee. Jan. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781499801033. Gr 1-3–This vibrant picture book examines Congo Square in New Orleans. A foreword and author’s note explain how, historically, slaves in Louisiana were allowed Sunday afternoons off. This custom continued after the territory joined the United States, although in time, New Orleans established one location for all slaves to gather: an area that became known as Congo Square. This unique practice helped enslaved and free Africans maintain cultural traditions. The impact was felt far beyond New Orleans as musicians, dancers, and singers developed, explored, and shared rhythms that eventually grew into jazz music. The text is realistic but child appropriate. Couplets count down the days to Sunday in a conversational tone (“Slavery was no ways fair./Six more days to Congo Square.”). The writing is accompanied by folk art–style illustrations, with paint applied in thick layers. Some images, such as faces, are more detailed, while others are presented as silhouettes. Collage with painted elements is incorporated on occasion. The architecture portrayed evokes the New Orleans setting. Bright colors suggest the exuberance displayed at Congo Square. Spreads where the slaves are finally able to sing, dance, and express emotion contrast effectively with the forced restraint of those depicting the work week. VERDICT Unique in its subject and artistic expression, this beautiful book belongs in most collections.–Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher’s School, Richmond, VA

This review was published in School Library Journal’s October 2015 issue.

WEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. illus. by Elizabeth Zunon. 48p. bibliog. further reading. S. & S./Atheneum. Jan. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481468244. Gr 3-5–A lyrical biography from award-winning author Weatherford (Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement). The narrative follows Horne throughout her life and highlights her talent, activism, career highs and lows, love of reading, and lifelong dedication to civil rights. While the format is that of a picture book, the text, which alternates between short phrases and longer narrative paragraphs, may require a sophisticated reader. Complex concepts (studio contracts, blacklisting, lynching) are neither glossed over nor extensively addressed. Where this volume truly shines, though, is in its straightforward but multifaceted approach to the complicated realities of Horne’s stardom, from segregated venues to skin-darkening makeup, contract negotiations to civil rights rallies and parenting. Weatherford celebrates Horne for her skill and for changing the game for those to come (“Because Lena refused/to darken rear doors,/black stars now gleam/on red carpets”). Zunon’s paint and collage illustrations fill the pages with rich colors and remain true to the glamor of Horne’s performances. Occasional text boxes featuring song titles or quotations work to varying success. Back matter includes an author’s note about Weatherford’s own connection with Horne and a list of further reading (however, the two print suggestions are written for older students). VERDICT Though it will likely need some selling on the part of librarians, this is a carefully crafted offering for thoughtful readers interested in the intersection of music, stardom, and civil rights.–Katya Schapiro, Brooklyn Public Library

This review was published in School Library Journal’s November 2016 issue.

redstarWEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library. illus. by Eric Velasquez. 48p. bibliog. chron. notes. Candlewick. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763680466.

Gr 3-6 –Born in 1874, Afro-Puerto Rican Arturo Schomburg’s sense of wonder was stoked early on by listening to el lector, who read aloud from newspapers and novels to the cigar workers Schomburg kept company. When a teacher asserted that “Africa’s sons and daughters” had no history or heroes worth noting, it sparked Schomburg’s lifelong quest to uncover his people’s stories, “correcting history for generations to come.” He immigrated to New York in 1891, and though stymied in his hopes to pursue higher education, began amassing a collection of Africana books and art. Through text and art, Weatherford and Velasquez craft a winning portrait of both collector and his collection. Oversize oil-on-watercolor paintings accompany each page of text: one arresting image finds young Schomburg immersed in a book, with a portrait of Benjamin Bannecker hanging above his shoulder. Velasquez captures Schomburg’s proud bearing and intent focus. His research led to writers and poets, including Frederick Douglass and poet Phillis Wheatley; revolutionaries like Toussaint Louverture; and luminaries whose “African heritage had been whitewashed,” including John James Audubon and Ludwig van Beethoven. By day, Schomburg worked as a mailroom clerk, but his collecting and scholarship introduced him to members of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Schomburg’s collection was donated to the New York Public Library and now boasts over 10 million items. VERDICT This excellent work of history illuminates Schomburg and his legendary collection for a new generation—it belongs in all public and school libraries.–Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA

This review was published in the School Library Journal August 2017 issue.

Also, don't forget to check out Library Journal's roundup of graphic novels for Black History Month and reread SLJ reviews manager Shelley Diaz's article Celebrate Black History Month with Afro-Latinx Kid Lit, in which she discussed anti-Blackness in Latinx culture and provided an excellently curated list of books featuring Afro-Latinx characters.

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Jess

I don't know if I should laugh or cry, but this list of books pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with depictions of black people in children's literature. The majority of the books can be divided into two groups: "issues" books and stereotypical pursuits of black people books (i.e. basketball and dancing). What black children need (and FYI, all black children aren't Southern, all black children are not poor) are normal, everyday depictions of black people and black families living their life . . . like the large majority of books with white people as their central characters. This, alas, is very hard to find. Kudos, though, on the black inventors/scientists genre -- this seems to be uplifting, affirming, educational and not as "issues"-driven.

Posted : Jan 23, 2018 09:23


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