10 Nonfiction and Fiction Titles to Give Young Readers Context on The Great Migration

To honor Black History Month, SLJ is curating lists of fiction and nonfiction book pairings focusing on pivotal moments in Black history in the United States. These 10 books are excellent resources for understanding the experiences of those who had to uproot their families during The Great Migration.

As we commemorate the lives and history of Black peoples in the United States this February, SLJ has curated lists of fiction and nonfiction books that can be paired in the classroom to offer a nuanced presentation of major historical events of Black history.

According to the National Archives, approximately six million Black people moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states, roughly from the 1910s until the 1970s, during The Great Migration. The driving force behind the mass movement was to escape racial violence, pursue economic and educational opportunities, and obtain freedom from the oppression of Jim Crow.

The fiction and nonfiction books below, for elementary grade to high school, are excellent resources for understanding the experiences of those who had to uproot their families during this time.

 

Nonfiction

Binns, Barbara. Unlawful Orders: A Portrait of Dr. James B. Williams, Tuskegee Airman, Surgeon, and Activist. Scholastic Focus. ISBN 9781338754261.
Gr 5 Up–Binns provides an in-depth look at the life and legacy of Dr. James B. Williams, whose tireless efforts helped integrate the military and medicine. Williams became a member of the Medical Corps in 1942 and then later a pilot, ultimately joining the Tuskegee Airmen. As a Black officer, he was denied entry into the Officers’ Club and led protests to integrate it. Widely recognized as a major step towards integrating the military, the protests became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny. After the war, Williams worked as a doctor in Chicago. His work led him to the office of President Kennedy as part of the lobbying for what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which denied funding to hospitals that practiced segregation and ultimately forced many facilities to desegregate. Readers will be rewarded by Binns’s fluid and absorbing writing. Includes numerous photographs and extensive back matter. VERDICT Strongly recommended for middle school students as it fills a significant gap in YA nonfiction.

Greenfield, Eloise. The Great Migration: Journey to the North. illus. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. HarperCollins/Amistad. ISBN 9780061259210.
K-Gr 8–In eloquent verse, Greenfield narrates the story of the migration during the years 1915–1930 of more than a million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North in search of opportunity, employment, and fair treatment. The poems are arranged under five headings that represent the stages of the journey: "The News," "Goodbyes," "The Trip," "Question," and "Up North." Feelings of fear and apprehension resonate in the poetry, in the sad and hopeful voices of the men, women, and children who gave up all they knew and embarked on an unknown future. Gilchrist's illustrations gracefully complement the poetry; mixed-media collages incorporating line drawings, muted watercolor washes, newsprint clippings, photos, and sepia-toned illustrations depict warm family representations as well as stark desperation and anger. Greenfield's lyricism and her clear, narrative style make this book a solid choice for independent reading and for reading aloud. 

 Taylor, Candacy. Overground Railroad (The Young Adult Adaptation): The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America. Abrams. ISBN 9781419749490.
Gr 7 Up–Adapting her phenomenal exploration of Black travel, Taylor outfits this identically titled offering with the pacing and organization perfect for a younger audience. For nearly 30 years, the Green Book provided Black travelers with listings of safe places to find goods and services first throughout the U.S., then around the world. Particularly prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, driving while Black, especially in “sundown towns,” could very well be deadly. Victor Hugo Green, a mailman by day, set about the life-saving task of listing businesses—accommodations, restaurants, barber shops, beauty salons, tailors, gas stations, nightclubs, and more—that could be relied upon to serve Black travelers reliably and with dignity. This was an especially tricky proposition in the segregated South but was not much easier in the redlined cities of the North where discrimination was practiced more covertly. The Green Book served as “an ingenious solution to a horrific problem” and Taylor walks readers through its many iterations as it guided travelers along roads, rails, and even through the air, describing the many complications that continuously arose for Black travelers. VERDICT This is a priceless addition for researchers and readers seeking to understand not just the complexities and insidiousness of centuries of systemic racism in America, but the drive and determination required to fight white supremacy.

RedReviewStar Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. ISBN 9780399252518.
Gr 4–7—"I am born in Ohio but the stories of South Carolina already run like rivers through my veins" writes Woodson as she begins her mesmerizing journey through her early years. She was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1963, "as the South explodes" into a war for civil rights and was raised in South Carolina and then New York. Her perspective on the volatile era in which she grew up is thoughtfully expressed in powerfully effective verse. She experienced firsthand the acute differences in how the "colored" were treated in the North and South. "After the night falls and it is safe for brown people to leave the South without getting stopped and sometimes beaten and always questioned; We board the Greyhound bus bound for Ohio." This should be on every library shelf.

 

Fiction

Armand, Glenda. All Aboard the Schooltrain: A Little Story from the Great Migration. illus. by Keisha Morris. Scholastic. ISBN 9781338766899.
Gr 2-5–In a story straight out of history, Thelma and her family love to watch trains pass through her hometown of Vacherie, LA, and she longs to be a passenger on one of the trains one day. As the end of summer looms, Thelma finds solace in knowing she can get back on the “schooltrain” once third grade begins. The day finally comes and Thelma, her cousins, and her friends all form the schooltrain—a single line—with everyone playing roles as the passengers, caboose, or engineer as they walk to school. Sadly, one day Thelma’s best friend is forced to move to Minnesota where her daddy is relocated to find a new job. Will Thelma’s family be next? Morris’s pictures illustrate unique images with rigid lines and deep hues of brown and rusty orange that perfectly capture the somber times of segregation. VERDICT This is a beautiful story that teaches courage and offers readers a glimpse into the daily life of a Black family.

Lesa Cline-Ransome and collaborator-husband James Ransome appear multiple times on this list. Much of their work takes place or is inspired by this time period in Black American history. One of these projects includes the “Finding Langston” trio of books, middle grade novels following the experiences of three very different boys in WWII-era Chicago. They each have roots in the South and families trying to build new lives in the North. The three novels are essential for middle grade and historical fiction shelves.

OrangeReviewStar Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Finding Langston. illus. by James Ransome. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823439607.
Gr 2–5–It's 1946 and 11-year-old Langston, named after Langston Hughes, has just moved from Alabama to Chicago with his father following the death of his mother. Langston feels isolated and is bullied at school, and every day he misses Alabama: the dirt roads, his Grandma and her cooking, and the sound of Mama's voice. When Langston accidentally stumbles into the public library to ask for directions, he realizes that, unlike in Alabama, black people are allowed in the library, and portraits of esteemed black literary figures hang on the walls. Langston secretly visits the library daily and is pulled into the poetry of Langston Hughes, discovering his namesake. VERDICT Cline-Ransome's novel is an engaging, quick, and relatable read that skillfully incorporates themes of race, class, post-war American life in the North and South, and a bit of Langston Hughes' poetry. This is a story that will stay with readers long after they've finished it.

 Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Leaving Lymon. illus. by James Ransome. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823444427.
Gr 3-7–This companion to Finding Langston is set between the years of 1938 and 1947. The novel opens with Lymon and his paternal grandparents, Ma and Grandpops, visiting Parchman Farm, where Lymon’s father is incarcerated. In the evenings, Grandpops teaches Lymon how to play Delta blues on the guitar. Lymon’s frustration with his father’s absence and school discipline leads to truancy. When Ma must be hospitalized, Lymon’s mother, who lives in Chicago, takes him in. Unfortunately, Momma’s husband Robert beats Lymon, breaks his guitar, and takes money that Aunt Vera sent to Momma. Lymon runs away with the money, and ultimately lands himself in the Arthur J. Andy Home, a juvenile detention center. Like its predecessor, this novel is set during the Great Migration, and readers learn that Lymon is one of Langston’s bullies. Cline-Ransome focuses on the unfair treatment of black men and boys, a problem that endures today. VERDICT Balancing rich history and timeless themes of race, instability, and the importance of music and the arts, this title is another must-have.

 Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Being Clem. Holiday House. illus. by James Ransome. ISBN 9780823446049.
Gr 3-7–This third and final novel in the “Finding Langston” trilogy continues the historical fiction narrative of three boys during World War II. Set in Chicago, this installment follows Clemson Thurber, Jr, who along with his mother and two sisters, navigates life after the Port Chicago Disaster in San Francisco. The catastrophe killed 320 Navy sailors, including Clem’s father. Although Clem doesn’t remember much about his father, who was a career sailor, he feels obligated to live up to his legacy. He was a strong man and a robust swimmer, whereas Clem is afraid to even get into the water. He begins a friendship with Lymon, a new kid who isn’t afraid of anything. As Lymon gets a bit too carried away with his bullying and picks on another new kid, Langston, Clem is forced to choose between his old friend and this new boy who seems to understand him more than anyone else. Cline-Ransome skillfully brings the era of 1944 middle America to life, giving readers a glimpse of an often-neglected part of history. Cline-Ransome’s Clem faces these challenges while struggling to find his own path and reconcile his need to live up to his father’s legacy. Readers will identify with Clem’s struggles and come to like him for the exceptional young man he isa devoted son and brother, and a true friend. VERDICT Exceptional characters and the chance to explore the previous volumes will leave readers wanting more. The historical aspect of the novel encourages further exploration of the era and a greater understanding of race in America during this time. This whole series deserves a place on library shelves everywhere.

Cline-Ransome, Lesa. Overground Railroad. illus. by James Ransome. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823438730.
K-Gr 2–Cline-Ransome and Ransome apply their considerable talents to this timely story about migration and a hope for a better life. At the crack of dawn, Ruth Ellen and her father and mother board the New York–bound Silver Meteor, the first train out of North Carolina that day. They board in secret, having already said their goodbyes to the family members who will stay behind. As they travel, Ruth Ellen reads aloud from her book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a parting gift from her teacher. Finally, as night falls, they arrive at Penn Station and Ruth Ellen steps off the train into the city that is their new home while the bright lights of the city shine like stars. Ransome’s beautiful illustrations feature detailed and expressive faces and layers of bright patterned paper that add colorful accents to the muted palette. The faces of the white passengers are all cut from a single shade of white paper while the black passengers skin tones vary, reflecting the diversity of the participants of the Great Migration. VERDICT An excellent and highly recommended first purchase.

RedReviewStar Woodson, Jacqueline. This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration. illus. by James Ransome. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. ISBN 9780399239861.
K-Gr 3–A utilitarian ropenow a toy, now a clothesline, now a fastening cordties together this lyrical multigenerational story of one family's experience leaving the South for opportunities up North. Woodson's text and Ransome's warm, lived-in oils begin in the sweet expanse of South Carolina, the rich rural landscape contrasted with the busy, populous images of the family's new stone-and-concrete neighborhood in Brooklyn. Every page turn reveals the titular phrase again, but the repetition does not weary as the family thrives and evolves in great leaps and short steps. An author's note offers a brief familial history as well as a few lines about the Great Migration and supports the text as a resounding affirmation of the journey made by more than six million African Americans in search of change. With characteristic grace and a knack for the right detail, Woodson and Ransome have provided a pleasing portrait of one loving family in the midst of a movement.

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