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Legends and Unsung Heroes

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by Joyce Adams Burner, School Library Journal

black_history1Picture books pair up perfectly with African-American history, exquisitely depicting the determination and spirit that have marked more than two centuries of struggle against racial barriers and injustice. The emotions and humanity portrayed in the illustrations bring home the hardships and triumphs like no ordinary textbook can. Whether Eric Velasquez’s quiet charcoal drawings of marching children in Angela Johnson’s A Sweet Smell of Roses or R. Gregory Christie’s intense primitives of Sojourner Truth in Anne Rockwell’s Only Passing Through, the power of the images moves readers’ experience to a more heartfelt level.

Arranged in historically chronological sections, the books suggested here will be welcomed by students of all ages. While they are obviously useful on the elementary level for Black History Month and similar social studies units, consider incorporating Ntozake Shange’s Ellington Was Not a Street and Walter Dean Myers’s Harlem and Blues Journey into a secondary-level poetry study, or offering Kadir Nelson’s sophisticated We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball to high school sports classes. Tom Feelings’s The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo, most appropriate for teens due to its raw intensity, is a rich resource for high school art classes, as is prominent artist Romare Bearden’s Li’l Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story. Jerry Pinkney’s intricate watercolors of the Great Migration coupled with Billie Holiday’s song God Bless the Child beg to enrich music classes, as do Brian Selznick’s sepia-toned paintings of Marian Anderson in Pam Muñoz Ryan’s When Marian Sang. Detailed author’s notes in most books provide further information about the people and events on which they are based. Creative use of picture books in the classroom will bring African-American history and heritage to life for students of all ages, interests, and backgrounds.

Early Notable African Americans

CLINTON, Catherine. Phillis’s Big Test. illus. by Sean Qualls. Houghton. 2008. RTE $16. ISBN 978-0-618-73739-0.

Gr 1-4–Phillis Wheatley, 17, walks across Boston in 1773 to present herself before Massachusetts Bay Colony leaders who question that a slave girl could write the poetry she claims to have authored. Qualls’s acrylic and collage illustrations depict Wheatley’s determination and inner strength in quiet blues, grays, browns, and reds, as she recalls her mistress’s encouragement, “Your talent will speak for itself.”

McCULLY, Emily Arnold. The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington’s Slave Finds Freedom. illus. by author. Farrar. 2007. Tr $16. ISBN 978-0-374-32225-0.

Gr 2-4–When Martha Washington’s personal maid accompanies the new nation’s First Family to the capital in Philadelphia, she encounters free blacks for the first time and longs for her own liberty. McCully’s detailed text and delicate watercolors follow Oney’s flight, aided by abolitionists, as she persistently protects her freedom, learning to read and raising a family despite repeated attempts by the Washingtons to retrieve their property.

PRINGLE, Laurence. American Slave, American Hero: York of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. illus. by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek. 2006. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-59078-282-8.

Gr 3-5–When William Clark joined Meriwether Lewis on their remarkable expedition, he brought York, his personal servant since boyhood. Pringle reconstructs York’s story from journals, depicting a strong, resourceful man admired as “big medicine” by the Native Americans and whose hunting prowess proves vital to the expedition’s survival. Large, richly detailed watercolors portray the beauty and hardship encountered by the explorers.

Slavery, Abolition, and the Civil War

BEARDEN, Romare. Li’l Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story. illus. by author. S & S. 2003. RTE $18.95. ISBN 978-0-689-86237-3.

Gr 1-4–When slave child Li’l Dan is freed by Union soldiers, he joins a unit of black soldiers as mascot and drummer boy, soon using his drum to save his friends from attack by Confederate troops. Childlike illustrations combine jewel-toned watercolors with line drawings to convey Dan’s confusion and ingenuity. Maya Angelou reads the text on the accompanying CD.

CARBONE, Elisa. Night Running: How James Escaped with the Help of His Faithful Dog. illus. by E. B. Lewis. Knopf. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-375-82247-6; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-92247-3.

Gr 2-4–In 1838, slave boy James flees Virginia for freedom, his noisy hunting dog in tow. Zeus saves James from slave hunters and their dogs, catches squirrels for the pair to eat, and finally dives into the Ohio River and drags James across when his leaking canoe sinks. Expressive watercolors portray the danger and determination of their journey. Based on a true story.

CLINTON, Catherine. Hold the Flag High. illus. by Shane W. Evans. HarperCollins/Katharine Tegen Bks. 2005. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-06-050428-1; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-050429-8.

Gr 3-6–Old Glory ripples through the vivid oil paintings, illustrating this recounting of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment, completely made up of African Americans, in the Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Despite his own wounds, Sergeant William H. Carney, the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, heroically saves the flag when its bearer is killed in the confusion and violence of battle.

FEELINGS, Tom. The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo. illus. by author. Dial. 1995. Tr $75. ISBN 978-0-8037-1804-3.

Gr 9 Up–Visceral images depict the horror and brutality experienced by Africans savagely captured, packed into crowded slave ships, and carried to America in this powerful wordless narrative. Rendered in pen, ink, and tempera in muted black and gray, the artwork’s fluid lines unflinchingly portray the inhumanity and peril of the journey across the Atlantic, with ghostly white slave traders depicted in stark contrast to muscular Africans.

RAPPAPORT, Doreen. No More! Stories and Songs of Slave Resistance. illus. by Shane W. Evans. Candlewick. 2002. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-0984-9; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-2876-5.

Gr 4-8–This seamless compilation weaves traditional songs, evocative poems, and brief first-person narratives into a strong portrayal of the struggle for freedom. From the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass, and Nat Turner to the impact of Old Testament stories, secret schools for black children, and slave ship rebellions, courageous resistance is captured in words and reflected in dramatic oil paintings.

ROCKWELL, Anne F. Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth. illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Knopf. 2000. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-679-89186-4; PLB $18.99. ISBN 978-0-679-99186-1.

Gr 3-5-“Her old name belonged to her old life.” The remarkable transformation of cruelly mistreated slave girl Isabella into courageous abolitionist Sojourner Truth is recounted in plentiful detail. Intense stylistic paintings combining exaggerated proportions and rich colors add sophisticated visual appeal to the story of the fierce woman who dared “to say what needed to be said.” Audio version available from Audio Bookshelf.

WEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. illus. by Kadir Nelson. Hyperion. 2006. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-5175-1.

Gr 2-5-Harriet Tubman’s spiritual journey is woven together with her passage north to freedom via the Underground Railroad in a poetic portrayal drawn around her ongoing conversation with God. Nelson’s double-page paintings depict the danger and exhaustion of her trek, much of it nocturnal, with God’s encouraging answers set off in oversize type flowing around the page.

Post-Civil War/Pre-Civil Rights Experiences

BARBOUR, Karen. Mr. Williams. illus. by author. Holt. 2005. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8050-6773-6.

K-Gr 3-Hard work and the embrace of a large, loving family characterize this first-person narrative of growing up on a 1930s Louisiana farm. The young boy enjoys swimming, fishing, and Mama’s cooking, and copes with occasional racist incidents. Primitive folk-art illustrations created in gouache and ink on paper and collage depict the changing seasons and bustling surroundings. A great introduction to oral history.

HOLIDAY, Billie & Arthur Herzog, Jr. God Bless the Child. illus. by Jerry Pinkney. HarperCollins/Amistad. 2004. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-028797-9; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-029487-8.

K-Gr 5-Lyrics from Lady Day’s moody lament provide minimalist text to this story of an African-American family leaving the South and moving to Chicago during the Great Migration of the 1930s. Pinkney drew inspiration from vintage photographs to create finely detailed watercolors on mostly wordless spreads, portraying the family at work and play.

MYERS, Walter Dean. Blues Journey. illus. by Christopher Myers. Holiday House. 2003. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-1613-4; pap. $8.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-2079-7.

Gr 4 Up-“Pain will push and poke you, despair will scrape the bone/Misery loves company, blues can live alone.” Moody illustrations created in blue ink and white paint on brown paper bags join the lonely sorrow of call-and-response blues lyrics on topics from social injustice to romantic heartbreak. This is a powerful introduction to blues music with wide age-range appeal, from an accomplished father/son team. Audio version available from Live Oak Media.

MYERS, Walter Dean. Harlem. illus. by Christopher Myers. Scholastic. 1997. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-59054-340-8.

Gr 6 Up-“Harlem was a promise/Of a better life, of a place where a man didn’t/Have to know his place/Simply because he was/Black.” This evocative tribute to the spirit and experience of Harlem pairs sophisticated poetry and striking collage paintings in an exuberant expression of the distinctive joys, challenges, triumphs, and disappointments of life in this important African-American enclave. A fluid portrayal, “from Marcus to Malcolm.”

NELSON, Kadir. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. illus. by author. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun. 2008. RTE $18.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-0832-8.

Gr 3 Up-Using a folksy first-person “Everyman” narrator, Nelson packs this gorgeous volume with details of the Negro League experience, from style of play to the difficulties of segregation. Bright, beefy paintings, many based on historic photographs, depict exciting moments on the diamond and larger-than-life players, including a gatefold of the first Colored World Series match-up. Wonderful all-ages appeal.

SCILLIAN, Devin. Pappy’s Handkerchief. illus. by Chris Ellison. Sleeping Bear. 2007. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-1-58536-316-2.

Gr 2-4-A black family swaps its Baltimore fish stall for a wagon and horses and heads west to join the Oklahoma Land Run in 1889. Mounting mishaps leave it all up to young Moses to ride on alone and stake their claim with his grandfather’s handkerchief. Warmly colorful dramatic paintings capture the dangers of their journey and the excitement of the Run.

SHANGE, Ntozake. Ellington Was Not a Street. illus. by Kadir Nelson. S & S. 2004. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-689-82884-3.

Gr 3-8-“i remember/i was there/i listened in the company of men/politics as necessary as collards/music even in our dreams.” Shange’s poem, “Mood Indigo,” recalls a Harlem Renaissance childhood where Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, W. E. B. DuBois, and other visionaries were regular visitors in her home, their lively interactions pictured in Nelson’s richly colored oil paintings. DVD/video and audio versions available from Weston Woods.

Heroic Biographies

BOLDEN, Tonya. The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali. illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Knopf. 2004. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-375-82401-2; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-92401-9; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-440-41782-8.

Gr 1-5-“Ali! Ali! Ali!” His trademark determination and bravado burst through this look at The Champ’s life from his Louisville childhood through his 1960 Olympic gold medal, repeated championships, refusal to be drafted, and physical decline. Bolden’s text shimmers and stings, lightly sparring with the bold, graphic illustrations created in paint and colored pencil, for verbal and visual appeal with a one-two punch.

GRIMES, Nikki. Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman. illus. by E. B. Lewis. Scholastic/Orchard. 2002. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-439-35243-7.

Gr 3-8-The first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license is remembered in 20 captivating free-verse fictionalized monologues delivered by her parents, siblings, co-workers, instructors, newsmen, friends, and fans. Elegant full-page watercolor paintings illustrate moments both memorable and quiet in her life as a barnstormer, from her childhood in Jim Crow Texas to her accidental death at 34 in 1926.

RYAN, Pam Muñoz. When Marian Sang. illus. by Brian Selznick. Scholastic. 2002. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-439-26967-4.

K-Gr 5-Finely detailed acrylic paintings, suggestive of sepia-toned photographs, provide the perfect accompaniment to the melodic text in this recounting of singer Marian Anderson and the racial barriers she overcame. Lyrics of spirituals dot the prose that climaxes with her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, attended by an integrated audience of more than 75,000, and her 1955 debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Audio version available from Live Oak Media.

STAUFFACHER, Sue. Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson. illus. by Greg Couch. Knopf. 2007. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-375-83408-0; PLB $19.99. ISBN 978-0-375-93408-7.

Gr 2-5– “…slowly Althea learned that wanting to slug her opponent as soon as she started losing her match made her a worse tennis player….” Gibson struggled with racism and her own impetuosity in her transformation from the “wildest tomboy in the history of Harlem” to the first black athlete to win Wimbledon in 1957. Swirling, digitally manipulated acrylic paintings burst with energy.

WEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer. illus. by Eric Velasquez. Walker. 2008. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8027-9688-2; RTE $17.85. ISBN 978-0-8027-9689-9.

Gr 2-5– “My dreams had sails.” In lyrical first-person narration, Henson recounts his life of adventure, beginning with his teen years at sea. Undeterred by fear, racism, or physical danger, he traveled the world and explored the Arctic as Robert Peary’s right-hand man, joining him to reach the North Pole in 1909. Illustrations rendered in frosty pastels portray Henson, full of determination and hard at work, against icy vistas.

WEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive. illus. by Eric Velasquez. Walker . 2007. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8027-9550-2; RTE $17.85. ISBN 978-0-8027-9551-9.

Gr 2-6–“Go, Jesse, go. Trounce Jim Crow./Run as fast as your feet can fly,/as far as your dreams will reach.” Weatherford’s free verse traces the athlete’s achievement of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin against background references to Nazi tyranny. Pictures created in pastels on illustration board retain a grainy quality reminiscent of archival photographs.

Civil Rights Movement

JOHNSON, Angela. A Sweet Smell of Roses. illus. by Eric Velasquez. S & S. 2005. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-689-83252-9; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-5361-6.

K-Gr 3-This simple tribute to the children who participated in the Civil Rights Movement follows two young sisters who slip away from home to join a peaceful march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Soft illustrations, done in charcoal except for the red on a teddy bear’s ribbon, the stripes of the American flag, and the sweet-smelling roses outside Mama’s window, deftly convey the emotions experienced by the marchers.

LITTLESUGAR, Amy. Freedom School, Yes! illus. by Floyd Cooper. Philomel. 2001. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-399-23006-6.

Gr 1-4-Jolie learns about her African-American history and heritage against a backdrop of violence and unrest as she attends the Freedom School taught by a young northern white woman volunteering with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. Vibrant oil-wash illustrations follow Jolie’s journey from panic to understanding as threatening notes tied to bricks escalate into arson when the church hosting the school is burned down.

MYERS, Walter Dean. Malcolm X: A Fire Burning Brightly. illus. by Leonard Jenkins. HarperCollins. 2000. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-027707-9; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-027708-6; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-06-056201-4.

Gr 2-5-“There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution!” The fierce words of Malcolm X dot the pages of this straightforward story of the fiery figure, from his difficult childhood through his time in prison to his prominence as a leader in the Nation of Islam, pilgrimage to Mecca, and assassination. Turbulent illustrations created by layering acrylic, pastel, and spray paint convey intense passions.

PINKNEY, Andrea Davis. Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation. illus. by Brian Pinkney. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-082118-0; PLB $17.89. ISBN 978-0-06-082119-7.

K-Gr 3-“…we walked. With dogged feet. With dog-tired feet. With boycott feet. With boycott blues.” Rosa Parks’s refusal to relinquish her seat and the resulting 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott are related in bluesy prose and swirling illustrations rendered in colored inks on clay board. “Jim Crow” hovers in a churning black-feathered storm on many pages, with brooding blues dominating the palette.

RAPPAPORT, Doreen. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. illus. by Bryan Collier. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun. 2001. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-0714-7; PLB $16.49. ISBN 978-0-7868-2591-2.

Gr 3-5-Written simply and eloquently, this title highlights formative and prominent moments in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., weaving his “big words” into the spare text. Elegant watercolor and cut-paper collage illustrations portray King’s devotion to the cause of freedom and justice, with a stained-glass-window motif serving as a metaphor for facets of his life. DVD/video and audio versions available from Weston Woods.

RAPPAPORT, Doreen. The School Is Not White! A True Story of the Civil Rights Movement. illus. by Curtis James. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun. 2005. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7868-1838-9.

Gr 2-5-The children of a black sharecropping family endure years of threats, insults, and isolation when they enroll in a white school in 1965 Mississippi. Rappaport pays tribute to devoted parents who dreamed of a good education for their offspring, as well as the civil rights workers who supported the family morally and financially. Illustrated with emotionally dynamic chalk and pastel pictures.

WEATHERFORD, Carole Boston. Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins. illus. by Jerome Lagarrigue. Dial. 2005. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8037-2860-8; pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-0-14-240894-0.

K-Gr 4-Connie watches as her older brother and sister take part in the sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter and march against segregation along with other members of the NAACP. Supportive parents form the backbone of this strong family stirred by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words. Soft, muted paintings portray the protests, sit-ins, and family interactions.


Written by Symphony

December 4, 2008 at 9:56 am

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