“Because of Them, We Can …”
Celebrating African American History Month
Our nation’s celebration of black history was expanded to a full month in 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial. At President Gerald R. Ford’s urging, Americans were encouraged to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” In February, 1976, fifty years after the first black history celebration, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History held the first African American History Month. By this time, the entire nation had come to recognize the importance of African American history in the drama of the American story. Each year, many children’s books that focus on African American history are published. February is the perfect time to introduce those titles!
New Picture Books
The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, illus. by E.B. Lewis
In 1847 four year old Sarah Roberts was removed from her all white school in Boston and told she could not return. Her parents fought back, and though they lost the case in court, their actions set in motion the events which led to Boston voluntarily integrating its schools in 1855. Lewis’s illustrations effectively capture the historical era and mood of the times.
Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illus. by R. Gregory Christie
Slaves in New Orleans, Louisiana were allowed to congregate on Sundays in Congo Square to make music, sing and dance. The poetic text and folk-art style illustrations combine to pay homage to this bit of African American history.
Bryan uses historical slave documents from the 1820’s to 1860’s to bring to life eleven slaves who belonged to Cado Fairchilds. Upon his death, his wife prepares to sell the eleven. Through free verse narrative and illustration, Bryan creates a portrait of each. This is an extremely poignant work.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, illus. by Francis Vallejo
In 1958 Esquire magazine planned to do a special issue dedicated to the American jazz scene. New York graphic designer, Art Kane, was assigned to gather as many jazz musicians as possible and photograph the group. The famous photograph, Harlem 1958, was the result. Through a series of poems and acrylic and pastel illustrations, the story of the making of that day and the infamous photograph is brought to life. A fold-out page at the end of the book reveals the photograph. An extensive author’s note and brief bios of many of the jazz musicians are included. This is a unique book, remarkably designed.
Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn it out! Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood collected by Patricia C. McKissack, illus. by Brian Pinkney
McKissack and Pinkney are both well-known in the field of children’s literature. McKissack is a Newbery Honor winning author, and Pinkney has won Caldecott Honors twice. From hand clap rhymes to jump rope games to spirituals and gospel music, this volume has it all. Historical background is provided for many of the songs, games, and rhymes, and Pinkney’s artwork brings it all together by adding color and movement.
Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave Explorer by Heather Henson, illus. by Bryan Collier
Enslaved African American Stephen Bishop explored and worked as a guide in Mammoth Cave in the mid 1800’s. Collier’s signature style illustrations, mixed media collage, are stunning and help to effectively pay tribute to this relatively unknown figure in African American history.
Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song by Cynthia Grady, illus. by Michele Wood
Thirteen spirituals that originated in American slavery are included in this work. Each song is accompanied by a description, which includes historical, biographical, and biblical context, and vibrant illustration. Sheet music and lyrics are included as well.
Martin’s Dream Day by Kitty Kelley, photographs by Stanley Tretick
August 28, 1963 … a momentous day in the civil rights movement: the march on Washington and Martin Luther King’s infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. Stanley Tretick’s photos capture the real-life images of that important day. Kitty Kelley is widely known for her infamous celebrity biographies. This is her first book for children.
Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born by Gene Barretta, illus. by Frank Morrison
Native Kentuckian Cassius Clay went on to become the heavyweight champion of the world, better known as Muhammad Ali. This biography tells the story of how a stolen bicycle led young Clay into the boxing ring. The dynamic illustrations convey lots of action. End notes provide additional biographical information.
My Name is James Madison Hemings by Jonah Winter, illus. by Terry Widener
This picture book biography, told in first-person narrative, recounts the moving story of the child born in 1805 to Thomas Jefferson and enslaved Sally Hemings. The illustrations are moving and a detailed author’s note provides additional information about this lesser known piece of American history.
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim, illus. by E.B. Lewis
Civil rights leader, John Lewis, grew up to be a member of the Freedom Riders, he demonstrated in Selma, Alabama, and he is currently a Georgia congressman. This story is a snippet of his childhood. Young John wanted to be a preacher when he grew up so he practiced his speaking skills by preaching to his farmyard flock of chickens. This book was recently named one of the New York Times Best Illustrated Books of 2016.
The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller, illus. by Frank Morrison
The setting is Clarksville, Tennessee, 1961. Wilma Rudolph has just won three Olympic gold medals and is returning to her home of Clarksville where she will be honored with a celebratory parade. This story imagines the pride she instilled in her community and the inspiration she provided to African American children, one in particular. The illustrations highlight the exuberance of the time.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a graffiti artist born in Brooklyn who came to fame in the early 1980’s. His style was often sloppy, outside the lines, and sometimes even weird. Steptoe emulates his style in his illustrations. Appended notes provide additional information about his life and art.
A young southern white woman became an activist during the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s. Her son tells her story in this new biographical work. The collage artwork used to illustrate the story conveys the turbulence of the times.
A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent by Anne Rockwell, illus. by Floyd Cooper
This is the story of James Armistead Lafayette, a slave who spied for George Washington’s army during the American Revolution, and whose actions eventually led to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Award winning illustrator Floyd Cooper’s oil paintings draw readers into the story.
Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Ron Husband
This picture book was inspired by the true story of Reverend John Berry Meachum who found a way to skirt the law in order to educate African American children in Missouri. His steamboat school was a floating school on the Mississippi River, just outside the boundary of the law forbidding African American education in the state. The cross-hatched ink illustrations are colored in muted blues, reds, and browns are expressive and portray drama. This is a powerful and well-written story.
The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons a Father’s Life by Jael Ealey Richardson, illus. by Matt James
This memoir by Richardson is centered on her father, legendary African American football quarterback Chuck Ealey who grew up in segregated Portsmouth, Ohio. His pastime of throwing rocks at passing trains led to him playing football in high school, college, and eventually the Canadian Football League.
Ticktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller, illus. by David C. Gardner
Benjamin Banneker was born free in 1731 in Maryland at a time when most African Americans were born into slavery. Though self-taught, he became a skilled mathematician and scientist. At age 22, he put those skills to work by building a clock that chimed every hour on the hour. This picture book provides a nice introduction to Banneker and his inventive genius. Full color and often full page spread illustrations complement the text. And, like so many picture book biographies, an author’s note containing additional biographical information is included.
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, illus. by Don Tate
Lonnie Johnson loved to tinker. His engineering degree landed him a job at NASA, but what he really wanted to do was invent. While working on a refrigerator and air-conditioning cooking system, he accidently invented the Super Soaker, one of the top twenty toys of all time. This picture book biography tells his story as well as the many obstacles he had to overcome as an African American inventor and engineer. The illustrations should appeal to children, and the endpapers even include schematics from some of Johnson’s inventions.
Written by Cecilia Horn and Terri Diebel
Cecilia Horn is currently the Juvenile Collection Development Librarian for the Kenton County Public Library. Terri Diebel is a Children’s Librarian at the Covington Branch. Both hold Masters of Library Science degrees and have worked in the field of Children’s Literature for many years. In recent years, they have collaborated on presentations at local, state, and national library and literature conferences.
“Children’s literature is our passion. Through this blog, we hope to share that enthusiasm and love of children’s books. As children’s literature enthusiasts, our blog name pays homage to the classic children’s poem from 1889, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” by Eugene Field.”