Black History Month is observed every February in the United States. Black history is American history, however, observing Black History Month in February gives us a chance to be intentional in learning about this topic. There are so many wonderful books that were published this past year. Narrowing down our list has been difficult at best.
In addition, the American Library Association announced the children’s literature awards for 2019 on January 27. A few of the books that we had chosen to feature during Black History Month are among those awards:
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illus. by Kadir Nelson
You’ve probably heard the phrase “swept the Oscars,” well, this new picture book “swept the awards.” It won the Caldecott Medal which is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. Honor titles are generally selected each year as well. Kadir Nelson is a two-time Caldecott Honoree, but this is his first Caldecott Medal. The Undefeated was also named as one of four Newbery Honor winning titles. The Newbery Medal is awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal in 2015 for The Crossover. The Caldecott and Newbery Medals are perhaps the two most prestigious awards in the field of children’s literature, so for this book to recognized in both categories, it is truly an exceptional work. The Undefeated was also awarded the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. The Coretta Scott King Awards are given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture.
In The Undefeated, Alexander gives us a poetic tribute to the triumphs and challenges faced by Black Americans throughout history. Backmatter includes notes on the historical figures cited. Nelson’s oil paintings are life-like and integral to this moving and powerful picture book. Alexander’s poem was originally commissioned for the launch of ESPN’s The Undefeated in May 2016. That provided the impetus for this children’s book of the same title written by Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome
This title was recognized as a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book. In this heart-wrenching story, a young girl’s brother escapes from slavery. She and her family are left wondering if he has made it to safety or not. The story provides more questions rather than answers. The text is sparse, and the illustrations are stunning.
A Wynk, a Blynk, and a Nod to New Books about African American History
Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound by Kathleen Cornell Berman, illus. by Keith Henry Brown
Miles Davis heard music everywhere. This biography explores his childhood and early music career. The ink and watercolor illustrations are cool and unique, much like Davis’ legendary style.
Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 by Sharon Robinson
Sharon Robinson is the daughter of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. She turned 13 in 1963 during a time of political and social unrest. This is her coming of age memoir. Photographs from the time are included as well.
The Escape of Robert Smalls: A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery by Jehan Jones-Radgowski, illus. by Poppy Kang
This true account documents the story of Robert Smalls, who took over a Confederate steamship, disguised himself as the captain, and sailed past heavily armed Confederate forts in order to gain his freedom. Backmatter provides additional information about this unsung American hero.
Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen, illus. by James Ransome
This work of fiction tells the story of two enslaved children who become legendary after their escape to the freedom of the West. Ransome’s paintings help to capture the mood of the story.
Lizzie Demands a Seat! Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights by Beth Anderson, illus. by E.B. Lewis
A little over a hundred years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Elizabeth Jennings refused to get off a New York streetcar meant only for whites. Even though she was born free in a northern, free state, she was told she needed to wait for a streetcar for coloreds. She took her case to court and won. This case was the first in the long battle to end segregation on public transportation. The story is probably not well known but it appears to be well- researched and includes an author’s note which provides additional facts. Award-winning illustrator Lewis has created a series of beautiful watercolor paintings that enrich the story and struggle.
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illus. by Oge Mora
At the age of 116, Mary Walker, who was born into slavery but later freed, learned to read, proving that you’re never too old to learn. This is based on a true story. The illustrations are very interesting as they are done in cut-paper, mixed media collage by Oge Mora who received a Caldecott Honor last year for Thank You, Omu!
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illus. by James Ransome
One family’s experience during the Great Migration is depicted in this fictional story. A young girl and her parents leave their sharecropping life in North Carolina behind as they board a train bound for New York. The story is written in free verse and is told through the eyes of the young girl. The watercolor and collage illustrations effectively capture the historical setting.
A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein, illus. by Jerry Pinkney
The backstory of King’s infamous speech is revealed in this new picture book. Caldecott winning artist Pinkney’s collage style illustrations depict historical moments. Paired with the author’s free verse text, the result is a stunning new work on King’s speechwriting process.
The President Sang Amazing Grace by Zoe Mulford, illus. by Jeff Scher
In 2015 after a mass shooting in South Carolina, President Obama delivered a eulogy and led mourners in the singing of “Amazing Grace.” There is a video online that accompanies the book. Backmatter includes information about the Emmanuel Nine.
A Ride to Remember by Sharon Langley, illus. by Floyd Cooper
The author recounts an event from her childhood when an amusement park in Baltimore, Maryland was desegregated in the summer of 1963. Backmatter includes photographs and a note from Langley, a timeline, and updates about the people mentioned in the story. Cooper’s illustrations have a nostalgic quality that fits well with the story.
Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, illus. by Tonya Engel
This biography is that of African American writer, performer, and activist Maya Angelou. It was issued in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” one of Angelou’s most famous works. The colorful illustrations expand on the beautifully written text.
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver by Gene Barretta, illus. by Frank Morrison
The author provides a look at the life of African American botanist George Washington Carver who, throughout his life, worked tirelessly, experimenting, learning, and sharing his knowledge with others. The oil painting illustrations are beautifully done and help to tell the story.
Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations by Kelly Starling Lyons, illus. by Keith Mallett
Through the story of several generation This story follows a family through five generations as each is inspired by the song written in 1900 to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The song’s historical impact is the focus. The artwork portrays scenes of both hope and adversity.
Thurgood by Jonah Winter, illus. by Bryan Collier
This picture book biography tells the story of Thurgood Marshall who grew up to become the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Collier is a Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Award winning illustrator. His watercolor and collage illustrations create dramatic effects throughout the story.
A Voice Named Aretha by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illus. by Laura Freeman
Young readers are introduced to the Queen of Soul in this picture book biography about Aretha Franklin. The illustrations are vibrant and well done. As is typical of these types of biographies, backmatter includes additional information and photographs.
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 Master 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.”