Image Credit: Lee & Low Books Inc., Andrea J. Loney/Keith Mallett
I’m so last minute this year, y’all! But bear with me…It’s still Black History Month and I got a post for you… 😀
Another year, another Black History Month, another influential black soul to celebrate. I’m currently basking in the glory of the smash hit film Black Panther. All the black excellence in that film reminded me of another Black Creative who made it his life’s work to represent black excellence through photography.
James VanDerZee made black people look
Glamorous. Regal. Distinguished
at a time when black photography was very static. VanDerZee made it his business to show BlackPeopleShining.
Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! is one of my favorite non-fiction picture books of 2017. In it, we follow young VanDerZee from boyhood to his elderly years. Born into a middle class black family in Lenox, Massachussetts, he was frustrated as a child by his inability to capture fine details and accuracy when drawing people. When he discovered photography, he became fascinated and worked diligently to get his own camera (becoming only the second person in his town to have one)! VanDerZee, always a people person, had natural talent and worked to make his subjects feel comfortable; he wanted to make people look AND feel good while in his studio. At age 18, VanDerZee moved to bustling and vibrant Black Harlem, where he soared as a young artist. He’d later start his own studio where he’d photograph middle class Black Harlem as well as dignitaries, celebrities and athletes. VanDerZee is famous for his high level of skill in retouching (essentially early Photoshop) and photomontage.
Image Credit: Lee & Low Books Inc., Gwendolyn Hooks/Colin Bootman
Historical dramas like Hidden Figures have me thinking about all the stories of black excellence I don’t know about; stories that we’ve yet to discover and celebrate. Though I was fortunate to grow up with a decent education on Black History, there’s always more to learn.
In Tiny Stitches, Gwendolyn Hooks tells the story of the incredibly gifted Vivien Thomas. We meet Vivien as he’s examining the tiny needles he designed. The needles are for an operation he invented but wouldn’t get credit for for twenty-six years, all because of the color of his skin. As a teenager, Vivien worked as a researcher at the all white Vanderbilt University for Dr. Alfred Blalock. He absorbed everything very quickly, but when he learned that his official job was “janitor” (and that he made less than his white counterparts) he refused to work until that changed.
When given the chance, Vivien moved his family to Baltimore, Maryland to assist Dr. Blalock at John Hopkins University. Even though he faced more discrimination and segregation there than in his home of Nashville, Tennessee, he thrived. When presented with the challenge of how to treat “blue babies” he excelled. Though he got no credit for his procedure until he was much older, he became a respected technician, always eager to share and teach his knowledge. Vivien Thomas pioneered open heart surgery on children and his compassion, intelligence and bravery has saved countless lives.
Hooks does a great job chronicling Thomas’ life & explaining medical procedures clearly for children to understand. She also includes interesting back matter about “blue babies” and more information about Thomas. Bootman’s use of cool colors gives the story a calm feeling; Thomas seemed to be a calm and collected person and the watercolor illustrations reflect that.
This is a really nice addition to non-fiction picture books for children and even better, it’s about a black man! It very deservedly just won a 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children. If you have a child who is interested in the body, medicine and stories of perseverance, check out this book!
Recommended for: 3rd Grade and up Great for: History, Medicine, Pioneers, Perseverance, Determination, Discrimination, Segregation, Black History Month, African American, Dreams, Role Model, Non-Fiction, Science Book Info: Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomasby Gwendolyn Hooks/Illustrated by Colin Bootman, 2017 Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 9781620141564
Image Credit: Cartwheel Books (Scholastic), Sandra L. Pinkney/Myles C. Pinkney
First of all, Happy Black History Month!! I always learn something new this month, so I hope you do too.
I really enjoyed Shades of Black; I recommend it as a board book and as a picture book.
Why is this book important?? Self love. It celebrates the complexity and beauty of black identity. Black people have a long history of complicated feelings about our skin color that’s connected to racism, mixed-heritage, and social constructs of beauty (White as most beautiful). For example, have you heard of the The Brown Paper Bag Test? It was a way in which upper class & lighter-skinned Black people discriminated against darker-skinned Black people. During American slavery, lighter-skinned slaves were usually house slaves. In many cultures around the world, lighter skin is more desirable; some people even bleach their dark skin to be lighter. Hair is another complicated issue intertwined with skin color in the Black community; there’s “good hair” & “nappy hair”…
A well worn loved copy of Shades of Black
So…a book for children that celebrates all shades of Blackness as beautiful? I’m all about it. Plus, it’s available as a board book for toddlers? This is awesome. Toddlers may not be thinking about their skin color just yet, but seeing positive images of children that look like them, that they can smile at, is important for healthy development.
Sandra L. Pinkney begins Shades of Black with “I am Black. I am Unique” in large, bold letters and it’s repeated several times throughout the text. Her words are paired with Miles C. Pinkney’s beautiful & vivid photographs. Sandra compares various shades of brown skin to colorful foods; the children in the photos are joyful and curious. She also talks about Black hair (“My hair is the soft puffs in a cotton ball and the stiff ringlets in lamb’s wool.”) and compares our eye colors to those found in semiprecious stones. At the end of the book, she reminds Black children that they come from ancient kings and queens; a fact that the institution of slavery tried to snuff out!!
I highly recommend Shades of Black; it shows that books written by #ownvoices are necessary…and beautiful! Pick up this book and read it with your child; the children’s smiles are infectious. Black children are gorgeous! ❤
**P.S. Shades of Black won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children’s Literary Work!
Recommended for: All ages Great for: Empowerment, Positivity, Kid Faces, African-American, Black History Month, Happiness, Black Hair, Colors, Foods, Opposites, Diversity, Own Voices Book Info: Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney/Photographs by Myles C. Pinkney, 2006 Cartwheel Books (Scholastic), ISBN: 9780439802512
I never had the chance to meet Andrea Cheng but I handled her books, I sold them. I was in the same space as them. A Cincinnati author, talented and kind are some of the things people told me about her. Interestingly enough, I’ve been connected to her for quite some time though; I went to school with one of her daughters, Ann. Recently I was able to reconnect with Ann and spend time with two of Andrea’s close writer friends. Here’s what I can say about Andrea Cheng, now that I’ve read her words for myself and can reflect on her people; her voice is strong and she’s left a legacy of goodness.
Etched in Clay is poetry inspired by the historical record of an amazing man named Dave (David Drake). Dave was a skilled potter/poet who happened to be enslaved. Cheng speaks for him but doesn’t say too much. It’s just enough. We follow Dave from his teenage years fresh off the auction block to his life as a free man in his seventies. He’s sold and re-sold several times within the Landrum family to work their pottery works. His first owner, Harvey Drake, notices his talent and teaches him how to create pottery. Drake’s religious wife Sarah gives Dave a powerful tool too, a spelling book from which he learns to read and write. In his long life, he is split apart from the women and children he loves, he struggles with his lack of agency as an enslaved man and he REBELS with words and poetry. Words spill out of his head and onto his pottery. Dave finds a way to assert his worth as a human being through the liberatory act of black creativity.
Image Credit: Lee & Low Books, Andrea Cheng
Harvey Drake (like most whites at the time) is conscious of the danger in nurturing the intelligence of a slave. He’s comfortable in his power and is protective of the system that keeps his whiteness above blackness. Though Dave knows he can be lashed for knowing how to read (and showing it), he does it anyway. Even signing his name on a pot is dangerous yet he does it…and by doing so, he reflects on his legacy (his pots are made to last) and asserts HIS power. His defiance is through words.
Andrea Cheng doesn’t romanticize or soften slavery; she gives us a glimpse of Dave’s reality. I appreciate her honest characterizations of the slave masters and their disregard for Dave’s (and the other slaves’) humanity. The entire book is full of excellent characterization! A masterful storyteller has the ability to make you bubble and boil with frustration yet eagerly reach to turn the page. I wanted to keep going and see what would happen to Dave, a man who, like my ancestors, was remarkable.
The woodcuts in this book are also done by Andrea Cheng and just like the writing, they are just enough (and so much). They give us a glimpse into Dave’s life with blocky shapes, black and white lines and outlines that suggest more than tell. Not only do I recommend Etched in Clay for casual reading, I think it’s perfect for the classroom. There are so many lessons to take away and to discuss and Dave should be more well known. I hope you’ll pick up this book and enjoy.
Recommended for: Ages 11 and up Great for: Inner Strength, Rebellion, Courage, Determination, Defiance, African American, Slavery, History, Pottery, Creativity, Poetry, Relationships, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, History-Inspired, Discussion, Classroom Book Info: Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poetby Andrea Cheng, 2013 Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 9781600604515
A passionate woman full of energy, charisma and magic was Josephine Baker.
Patricia Hruby Powell uses the metaphor of volcano to describe Josephine’s personality and I think this is perfect. Ever since a little girl, she bubbled and popped and fizzled with pent up energy to perform and dance. She was born poor in segregated St. Louis to a single mother who also loved to dance. They shared a love of vaudeville. As a child she started out in the group The Jones Family but quickly moved on to The Dixie Steppers. Even in a chorus line she stood out with her distinct, silly style. She got hitched, went to broadway and used her smarts to get onstage and SHINE.
Look how spunky and charming she is in the film Zouzou (1934)!
Though she loved to perform, Josephine was tired of segregation and just barely getting by. She got the chance to head to Paris where as soon as she stepped off the steam ship, she wasn’t discriminated against because of her color and felt truly beautiful! She took Paris by storm, charming the entire city, headlining shows, staring in movies and drawing crowds with her energy and risqué banana skirts. She was in every way fabulous, scandalous and daring. When war came she spied for France and became a hero.
As she got older, she remarried and adopted twelve children from all over the world; her rainbow tribe. Though she worked hard to support her children and keep up her lavish lifestyle, she was put out of their mansion, the bills too much to pay. Luckily her friends helped her family and years later, at sixty-seven years old, she decided to give the US one more try. It was a success! America loved her and dear Josephine danced herself to eternal sleep.
The rhythm and energy of the writing in this book suits Josephine’s personality. It’s broken very cleverly into “acts” of her life. Robinson’s illustrations, as usual, are vivid and beautiful. His signature long bodied figures are perfect for Josephine’s limber body. The book opens with a red curtain, each “act” is introduced by a scene on a stage and finally, after we finish reading the story, the red curtain returns, flowers stewn on the floor below it. I love this touch. It brings the story full circle; she lived for performance. Robinson says in the end notes that he’s been connected to Josephine Baker’s story ever since he was young and it’s very evident in the loving way he depicts her.
Josephine has become one of my favorite biography picture books. It’s one that my bookstore never carried and I kept reading about online. I kept thinking “I’ve GOT to read that book!” After reading Josephine (or maybe even during, like I did), you’ll want to look up photographs and videos of this AMAZING woman. What a woman she was…
Recommended for: 2nd grade and up Great for: Dance, Vaudeville, African-American, Segregation, Determination, Black Girls Rock, Black Girl Magic, Confidence, Courage, Rhythm, Energy, Paris, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion, Biography Book Info: Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Bakerby Patricia Hruby Powell/Illustrated by Christian Robinson, 2014 Chronicle Books, ISBN: 9781452103143
This classic from my childhood discusses the importance of allies on the road to freedom. Abolitionists helped fearless slaves free themselves from oppression. Peg Leg Joe, the abolitionist featured in this story, may or may not have been a real person but the Underground Railroad was definitely real.
In Follow the Drinking Gourd, Peg Leg Joe works at cotton plantations with the sole purpose of teaching slaves his song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, which tells them how to get to freedom. One day, Molly’s husband James is sold to another master and they have only one more night together. Slaves often had their families suddenly torn apart in this way. But that night they hear a quail’s song, the first clue from the song to get moving towards freedom. They decide to make an escape.
The family follows the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper), remembering the lines of Peg Leg Joe’s song for guidance. They hide from hounds and look for signs that they’re heading in the right direction; North. They get help from farmers and finally meet up with Peg Leg Joe who takes them across the Ohio River to their next stop, the house of a white family. They keep moving from house to house and take time to rest and heal and even stay at the place of a free black man. The family finally makes it to Canada, to freedom.
This has always been one of my favorite books about slavery because it presents it in a clear, easy to understand way. Children who have no understanding of slavery will need some explanation as to why the family wants to escape. There are no happy slaves here; we see the family’s hesitation, worry, fear and finally joy and relief. Jeanette Winter’s illustrations are extremely moving; especially the one with James on the auction block, head down and distraught, “Negroes for Sale” below him. I read this book quite often when I was young, so much so that the images are still very familiar to me. Be sure to check it out and discuss! The complete song is included on the last page.
Recommended for: 1st grade and up Great for: Slavery, Underground Railroad, African American, Injustice, Inner Strength, Fearlessness, Determination, Family, Relationships, Allies, Abolitionism, Astronomy, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion Book Info: Follow the Drinking Gourdby Jeanette Winter, 1992 Dragonfly Books (Random House), ISBN: 9780679819974
Image Credit: Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Gary D. Schmidt/David Diaz
Martin de Porres was born to an African/Native slave mother and a Spanish nobleman father in the barrios of Lima, Peru. The priest of a cathedral reluctantly baptized him, not knowing or caring that Martin would grow to be a true man of God. Martin lived with his mother and sister in poverty until he was 8 years old when his father came and took them to Ecuador. Martin came back to Lima to be an apprentice to a surgeon (a cirujano) and excelled at it.
Because he was African, people were prejudiced towards him but his skills were obvious. He was gifted lemon seeds for helping a man and after planting them, the next day a tree grew. At fifteen he wanted to become a priest but was denied the opportunity due to his mixed-blood. He offered to clean, wash and care for the monastery instead. People started to notice his gift with animals and his amazing healing powers. He performed miracles. Everyone, from the poor to the rich, came to him when in need. After many years of service he was allowed to become a priest, was finally seen as a brother, and continued his good deeds until his death.
Image Credit: Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Gary D. Schmidt/David Diaz
The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous and soft. I also love Diaz’ work in Wilma Unlimited. He has a very distinct style. My favorite spread shows Martin blissfully surrounded by a horse, chickens, mice and dogs. They all show their love and appreciation for him and he gives it back just as much.
To his mother, Martin was always a Rose in the Desert but finally, despite his brown skin and heritage, he was seen as the true rose he was, by everyone. Martin de Porres was beatified in 1837 and finally canonized in 1962. He is the first black saint in the Americas! How fitting this caring and spiritual man of color be named the patron saint of brotherhood, those of mixed race, animal shelters, interracial relations and social justice!
I like finding unique stories. I’m glad to be able to share this one with you for Black History Month. 🙂
Recommended for: 1st grade and up Great for: Catholicism, Saints, Miracles, Mixed-Race, Injustice, Discrimination, Peru, Helping Others, Animals, Community Service, Love, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion, Biography Book Info: Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desertby Gary D. Schmidt/Illustrated by David Diaz, 2012 Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), ISBN: 9780547612188
Ummm hmm. Ella’s voice is one of my all time favorites. What I like about this picture book is that it tells the story of her early life, when she was just a Raggedy Cat trying to survive.
Ella had a larger than life personality ever since she was a young girl. Growing up in Yonkers, NY, her family didn’t have much but they had plenty of music. Her voice could draw a crowd. She and her friend Charlie learned the newest moves and made a little change on the sidewalks dancing for crowds. It was a time of Jazz Jazz Jazz. Her mother passed away suddenly and she ended up on 145th Street in Harlem, living with her aunt. She didn’t get much love there so she searched for something better, on her own.
Ella’s 1938 chart0topper “A Tisket A Tasket” which was included in a movie called Ride ‘Em Cowboy in 1942. Oh look she’s at the back of the bus! >_<
She got into some trouble and found herself in a school for orphans. They beat the girls, especially the black girls, so she ran away, back to Harlem. She was on the streets and in and out of people’s homes but one day she heard about auditioning at the Apollo Theater and decided to give it a try. The crowd almost ran her off the stage but the emcee gave her another chance and she blew them away! Ella started to make a name for herself. Despite her plain looks, bandleader Chick Webb gave her a chance to join his band at the Savoy. Ella’s spirit shone through her voice, loud and clear. People loved dancing to her. The band got their first big hit when she wrote “A Tisket, A Tasket.” With that song she shot to stardom and didn’t have to worry about food, lack of nice clothes and a place to sleep ever again!
I like Sean Qualls’ art style. He likes to lay his acrylic down a little rough and scratchy and uses a palette of reds, oranges, blues and browns. I love the jazz scenes that show the vibrance of Harlem at its artistic peak. Author Roxane Orgill and Sean Qualls really did an excellent job of pairing story with illustration; when I finished the book, I felt satisfied. I learned so much about young Ella and her spirit.
If you’re looking for an excellent biography that celebrates never giving up despite the odds, check out Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat…and go listen to some jazz!
Recommended for: 1st Grade and up Great for: Jazz, Jazz Bands, Music History, History, African-American, Black Girls Rock, Black Girl Magic, Inner Strength, Family, Determination, Discrimination, Jim Crow, Apollo Theater, Harlem, Dance, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-fiction, Discussion, Biography Book Info: Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgeraldby Roxane Orgill/Illustrated by Sean Qualls, 2010 Candlewick Press, ISBN: 9780763617332
Image Credit: Amistad (HarperCollins), Charles R. Smith Jr./Floyd Cooper
This book is a tribute to the slaves who built the White House, a building never meant for their Black Bodies…but yet!
The writing of Brick by Brick is beautiful. Charles R. Smith Jr. plays with the word “hand” by focusing on the slaves’ hands while describing their position as hands, as workers. Slave hands, white hands and free black hands worked together but slave hands did the most of the hard work to build the original White House for John Adams. They hauled stone, laid brick and sawed through logs with blistered, tired, bleeding hands. They suffered while their slave owners took the money earned.
Yet, as oppressed people do, they survived, thrived and learned. As the White House came to completion, slaves were taught new skills to finish the fine interior work of the house. With these new skills, they were able to save money and work towards paying for their freedom. Brick by brick they built the massive structure but they also built a way out of enslavement. I love how Charles R. Smith Jr. works NAMES into the story. We read and speak aloud the names of these amazing people. By including the actual names of slaves who worked on the White House, he brings them to life for us and honors them.
Cooper’s illustrations, as usual, are skilled and moving. He depicts the slaves’ warm dark brown skin, strong hands and raw expression beautifully. For another example of his beautiful work, check out Ruth and the Green Book. Brick by Brick‘s words and illustrations create a portrait of the people who built one of the most important buildings in our country. The White House is a symbol of “freedom” yet it was built by the hands of those who were not free. This book is excellent for sparking discussion and is important because it covers a part of history that may not be very well known. Enjoy this book, read the Author’s Note and talk, talk, talk!
Recommended for: 2nd grade and up Great for: Toil, Pain, African-American, Family, History, Slavery, Injustice, Rhythm, Rhyme, Read-Aloud, White House History, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-fiction, Discussion Book Info: Brick by Brickby Charles R. Smith Jr./Illustrated by Floyd Cooper, 2013 Amistad (HarperCollins), ISBN: 9780061920820
I love to watch track. I was lucky enough to see Usain Bolt in my town of Daegu, South Korea a few years ago. Whew! The speed and athleticism. Wilma Rudolph is an inspiration not only because of her athletic accomplishments but also for the hurdles she had to cross in her life to achieve greatness.
Born the twentieth child in her family, she was small and sickly though full of energy. Her family gave her love but there wasn’t much they could do when she was stricken with polio around age five. On top of her physical ailments, she was a black girl in segregated Clarksville, Tennessee. There was only one doctor in town who treated blacks and he was fifty miles away! Despite her struggles, Wilma was extremely determined and even while wearing braces on her legs, she worked on her strength. One day at church, she stood up without her braces, walking confidently down the aisle.
Wilma’s 100m dash win at the 1960s Rome Olympics. Woooo!
From then on, she was off! She got stronger and stronger and played basketball in high school. Though she was a skilled basketball player, she was scouted for track-and-field and got a full ride to Tennessee State University. In 1960, she headed to Rome for the Summer Olympics. This powerful woman left her competitors in the dust (with a twisted ankle!) and 3 gold medals later, she was the fastest woman in the world!! ❤
The illustrations of Wilma Unlimited are beautiful. They’re a mix of acrylic, gouache and watercolor with spreads that use photographs for backgrounds. I love this effect. The page where Wilma and her mother triumphantly wrap her steel brace in a box to send back to the hospital is surrounded by a photograph of a cardboard box marked “fragile.” Diaz’ style is wonderful. His human figures have long bodies, wide eyes, strong noses, large hands and remind me of Greek figures on ancient vases.
Have a young runner? A child with boundless energy? Check out this beautiful biography about one of our greatest athletes!
Recommended for: All ages Great for: Family, Segregation, African-American, Inner Strength, Determination, Polio, Sports, Track and Field, Fastest Woman in the World, Olympics, Black Girls Rock, Black Girl Magic, Faith, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-fiction, Biography Book Info: Wilma Unlimitedby Kathleen Krull/Illustrated by David Diaz, 1996 Harcourt Brace & Company, ISBN: 9780152012670