Black History Month is a special period of celebration and commemoration—a time for looking back at the individuals and events that made progress possible. In honor of this special time, BookPage has rounded up a group of new picture books that chronicle some of the highlights of the African-American legacy.
MAKING SPIRITS SOAR
In Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper, Ann Malaspina revisits a thrilling chapter in American sports—the story of the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Born in Albany, Georgia, to impoverished parents, Alice Coachman seems destined to defy gravity. Leaping over tree roots and shooting baskets with towering boys, practicing the high jump with a crossbar made of branches and rags, Alice, as depicted in Eric Velasquez’s dynamic paintings, seems always to be airborne. Her father disapproves of her tomboyish behavior, but when she’s invited to join the Tuskegee Institute’s famous Golden Tigerettes track team, Alice develops skills that take her to the 1948 London Olympics. There she soars farther than she ever imagined, setting a new Olympic high jump record. Malaspina employs a spirited prose style to tell the story of Alice’s extraordinary career.
A LEADER GETS HIS START
Proving that knowledge really is power, Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass recounts the rise of one of America’s greatest orators. Frederick Douglass spends his early childhood on a Maryland plantation where slaves caught reading are severely punished. When he’s transferred to the home of the Auld family in Baltimore, Frederick gets his first taste of formal education. Kind-hearted Missus Auld gives him lessons in the alphabet, and Frederick is soon obsessed, practicing in secret with a brick and chalk. At the age of 12, he buys his first newspaper and encounters words like “abolition” and “liberty.” Against all odds, Frederick educates himself and—later on, at great risk—his fellow slaves. By unlocking the secrets of language, he arms himself for the future. Featuring beautifully nuanced pictures by the author’s husband, James E. Ransome, this moving book comes with a clear message: Education is the key to success.
OVATION FOR A LEGEND
With Jazz Age Josephine, Jonah Winter offers an irresistible homage to a groundbreaking performer. Born dirt poor in St. Louis, Missouri, young Josephine Baker spends part of her childhood in the city slums, where she’s taunted by other kids. Using theatrics as a survival tactic—clowning and dancing to hide her hurt—she makes a little money and eventually joins a traveling show as a dancer, but the blues follow. At one point, she’s so broke, a bench in Central Park serves as her bed. At the age of 19, Josephine takes off for Paris, where she finds her artistic footing and gets a taste of what liberation is like. Embracing her race and blossoming as a performer, she hits the heights of fame but never forgets her St. Louis roots. Winter’s blues-inflected writing style is perfectly complemented by Marjorie Priceman’s bright, impressionistic visuals. Brimming with infectious energy, Winter’s book is a showstopper from start to finish.
HOME RUN HERO
Showing how team spirit in sports helped break down racial barriers, Chris Crowe’s Just as Good: How Larry Doby Changed America’s Game is a wonderful depiction of the brotherhood of baseball. It’s the fall of 1948, and the city of Cleveland is humming with anticipation for game four of the World Series—a contest between the city’s own Indians and the Boston Braves. An African-American boy named Homer narrates the events of the big day, as he and his parents gather around the radio to listen to the game. Homer’s hero, Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, will be stepping up to the plate. When Doby hits a home run in the third inning, he makes history, becoming the first African-American ballplayer to do so in the World Series. Mike Benny depicts Homer’s wide-eyed excitement through luminous illustrations, while Crowe seamlessly weaves facts and stats from the actual game into the storyline.
VERSES OF FREEDOM
Ntozake Shange is a beloved African-American playwright, poet and novelist. With Freedom’s
a-Callin’ Me, she delivers a timeless collection of verse inspired by the Underground Railroad—dramatic and impassioned poems about slaves dreaming of escape, the white folks who help them and the trackers who trail them. Shange writes with wonderful authenticity and an ear for syntax, conjuring up a group of unforgettable narrators who experience hope, danger and loss on the road to a better life. The book’s title poem eloquently describes one man’s plan to flee, to “mix myself way low in the cotton . . . wind myself like a snake / till ah can swim ’cross the stream.” The poems are filled with arresting imagery—slave hunters leading ferocious hounds, overseers wielding their whips—which Rod Brown brings to life in his sensitively rendered paintings. Throughout the book, Shange offers different perspectives and stories to create a multifaceted look at the secret system that changed so many lives. This is a wonderful introduction to an important chapter in African-American history—and to the narrative possibilities of poetry.
A REMARKABLE DAY
Written and illustrated by acclaimed author Shane W. Evans, We March is a stirring account of a history-making event as seen through the eyes of one African-American family. On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people came together for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an episode forever inscribed on the American memory thanks to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Evans’ tale brings the momentous day down to a personal level, as the family prepares to march, painting signs, praying and joining the procession to the Lincoln Memorial. Evans’ brief, poetic lines have a simple majesty that reflects the significance of the occasion. His vibrantly illustrated story gives readers a sense of what it might have been like to join the crowd taking crucial steps on the road to freedom.
Shange and Brown's (We Troubled the Waters) book of poems about an escaping slave won't be easy for some readers to get through. Whipping, pursuit by bloodhounds ("dogs'll tear your/ muscle right off the bone"), and other horrors haunt the slave and his fellow escapees. Shange uses her formidable gifts to call up the voices of the slave and those he encounters; his words are raw and agonized in some places ("ah jus' can't take it no more," he says, "ah am not some animal to be worked from dawn to dusk/ livin on the entrails of hogs & such") and unbearably poignant in others ("but he's travelin alone," he protests to another escapee about a man they see across the swamp at night, "can't we help him a little bit"). The shadowed figures in Brown's full-bleed spreads are often barely perceptible in the dark. In one striking painting, the slave hides below the floorboards as a dance is held above him; thin lines of golden light fall over his concealed body. When the journey ends, the calm of freedom seems unbelievable. A potent and memorable work. Ages 8-12. Agent: Russell & Volkening. (Jan.)[Page ]. Copyright 2011 PWxyz LLC
Gr 4-8--The team who created We Troubled the Waters (HarperCollins, 2009) now presents a series of poems and paintings that express the hope and frustration of enslaved people trying to navigate the Underground Railroad. Using dialect to convey a Southern cadence, Shange's poems communicate powerful emotions. Fear, resolve, anger, and hope all show up at various times. The book depicts a variety of experiences, from a slave who wants to escape, to a loved one who tries to convince him to stay; a man who changes his mind midway, to others who survive the journey. Along the way, the escapees meet white people who hurt or kill as well as those who help in large and small ways. These poems are a cry from the heart. They express the spirit that compelled people to take desperate measures to find freedom, people who viewed death as preferable to bondage. The expressive, impressionistic paintings capture attention with their bold strokes and vivid coloring. Generally indistinct faces and dramatically posed bodies command the eye. A few graphic images make this book best suited to upper elementary or older readers. This is an excellent resource to use with fictional titles such as Patricia Polacco's January's Sparrow (Philomel, 2009) or Christopher Paul Curtis's Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2007).--Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher's School, Richmond, VA[Page 142]. (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.