Black history books teach children about traditions, unsung heroes

Updated: 2014-02-03T01:42:16Z


The Kansas City Star

Writing a story about children’s books to read during Black History Month is a painful process, trying to narrow down selections from the many great artists and illustrators who have published books during the past year. Fortunately, the American Library Association announced the Coretta Scott King awards, in addition to the Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners, on Jan. 27, so their suggestions top our list of recommended books.

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards are given each year by the association to outstanding African-American authors and illustrators of books for young readers that show an appreciation of African-American culture. The award commemorates the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. and honors his wife, Coretta Scott King, for her work for peace.

Books promoted during Black History Month tend to dwell on two topics: Martin Luther King Jr. and slavery. For a look at different characters and events, consider these picture books and young adult novels about less publicized black history.

In addition to the award winners, we’ve included several other children’s books with African-American characters worth investigating.

• “P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; grades 4-8), is the Coretta Scott King winner for author.

A mid-grade novel that continues the adventures of three sisters — Delphine, Vonetta and Fern — from the book “One Crazy Summer,” this story finds the girls back home in Brooklyn. They live with their strict grandmother, and the author weaves historical references from the 1960s (an uncle who returns home from the Vietnam War, the craze over the Jackson 5) into the story to expand the complex characters.

Throughout the story, Delphine writes to her mother, Cecile, back in California, who reminds her to leave the worrying to the adults, and just “be eleven.”

• “Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me,” by Daniel Beaty and illustrated by Bryan Collier (Little, Brown and Co., Hachette Book Group; ages 5-9) is the winner of the King award for illustrator.

Drawing on their personal histories, as related in the back of the book, the author and illustrator tell a sad but ultimately uplifting story of a boy whose father disappears from his life.

The child’s journey from grief to hope is beautifully rendered through Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations.

• “A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin,” by Jen Bryant with illustrations by Melissa Sweet (Knopf Books for Young Readers; ages 5-8), was a double winner at the ALA awards. It received the Schneider Family Book Award as well as commendation as an honor book for the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book award.

This fascinating story of a self-taught artist who drew constantly, filling notebook after notebook with his charcoal works, has an inspirational twist. Pippin was shot during World War I and returned home unable to lift his drawing arm.

Not only did he have to overcome the prejudices of the times, he also had to go through the agonizing struggle of relearning his craft. Before long, he was recognized as a valuable contributor to the art world.

• “Nelson Mandela,” written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; ages 6-10), will knock your socks off right from the larger-than-life portrait on the cover.

As one of the King illustrator honor recipients, this picture book gives a stunning visual view of the late South African leader who left a powerful legacy for his country and the world. Nelson highlights important facts about Mandela’s life without overwhelming young readers with information.

• “When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop,” by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III (Roaring Brook Press; ages 7-10), is the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award winner.

The rhythm of the writing is matched by the lively artwork to bring to light a Jamaican-born music man who created the beginnings of hip-hop dance.

• “Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers,” by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick Press; grades 5-9), is a well-researched book stuffed with more than 100 photographs.

It tells the story of these black troops in World War II as they advanced from guard duty into official training to become paratroopers: soldiers who skydive into enemy territory.

The book was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

• “A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream,” by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Philomel Books; ages 5-8), is about a little ballerina who dreams big.

Although the story is fiction, the prima ballerina who inspires the young girl is Janet Collins, an amazing dancer who was the first African-American ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. The lyrical writing and soft brown tones of the illustrations pair beautifully to tell the story of a budding dancer with a heart full of hope in 1950 Harlem.

• “This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration,” by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by James Ransome (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group; ages 6-9), follows a piece of rope that holds together a family through three generations as they move north to find a better life.

The rope has many incarnations: a toy, a clothesline, a tie-down, but always a jump rope. Each girl — the grandma, the mama and the young girl — uses the rope to pass down the family history through the rhymes and rhythms of the jumping beat.

The vivid colors of Ransome’s oil paintings bring the journey and the neighborhoods to life.

• “EllRay Jakes and the Beanstalk,” by Sally Warner and illustrated by Brian Biggs (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group; ages 7-10), is the most recent addition to the series about an African-American third-grader with typical third-grader troubles. This time, EllRay has to learn how to perform skateboard tricks to keep his best friend from hanging out with the meanest guy in the class.

Warner has a way of perfectly capturing third-grader emotions and conversations, and the short chapters will encourage beginning readers.

• “Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom,” by Steven Sellers Lapham and Eugene Walton with illustrations by R. Gregory Christie (Sleeping Bear Press; ages 6-10), is a historical tale.

Raised as a slave, Philip Reid was sold to a man who owned a foundry in Washington, D.C., where a bronze statue called “Freedom” was to be cast. But there was a problem with the plaster mold that no one could figure out. Not until Philip Reid stepped up and put his skills and training to work.

In addition to the interesting story, the front and back inside covers show copies of the real paperwork submitted to make Philip Reid a free man.

• “The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights,” by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Brook Press; grades 5-9), is a dramatic story from World War II about a group of 50 black sailors who refused to work loading bombs after a massive explosion killed 320 of their fellow servicemen.

Written in the men’s voices using actual quotes from the trial transcripts, the book traces the events and trial of the 50 men, who were accused of mutiny and threatened with the firing squad. It’s fascinating reading about an event not many may know about .

• “The Sittin’ Up,” by Shelia P. Moses (G.P. Putnam’s Sons; ages 12 and up), tells the story of Bean and Pole, two young boys attending their very first wake, called a “sittin’ up.” Complicating matters is a storm that’s threatening to flood the Low Meadows and wash out Mr. Bro. Wiley’s sittin’ up.

Moses is a gifted storyteller who weaves in pieces of her own childhood and family memories to tell this tale set in North Carolina in the 1940s.

To reach Mary Schulte, call 816-234-4357 or send email to

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