Sunday, February 14, 2016

10 Picture Books for Black History Month

Freedom is something kids don't think about much usually. What does it mean? Why is it important? How can we ensure that everybody is "free"?  These are some big questions I discuss with kids often, not just during the month of February each year. Much like, What does Peace mean to you? How can you make sure there is peace in this world as you grow up? Why should we strive for peace? comes up in our dinner conversations sometimes and it is instructive (and eye-opening sometimes) to hear kids' simple and naive suggestions.

Anyway, to chart a better future for humanity, it is always good to learn from the past - if only to try not to repeat the same mistakes again. In that spirit, we picked a handful of picture books to peek into some true life incidents and some fictional stories based on true life incidents set in America.

As to chapter books, there are so many on the subject. This month, the ten year old is reading Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock. The seven year old is reading Ranger in Time series by Kate Messner, and this month he is reading Long Road to Freedom to stay on theme.

Freedom in Congo Square  
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Lyrical and evocative, the books is a treasure. Slaves and free blacks count down to Sunday of each week when they can be "free" to gather in Congo Square in New Orleans to connect with their roots and culture and sing and dance and feel alive again in celebration of their African heritage.

The poetry is powerful and concise. The rhyming couplets don't soften the reality.
The dreaded lash, too much to bear
Four more days to Congo Square.
The double page spread with various African instruments has swirling text that proclaims,
Grouped by nation, language, tribe,
They drummed ancestral roots alive.
The illustrations are a fitting and brilliant accompaniment to the text.

Freedom on the Menu
The Greensboro Sit-ins    
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue Lagarrigue

Told from the perspective of a little girl, who sees other little girls like herself able to do things that she is not allowed to, the story speaks to the kids in a more intimate way than it might have from a third person narration.

She longs for a Banana Split at this ice cream store as she watches another girl just like herself, having a purse just like hers, enjoying her own sundae.
All over town signs told me and Mama where we could and couldn't go. Signs on water fountains, swimming pools, movie theater, even bathrooms.
Everybody in Greensboro followed the rules. But not Auntie Gertie who often visits from New York. She says, "I am too old for such silly rules," and drinks from the "White" fountain.

The book unfolds the story of four black kids who sat at the diner and ordered food just like others and waited to be served. Inspired by Dr. King's peaceful protests, all they hoped to do was to remove the segregation.

Ellen's Broom
by Kelly Starling Lyons    
illustrated by Daniel Minter

Little girl Ellen knows that the broom is special. It is what made them a family back when her mom and dad jumped the broom to signify their marriage and commitment to one another, back before it was legal for blacks to register their marriage and raise a family like everybody else.

So, when finally their mom and dad and others were cleared to go to the courthouse and register their marriage, Ellen brings along the broom decorated with flowers, and watches her parents jump the broom again just for sentiment.

A slice of history told through endearing and charming Ellen's actions.

The Escape of Oney Judge
Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom    
written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Although quite a heavy subject matter, the book tries not to sugar-coat or sensationalize the event. Oney Judge's desperate longing for freedom is carried through the story, and how the norms of the time make it hard for Oney to truly be free. It is not that she was not well-treated, but, she was not entirely her own person.

While a bit long and wordy for a picture book, the fictional retelling of Oney's story is engaging and thought-provoking for kids.

Follow the Drinking Gourd
written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter

Sailor Peg Leg Joe helps slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, going from plantation to plantation in pre-Civil war south. He teaches them a song that he wrote which gives directions to safehouse and stops along the way that can lead them to freedom up north, by following the drinking gourd, which is the Big Dipper in the sky.

From Old Hattie to Little Isiah, a group of slaves, a family, escape one night, fearing for their lives, relying entirely on the elements and outside help to get themselves to safety. The story is gripping and the illustrations are bright and bold.

In the Garden With Doctor Carver
by Susan Grigsby
illustrated by Nicole Tadgell          

In this charming historical fiction, plant biologist Dr. George Washington Carver teaches how to replenish and restore soil that has been depleted by cotton plantations in rural Alabama.

The story, told through little girl Sally's voice, is engaging and uplifting. Dr. Carver even shows them a fun recipe or two about how to make wild weed salad, sweet-potato flour bread, and chicken from peanuts.

Sweet Music in Harlem
by Debbie A. Taylor    
illustrated by Frank Morrison

A famous photograph by Art Kane that captured all the musical greats of Harlem in 1958 was the inspiration for this story. That photograph where several jazz musicians posed on the steps of an old brownstone was in a t-shirt the author's husband was wearing.

Uncle Click, a skilled jazz trumpeter, is getting ready for being photographed but is missing his hat, his special hat that gives him his trademark look. So his nephew C.J. offers to find it for him before the photographer arrives so that his uncle can be his snazziest best for the picture.

Uncle says he went to the barbershop, the diner, and the music club previously so he must've left his hat in one of these places. C.J tries to track it down but fails. The photo gets taken anyway and it seems like the hat is all but forgotten when it turns up the next day nuzzled next to the brand new clarinet that his uncle gives as a present for his birthday. C.J. is thrilled when Uncle Click says, "You know, a jazzman like you is going to need a good hat. Besides, I am getting used to not wearing one."

These Hands
by Margaret H. Mason
illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Alluding to the old policy in 1940s and 1950s at the unionized factories in the north like Wonder Bread, Awree, and Tastee bakeries of not letting African Americans handle bread dough, claiming that white folks will not want to eat the bread touched by black hands, the fictional story talks about Joseph's grandpa whose hands could do almost anything so skillfully. Anything, except, bake the bread at the Wonder Bread factory.

Illustrations are gorgeous, and the ending is charming and uplifting.

White Water
Inspired by A True Story
by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein
illustrated by Shadra Stickland

A transformative look at the segregation in the south, the book follows little boy Michael who is determined to ask the kind of questions that need to be asked, and answered.

Based on author Bandy's childhood experience of being prohibited from drinking from a "Whites Only" fountain, the story explores Michael's obsession with finding out what the "White" water tastes like because the fountain that he is allowed to drink from has warm, dirty, rusty-tasting water, so surely, the "white" water must taste like sweet honey and hence it is forbidden for non-whites.

So, he gives in to curiosity and attempts to drink from the White fountain, but is startled by a vigilant white lady, and falls down. "Lying on the ground, all I could see was the pipe. I'd never seen it from that angle before. The same pipe fed both fountains! Two fountains. Two signs. But the same water in both!"

This startling discovery helps Michael reconsider how the rules are affecting his thinking. "The signs over the fountains had put a bad idea in my head. but they were a lie. If they weren't real, what else should I question?"

New Shoes  
by Susan Meyer
illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Ella Mae is excited to go to Mr.Johnson's shoe store with her Mama. Her brother's hand-me-down shoes don't fit and she needs a new pair. But, when they get to the store, Mr. Johnson wouldn't let her try on any as she is black, and proceeds to serve another white customer, a white girl who gets to try on pair after pair to pick out the one she wants.

Not to be dejected, Ella Mae teams up with her friend Charlotte and embarks on a frenzy of doing chores around her neighborhood to earn the odd nickel and "a pair of  outgrown shoes" - good and usable. When they have collected enough pairs of shoes through hard work, they set up a sale where all customers are free to try on shoes to their heart's content before picking the right one to take home.

The illustrations are gorgeous - the girls just pop out of the page - and the story unfolds with a lot of warmth amidst the heartwrenching reality.

What inspired the kids about this story is that while living through the reality of segregation and not being able to change it large-scale, the girls defy the subjugation and come up with their own small-scale plan of resistance through their entrepreneurship, winning a small triumph in their own way.

[image source: Multnomah County Library]

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails