February is Black History Month. I’m not always great at putting together lists, but this is a topic that always feel like it deserves one. As picture book biographies continue to amaze me, here is a list of 10 books that told wonderful stories that all kids should read. Two years ago I also put together another list of 10 great nonfiction books for Black History Month. You can check them out here.
Few tennis players have caught the general public’s’ eyes the way Venus and Serena Williams have. Lesa Cline-Ransome captures the sisters’ rise to fame in her marvelous book, Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams. Even though I watched them play for years, and even got to see them play against each other in the US Open, I had no idea just how challenging their upbringing was. They grew up in East Compton, not the nicest spot in Los Angeles. Before they could play tennis, they had to sweep the trash off of the courts. But their complete dedication to the sport has always been awe inspiring. Cline-Ransome also captures the discrimination that they faced playing in a “nearly all-white sport.” A great book to inspire kids.
When most kids dream about their futures, goals of sports stardom or being a television star are what we often hear. After a trip to the Hayden Planetarium at age 9, Neil DeGrasse Tyson was inspired to be an astrophysicist. Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, along with illustrator Frank Morrison, do an amazing job of showing the amazing trajectory of Tyson in Starstruck: The Cosmic Journey of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Studying the stars wasn’t a simple thing to do in the Bronx in the 60s and early 70s, but he loved it. Fortunately, Tyson was also helped along the way from teachers and mentors who saw his passion and encouraged him to develop it. What I found most interesting was how important public speaking became to him. He was never nervous because he was talking about science, his passion. When he appeared on television one day as an expert, he realized just how important it was for him to be present and visible as an expert in his field for young black children as he was never able to see that himself as a child. Tyson himself is a wonder and this book does a great job of bringing his experiences to a new generation.
When I hear the song We Shall Overcome, my head and my heart immediately go to the Civil Rights Movement. It was the anthem of the time, for good reasons. We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debbie Levy, is an amazing book that tells the story of the song, from it’s original roots as a song that American slaves would sing to the time when Pete Seeger sang it to Martin Luther King, Jr. The book uses the song as a way to teach about slavery, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Every child recognizing the song, this is a marvelous way to bring the history into it.
Way back before the Civil Rights movement came to be, a singer from a tiny little house in Washington, DC was making music and taking a stand against racism. In Harlem’s Little Blackbird, Renee Watson shows that Florence Mills was a force to be reckoned with, admired and appreciated by the likes of Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Paul Robeson. In the early 20s she starred in Dover Street to Dixie, a two act review that featured a white cast in the first half and a black cast in the second half. When the show was invited to London to perform, Mills and the rest of the cast faced racism on the ship as well as at the theater. People threatened to boycott, but came anyway and were mesmerized by her voice. It is quite unfortunate that there were no sound recordings made of Mills, but this is a great homage.
This past summer my family visited Monticello. We were fortunate enough to be among the first to see a new exhibit on Sally Hemings and her relationship with Thomas Jefferson. Their relationship is one that has been alluded to for years, but never openly discussed, until recently. Thomas Jefferson did in fact have a relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, and he fathered 4 children with her. My Name is James Madison Hemings, by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener, is the story told from the perspective of James, their third child together. What makes this book extraordinary is that it is also a look at slavery from someone who isn’t quite a slave, but isn’t quite free. It highlights the different lifestyles of whites versus blacks in the South. I find this story fascinating and also recently discovered a book for middle school aged kids called Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (author of The War that Saved My Life) that is also an important read. No matter what, these books show that even the best slave life was still an intolerable one.
By now, we all know the story of the African-American women who worked at NASA and made a direct impact on the space race made common knowledge by Margo Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures. That said, the picture book version of this story is a great book to include in any library about the impacts of segregation and discrimination (as is the young reader’s version). One spread specifically talks about segregation in terms that kids can really understand – “They could not drink from the same water fountains. They could not use the same restrooms. They could not attend the same schools,” and on and on. But these women, and many others, loved math and it was a great way for them to earn a living. They had dreams of doing something better with their lives and their smarts. They could have given up, but they didn’t. For that, they are wonderful models for all children.
The arts, and arts education, are often things that we see getting cut these days. But art, like books, are windows into the world around us. That is what comes through the most to me in Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Carole Boston Weatherford. This biography of a photographer many might not recognize is fabulously done. Weatherford captures how Parks saw the world through his lens like a true photojournalist. It also shows how he used his art to help give a voice to the African American community who didn’t have the same rights as white Americans. A moving tribute.
For a more modern story and one to entice young sports-lovers is Delores Jordan’s second book about her son, Dream Big: Michael Jordan and the Pursuit of Excellence. This book take a look at Michael Jordan at age 9 and his dreams of being an Olympic basketball player, which we all know eventually happened. The pieces of this book that shine are the importance his family put on education and the understanding that if you want to achieve a big goal like that, you have to work for it.
In the book Fancy Party Gowns by Deborah Blumenthal, we are shown the story of Ann Cole Lowe, an African-American fashion designer. My complete review of the book can be seen here, but what impresses me most about her story is that she did the work that she did because it was important to her. It made her happy. She faced racism and persevered, it might even have made her stronger.
Most kids know the thrill of soaking someone with a water gun, or being soaked themselves, so reading about the guy who invented them is an enticing subject. But Whoosh! is more than just a story about how super soakers were invented. Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, by Chris Barton, tells of a young boy fascinated with how things worked and who loved to create. It tells of the successes and failures that all inventors deal with. It illustrates how unusual it was for an African-American team to win a major science fair at the University of Alabama in 1968. And then it shows how Lonnie Johnson came up with a great idea that got rejection after rejection until he finally had success. A true story of perseverance and innovation.
I have been awful at managing to get posts for the nonfiction picture book challenge up, but grad school is taking up a lot of my time. Check out the regulars who DO post weekly on Kid Lit Frenzy. There is always great stuff to be found!