The Black Experience, New and Noteworthy Children's Books

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The Black Experience, New and Noteworthy Children's Books

The books listed here are all inspirational and true.  They take the reader through lives that may seem like our own, but become extraordinary through the individual’s creativity or inventiveness, singular devotion to improving their lives and the lives of others, and or the individual’s supportive family and community.  Some have won recent national awards.  Some have been passed around a lot. Some are meant to be read aloud.  Some are visually stunning.  All are worth enjoying.

Rhythm Ride:  A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Narrated by the Groove, the reader is taken on a musical ride through the history of Motown, a Detroit, Michigan based entertainment company that produced crossover appeal for its sound and its young African American artists.  The sound was a brand of Rhythm & Blues and the performers were often raw local talent, but Motown Record Company founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. created a way to nurture both.  Using the famous Ford Motor Company assembly line as inspiration, Gordy kept everything having to do with the artist and music in-house.  Motown had its own songwriters, producers and musicians.  It trained its artists in dance moves, stage presence, etiquette and grooming.  The business model proved so successful that artists associated with Motown are household names decades after the height of their careers.

Award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney (Duke Ellington:  The Piano Prince and His Orchestra; Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuoso) offers a well-researched and comprehensive book on a major part of recent African American History not often written for children.  Everything from Berry Gordy, Jr.’s childhood to the company’s branching off into other projects, like motion pictures and television specials is detailed by the Groove in style meant to be read cover to cover.

My Story, My Dance:  Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome
Before he would learn to dance, young Robert would wear braces on his bowed legs until age six.  Once the leg braces came off he would learn karate.  Robert wouldn’t take dance classes until his early teens, several years late for most dances, but he would practice long and hard.  He would attend Juilliard, begin his own company and choreograph renowned works like Strange Humors and Mood Indigo.  In 2011 he would be hand-picked by Judith Jamison, herself hand-picked by friend, Alvin Ailey, to lead the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as artistic director.

Author Cline-Ransome and illustrator Ransome, wife and husband; collaborate on a story rich with detail and visually revelatory.  The couple’s access to Mr. Battle and the Alvin Ailey dances shows in the quiet glimpses into the subject’s childhood and renderings of dancing.  Enjoy this book along with another by a wife and husband author and illustrator duo, Alvin Ailey by Andrea Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney.

Jump Back, Paul:  The Life and Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar by Sally Derby, illustrated by Sean Qualls
Born in 1872 the youngest of three sons and first child of widow, Matilda Burton Murphy Dunbar and Joshua Dunbar, Paul Laurence Dunbar became well-known in his own life time for his poems and performances.  Dunbar’s poems are a large part of the telling of his life story.  Each of Sally Derby’s folksy passages on Dunbar’s life is followed by a poem with autobiographical elements.  A Negro Love Song, from which the title is borrowed, is the first.  Its light-hearted theme and use of dialect are indicative of both the tastes of Dunbar’s late 19th and early 20th century audience and a style he would use often.  Non-dialect poems like Sympathy and We Wear the Mask follow passages on Dunbar’s Post-Reconstruction adulthood, a time when African Americans saw social and political gains made immediately after the Civil War erode.
So much is packed into this combination biography/book of poetry that it’s hard to settle on a favorite part (don’t miss Little Orphant Annie by James Whitcomb Riley, the only non-Dunbar poem).  Sally Derby spent years researching her subject and it shows.   Derby’s narrative has read-aloud appeal, meshing well with the often performed poems.  Sean Quall’s black and white images are an enhancement, as are the chronology and source notes, for a book that is a wonderful story on its own.
 
Voice of Freedom:  Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
  • 2016 Caldecott Honor, Ekua Holmes, illustrator
  • 2016 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award, Ekua Holmes
  • 2016 Sibert Honor, Carole Boston Weatherford
Fannie Lou Townsend was born in 1917 in Montgomery County Mississippi, the youngest of 20 children.  She saw much hardship before joining the civil rights movement in her 40’s.  Her parents were sharecroppers who endured, like others, being cheated of their earnings.  Struggling to get ahead the family purchased livestock from other earnings.  A white neighbor poisoned the animals, depleting the family’s resources.  As a married woman, Fannie Lou Hamer was given a hysterectomy without her knowledge because a state policy dictated that poor women should not have children.
In 1962 Hamer began her involvement in civil rights with voter registration.  Her employer fired her.  On the way to further training for voter registration, Hamer sat in a whites only café and was arrested.  She was so severely beaten in jail that she would suffer from the injuries for the rest of life.  Hardship didn’t end there, but Hamer persevered. 
 
Hamer is touchingly memorialized in verse and image.  The color yellow and sunflower motifs that appear throughout the book represent Sunflower County, Mississippi, where her family moved when Hamer was a toddler.  The joyful color and flower as evoke a promise of better things to come.  The poems are the shortest of short stories of a life that could have been ordinary in its suffering, but shone a light instead.
 
The Girl Who Buried Her Dreams in a Can:  A True Story by Dr. Tererai Trent, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist
When a Shona girl named Tereraishokoramwari, a name meaning listen to the word of the spirit, was born her grandmother buried her umbilical cord in the ground, a ritual that would tie her to her native Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.  As the young Tererai grew and questioned the lack of educational opportunities for girls and women.  A visitor from American gave Tererai a word, “achievable”, “tinogona” in Shona.  “Tinogona!” would become her mantra as she wrote down her dreams of getting an education in America and bringing knowledge she gained back to her village, and buried the message in the ground.
 
Dr. Trent’s retelling of her journey through education acknowledges the support of her mother, grandmother, brother (who taught her to read), teachers (who made it possible for her to attend school) and village (who gave what they had so she could travel to America for college). Jan Spivey (Night on Neighborhood Street and Nathaniel Talking) aids in this message of thanks with sunny and colorful images of Dr. Trent’s home town of Matau.
 
The Case for Loving:  The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
In 1958 it was not legal to marry someone of different race in the state of Virginia and sixteen other states.  Mildred and Richard, from the same small town of Central Point, Virginia traveled to Washington, DC to marry.  The two were soon arrested in their home and jailed.  More than ten years would pass before the two could legally live together in the home town they loved.  Their case went to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled laws against interracial marriage where unconstitutional.
Interracial couple, Selina Alko and Sean Qualls (Two Friends), create vibrant paint and collage images.  Words of protest and symbols of love and justice pop in a visually rich and informative story of a family.
 
Emmanuel's Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls
2016 Schneider Family Book Award, Laurie Ann Thompson
The desire to learn and enjoy the same activities as other boys would motivate Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah to hop several miles to and from school on his one good leg, play soccer, learn to ride a bicycle, and bike more than 400 miles across Ghana to raise awareness of the marginalization of those with disabilities.  Yeboah's efforts would inspire legislation in Ghana supporting the civil rights of persons with disabilities.  Yeboah currently leads a foundation which provides wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment to African children.

Laurie Ann Thompson, in her picture book debut, deftly recounts a story of a parent’s devotion and a child’s unconquerable will.  Sean Qualls lends his considerable skill with bold full-bleed images that are great for sharing with younger children.  The author and illustrator, together, create and informative and inspiring book.

The Book Itch:  Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
  • 2016 Coretta Scott King Honor, R. Gregory Christie
On Seventh Avenue, near 125th Street in Harlem, stood the National Memorial African Bookstore.  Its proprietor, Lewis Michaux began the bookstore from a pushcart.  When the storefront opened he continued to sell books from the pushcart to reach those who didn’t know about the store.  The bookstore sold thousands of books and was a gathering place for teachers, activists, politicians and actors.  Malcolm X, a friend to the family, gave speeches from a podium outside the store.  Others used the bookstore like a library, some staying late into the night.  Michaux didn’t seem to mind.  One of his quotes was, “Knowledge is Power.  You need it every hour.  Read a Book”.
 
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Bad News for Outlaws:  The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves. Deputy U.S. Marshal), Lewis Michaux’s great niece tells the fascinating story of the Harlem institution from the point of view of her cousin, Lewis Michaux, Jr.  Lewis was a child during a particularly exciting moment for the bookstore and Nelson makes use of his sense of wonderment to great effect.  R. Gregory Christie’s art provides a sense of the urban landscape of the 1960’s as well as the intimacy of the father/son relationship and the confines of the bookstore itself.
 
Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier
  • 2016 Caldecott Honor, Bryan Collier, illustrator
Familiar too many from the HBO series, Treme, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews details his life from child prodigy to globe-trotting musician who would play with music stars such as B.B. King and Prince.  An impromptu performance with Bo Diddley at the New Orleans Jazz Festival when Andrews’ trombone was still bigger than he was (hence the name, “Trombone Shorty”) is just one colorful tale from a Treme, New Orleans childhood. Now a mentor to younger musicians, Andrew’s picture book autobiography is filled with anecdotes of the mentoring he received from family and neighbors.

Just in case the reader forgets they’re reading about New Orleans, Bryan Collier’s (Martin’s Big Words:  The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama:  Son of Promise, Child of Hope) golds and greens, with a hint of purple pen and ink, watercolor and collage dazzle and excite.  The brass, the crowds, and even a recipe for gumbo are all here.  Give this book a perusal and repeat.

Sewing Stories:  Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
The slave women of the Georgia plantation where Harriet Powers was born would gather at the end of the week to share stories, catch up on the latest news and create objects that brought them joy, story quilts.  Young Harriet would watch and learn, eventually joining in with the quilting.  Many years later, as a free adult, a chance encounter would lead to the sale and exhibition of her two known story quilts.  One is owned by the Smithsonian, the other by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  

Vanessa Brantley Newton's digital art and gouache images and Barbara Herkert's storytelling make for a cheerful story book for younger children, but for details about the two quilts and the artist's life, Stitching Stars by Mary Lyons is a must read.  For stories about other traditions in African American quilting try Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson and Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson.  Artist, Faith Ringgold's story quilt series Tar Beach was made into the, now, classic picture book of the same title.  Story quilt series can be seen at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Undocumented:  A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
A couple and their young son arrive in New York from the Dominican Republic to stay with relatives.  The mother has gestational diabetes and needs medical care she can't get back in Santo Domingo.  The couple have good jobs back home.  The wife is a government official and the husband is an educator, their four-year-old son is good in school, but family's stay is extended due to complications from childbirth.  The family sees its savings dwindle and the husband returns to Santo Domingo.  Years of frequent moves and a stay in a homeless shelter follow.  Dan-el  and his mother's immigration status keep the family in the shadows, even as Dan-el rises academically.  Dan-el eventually obtains a temporary visa, but his application for a long-term visa is denied.

Dan-el's story brings to light the plight of many illegal immigrants.  Though able to obtain degrees from colleges and universities, illegal immigrants are unable to work in their chosen fields and live in fear of deportation.  The book is a timely read as upcoming elections may effect immigration policy.