New and Inspirational

Staff Picks

New and Inspirational

Illustrated African American Biography

Leading up to the 2017 American Library Association Youth Media Awards on January 23, many in the book world revisited some of their favorite books from 2016.  I went back to some of my favorite books and narrowed my list around a theme: recent illustrated biographies of African Americans who did something extraordinary.  Some are famous, some not so famous.  Two of the biographies have won multiple awards, but all are outstanding in their original artwork and storytelling.  I invite you check them out and see for yourself.

Radiant Child:  The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
2017 Raldolph Caldecott Medal
Jean-Michel Basquiat, the son of Haitian and Puerto Rican immigrants, became famous during his short life, lauded for his message-filled, expressionist-inspired works.  While still a teenager he would explode onto the New York art scene of the late 1970's and collaborate with Andy Warhol in the 1980’s. In this latest biography of the graffiti artist and collage painter, Javaka Steptoe takes the reader on an exploration of Basquiat’s art through his own Basquiat-inspired collage, all while sharing a highly readable and poetic story.  

Muhammad Ali:  A Champion Is Born by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and his friend Johnny race to the local home show, a traveling market where Louisville, Kentucky’s black residents can buy various goods, for free hot dogs. While there, Cassius’s new bicycle is stolen. A bystander urges Cassius to see Officer Joe Martin. When he finds Officer Martin in a basement gym, his interested in boxing is piqued, and thus the late Muhammad Ali’s path to greatness begins. The three-time boxing heavyweight champion’s major fights and most well-known quotes augment this first picture book from a large publisher since Ali’s death in 2016.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher:  The Story of Stephen Bishop Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Born a slave in Kentucky, Stephen Bishop is passed along with Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world, to consecutive owners.  His task is to find passages in and guide visitors through what was once a mine for salt peter.  Bishop creates the first extensive map of the cave, discovers new animals, and becomes known by name as a particularly talented guide.  Bishop teaches himself to write and his smoke created signature remains to this day for cave explorers.

Fancy Party Gowns:  The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Laura Freeman
The first African American designer of couture clothing was the granddaughter of a slave and daughter to a dressmaker.  Ann Cole Lowe rose from her humble roots to design and create a gown that would be worn by an Academy Award recipient and a wedding dress and bridesmaids gown worn by the wife and family of a future President of the United States.  The designer would struggle financially throughout her long career.  A refrain punctuates this story of talent and perseverance:  “Ann thought about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.”

The Youngest Marcher:  The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Audrey Faye Hendricks’s family often hosts civil rights leaders - such as Fred Shuttlesworth, Jim Bevel and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (whom the family calls Mike) - for dinner.  Audrey learns from these men and her family the importance of activism, so when family friend Mike has difficulty recruiting adults for protest marches and suggests children get involved, Audrey volunteers.  Audrey is the smallest of the children who volunteer on the first day of the Children’s March in May of 1963, so her arrest and her week-long stay in jail are particularly menacing. Her bravery and that of more than 3,000 other children were demonstrated a few short months before the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and would be the catalyst for President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Born to an accomplished New York family, Lena Horne would begin her career in entertainment as a teenager supporting her actress mother. She learned to sing and dance while performing in nightclubs she couldn’t patronize and became a headliner with big bands. Her nightclub and low budget film appearances brought her to the attention of MGM executives and she was offered a contract. Her refusal to play maids or mammies and skin darkening makeup used by white actresses portraying light-skinned black women would limit her roles. Her friendships with political activists would get her blacklisted, but Lena Horne would enjoy a long and successful career and support civil rights causes along the way.  Lines from the more famous songs she performed as well as quotes caption some of the oil and collage art.

Just a Lucky So and So:  The Story of Louis Armstrong by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome
A child enamored with local musicians such as Bunk Johnson and Joe ”King” Oliver, New Orleans native Louis Armstrong buys his first cornet with a loan of $5.00 from the junk man he works for. A stint in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys launches his musical training. Teenage Louis runs errands for bandleader, King Oliver, and is soon mentored by the cornetist. Performing all over New Orleans, young Louis becomes so good that King Oliver calls him to perform with his band in Chicago where his talent truly shines.  This retelling of Louis Armstrong’s tough beginnings in the neighborhood known as The Battlefield to his rise as a unique and prodigious talent is a particularly enjoyable picture book from the award-winning wife/husband, author/illustrator team from such picture book biographies as Satchel Paige and My Dance, My Story: Robert Battle's Journey to Alvin Ailey.

Preaching to the Chickens:  The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Inspired by Congressman John Lewis’s autobiography, Walking with the Wind, Jabari Asim uses a story from the future Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chairman’s childhood to provide both context and prologue to his eventual leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. While tending to the chickens on his family’s Alabama farm, the young John Lewis demonstrates lessons learned in church to his captivated “congregation”. The quiet tone of the story and light-dappled watercolor artwork capture a moment in John Lewis’s narrative that may have inspired his life.

March:  Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature
2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award
2017 Michael L. Printz Award
2017 Robert F. Sibert Award

The conclusion of the March trilogy, inspired by the comic book, Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story, begins with a bang as events following the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom are marked by increased violence. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is bombed and four girls are killed, 21 children are injured. Murders of children and adults continue through the autumn into the next year. Leading civil rights groups such as SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) begin to see divisions within and many question the effectiveness of the non-violent approach. The comic book format takes nothing away from Lewis’s account of events. Images like a police deputy spitting at the feet of John Lewis as he approaches a police barricade around a church and the beating of Unitarian minister James Reeb that would take his life convey the brutality of the era. Though the book ends with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s speech reminds everyone that the struggle for equal rights in America will not end with a law, but when those rights “…are also woven into the fabric of our Nation”.