Books for African-American History Month: Part II

Books for African-American History Month: Part II

Some novels focusing on African-American history and present-day life:

Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Elijah is the first free child born in the Canadian settlement of Buxton, Ontario, populated entirely by refugees from American slavery and their families. When he crosses the border to help a friend, he sees for himself what his parents didn't want to tell him. What I love about this book is that it plunges you into Elijah's world, in which he and his family and neighbors are just regular people, some mischievous, some irritating, before showing you how they escaped from a system in which they were nothing but chattel. This book just won a Newbery Honor Award and a Coretta Scott King book award, and with good reason.

Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, by Mildred Taylor.

Cassie Logan and her family don't have much, but the own their own land, and this alone gives them some protection from the racist inequities of the Deep South in the 1930's. Cassie is a strong and distinctive character, and some of the scenes in this book- like the first day of school, in which Cassie's little brother rebels when he realizes the black kids' school is using the castoff books from white students- have stuck with me for decades.

Maizon at Blue Hill, by Jacqueline Woodson

Maizon, a smart and thoughtful kid from a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn, wins a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school, where she feels isolated from both the black and white students. This is the middle book in a trilogy about Maizon and her friends, but it can be read on its own, and Jacqueline Woodson is one of those writers who can craft prose that just sings on the page, and keep kids interested at the same time.

Darnell Rock Reporting, by Walter Dean Myers

When Darnell starts reporting for the school newspaper, his sister isn't the only one who has doubts—Darnell's never been a great student. But his interview with a homeless veteran sets events in motion that surprise even Darnell with how much of a difference he can make.

Gloria Rising, by Ann Cameron.

Gloria's dreams of being an astronaut help her keep her head when she faces her teacher's unfairness. A matter-of-fact portrait of a present-day African-American kid. Cameron's books about Gloria's friend Julian, starting with The Stories Julian Tells, are terrific and funny easy chapter books, too.

February 27, 2008

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Beyond Harriet Tubman: Picture Books for African-American History Month

Beyond Harriet Tubman: Picture Books for African-American History Month

When I was a kid in the 1970's, there weren't a ton of kids' books around on African-American history. I remember reading about only two events: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and Rosa Parks's refusal to move off the bus. I can still see the chalky blue illustrations of the book about Harriet Tubman, and the feel chill that ran through me when I realized how brave she must have been to continue helping people to freedom even with a price on her head and a visible, identifiable scar on her face. (Though I was interested to read, in this list of myths and truths about the Underground Railroad, that most slaves who escaped did so on their own and without "conductors" like Tubman.)

These days, there are so many titles about the African American experience that a comprehensive list would be close to impossible, though this website on African-American Heritage resources and this list of Coretta Scott King Award Winners would be a good start for anyone who wants to share this aspect of American history and heritage with the kids in their lives—or just to read some amazing kids' books for themselves.

The picture books listed below are some of my own favorites; my daughter and the kids at my library have enjoyed them as well:

A fascinating tale, based on the true story of Henry Box Brown, who mailed himself to freedom. The illustrations won a Caldecott Honor award just this year. One 5th grader I knew found this book so compelling that he decided to do his author study project on its author.

In a California Gold Rush settlement, two spirited heroines—one the daughter of an escaped slave, and one a member of the area's only Jewish family—who come up with an ingenious way to foil a slave catcher. 

Life under segregation, as seen through the eyes of one young girl making her first solo trip to the town library. I especially like the way the heroine keeps her grandmother's supportive words in mind to bolster her sense of self in the face of the Jim Crow laws that restrict her at every turn. Based on the author's childhood experiences.

  • Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni; illustrated by Bryan Collier.

My favorite book ever about Rosa Parks, and the only one I've seen that gives real weight to her background as a Civil Rights activist and to the community that supported her. Plus, the illustrations are stunning.

Reginald's dad, a coach in the Negro Baseball League, wants him to be a bat boy, but Reginald would rather play the violin.

Two girls and a fence set the stage for one of the most powerful books I've ever seen about overcoming fear of difference. Woodson's understated text leaves lots of room for readers and listeners to draw their own conclusions.

No history lesson here: just a little girl whose big brother doesn't want her following him around. It might seem obvious, but it's worth keeping in mind that all kids—whatever their own ethnicity—can benefit from books about African-Americans as regular people, not subjects of prejudice or Big Historical Themes. Plus, Jamaica is just a great character who kids can relate to. First in a series of books about Jamaica and her friends.

Coming up in the next post:
Chapter books and nonfiction for African-American History Month

February 18, 2008

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Firecrackers and Red Envelopes: Books for Lunar New Year

Firecrackers and Red Envelopes: Books for Lunar New Year

The Lunar New Year is coming up tomorrow! More and more children's books about this traditional Asian holiday are being published in North America, and I couldn't let the Year of the Rat start without mentioning a few of them:

Year of the Dog, by Grace Lin, was one of my favorite books of 2006. On the one hand, it's nothing dramatic: just a year in the life of a Taiwanese-American girl. She celebrates New Year's with her family, buys school lunch (the lunch lady always gets her mixed up with the one other Asian kid), makes a new best friend, and discovers her talent. But the book is totally charming and perfect for kids who are just starting meatier chapter books. My favorite parts: the family stories that Pacy's parents tell, and the little line drawings sprinkled throughout.

Another Grace Lin book, this one for a younger audience, is Bringing In the New Year! Simple text and vibrant, cheerful illustrations show a family getting ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year: sweeping out the old year, making dumplings, getting a haircut, watching firecrackers, and finally, joining in a parade where a newly-awakened dragon heralds a lucky New Year.

Similarly, the young Chinese-Korean protagonist of Janet Wong's This Next New Year brings in the New Year by cleaning the house, eating a special New Year's soup, and celebrating with fireworks and a parade, and hoping for luck. It's nice to see a book that includes traditions from Korea as well as China, and where the hero's friends of different heritages enjoy sharing the celebrations, and though the text is spare—it would be a great read-aloud—you really get a sense of the hero's yearning for better things in the year to come.

Finally, a slightly older title: Sam and the Lucky Money, by Karen Chinn. I'm especially fond of this one because it has an actual plot, which can be a scarce commodity in books about holidays that are historically less well-known to the general American public (look for my rant on Purim books, coming up next month). As Sam faces the dilemma of how to spend his New Year's money, the reader gets a taste of one family's celebrations, along with some food for thought about the meaning of luck and about generosity.

A few more Lunar New Year titles:

  • Dragon Dance, by Joan Holub
  • Dragon Dancing, Carole Lexa Schaefer
  • Happy New Year, by Demi
  • My First Chinese New Year, by Karen Katz
  • New Clothes for New Year's Day, by Hyun-joo Bae

Enjoy, and may this next New Year be a lucky one for us all!

February 6, 2008

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