I’m not so great at timing my Stack Overflow columns with anniversaries, partly because my review stacks are a weird mix of not-yet-published and published-a-while-ago. So this set of books comes at the tail end of Black History Month—but it’s not like there’s any reason not to read the books on this list year-round, and you may find other books that fit this topic showing up in my columns throughout the year, though not necessarily grouped the same way.
This week’s column is named after the first book on the list, which isn’t yet available, but it kicks off Versify, Kwame Alexander’s new imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Alexander, who won the 2015 Newbery for The Crossover (among other awards), will be curating books for Versify that “electrify, edify, and exemplify,” with the desire to celebrate all children’s lives.
This picture book is a poetic love letter to Black America, celebrating both the well-known and the unknowns. The book includes athletes and musicians, as well as unnamed slaves and kids who were shot by police. It’s for “The ones who survived America by any means necessary. And the ones who didn’t.”
It’s a powerful poem that Alexander wrote for his daughters, encouraging them to endure and persevere, to get up after they’re knocked down, and it is beautifully accompanied by Kadir Nelson’s striking portraits that stand out from the stark white backgrounds. A section at the back of the book gives short biographies and explanations of all of the people and events referenced in the book.
This book, published last year, is a thorough and unflinching overview of African Americans—from the slave trade that brought them to the United States to the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the book may look like a picture book on the outside, it’s almost more like a textbook inside—nearly 100 pages, with “Get to Know” sidebars highlighting particular historical figures, and an overall chronological narrative that follows both the good and the bad. The book introduces the subject with a section about Carter G. Woodson, who launched Negro History Week, which eventually expanded to Black History Month, to combat myths and stereotypes about African Americans by sharing stories about their contributions.
I was impressed with the breadth of history covered here: there are several sections with brief bios of artists and athletes. The narrative touches on many significant historical events: Supreme Court cases, the civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, Hurricane Katrina. Each topic is only explained briefly in a paragraph or so, but together it builds a big picture of what it has been like to be Black in America. It’s obvious from reading this that the journey for African Americans has not been consistently in the direction of freedom and equality, but that there have been many setbacks along the way, too. It’s written in language that’s easy for kids to read, but it doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics like lynchings, slave revolts, and police killings, either.
Black history doesn’t just include Americans, of course: even in Africa, Blacks have faced injustice and oppression from whites. Nelson Mandela fought against apartheid for decades, eventually becoming South Africa’s first Black president, as well as its first president elected by all the people. This book tells his story, from his childhood and young adulthood, to the more well-known parts of his career, in a format that’s easy for kids to read. Terminology that may be unfamiliar to young readers is underlined in the book and defined in the glossary, and a timeline at the back (with very tiny text) chronicles significant times in Mandela’s life. (Jenny Bristol highlighted this book series last year—there are a few others in the line already, with many more to come.)
This picture book is about another set of figures that were significant in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1976, a new law was passed that Black students would be required to have half their lessons in Afrikaans; they saw Afrikaans as the language of their oppressors and wanted to continue having their lessons in English instead. On June 16, a group of students in Soweto planned a peaceful protest against the law, but police opened fire, killing many protestors (including young children).
One of the children killed was Hector Zolile Pieterson, whose older sister was participating in the protest. Photographer Sam Nzima captured images of the protest and the police response, including one photo of a teenager carrying Hector’s body, with his sister alongside. That photo, among others, helped to spark international concern about the violence of apartheid.
The book tells the story from three points of view: Hector’s, Antoinette’s, and Sam’s. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s a tragic story, and does not end happily, even knowing that the events in the story eventually contributed to the end of apartheid. However, it does tell a story that was not well-known: the book’s author Adrienne Wright was able to interview Hector’s sister Antoinette and mother Dorothy, as well as the photographer, to recreate the events of that day. June 16 is now Youth Day in South Africa, in honor of those protestors and others who died fighting apartheid.
No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas by Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Don Tate
I hadn’t ever heard of Junius G. Groves before, but his story is pretty fascinating. Groves was born into slavery in Kentucky, but was still a child when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and he headed west to start his own life. He eventually settled in Kansas, at first working for a farmer, then renting land from the farmer, and eventually saving up to buy his own land on the Kaw River. He and his wife Matilda worked hard, raised a dozen kids, and was crowned the Potato King of the World, surpassing other potato growers by thousands of bushels.
While the book is a picture book and written for young readers, there is a good deal of text on every page, plus some quotations from Groves himself. The appendix at the back includes a timeline and glossary, but not a lot of additional background information—though the text does cover a lot of that anyway. It’s a story that celebrates hard work and determination.
This followup to Trombone Shorty is about a kid growing up in New Orleans and his “5 O’Clock Band,” so named because that’s what time the kids get together to parade through the streets playing music. But it’s really a story about New Orleans, the people and places and traditions. The story follows Shorty as he wanders around the neighborhood, looking for his bandmates on a day when he was running behind. He wants to be a band leader someday, and he gets advice and inspiration from various members of the community. Although this story is fictional, it’s inspired by Andrews’ own life and the 5 O’Clock Band he was part of. The Author’s Note at the back tells a little more about his background, as well as the challenges that the Tremé neighborhood is facing following the devastation from Hurricane Katrina and the rising cost of living.
Omu is making a big pot of hearty stew, and she keeps getting interrupted by people in the neighborhood drawn by the delicious smell. She won’t send anyone away hungry, so she shares bowl after bowl … but what happens when it’s her own dinnertime? This story about a generous grandma is inspired by the author’s own grandmother: “Omu” means “queen” in the Nigerian language Igbo, but it’s what Oge Mora called her grandmother. Her Omu welcomed everyone to the table, and this story celebrates her giving spirit. The illustrations are delightful collages that’ll make you hungry for a thick red stew.
“Hands Up!” became a slogan for protestors after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, usually followed by “Don’t Shoot!” In this book, Breanna McDaniel pairs the phrase with other experiences, too: mostly positive, but some negative. Her protagonist grows up from a baby to a young woman, holding her hands up to reach, to grow, to celebrate, and—yes—to protest. McDaniel explains in her Author’s Note that she wants her daughter to thrive, to enjoy a rich life, and to be able to be a kid. These “hands up” experiences are as important for kids as the association with protest and violence, and McDaniel wanted to celebrate these positive moments while still acknowledging that there are also times of pain and trouble.
Simone is multiracial: she asks her mom and dad, “Am I black or white?” but she’s not satisfied with their answers. She doesn’t want to be “a little bit of both” or one or the other, and she wants a color she can call her own. Eventually (spoiler alert!) she picks the word “honeysmoke,” because her mom is the color of dark honey and her dad is the color of pale smoke. At the end, the book encourages kids to discover their own color word, with some fanciful examples like “rubyfire” and “sugar coal”—my daughter, who is also multiracial, was asking about her own color word after reading the book. Monique Fields has multiracial kids herself, and started the site Honeysmoke.com as a place for parents raising multiracial kids, and this book serves as a kid-friendly way to start that conversation.
Katherine Johnson is now a well-known name, thanks to Hidden Figures, but it wasn’t that long ago when her story and those of her fellow NASA “computers” was largely unknown to the public. This book tells her story in picture book form, showing how she faced and overcame challenges: that women shouldn’t have jobs, that children with different skin colors couldn’t attend the same schools, that women couldn’t attend space team’s group meetings, and so on. Eventually, it was her calculations that took Neil Armstrong to the moon (and brought him home again). The story incorporates some wrong math equations to compare them to things that Johnson knew weren’t correct, and the illustrations incorporate some geometrical figures and angles to symbolize Katherine’s mathematical aptitude.
Although this book is not limited to Black history, it’s about peaceful protests in many forms: stickers and hats, choosing where to shop or what to buy, writing letters, voting, singing, kneeling, attending vigils, and more. Along the way, there are some specific examples of protest in the civil rights movement, like sit-ins at the lunch counters by Black students. The cut-paper illustrations feature people of all sorts, with different skin colors, clothing and hair styles, and so on, with a lot of little details that you notice with repeated readings. I like that there’s one picketing construction worker wearing a baby carrier, and there’s another protester who has a prosthetic leg. The text is short and poetic, but there’s also a section about peaceful protest and a glossary at the back of the book.
This book is actually from 2017 but it got lost in my stacks and I just rediscovered it. Pete Souza was Obama’s Chief Official White House Photographer throughout his presidency, and this book is a kid-friendly companion book to Obama: An Intimate Portrait, a much larger book of his photographs along with essays. Dream Big Dreams has some text in it introducing each section: Obama at work, with his family, comforting people after times of crisis, and being silly (often with little kids), along with captions that give the context for the photos. The captions do mention legislation that was passed by his administration, like the Affordable Care Act, but most of the the book focuses on who Obama was behind the scenes rather than his specific policies or legislation. I was especially intrigued by Souza’s introduction, where he explains what it’s like to be a presidential photographer: the long hours and travel, and getting to know the President really well over the years.
(A note on wording and capitalization: I’ve seen differing opinions on whether or not to capitalize “Black” when referring to people of African descent, as well as whether to use the term “African-American” vs. “Black.” For this post, I’ve decided to capitalize “Black” as a form of respect. Since the preferred term varies from book to book, I’ve used each book’s own terminology when possible.)
My Current Stack
Continuing my Black History Month reading, I’ve started a comics adaptation of Showtime at the Apollo by Ted Fox, illustrated by James Otis Smith. Fox’s book was originally published in 1983 and is a deep dive into the history of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, compiled from firsthand interviews with many of the performers and people who worked at the theater. So far I’m enjoying the book—I knew almost nothing about the Apollo Theater before I started—but I do find that the text can be a little hard to follow in this format, because a lot of the panels are borderless and it can be tricky to figure out the order of the text. Still, if you’re interested in the huge influence that this African-American theater has had on pop culture and style, or why it has this legendary status, I’d recommend checking it out.
I’ve been making my way through some more Science Comics in preparation for another column about non-fiction comics, and I also read the silly (and not necessarily appropriate for kids) Our Super Adventure: Press Start to Begin by Sarah Graley, an autobiographical comic strip about Sarah and her boyfriend Stef and several cats. It’s kind of a slice-of-life strip, usually funny, but sometimes just with cats, about a young couple and their goofy life together.
Disclosure: I received review copies or digital samples of the books mentioned in this column.