Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Books for Accessing Black History

by Kittenpie

February, as you may be aware, is Black History Month. There are a lot of ways to celebrate this with children and books, depending on the age of the child and your own comfort level and interest in wading into the topic.

One nice, simple, low-key and apolitical way to bring black history and culture into your child’s world is to read some African folk tales. There is a wealth of these at every library, and many are great stories with gorgeous illustrations. You could also find books with black characters. I particularly like to focus on Ezra Jack Keats, who created the first picture books to focus on a main character of colour, in an urban setting. I point out to them that these were an important step in representing children who had never before seen themselves in the books that they read. (Plus, Snowy Day, the very first, also won a Caldecott and is the perfect winter book!)

For older kids, though, I think it is important to begin talking about the struggle for civil rights. It’s a tricky topic. I am uncomfortable focussing on hateful people, it makes me upset and I find it hard to talk then, yet I think it’s important for people to understand history and know that these are things to watch for so they don’t creep back. To that end, I like to focus on a few key figures in the civil rights movement, as well as some people who made contributions in other areas but happen to be black. Here are a few books that take on aspects of the civil rights movement, but keep it gentle enough to be accessible for kids.

Goin’ Someplace Special
Patricia C. McKissack, ill. Jerry Pinkney

This book follows a young girl on her first solo trip downtown, as she encounters Jim Crow laws and becomes discouraged. The voices of her elders urge her to stand tall and remember that she was no better or worse than anyone else, and she swallows her frustration in time to make it to one place where everyone was welcome: the public library. Features Pinkney’s beautiful signature watercolours.

A Picture Book of Rosa Parks
David A. Adler, ill. Robert Casilla

Adler has a series of these junior biographies, including many figures in black history (Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, etc.). This is my favourite on Rosa Parks thus far, a fairly straightforward account made ready for children with clear language and lovely images.

Martin’s Big Words
Doreen Rappaport, ill. Bryan Collier

This multi-award winner (Coretta Scott King Award, Caldecott Honour, NY Times Book Review) is a large-format picture book much lauded for its gorgeous, textured paint-and-collage illustrations. I also love it for its treatment of a very difficult subject, though. As the book walks through his life and work, it focuses on his positive messages and the powerful words that made him a leader in the civil rights movement. It’s a great introduction for younger people for it is short and written to be accessible and easy to understand.

I Have A Dream
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ill. By various artists

Martin Luther King’s most famous speech has been stirringly illustrated by a host of artists for this gorgeous illustrated edition.

The Story of Ruby Bridges
Robert Coles, ill. George Ford

Ruby Bridges was the first black children to attend an all-white school in Mississipi, and she faced fierce opposition, ultimately taking her lessons alone as the white children were withdrawn from her class. This story and its images strikes me as especially powerful for the hatred displayed on the faces of June Cleaver housewives hollering at a tiny young girl on her way to school – it is a shock to consider how threatening she was to them. This is another moment in the civil rights movement that I think really speaks to children for being about one of them, and being so dissonant with their own experiences. It is also one episode that does not end in violence, so it, along with Rosa Parks, are great places to start talking about this time in history.

Bessie Smith and the Night Riders
Sue Stauffacher, ill. John Holyfield

There are lots of great books about jazz and blues figures – a list for another time – but this one specifically focuses on a factual confrontation between the Empress of the Blues and a group of KKK “nightriders.” Told by a young girl, it partially fictionalizes the encounter for better effect, but adds a note at the back explaining what was known about that night. So what happened? A handful of KKK members were found to be approaching a tent where Bessie was singing and were pulling up tent pegs. Because they were stopped by Bessie and her prop boys, it isn’t certain what they intended to do, but this makes for a gentler way to talk about things that were done to blacks in the south and even about the KKK without getting too gory. (On a side note, it also doesn’t address her death, which many have said would have been preventable if she had been able to get the kind of care a white person would have, another example of how blacks were treated that could be addressed as an extension of this story.)

Let’s Talk About Race
Julius Lester, ill. Karen Barbour

Julius Lester takes the question of race and what it says about someone head on in this book. He asks questions: What race are you? How does your story begin? He talks about how everyone has the same insides, everyone has their own story, their own personality, regardless of colour. This is the frankest book I’ve seen, yet it emphasizes the positive and focuses on belief in yourself. It’s a kind of conversation, with the author asking about the reader’s experiences and talking about his own. I really quite like it, though I think it’s more appropriate for a one-on-one discussion than the kind of group use I’d need it for at the library. I might just be perfect for you.


A career Children’s Librarian, kittenpie has worked in library systems in both New York and Toronto, and delights in sharing favourite books with kids of all ages. Settled back in Toronto, she now brings work home to read to her own little Pumpkinpie.


norman.leung said...

I hadn't realised that background to Snowy Day (duh)
it is such a perfect winter story

mamatulip said...

Wow, this post is a wealth of information! Thanks, KP!

Sandra said...

Fantastic list. I am going to find the last one this weekend. It will be perfect for my little man. Thanks!

Her Bad Mother said...

What an awesome, awesome list, KP! Can I ask this, though - what are some good sources of African folk tales? For wee people?

kittenpie said...


I think many of the Anansi stories are accessible to young kids if they are of the sort who will sit for a somewhat longer narrative. A few I like: Anansi Goes Fishing and Anansi and the Talking Melon both by Eric kimmel and illustrated by Janet Stevens, as well as Ananse's Feast by Glass (Andrew? Edward?). For a simpler and more repetitive tale, I like Crocodile and Hen, by Joan Lexau. All of those are in Toronto's public libraries. Some Brer tales might also work, but some of them are a little more, er, violent. The one about making a stew, though, I think might not be bad.

mo-wo said...

My daughter picked out a rather inocuous little book called Glenna's seeds. The main characters are a black family in a mixed neighbourhood.

I really like this book and it is nicely accessible to many Canadian preschoolers.