Black History Month has been celebrated since 1976, but its origins date back to 1926, when a high school teacher named Carter G. Woodson first proposed setting aside a week to study the history of African Americans. February has now become a nationwide celebration and time for reflection. It's also a chance to explore new books for children. Transporting readers from the Outer Banks to a contemporary village in Uganda, this year's new titles offer something for kids of all ages.
On the night of October 11, 1896, the E.S. Newman got caught in a hurricane and began to sink off Cape Hatteras. In an astonishing rescue feat, the African-American crew of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station tied two men to a line and sent them into the raging sea to rescue each sailor, one at a time. Not a life was lost. One hundred years later, the members of the Pea Island crew were awarded Gold Life-Saving medals posthumously by the U.S. Coast Guard for their courageous actions.
This little-known true story serves as the inspiration for Storm Warriors, Elisa Carbone's absorbing and meticulously researched historical novel for young readers about a boy who wants to be a storm warrior himself. With likeable characters and exciting storm sequences, Storm Warriors is sure to capture the attention of readers and shed light on a fascinating way of life and the unsung heroes who lived it.
John Henry swims better than anybody I know. He crawls like a catfish, blows bubbles like a swamp monster, but he doesn't swim in the town pool with me. He's not allowed.
So relates Joe, the young narrator of Freedom Summer an outstanding first picture book by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. Set in the South in 1964, this poignant story explores the friendship between two boys, one white and one black. Joe and John Henry spend their summers together, playing marbles and swimming in the creek. They can hardly contain their excitement when they learn the town pool is about to open to everyone, regardless of skin color. But though their innocence is shattered by what happens next, their hope is not. Based on true occurrences, this is a wonderful book to share and discuss with young readers and a sober reminder that racism affects all children.
Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden and Mary Kay Kroeger, illustrated by Teresa Flavin, is a picture book biography of the first African American to earn a pilot's license. Born into a large family in rural Texas in 1892, Bessie Coleman spent her childhood in extreme poverty. During World War I, Coleman learned of women pilots in France and determined to learn to fly. Unable to find anyone to teach her in this country, she saved enough money to attend flying school in France. Although Coleman flew for only a few years before her death in a plane crash in 1926 at the age of 34, her legacy survives.
Hurry Freedom: African Americans in Gold Rush California, by Jerry Stanley, is fascinating and informative nonfiction at its best. Filled with period photographs and accompanied by an index and bibliographic note, Hurry Freedom tells the story of black Americans in California before the Civil War.
Stanley's book is especially effective in threading the story of one man against the backdrop of California history and the experiences of other African Americans. Mifflin Gibbs arrived in San Francisco in 1850 with 10 cents in his pocket. Despite an uncertain and sometimes dangerous racial climate, Gibbs prospered as a businessman. But he was less successful in his battles to win civil rights for blacks. In 1858, with a bill pending that would have prohibited African Americans from entering California, Gibbs and more than 200 other black citizens chose to emigrate to Victoria, British Columbia. He eventually returned to the U.S., earned a law degree and became ambassador to Madagascar. In Hurry Freedom, Jerry Stanley makes the complex historical events of pre-Civil War California come alive. Another nonfiction title, Catherine Clinton's The Black Soldier: 1492 to the Present provides an overview of the involvement and accomplishments of black soldiers in America. Perhaps because it covers such a wide time period, the book does not leave much room for the detailed telling of many individual stories. Nevertheless, with its short chapters and accessible prose, this title should prove to be a valuable resource for students interested in this subject. Attractively illustrated with photographs and drawings, the book includes a bibliography and index.
For older readers, Milton Meltzer's There Comes a Time: The Struggle for Civil Rights examines the key issues and events of the Civil Rights movement and includes a calendar of events, a bibliography and index. Of course, Black History Month isn't only about the past; it's also a time to celebrate families today. Young children will delight in Myles C. Pinkney's striking photographs of African-American children that grace the pages of Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children with text by Sandra L. Pinkney. As the subtitle suggests, this is an affirmation book that uses rich, poetic language to celebrate each child's uniqueness. "My hair is the soft puffs in a cotton ball and the stiff ringlets in lambs wool." Preschoolers will love this one, and it would be a great gift book for new parents, too.
Another title that celebrates families of all hues is called, simply, Family. Written by Isabell Monk with illustrations by Janice Lee Porter, Family tells the story of a young girl named Hope who brings a surprise dessert to the family gathering at Aunt Poogee's farm. This simple tale celebrates family traditions. Recipes are included in case you get a hankering to try the dessert Hope brings along pickles with peppermint sticks inside!Children are sure to be fascinated by the vibrant cut-paper collage art in Grandma's Purple Flowers. Written by Adjoa J. Burrowes, it's a story about love and loss. The story celebrates the rhythm of the seasons and the relationship between a young girl and her grandmother. The collage art, much of it in bright, primary colors, has a three-dimensional feel but also manages to be warm and inviting.
Family life in Uganda is the subject of a book called Beatrice's Goat by Page McBrier, illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter with an afterword by Hillary Rodham Clinton. A true story, Beatrice's Goatexplores the impact of the Heifer Project International on a girl whose family receives a goat. Through selling the goat's milk, the family is able to earn enough to send Beatrice for school for the first time. The author and artist traveled to Africa to research this book, and the details of Beatrice's daily life add authenticity to the story. Information about Heifer Project International is also included.
Last but not least are the sports books. Everyone knows kids eat up books about their sports heroes. And for parents whose kids just can't get enough about basketball, two new picture books offer variations on traditional biographies. Take It to the Hoop, Magic Johnson, by Quincy Troupe and illustrated by Shane W. Evans, is a lively poetic tribute to the basketball great, with a playful, free-moving design. In Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream, by Deloris Jordan and Roslyn M. Jordan and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, Jordan's mother and sister team up to reveal that even Michael Jordan was once a child with doubts. Kadir Nelson's warm, endearing oils portray a family devoted to helping a child pursue his dreams.
While these titles are primarily designed for children from preschoolers to teens, the best children's books appeal to readers of all ages. So whether you have a child in your life or not, head into the children's section of your bookstore or library during Black History Month to see what's on display. I can almost guarantee you'll find something there that will enrich your own appreciation of our rich and complex history.
Deborah Hopkinson's new books for children, Bluebird Summer and Fannie in the Kitchen, will be published this spring. She lives in Walla Walla, Washington.