To commemorate Black History Month, here are four excellent new picture books—two biographies, plus two fictionalized accounts of escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Most children today are well-versed in Martin Luther King Jr.’s tremendous struggles and accomplishments. A beautiful new picture book, Coretta Scott, focuses on his wife. The text is a poem by award-winning poet, playwright and author Ntozake Shange, accompanied by glorious artwork from Kadir Nelson. Shange’s poem provides a lyrical yet focused look at Coretta Scott’s life and spirit, with lines like: “over years / learning and freedom / took hold of Coretta’s soul / till she knew in her being / that the Good Lord intended freedom for the Negro.” An additional page of biographical explanation and a photograph at the end fill in additional details. Nelson’s oil paintings are rich and vibrant, portraying not only the story but the passion, dignity and difficulty of Coretta Scott King’s life. Coretta Scott is a masterful encapsulation of an important life—perfect for young children as well as elementary students.

Another fascinating but largely unknown story is told in The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby about jockey Jimmy Winkfield, who lived from 1882 to 1974. Crystal Hubbard’s detailed, well-paced text, illustrated by Robert McGuire, starts with a foreword about horse racing, which in this country began with many slaves as jockeys. Winkfield was born into a family of sharecroppers in Kentucky, the youngest of 17 children. He went on to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies in 1901 and 1902, and narrowly missed winning a third in 1903. Hubbard’s crisp writing makes each of these races come alive. She explains how black jockeys were forced out of racing for a while, and how Winkfield then trained and raced horses in Poland and Russia for many years. When Winkfield returned for a Kentucky Derby banquet in 1961, he and his daughter were not allowed to enter through the front door. Hubbard’s picture book biography is a superb addition to any library for young readers.

The journey north
I Want To Be Free is a thoughtful, inspiring story about two young runaway slaves, written in poem-like text by Joseph Slate, author of the popular Miss Bindergarten books. The story is based on a Buddhist tale as told in Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, but Slate’s version is set in America during the days of slavery. The tale starts with a young slave announcing, “Before I die, I want to be free. / But the Big Man says, ‘You belong to me.’ ”

The slave manages to escape and avoid the slave hunters and their dogs, but cannot remove the iron shackle on his leg. During his escape, he risks his life to save a young boy whose mother has died—and who eventually helps him remove the shackle. Caldecott-winning artist E.B. Lewis’ watercolors are dark and powerful, setting the mood for this amazing journey. I Want To Be Free is not only a riveting picture book about slavery and freedom, but also a transcending parable about the magical rewards of helping others in the face of danger.

Most Loved in All the World is another riveting, heartbreaking story about slavery. The narrator is a young girl, the daughter of a slave who toils in the cotton fields and returns from the Big House with whip marks across her back.

Mama makes her daughter a quilt and whispers what it means: “A log cabin means a place is safe. This star is the brightest in the sky; it’s for you to follow. The moss should only be growin’ on the side of the tree in the direction you are headed.” Her mama adds that the little girl on the quilt is happy because she’s the “most loved in all the world.” Mama then takes the girl out in the night and hands her over to people who will lead her to freedom, but stays behind herself so she can help others escape. Author Tonya Cherie Hegamin offers a fact-filled note at the end of the book about mothers, slavery, freedom, quilting and the Underground Railroad, and includes a list of suggestions for further reading. This excellent book also showcases strong artwork (acrylic paint and textile collage) by artist Cozbi A. Cabrera, well known for making handcrafted cloth dolls. Her art conveys not only the details of this Underground Railroad story, but the beauty and handwork of the quilting, so central to this story.

Alice Cary writes from Groton, Massachusetts.

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