Every year as Black History Month approaches, dozens of excellent children’s books on the subject arrive in my mailbox. It’s always a joy to discover new selections for my library and classroom. Here are three of my favorites from this year’s offerings.
Shane W. Evans’ Underground is a good choice for the youngest readers. As soon as parents and teachers introduce books about Harriet Tubman, children want to read the story for themselves. Evans has created a book just for this audience. The font is plain, the words are few and the illustrations pack an emotional wallop. The first half of the book contains only this spare text: “The darkness. The escape. We are quiet. The fear. We crawl. We rest. We make new friends.” Each phrase is accompanied by a blue-and-black illustration of the night escape. When the family is welcomed by new friends, the yellow of their lantern becomes a potent symbol of hope. As the runaways move North, the sky lightens, culminating in a brilliant yellow on the book’s last spread. This stunning simplicity respects the young audience and makes us want to join in with the book’s closing words, “Freedom. I am free. He is free. She is free. We are free.”
Slightly older readers will enjoy the poems that tell the story of The Great Migration: Journey to the North. Longtime collaborators Eloise Greenfield and Jan Spivey Gilchrist come together in what I think is their best book yet. One of the universal human stories is the story of migration, but many young people still do not know about the movement of more than a million African Americans in the early 20th century, fleeing the threats of the Ku Klux Klan and the economic conditions of the South, to northern cities. What’s remarkable about this book is how much these poems are reminiscent of the diaries of the Oregon Trail and the stories of European immigrants to America. Here is the pain of leaving the beloved farm, the excitement of new possibilities and the worry that the past will be forgotten. The story is elevated by the stunning collages—ephemera and manipulated photographs set into a lush painted background. Almost every face looks directly out, inviting the reader into the world of the frightened and excited traveler, and out at the new places to explore. The Great Migration is a treasure for parents, teachers and students who want to learn more about this important time.
Arnold Adoff’s poetry continues to challenge and amaze his fans. Roots and Blues: A Celebration, which includes stunning Expressionistic paintings by award-winning illustrator R. Gregory Christie, inspires me each time I return to it. Adoff’s unique poetic style, with unusual spacing and lining, reminds readers of the music he is celebrating. From the days of the Middle Passage, the seeds of the blues were being planted into the musical soul of African Americans. The endpapers of the book, with handwritten names of hundreds of blues musicians from John Lee Hooker to Ethel Waters and everyone in between, remind the reader of the scope of the genre, while the poems themselves reflect the influences on it. When young readers (and adults, too!) take the time to explore Adoff’s riffs, they will never look at poetry the same way again.