Kadir Nelson confesses in his author’s note to Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans that history was never his favorite subject in school. Why, then, would he tackle a topic as vast as the history of African Americans? Because, he says, “the American story came alive to me” through his research, writing and painting—as it will for readers of this strikingly beautiful picture book that spans centuries of African-American life, from the days of slavery to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. 

Best known as an award-winning illustrator, Nelson proved his abundant skill as an author in his recent—and equally stunning—We are the Ship, illuminating the people and personalities of the Negro League. In Heart and Soul, Nelson further proves his exquisite talent at both writing and illustrating.

Atmospheric, penetrating full-page (and some double-page) paintings are billboard-like backdrops that powerfully reflect the text. The book is narrated colloquially in the first person by a grandmotherly figure who often addresses readers as “honey” or “chile” as she recounts the experiences of slavery (“like mother’s milk to a new country”), Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the advent of the Ku Klux Klan, the Civil Rights Movement and more watershed events in American history.

There is raw emotion in both the illustrations (the spread of an orating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is especially powerful) and the words, rife with the reality of African Americans’ alternating pride, shame, anger and fear. One painting shows the steely resolve of two African Americans at a lunch counter sit-in in the South, with angry white customers pressing close behind them—the tension palpable on all the faces. The story of the African-American experience is hard to tell, and hard to read at times, but as the prologue notes, “You have to know where you come from so you can move forward.”

Nelson may say he never liked history much. But you’d never know it by all the heart and soul, and extremely diligent research and insight, he pours into this profound and important book—a definite Newbery and Sibert medal contender.

Sharon Verbeten is a children's librarian and freelance writer who lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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