I have always been interested in American history, especially the history of women, people of color and other groups remarkably absent from the books I found in my classrooms when I was young. Luckily, I had high school history teachers who found articles and academic books to satisfy my interests, and I attended a college where I could take as many courses in black history as I liked. Today's young readers are much luckier numerous books on minority populations are published every year, and Black History Month is the perfect time to spotlight some of the best titles. Poet Eloise Greenfield and illustrator Jan Spivey Gilchrist have teamed up to create the informative How They Got Over: African Americans and the Call of the Sea (HarperCollins, $16.99, 128 pages, ISBN 0060289910). A collection of short, easy-to-read biographies of African-Americans who have a connection to the ocean, this volume will serve as a fine introduction to nautical history for young readers. Seven profiles comprise the heart of this slim volume. Readers will find the story of freed slave Paul Cuffe, whose successful shipping and whaling business in Massachusetts allowed him to become an abolitionist. Convinced that the only hope for the descendants of African slaves was to return to Africa, he offered his ships to anyone who wanted to go to Sierra Leone. Greenfield manages to sneak a great deal of history into her vignettes, and she does not shy away from some of the most difficult issues these historical figures faced. This would be a great book to share with a child who loves history and wants to learn more about some little-known African Americans. The large font, simple writing and clear connections to better-known areas of history make this a good choice for the youngest historian.
Gail Buckley's American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm (Crown, $15.95, 176 pages, ISBN 0375822437) has recently been adapted by Tonya Bolden in a special version aimed at younger readers. Buckley's adult book won the 2002 Robert F. Kennedy Award, and this new edition reflects all the finest qualities of the original. Following the timeline of American history, Buckley and Bolden tell the story of black Americans in the military. Much of the history is vaguely familiar: Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre, Peter Salem and the Battle of Concord, blacks serving as laborers in the Confederate army, the shameful treatment of blacks who fought valiantly in World War II, the rise of Colin Powell in Desert Storm.
Though the volume is easy to read, it is also jam-packed with historical details that make it more useful as a reference title than as a book to curl up with. The historic photos, dating as far back as the Civil War, greatly enhance the book for the casual reader (in one photograph, Buckley's mother, Lena Horne, is pictured entertaining the troops in 1943). This is a fine story and an excellent resource for young history buffs. Bravery, ingenuity, faith and cooperation are the hallmarks of the Yao people in Ann Grifalconi's newest picture book The Village That Vanished (Dial, $16.99, 40 pages, ISBN 0803726236). Slavers come to Njemile's village, and because all the men are away, the women and elderly people have no protection. Just when things look bleakest, Njemile thinks of a plan a scheme involving cunning and trickery, incredible courage and faith. Told in the tradition of African storytellers, featuring Grifalconi's gentle prose and Kadir Nelson's rich pencil and watercolor illustrations, the book tells the unforgettable tale of Yao villagers as they dismantle their huts, hide them from the slavers and disappear into the deep forest. Nelson's remarkable illustrations, reminiscent of scratchboard, raise this wonderful story to the level of instant classic. While there are many fine collections of African folktales available, a new one Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales deserves a place on the shelf next to the picture books of Verna Aardema and Ashley Bryan. Each tale is from a different area of Africa, though most are from the southern part of the continent, Mandela's home. The stories are illustrated by 19 talented artists who work in many media, from watercolor to gouache to acrylics. Each tale reflects the storyteller, so the reader and listener are treated to a wonderfully wide range of styles. I was drawn to Judy Woodborne's illustration of a fat baby surrounded by a cow, a snake, a butterfly, a bird and a chameleon, and just had to read "Mpipidi and the Motlopi Tree," an adoption story like no other! Each narrative is about three pages long, the perfect length for reading right before bed. A treasure.