Books for Black History Month, pt. 2

You can read Part I of this series on the Story Warren website or the BirdsBooks blog.


Stories of those who have suffered injustice and resolved to reverse it inspire awe and admiration. Likewise worthy of respect are those who create profound art from sorrow and loss. In his treatise Art and Faith, painter Makoto Fujimura references artists who draw upon their own suffering to create works of deep significance.

Some of the historical individuals below were literal artists—painters, potters, musicians. Others created by shaping society, moving us toward a more just world. Still others left behind words from which authors and artists have crafted their own works of beauty and significance.

In reading these titles I was struck by the frequency with which literacy and education emerged as themes. Although the law denied literacy to enslaved peoples, many recognized its value and determined to avail themselves of this liberating skill. Of these, some became educators, in order to grant others access to the world of knowledge available through books. And it is via written word and printed images that the stories of these exceptional individuals are passed on to us.

19th Century

So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom, by Gary D. Schmidt, ill. Daniel Minter (Roaring Brook, 2018, 48pp., ages 4–8)

Isabella Baumfree (1897–1883) assumed her legendary name when she determined to speak the truth about slavery and her own life. Here Schmidt (award-winning author of The Wednesday Wars and other books for young people) employs poetic prose to convey tragic realities. The drive and faith of this woman of towering courage are all the more inspiring when set alongside the obstacles and injustices against which she campaigned throughout her long life. Minter’s arresting paintings, both conceptual and beautiful, are inseparable from the text. With its complementarity of lyrical text and powerful image, I found this to be one of the more moving titles on this list.

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill, ill. Bryan Collier (Little, Brown, 2010, 40pp., ages 5–9)

So many aspects of this fascinating history inspire awe. Not least is the potter (c. 1801–c. 1870) who crafted an estimated forty thousand vessels, inscribing some with couplets that provide a glimpse into his life and thoughts. Hill’s spare text abounds with metaphor that suggests close acquaintance with the potter’s craft. Collier’s nuanced paintings augment the unrhymed verse and allude to details of Dave’s life: his African ancestors, his rural milieu, the great strength required by his craft, and the contradictory realities of his life. Much of Dave’s story is unknown, but his eloquent creations still speak.

Henry’s Freedom Box, by Ellen Levine, ill. Kadir Nelson (2007, 40pp., ages 6–9)

This was my first introduction to Henry “Box” Brown (1815–1897), though at least two other titles have been released since (Freedom Song, by Sally M. Walker, ill. Sean Qualls, 2012, and Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Michele Wood, 2020). This is still my favorite, in part because of my affinity for Nelson’s style, with its richly textured mix of realism and impressionism. Levine brings the story to life with her evocation of dialogue and pathos. She only raises the issue of Brown’s marriage in the back matter, but the fact that he was never reunited with his wife Nancy is both tragic and troubling. According to Weatherford’s account in Box, some criticized Brown’s failure to retrieve Nancy. But of course the real censure must be placed upon a system that would forcibly separate a man from his wife and children in the first place.

Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History, by Walter Dean Myers, ill. Floyd Cooper (Harper, 2017, 40pp, ages 4–8)

Myers’s biography dwells on the perception and determination by means of which Douglass (1818–1895) left his mark on the world. In learning to read and escaping to the North he defied injustice and, at length, became an influential spokesperson for abolition as well as women’s suffrage. Myers records the 1945 publication of Douglass’s autobiography, his prediction that John Brown’s revolt at Harper Ferry would fail, and his urging Lincoln to enlist African-American soldiers for the Union Army. I was surprised to learn that Frederick Douglass served the U.S. government both in Washington D.C. and Haiti, where he was consul-general. Cooper’s expressive illustrations bring Myers’s text to life. 

Before She Was Harriet, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, ill. James E. Ransome (Holiday House, 2019, 32pp, ages 4–8)

Wife-and-husband creators of this reverse chronological account trace Harriet Tubman’s impactful life back to the child Araminta (1822–1913), growing up on a plantation in Maryland. Along the way we glimpse Tubman’s many heroic undertakings: Union spy, battlefield nurse, Underground Railroad conductor, student of her father under the stars. For another stellar book about this phenomenal woman, see Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led her Children to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Kadir Nelson (Jump at the Sun, 2006).

Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, by Jabari Asim, ill. Bryan Collier (Little, Brown, 2012, 48pp, ages 4–8)

Asim concentrates on Washington’s arduous path from slavery to higher education, aided by hard work, determination, and the goodwill of friends and acquaintances. The back matter describes how Washington (1856–1915) went on to become visionary leader of the Tuskegee Institute (now University). Asim’s note touches on controversies sparked by Washington’s views from his time to the present. But regardless of one’s perspective on the man’s positions and decisions, his dedication and sacrifice are undeniable. Collier’s signature style aptly captures the dreams and innovation of this monumental figure.

With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Build a School, by Suzanne Slade, ill. Nicole Tadgell (Albert Whitman, 2014, 32pp., ages 4–8)

A good complement to the previous title, this one focuses on Washington’s scheme to build a school on the grounds of a former plantation. Not only did he study and commence to construct the campus from the ground up, he and his student workers made the bricks themselves with clay they dug from the ground. Washington’s first three home-built kilns failed, and the hard-won bricks were destroyed. Many of his fellow workers lost faith, but, incredibly, Washington pressed on and the fourth time succeeded. His endurance will encourage anyone who has faced failure on the way to a dream. An older book, More than Anything Else, by Marie Bradby, ill. Chris K. Soentpiet (Orchard, 1995) imagines Washington as a boy working in the salt mines after the Civil War. Engaging first-person narration recreates Washington’s dream of learning to read and teaching others.

Major Taylor: World Cycling Champion, by Charles R. Smith, Jr., ill. Leo Espinosa (Candlewick, 2023, 48pp, ages 7–10)

Energetic verse and lively illustrations celebrate Marshall “Major” Taylor (1878–1932), the first African-American to become a world champion cyclist and the second to win a world championship in any sport. Smith focuses on a grueling six-day race in Madison Square Garden in 1896. The necessary endurance defies belief and prompted me to look up six-day races. Indeed, competitors rode twenty-four hours a day, with minimal sleep often inducing delusions and hallucinations. Marshall’s accomplishments there and in the following decades earned him enduring renown in the cycling world, despite tragic financial failures toward the end of his lamentably short life.

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read, by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, ill. Oge Mora (Schwartz & Wade, 2020, 40pp, ages 5–8)

Given Walker’s singularly long life, Hubbard’s account effectively bridges 19th and 20th centuries in our survey. Born into slavery, Walker (1848–1969) was forbidden to learn to read. After emancipation the rigors of daily life left little time for study. It wasn’t until her three sons and her husband had passed away that she studied reading and arithmetic at the age of 114 in her retirement home. The effect achieved by illustrator Mora with simple paper-cut art is itself striking. Author Hubbard lives in Chattanooga, where Walker spent most of her life and is still honored through the Mary Walker Historical and Education Foundation.

20th Century

When Marian Sang, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, ill. Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2002, 40pp, ages 7–10)

The voice of this gifted singer (1897–1993) garnered attention in childhood and at length transfixed audiences around the world. At age 42, having toured all over Europe, Marian was denied permission to perform at multiple venues in Washington, D.C. But the eventual concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial attracted 75,000 people. Subsequent successes include the United Nations Peace Prize, received at age 80, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ryan’s account, punctuated with excerpts from traditional spirituals, demonstrates the instrumental role of Anderson’s church, particularly in her early life. Detailed end notes describe the author and illustrator’s relationships to the subject matter and offer further insight into Anderson’s influence and achievements.

The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy, by Kekla Magoon, ill. Laura Freeman (Quill Tree, 2021, 40pp, ages 4–8)

In the course of his long career, Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993) advocated, defended, and negotiated for just laws. Besides being the first African-American Supreme Court justice, he was involved in many other firsts, including school desegregation and the case that resulted in the Miranda rights. Marshall married civil rights advocate Cecilia Suyat, of Filipino descent, twelve years before the Supreme Court eliminated the ban on interracial marriage. Prior to joining the Court, Marshall heard more than one hundred cases as a judge; so sound were his judgements that none of his rulings was ever overturned by a higher court. Back matter includes a timeline of Marshall’s life and summaries of major court cases.

Mary’s Idea, by Chris Raschka (Greenwillow, 2023, 32pp, ages 4–8)

Minimalist text and simple illustrations make this ideal for introducing young listeners to a little-known musician. Raschka attributes to Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981) a sense of agency that prompted her to pursue jazz piano performance. He also hints at the spiritual nature of the professional hiatus she initiated at age forty-four and the shift in her orientation when she returned to music several years later.  

Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni, ill. Bryan Collier (Henry Holt, 2005, 40pp, ages 4–8)

Activist-poet Giovanni, twelve years old at the time of the events concerned, is well qualified to relate them. Like an eye witness, she reports the details of Rosa’s (1913–2005) day that preceded her unpremeditated refusal to give up her seat on the bus. Giovanni describes the nationwide groundswell of support that followed Rosa’s arrest, resulting in the nearly year-long Montgomery bus boycott. Collier’s collaged layouts capture the stalwart Rosa and the ferment of her times.

Testing the Ice: A Trust Story about Jackie Robinson, by Sharon Robinson, ill. Kadir Nelson (Scholastic, 2009, 40pp, ages 7–10)

Not being much of a sportsman myself, Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) has mostly lurked on the edges of my awareness as an accomplished athlete. Here daughter Sharon Robinson acknowledges her father’s athletic prowess, but his role as a father takes center stage, along with his courage in forging a path for African-American athletes years before the peak of the civil rights movement. As with Henry’s Freedom Box, Nelson’s illustrations contribute to the up-close-and-personal ethos of this work.

How Do You Spell Unfair?: MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee, by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Frank Morrison(Candlewick, 2023, 40pp, ages 7–10)

Beyond its engaging text and animated illustrations, this book merits attention for the light it throws on a woman of unremarkable profession possessed of uncommon intelligence and dedication. The fact that Cox’s (1923–1976) spelling success was so hard won and her subsequent path to higher education barred by lack of funds is tragic testimony to the legacy of discrimination in the U.S. Weatherford’s introduction and back matter identify milestones in African-American participation in local and national spelling bees. 

My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Martin Luther King, III, ill. A.G. Ford (Amistad, 2013, 32pp, ages 4–8)

Like Testing the Ice, this book gives attention to the private life of a famous father (1929–1968). King describes the warmth and love that filled their home, as well as the fear that could go along with being attached to a controversial public figure. But he also celebrates King’s accomplishments and attests to the fulfillment of the activist’s dream that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin.”

Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of John Lewis, by Jabari Asim, ill. E.B. Lewis (Nancy Paulsen, 2016, 32pp, ages 5–8)

John Lewis (1940–2020) was new to me, but as a long-time poultry keeper, I was charmed by the idea of the farm boy preaching to his flock. Illustrator Lewis’s semi-impressionistic style perfectly conveys the essence of chickenness, in all their bustling, feathered, brilliant conviviality. More important, of course, is the way Lewis’s quick, creative mind and compassion for God’s creatures developed into the initiative and passion that propelled him into the civil rights movement and, subsequently, Congress.

The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Coles, ill. George Ford (Scholastic, 1995, 32pp, ages 6–8)

In one of the older titles on this list, Coles focuses on the faith of this remarkable first grader and her family. Bridges (b. 1954) was the one African-American child sent by court order to the all-white Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. For months white families boycotted the school while, day after day, federal marshals escorted Bridges through angry crowds to study in an empty classroom. Psychiatrist-author Coles delivers presumably direct quotes from Bridges, her mother, and her teacher, who marveled at the child’s self-assuredness and composure. Ford captures critical scenes: the courtroom, the protestors, a Sunday service, and the arresting moment when Bridges turns in the midst of the mob to pray for her persecutors. 

Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery, by Sandra Neil Wallace, ill. Bryan Collier (Simon and Schuster, 2018, 48pp, ages 4–8)

The subtitle pretty well sums up the life of this singular athlete-artist (1938–2009). Prompted to investigate Barnes’ work online, I found paintings that sparkle with color, movement, and life. Barnes’ impressive oeuvre includes stunning depictions of athletes of all sorts (runners, boxers, gymnasts, basketball and soccer players), but also rope skippers, club dancers, a recording artist, and a lively church congregation. Pigskins to Paintbrushes,by Don Tate (Abrams, 2021) offers a slightly more detailed biography of the awkward young artist who found his way to fame via football.

Sisters & Champions: The True Story of Venus and Serena Williams, by Howard Bryant, ill. Floyd Cooper (Philomel, 2018, 32pp, ages 4–8)

Bryant offers a concise biography of the sisters (b. 1980 and 1981) who have astonished the world with their tennis prowess. They began winning tournaments in their mid-teens and have gone on to win every major tennis championship worldwide. Bryant draws attention to their family’s emphasis on cohesion and partnership. The sisters have often traded places for first place; as a doubles team they have proved unbeatable. Though set back at times by injuries and health struggles, the sisters continue to compete and win. Cooper’s lifelike paintings capture the Williams sisters’ vigor and athleticism.

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, by Nikki Grimes, ill. Bryan Collier (Simon & Schuster, 2008, 48pp, ages 4–9)

Grimes frames Obama’s (b. 1961) story with a conversation sparked when a boy asks his mother why the people on TV are all shouting the name of the man in their midst. His mother describes Obama’s unique background and childhood and the experiences that shaped him as a young adult. Interjections from the son highlight points particularly relatable for children.

Barack, by Jonah Winter, ill. A.G. Ford (Katherine Tegen, 2008, 32pp, ages 4-8)

Winter relates events and themes similar to those above. Like Grimes, he emphasizes the message of hope that animated Obama’s winning presidential campaign, as well as his potential for bridging diverse viewpoints and backgrounds. Both books, published in the inception of Obama’s presidency, summon up the background of slavery, segregation, and the civil rights movement against which Obama’s ground-breaking election took place.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Story Warren website on February 19, 2024, https://storywarren.com/books-for-black-history-month-pt-2/

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