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.
Moses: When Harriett Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weartherford, ill. Kadir Nelson (Hyperion, 2006, 48pp, ages 4-8)
Weatherford’s picture book bio ranks alongside So Tall Within (Gary D. Schmidt, ill. Daniel Mintner, Roaring Brook, 2018) as one of my favorites for Black History Month. It might even be an all-time pick for outstanding children’s biography.
Weatherford pays tribute not just to the indomitable Tubman (c.1822-1913) but to her unquenchable faith. Tubman’s ongoing dialogue with God punctuates and often provides the vehicle for the narrative. Nelson’s paintings, rich with color and form, pair perfectly with spare poetic text, uniting action and emotion.
by Berta de Miguel, Kent Diebolt, and Virginia Lorente, ill. Virginia Lorente (Tilbury, 2020, 60 pp., ages 8-12)
I picked up this volume several months ago in a search for architect biographies. It was only today, upon taking a closer look, that I realized its perfect suitability for Hispanic Heritage Month. The two Rafael Guastavinos, father and son, immigrated from Spain in 1881. The elder Guastavino was a successful architect who brought to the U.S. a distinctive building method that would leave a permanent mark on American architecture and engineering.
List-making is practically a hobby with me, and books are a passion, with children’s literature a high-ranking subcategory. Creating lists of the latter is thus a delight accompanied by the danger of disappearing into long, winding passageways papered over by picture books.
This is especially true of a topic as fascinating and fruitful as women’s history. The last few decades have seen an ever growing wealth of picture book biographies of all sorts, produced by innovative authors and gifted illustrators. Many document the lives of women notable for their gifts, passion, and commitment to a cause. In most cases these individuals didn’t set out to make a name for themselves. They had a passion and they pursued it; they perceived a need, and they addressed it. Some were exceptionally gifted; some simply refused to look the other way when confronted with injustice or hardship.
Most of the women featured below overcame adversity of some sort, whether physical, economic, or social. Generally at least one parent supported their goals, but many lost a mother or father in childhood. These women are significant not because of their gender but because they rose above their circumstances.
It’s unlikely I will make great advances in science—or the arts, for that matter. And it’s possible my own greatest adversary is various iterations of my own psyche. But women like Sarah Hale, writer of letters, books, poetry, and more, remind me that the important thing is to keep going and not lose heart. I hope the perseverance of these visionaries will inspire you and your daughters and sons as it has inspired me.
The Story Warren post linked in the previous post (as well as here), includes recommendations for twenty-one picture books that commemorate events or people relevant to African-American history month. They represent only a fraction of the vibrant, creative, informative works in print, with more appearing all the time.
But as soon as I peeked inside Schomburg I was convinced the book required its own post, foremost for the suitability of its subject matter: African history was Arthur Schomburg’s passion. Multiple award-winning author Carole Weatherford dedicates several pages to individuals who inspired Schomburg. And Velasquez’s lush paintings do justice to the African-related art Schomburg loved and collected.
Researching the collection that follows has renewed my awareness of the inescapable, tragic history of slavery in America. Conceiving of our country as it might have been apart from the scourge of slavery is enticing; possibly even redemptive, if the exercise edges us toward that vision. But deepening our knowledge of the actual past holds even more potential for understanding the present and thus moving toward a better future.
This undertaking has also reminded me that the history of African Americans is more than the history of slavery. It is replete with individuals, families, and communities that have overcome injustice and other monumental obstacles to produce beauty, exhibit love, promote knowledge, and sustain faith. Their remarkable and enduring feats of courage, scholasticism, craftsmanship, and physical prowess enrich us all.
The list of books below represents my attempt at a chronological overview of the past two hundred and fifty years through an assortment of newer and older picture book titles. Some highlight individuals of exceptional achievement, others “ordinary” citizens who demonstrated vision, compassion, and determination.
To read more, follow this link to the Story Warren web site:
For millennia the written word has held special significance among those whose faith is centered on holy writ. Some ancient Jewish and Islamic traditions imposed safeguards to prevent the desecration of any piece of writing—sacred or secular—that might bear God’s name.
Christian history is marked by missionaries and others who made literacy and education a priority, on the premise that everyone should have personal access to the written Word of God. Among these, Martin Luther, William Carey, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar names. A less familiar example is the Kyrias family of Albania, active supporters of language development, publishing, and education, particularly among girls.
In contemporary America it can be hard to fathom a culture where the written word is not readily accessible. We read to our children from the day they are born, fill shelves with assorted Bible editions, and ship off excess volumes to thrift stores and little free libraries. The handful of picture books below give elementary-aged children a glimpse of the lengths to which people have gone—and still go—to preserve, procure, and distribute the wealth that is literacy.
Notwithstanding the remarkable youth of the historical Joan of Arc, I wouldn’t have automatically assumed her a ready subject for a middle grade novel. Of course it’s impossible not to admire her courage and determination, and I recognize that she must be considered in the context of her times. But let’s just say that her story has the potential to be a little … troubling.
For starters there are the voices. Not that I don’t believe in visions, but the question of whether God would employ them for the defense of a European monarch has always raised doubts in my mind. Then there’s the fact that Joan was leading armies into battle, which inevitably involves violence. And then there’s the ending: she gets burned at the stake. That alone was enough to make me a reluctant reader. Continue reading →
Greg Mortenson didn’t set out to be a hero. Shortly before he stumbled into a mountain village in northern Pakistan, he was wandering around on K2 trying to save his own life. Out of gratitude to the villagers who took him in following his climbing expedition gone awry, he promised to come back and build them a much-needed school.
And he did–return, that is–but his first heroic mission almost ended in disaster. I won’t supply the details, because it’s a bit of a cliff hanger as Mortenson relates the story in the book. But since Mortenson has gone on to build hundreds more schools (that’s the reason Three Cups of Tea was written), it’s safe to tell you that the school did get built, eventually, and that’s how it all got started. Continue reading →
The long waiting list for Mountains Beyond Mountainsrequired us to wait some time before it became available at the library. But through the first few chapters, we were hard-pressed to identify the reason for the popularity of this biographical account of doctor Paul Farmer (b. 1959). Farmer struck us as arrogant and narcissistic, and we found the voice of Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder flat and journalistic. Continue reading →