Black History Month: Six Featured New Titles Bring History Alive

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Five New Picks for Kids and One Just for Grown-Ups

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve selected five new kids’ books that bring history alive. Courageous individuals, unsung heroes, and influential, but little-known, events, reach through pages of text, photos, art, and poetry, and connect young readers to the struggles and achievements of the civil rights movement. And as a special addition this month, I have a book recommendation just for grown-ups, because I can’t help spreading the word about a wonderfully outrageous book related to abolitionist John Brown.

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up To Become Malcolm X, written by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, and illustrated by AG Ford, tells the story of Malcolm’s boyhood, with a special focus on his parents, Earl and Louise Little, who raised their children with love and “unstoppable optimism and faith.” The enchanted world of his mother’s garden and the stirring speeches of his father help shape Malcolm in his early years. When his father dies and Malcolm and his siblings become wards of the state, his upbringing helps forge an indomitable self-reliance, which carries him through difficult times, and eventually helps him become a zealous leader of equal rights. Lots of emotionally wrought text and rich-hued oil paintings throughout the book’s 48 pages create an intimate portrait of Malcolm’s boyhood. A good read for middle graders and beyond.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights written by Newberry Honor winner and National Book Award Finalist, Steve Sheinkin, is a heavily researched book about a little-known but important event in our nation’s history. In this tense, and dramatic story, told from the point of view of the young sailors, Sheinkin creates a portrait of the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, CA, during WWII, where only black sailors, with no prior training, were required to load bombs and ammunition onto shipping containers. On July 17, 1944, an explosion rocked the port and killed more than 300 sailors. A few weeks later, 244 men refused to go back to work in protest of the unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks. 50 of those men were charged with mutiny. They were all black. Culled from many primary sources, especially oral histories, and illustrated with archival photos, this riveting story is an interesting nonfiction read for young people, and an important one.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson, is a rollicking picture book biography of the incomparable black performer who rose from the slums of St. Louis to dance across the stages of Paris. Musical free verse poetry and lively, colorful illustrations create a portrait of an artist who followed her dream and passion, while working for racial equality in the smaller context of her audiences to larger forums, like her speech alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington. Though the book unfolds over 104 pages, the poetic text and ample space, make this book accessible for even the youngest readers.

The Girl From The Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns And The Advent of the Civil Rights Movement written by Teri Kanefield, is a meticulously researched slice of history that may be of special interest to teenagers. In 1951, 15-year old Barbara Rose Johns wanted out of the leaky and insufficiently heated tar paper shacks that comprised her high school in Virginia. Frustrated with the school board’s empty promises and noticing how the local white students were schooled in a modern building with conveniences, Johns led fellow students in a peaceful protest to draw attention to their situation. Being ridiculed by the school board and newspapers and even having a cross burned on school grounds did not stop this courageous young woman. The NAACP took up the case and brought it all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually helping to outlaw school segregation in the ground-breaking Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. Archival images, primary sourced information, well-written storyline, and an inspiring slice of social history make this a great nonfiction pick.

Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History is a picture book written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome. Brought together by the love of jazz music, Teddy Wilson, a young black boy from Tuskegee, Alabama, and Benny Goodman, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants from Chicago’s West Side, broke the color barrier in entertainment by becoming the first inter-racial jazz band to perform in public in 1936. Rhythmic free verse poetry and watercolor illustrations echo the bounce of swing music these musicians helped create.

The Good Lord Bird: A Novel written by James McBride is my pick for grown-ups. In this wildly entertaining slice of history, which just won the National Book Award for Fiction, McBride tells the story of Henry Shackleford, a 12-year old slave who disguises himself as a girl after a bar fight gone bad leaves his father dead. In the dangerous and violent Kansas Territory of 1857, young Henry ends up in the protection of famous abolitionist John Brown, who names the “girl” Little Onion and sees the child as a good luck charm. Onion rides with John Brown and his gang of freedom fighters across the country as they try to rid society from the evil bonds of slavery and eventually raid the ammunition warehouse at Harper’s Ferry. Through Onion’s point-of-view, readers experience the raw life of outlaws, the fiery spirit of John Brown, the prejudices of racial un-equality, and the child’s search for identity as he becomes a young man hidden beneath the guise of a girl. Brilliant writing, outrageous character portraits, and dialogue that will surprise you at every turn, McBride has created a wild, adventurous work of historical fiction.



Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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