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Teach about African-American history with these 14 children's books


February 11, 2017

February is African-American History Month, closely following the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday in January.

According to africanamericanhistorymonth.gov, the month is a time people across America as well as multiple government organizations "join in paying tribute to the generations of African-Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society."

In honor of those who made such a difference and sacrificed for America, here are some recently released related children's books adults can use to teach the young ones in their lives about the importance of freedom and equality.

Picture books

"FREEDOM OVER ME," by Ashley Bryan, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, $17.99 (f) (ages 6-10)

In "Freedom Over Me," a story titled after the civil rights anthem "Oh Freedom!," Ashley Bryan brings to life the Fairchilds' appraisement of their estate in 1828, which lists each of the family's 11 slaves and assigns them values along with their livestock and cotton. Bryan took this list of the slaves' names and gave each an age, a skill and a story. He painted their pictures and wrote in free verse about his ideas of what their lives, thoughts and dreams would have been like.

The beautiful, simple poetry and colorful artwork bring close to home the life of a slave in America almost 200 years ago. Through his writing and artwork, Bryan imagines the slaves' African history and traditions and the fulfillment they got from their work and family connections — always with the overriding hope for freedom. This would be an instructional book for any child to help make slavery in America more than just an idea, but something that happened to real people.

"FREDERICK DOUGLASS: The Lion Who Wrote History," by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, HarperCollins, $17.99 (nf) (ages 6-10)

This condensed biography "Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History" by Walter Dean Myers attempts to show children how one man, born in the lowest of circumstances as a slave, taught himself to read, escaped to freedom and used his life to ultimately contribute to black men being able to join the Union Army and even to help end legal slavery in the U.S.

Most appropriate for more advanced and curious readers, this educational book is filled with beautiful illustrations by Floyd Cooper, but it also has big blocks of text that could turn off or bore the less advanced readers. Those able to get into Douglass' story will find much to inspire them, as it shows how no matter what life hands a person to start with, everyone can make a difference in the world.

"LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHER: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer," by Heather Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, $17.99 (nf) (ages 4-8)

For most of his life, Stephen Bishop was a slave tasked with leading tourists through the 400-mile wonders of Mammoth Cave in southwestern Kentucky. He became an expert on this destination that brought visitors from around the world. He discovered eyeless fish and albino crawdads within the cave and crossed chasms experts had previously declared uncrossable.

"Lift Your Light a Little Higher" is written in second person, directly addressing the reader in what author Heather Henson imagined as Stephen's own dialect, attempting to give him a voice history has forgotten. She demonstrates the idea that, while wandering those caves, Stephen had a small glimpse of what it was to be free.

The poetic words along with the powerful illustrations by Bryan Collier take the reader on an imaginary tour of the mysterious wonders Stephen witnessed every day and will give children a glimpse into a world they may never have thought of before.

"MUHAMMAD ALI: A Champion is Born," by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison, HarperCollins, $17.99 (nf) (ages 4-8)

Muhammad Ali, an African-American who was born Cassius Clay and changed his name when he converted to Islam at age 22, was at one point among the most recognizable athletes in the world. His boxing career began when his bicycle got stolen when he was 12 and the policeman to whom he reported the theft happened to run a boxing gym.

"Muhammad Ali" by Gene Baretta not only tells the story of Ali's rise to fame but also tells of his contributions to the civil rights movement as he stood up for what he believed in. Many of the beginning pages feature a date and place, and often a fight. The book is filled with plenty of onomatopoeia — Pow! — and quotes from Ali himself, and the watercolor-like illustrations bring the story to life.

The back two pages give a more detailed historical account of Ali's life, including mentioning his experience of having Parkinson's disease and his death on June 3, 2016.

"THE LEGENDARY MISS LENA HORNE," by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99 (nf) (ages 4-8)

Illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon that give the impression of cut-out, textured fabric bring life to "The Legendary Miss Lena Horne" by Carole Boston Weatherford, which tells of the inspiring and often sad life of singer and actress Lena Horne. She was one of the few prominent African-American stars in the 1940s, but despite her fame she was often not allowed to eat or stay the night in the all-white neighborhoods where she performed.

As her career progressed, Horne became more and more actively involved in the civil rights movement, often putting her own career on hold, including when she was blacklisted by Congress as a communist. Her tale will give children a very personal, stark view of what life was like for an African-American woman in this era and will bring the reality and necessity of the civil rights movement to the hearts of its readers.

"THE YOUNGEST MARCHER: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist," by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99 (nf) (ages 5-10)

"The Youngest Marcher" by Cynthia Levinson tells the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, who, while still in elementary school, volunteered to go to jail in protest of the Jim Crow laws in her town of Birmingham, Alabama. This protest, planned by Dr. Martin Luther King, was influential in removing segregation laws in the South, and Hendricks was the youngest activist to participate.

Textured, powerful illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton help tell this story, which can show any young person that age is not a requirement for standing up for what is right and contributing to a cause that can change the world. Even better, there's a recipe in the back of the book for the hot rolls "baptized in butter" that Hendricks' family fed King when he visited their house for dinner.

"PREACHING TO THE CHICKENS: The Story of Young John Lewis," by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Nancy Paulsen Books, $17.99 (nf) (ages 6-10)

Jabari Asim weaves a heartwarming tale in "Preaching to the Chickens," a story about the childhood of John Lewis, who later became a preacher and a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Asim explains in the back of the book how he learned when he met Lewis that he had practiced his preaching on the family chickens as a child, treating them like his own beloved congregation.

This sweet story includes tales of a baptized chick that manages to survive and a hen saved from the bottom of a well, and it portrays in a way any child could understand the kind of generous, considerate man this civil rights leader was from an early age. The watercolor illustrations by E.B. Lewis emphasize the nostalgic beauty of the book.

"MARTIN'S DREAM DAY," by Kitty Kelley, photographs by Stanley Tretick, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99 (nf) (ages 5 and up)

"Martin's Dream Day" is best-selling author Kitty Kelley's narration of photographer Stanley Tretick's iconic images of Dr. Martin Luther King's civil rights movement, in particular the day he gave his "I Have a Dream" speech at the National Mall in Washington.

The photos bring the familiar speech to life, detailing what motivated 250,000 people to come together on a hot August day and what King's words really meant to them. This emotional book is bound to capture and inspire its readers' hearts.

Middle grade and young adult books

"HIDDEN FIGURES: Young Readers' Edition," by Margot Lee Shetterly, HarperCollins, $16.99, 198 pages (nf) (ages 8-12)

In the book that inspired the 2016 movie, "Hidden Figures" tells the story of four African-American women who worked for NASA, providing mathematical calculations to increase airplane production during World War II and send the United States into outer space for the first time.

Shetterly takes these untold stories and showcases the intelligence and bravery of these women who worked hard and made a difference despite racial and gender barriers of their time. The story includes photographs to illustrate the historical details.

"STONE MIRRORS: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis," by Jeannine Atkins, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99 (nf) (ages 12 and up)

Edmonia Lewis was a famous African-American and Native American sculptor in the mid-1800s, but few facts remain for historians to study about her life. Because of these fuzzy details and gaps in history, Jeannine Atkins decided that it would be best to tell Lewis' story through verse, resulting in "Stone Mirrors."

Though Lewis attended a progressive art school in Ohio that allowed women and nonwhite races to enroll, she still suffered much persecution and spent most of her career in Italy as a result. But, as one of the few, if not only, African-American female artists to be accepted into the mainstream art world during the time period, Lewis' life, however little is known about her, is one that is worth remembering.

"ONE LAST WORD," by Nikki Grimes, Bloomsbury, $18.99 (nf) (ages 5-7)

"One Last Word" is a collection of poems from the Harlem Renaissance, each one accompanied by an original, related poem by Nikki Grimes. Each poem by Grimes also showcases original artwork from a variety of artists, including Grimes herself.

Though this beautiful tribute to an inspiring age for African-American culture is labeled for 5- to 7-year-olds, the content of the collection of poems would likely be much more appreciated by and appropriate for older children.

"ASHES," by Laurie Halse Anderson, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, $16.99 (f) (ages 10-14)

"Ashes" by award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson is the third book in The Seeds of America Trilogy. The novel takes place during the American Revolution and is told from the perspective of Isabel, a runaway slave in desperate search of her sister, Ruth, who was taken from her years before. Isabel and her companion, Curzon, are trying to stay safe while the country wages a war for freedom — a fight that can be difficult for Isabel to relate to, knowing that it allows her people to be enslaved.

This work of historical fiction seeks to analyze an important part of America's history from a unique perspective — one that has often gone unheard.

"MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON," by Linda Williams Jackson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, 308 pages (f) (ages 10-14)

Linda Williams Jackson uses a fictional family to portray real-life events in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. Thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter would rather escape to the North than do anything about the situation in the South, until a 14-year-old boy close to home is killed for supposedly whistling at a white woman and his killers go free.

Jackson's debut novel takes a hard look at an event that would greatly influence change in the South, from a perspective and voice that younger children will be able to understand and relate to.

"THINGS TOO HUGE TO FIX BY SAYING SORRY," by Susan Vaught, Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (f) (ages 10-14)

In "Things Too Huge to Fix By Saying Sorry," Susan Vaught tells the story of the riots surrounding the desegregation of Ole Miss through a young mix-raced girl who is solving the mystery of her grandmother and the feud with her friend that has lasted for many years.

Obviously dealing with heavy topics meant for preteens and young teenagers, this book helpfully explains segregation and civil rights for the point of view of the younger generation, helping them to see what has improved since the past and what still needs to be improved in the cause of equality.

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