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Books for Black History Month

by Anita Silvey
February 19, 2014

Since 1976, February has been set aside as Black History Month, encouraging teachers to focus on this topic in the classroom. Fortunately, there are excellent books at each reading level that help tell the story of African American achievement. For instance, Steve Sheinkin’s THE PORT CHICAGO 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, which details the little-known story of 50 black Navy sailors who fought against discrimination in World War II. Listed below are a dozen other titles ideal for Black History Month—or any time of the year.

Picture Books

Anita's Picks: Dave the PotterDAVE THE POTTER: ARTIST, POET, SLAVE (Little Brown, 2010) written by Laban Carrick Hill Laban and illustrated by Bryan Collier
“Dave was one of the finest artists of this time period, and he crafted objects that will last well beyond his lifetime. Collier brings him to life and shows him plying his craft. After seeing Dave at work and reading the simple but profound text, readers feel as if they know this man who was all but lost to the historical record—a true accomplishment on the part of both writer and artist.”

HENRY’S FREEDOM BOX: A TRUE STORY FROM THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Scholastic, 2007) written by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
“Slave Henry Brown built himself a box, less than three feet square, and mailed himself to freedom, a journey that took twenty-seven hours in a tight space with tiny air holes. Levine knew this true incident should be available for children, a perfect way to describe the lengths to which slaves would go to be free.”

MOLLY BANNAKY (HMH Books, 1999) written by Alice McGill and illustrated by Chris Soentpiet
“By telling Molly’s story, Alice McGill examines an aspect of Colonial America that rarely gets discussed in children’s books, the life of an interracial couple. As the grandson of a slave, Benjamin Banneker would have been denied access to books. But because of his grandmother, he received the gift that he needed to become an intellectual—the ability to read.”

A NATION’S HOPE: THE STORY OF BOXING LEGEND JOE LOUIS (Dial, 2011) written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
“Although Matt de la Peña has concentrated on books for young adults, this text shows his dexterity at writing for a younger audience. He begins the saga: “Yankee Stadium. 1938./Packed crowds buzzing and bets/banter back and forth/The Bronx night air thick with summer.” Here on June 2, at 8:15 p.m. soft-spoken African-American Joe Lewis will take on Max Schmeling, the German boxer considered an example of Hitler’s master race.”

THE OTHER SIDE (Putnam, 2001) written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis
“In THE OTHER SIDE, Woodson explores the metaphor of a fence. A lone white child, Annie, lives on one side; a black child, Clover, plays with friends on the other. Both mothers admonish the girls to stay on their own side. But as the summer goes on, Annie begins to climb on the fence to see what is going on around her—and in a brave move, Clover joins her.”

Fiction

Anita's Picks: One Crazy SummerONE CRAZY SUMMER (Amistad, 2010) by Rita Williams-Garcia
“In One Crazy Summer, Rita has created a powerful book that explores a period in history while it pulls in young readers because of its engaging characters. In the summer of 1968, three sisters, Delphine, age eleven, Vonetta, and Fern, find themselves living for twenty-eight days with their mother, Cecile, in Oakland, California.”

ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY (Dial, 1976) by Mildred D. Taylor
“Published in 1976 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Roll of Thunder is one of the most important children’s novels of the twentieth century. It enables children to understand a period of time unknown to them and to think about and feel what children of another era might have experienced. “

THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM—1963 (Delacorte, 1995) by Christopher Paul Curtis
“Readers of this novel, ideal for ten- to fourteen-year-olds, have become so used to the bantering and humor-filled story that the final forty pages stand as a shocking juxtaposition to what has come before. In Birmingham, Alabama, Kenny almost drowns. Then on September 15, 1963, Joetta heads out for Sunday school class—and into one of the most famous and tragic events of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Nonfiction

BAD BOY:  A MEMOIR (Amistad, 2001) by Walter Dean Myers
“Anyone who wants to gain a greater appreciation of Walter Dean Myers will want to read BAD BOY, his account of Harlem during the forties and fifties. Gifted in both athletics and school, Myers struggled with a quick and violent temper that caused a lot of trouble. In the memoir he examines being black in America and his realization that his best friend, who was white, had opportunities that he did not have.”

Anita's Picks- Carver: A Life in PoemsCARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS (Boyds Mills, 2001) by Marilyn Nelson
“In this amazing combination of literature and information, Marilyn Nelson creates a portrait of a believable human being. The poems can be used together, or just a few at a time, to entice young readers and make them want to read more about George Washington Carver. As a book Carver demonstrates that writers need not talk down to an audience or underestimate the abilities of young readers.”

MARCHING FOR FREEDOM: WALK TOGETHER CHILDREN AND DON'T YOU GROW WEARY  (Viking, 2009) by Elizabeth Partridge
“Powerful, inspiring, and moving, the book not only presents information but also raises ethical questions. How could American citizens be denied their rights? How could white officials and the Klu Klux Klan be allowed to spread fear and violence in these communities?”

ASHLEY BRYAN: WORDS TO MY LIFE’S SONG (Atheneum, 2009) by Ashley Bryan
“In the almost forty-one years that I have been associated with children’s books, I have heard only adoring comments about Ashley Bryan. His reputation in the industry says everything about his character. A true believer, he has worked with passion and devotion to promote the creative work of African Americans. Ashley ends WORDS TO MY LIFE’S SONG with this sentence: ‘This is my story. Whether it be bitter or whether it be sweet, take some of it elsewhere and let the rest come back to me.’”

Anita Silvey on Reading Today OnlineWith a unique career in children's books, Anita Silvey has served both as the editor of THE HORN BOOK MAGAZINE and publisher of a major children's book imprint. She is the author of several books, including HENRY KNOX: BOOKSELLER, SOLDIER, PATRIOT and I'LL PASS FOR YOUR COMRADE: WOMEN SOLDIERS IN THE CIVIL WAR. Her latest project, THE CHILDREN'S BOOK-A-DAY ALMANAC (Roaring Brook Press, 2012), began as an interactive website. The entries serve as a "daily love letter to a book or author," with each one offering a glimpse into the story behind the story. 
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