Five new picture books teach young readers about the struggles and triumphs of black people living in America.
James E. Ransome, a prolific and award-winning illustrator, proves that his words are just as powerful as his art in The Bell Rang. Ransome’s free verse follows a week in the life of a young girl who begins and ends each day with her loving family. As slaves on a plantation, the family faces difficulty and danger, but they also have joy, love and community—things we don’t often associate with the lives of the enslaved. The striking artwork captures cuddles and kisses, smiles and games, gift-giving and preaching. Natural colors, silhouettes, expressive faces and the use of the implied space beyond the page bring the enslaved community to life. The family’s routine is interrupted when the narrator’s brother runs away and a search is called; dogs are pictured and a whip is mentioned, but violence is not pictured. Overall, this is a unique and valuable story that centers on the endurance and humanity of enslaved people, and ends on a firm note of hope.
How exciting can a story about a female postal worker be? Very exciting, if it’s Tami Charles’ Fearless Mary: The True Adventures of Mary Fields, American Stagecoach Driver. Mary Fields, a former slave, rode into the segregated Wild West alone in 1895. When she saw an opening for a stagecoach driver to deliver mail and packages into the mountains, she knew she was qualified and could handle the dangers of the job. Charles’ action-packed text sets Fields’ stunning achievements against the historical backdrop in order to shape a thrilling story that shows another side of America’s western expansion. Claire Almon’s illustrations have an animationlike aesthetic that serves the story well, keeping the pace moving. Readers will watch with amazement as Fields uses her reading skills, her trained eagle and her weapon to excel at her daring job, never losing a package.
Carole Boston Weatherford’s verse and Frank Morrison’s graffiti-inspired art form a winning combination in The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop. Reaching back past DJ Kool Herc, the book begins with “Folktales, street rhymes, spirituals” and the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Weatherford then nods to James Brown and funk before painting a portrait of New York City’s rap scene in the 1970s and beyond. The rhythmic text simply begs to be read aloud—but don’t turn the pages too quickly, as the rich, expressive art deserves to be savored. With glowing brown skin tones, warm reds and cool blues, Morrison immortalizes key figures and scenes of the musical genre’s lineage and its attendant art forms, including graffiti and break dancing. Children will delight in this book’s immersive sights and sounds, while adults will smile with recognition at how old-school names connect to the language of today’s hip-hop.
In Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-ins, young readers can learn about children between the ages of 6 and 17 who staged protests in 1958 with the help of an inspiring educator named Clara Luper. Luper taught young people about speaking up, and as a leader in the NAACP, she taught the steps of nonviolent action. With some trepidation, she supported a group of young people as they forged ahead with their demonstrations, insisting that “someday is now.” Jade Johnson’s illustrations make the protests accessible, and the meaty text addresses the difficulty of standing up, the sweet rewards that can follow and the need to keep going after a win. It’s perfect inspiration for our difficult times.
Janet Collins was the first African-American prima ballerina for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and her success in dance was all the more satisfying because of the obstacles she overcame along the way. In lyrical verse, Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows takes readers through Collins’ path: her supportive family, her mother who paid for her lessons by sewing costumes, a dance class that would not accept her because she was black and one ballet teacher who did. Ebony Glenn’s illustrations lend impact to each moment: sadness when Collins is accepted into a dance company and then told to lighten her skin, hope when she finds a class, and finally joy when she dances on stage in 1951—with her natural skin tone. The graceful lines of the illustrations will have young ballet fans twirling and, more importantly, believing that hard work pays off. There is an abundance of ballet-themed children’s books, but few are as delightful as this one.