In the pages of these books, young readers will meet American heroes and heroines who made vital and lasting contributions to a history we all share. Some lived long ago, some are still alive today, but each has left their indelible mark.
William Still and His Freedom Stories
Do you know about the remarkable life of William Still, “the Father of the Underground Railroad”? If you don’t, as Don Tate explains in William Still and His Freedom Stories, it’s because white abolitionists usually glorified their own heroism while diminishing the efforts of African Americans.
Born in New Jersey, Still was the son of formerly enslaved people who were forced to leave behind two of their elder sons when they escaped enslavement in Maryland. At just 8 years old, Still helped a neighbor avoid slave catchers and escape to safety, an experience that defined the rest of his life. As a young man, Still worked for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery and assisted freedom-seeking people on the Underground Railroad. After a chance reunion with one of his older brothers, who had escaped and made his way north, Still began recording the testimonies of every person who passed through his office in case the stories helped family members find each other. Still concealed his records after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 to protect himself and the people he’d met, but he published them in 1872.
Tate’s short sentences and accessible language convey the urgency of Still’s work, and his illustrations sensitively communicate the danger and terror faced by enslaved people. Nighttime scenes bathed in ominous blue washes are particularly effective. There’s plenty of hope here, too. One particularly wonderful spread shows Still’s words like rays of light beaming from a copy of his book. “Stories save lives,” Tate writes. “William’s stories needed to be told, so slavery’s nightmare will never happen again.”
Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
The nightmare of racism did not end with abolition, however, and Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre is an extraordinary account of the worst racial attack in American history, a 16-hour massacre in 1921 that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and left as many as 300 people dead.
Author Carole Boston Weatherford begins by celebrating the successes of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street. It was a place where commerce and community thrived through more than 200 businesses, including beauty shops, movie theaters, soda parlors, two Black-owned newspapers and the largest Black-owned hotel in the country. Floyd Cooper’s illustrations convey the hustle and bustle of this booming, prosperous area and show the expressive faces of Greenwood’s residents filled with pride.
Then, in a spread dominated by shadow, Weatherford explains, “All it took was one elevator ride, one seventeen-year-old white elevator operator accusing a nineteen-year-old Black shoeshine man of assault for simmering hatred to boil over.”
The horror that follows is depicted with care, mindful that the book’s readers will be children. Many readers will feel angry at the injustice and violence that white police officers, city officials and Tulsa residents inflicted on the Black community in Greenwood. Cooper’s illustrations shift powerfully as expressions of fear and sadness replace pride on Greenwood residents’ faces.
The book ends in Tulsa’s modern-day Reconciliation Park with a reminder of “the responsibility we all have to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope.” Detailed notes from Weatherford and Cooper root the Tulsa Race Massacre in the context of anti-Black violence throughout American history. Cooper’s grandfather lived in Greenwood at the time of the massacre, a revelation that adds a deeply personal dimension to the book. Unspeakable deserves to be read by every student of American history.
Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston
Packed with evocative language and energetic illustrations, Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston is a fabulous showcase of not only Hurston’s storytelling abilities but also those of author Alicia D. Williams and illustrator Jacqueline Alcántara. Its vibrant opening lines offer a promise on which the book more than delivers: “In a town called Eatonville—a place where magnolias smelled even prettier than they looked, oranges were as sweet as they were plump, and the people just plain ol’ got along—lived a girl who was attracted to tales like mosquitoes to skin. Zora was her name.”
Williams focuses on key moments throughout Hurston’s life when she was inspired by her mother’s advice to “jump at de sun. You might not land on de sun, but at least you’d get off de ground.” As Williams chronicles Hurston’s journey toward literary greatness, she intersperses biographical details with lively commentary and poetic descriptions. Her writing sings and soars.
Alcántara’s illustrations playfully complement Williams’ prose and bring this tale to life on sunny pages filled with bright colors. Whether Hurston is running through the Florida swamps of her childhood or dancing the Charleston in Harlem, her zest for life shines through. An author’s note explains that Hurston died in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave until 1973, when Alice Walker honored Hurston with a tombstone inscribed with “A Genius of the South.” Jump at the Sun will leave readers in awe of the life of this national treasure and eager to discover more of her wonderful words for themselves.
That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World
Books that tell childhood stories of notable people are beloved by young readers, and That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World makes a fantastic addition to this category. Rochelle Riley profiles 20 Black leaders, including activists, scientists, athletes and artists, and accompanying each brief biography are two photographs: The first is a well-known image of the profile’s subject, and in the second, either Riley’s grandson Caleb or photographer Cristi Smith-Jones’ daughter Lola re-create the image in full costume.
Every page of this book has been tailor-made to appeal to young people, from Riley’s thoughtful profiles to the way Smith-Jones stages each portrait to honor the spirit of its subject rather than merely imitate the original photograph. Her attention to small details is extraordinary, such as Shirley Chisholm’s horn-rimmed glasses and Duke Ellington’s pocket square.
A variety of both historical and contemporary figures is included, and Riley relates fascinating stories about each of them. Muhammad Ali, for instance, might never have become a boxer if his bike hadn’t been stolen when he was 12. After he told police officer Joe Martin, “When I find whoever took my bike, I’m gonna whup him,” Martin introduced him to boxing lessons. Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on March 2, 1955—nine months before Rosa Parks did the same. “It felt like Harriet Tubman was pushing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth was pushing me down on the other shoulder,” Colvin later recalled. “History had me glued to the seat.” Every profile ends with a takeaway, such as “Claudette Colvin taught us that you are never too young to make a difference.”
“We want to show [young people] that every important or powerful or talented or beautiful person in the world was once a child,” write Riley and Smith-Jones in a foreword. To look closely at the young faces in Smith-Jones’ photographs and then at the luminaries to which they pay tribute is to gain a powerful under- standing that Black history is being made every day—even today.