History lives and breathes, not only within us but also as we uncover new ways to see and understand the past. These picture books introduce young readers to fresh, vital perspectives on Black history.
★ Born on the Water
Readers are in for a sweeping history lesson that spans centuries in The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, an illuminating extension of the educational movement begun at the New York Times Magazine in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Newbery Honor author Renée Watson begin this exquisite book with a framing story about a Black girl who receives a school assignment to trace her family’s roots and feels ashamed that she can go back only three generations. Upon hearing this, her grandmother gathers the whole family to explain their heritage, starting with their ancestors in West Central Africa. “Ours is no immigration story,” she says. In a series of free verse poems with titles like “They Had a Language,” “Stolen,” “Tobacco Fields” and “Legacy,” the authors convey not only facts but also feeling, a powerful mixture of pride, joy, tragedy, sorrow, perseverance and triumph.
Nikkolas Smith’s visceral illustrations bring all of these emotions to life, starting with joyous scenes of families living in the kingdom of Ndongo, “their bodies a song under open sky and bright sun.” These pages burst with the colors of turquoise waters and grassy fields of gold and green beneath warm, sunlit skies. The images are a wonderful gift to readers, offering a sense of what life was like before enslavement.
With the suddenness of a single page turn, life changes cataclysmically as these ancestors are kidnapped from their homeland and imprisoned aboard a ship called the White Lion. Shadowy illustrations convey the brutality that follows: an empty, ransacked village; people in chains forced onto a ship; faces filled with sadness and fear. One image shows a person who has jumped overboard, and Grandma explains that their ancestors are those who survived the terrible journey: “We were born on the water. We come from the people who refused to die.”
Grandma’s history continues to the fields of Virginia, where a baby named William Tucker becomes the first Black child born in the new land, and on across centuries of resistance and achievement. “Never forget you come from a people of great strength,” Grandma says. “Be proud of our story, your story.”
Born on the Water is a triumph and a history lesson that every child needs to learn.
★ A History of Me
“I was the only brown person in class,” begins the young narrator of Adrea Theodore and Erin K. Robinson’s A History of Me. She feels the eyes of her classmates on her back whenever their teacher discusses slavery and civil rights. “I wanted to slide out of my seat and onto the floor and drift out the door,” she admits. Even worse, a bully taunts her after school, “If it wasn’t for Lincoln, you’d still be our slaves!”
In an author’s note, Theodore describes writing this debut picture book after learning that “some thirty years after I had attended elementary school, the way the subject of slavery was being taught was still causing harm to young black and brown children.” As the narrator of A History of Me shares her experiences in history class, she also reflects on the lives of the women in her family, including her great-great-grandmother, who was enslaved, and her mother, who spent part of her childhood in the Jim Crow South. “And so I should be grateful to go to school and learn,” the narrator says repeatedly, but it’s clear that her feelings are more complicated than simple gratitude.
Illustrator Robinson skillfully illuminates the book’s many strands of history. The narrator’s historical musings appear in sepia tones, while contemporary scenes leap off the page in vivid colors, adding a dose of energy to the tale. The narrator is a quietly thoughtful force to be reckoned with. Her piercing eyes often gaze directly at readers, and she faces down the bully with her head high, striding purposefully down the sidewalk past him.
The book concludes as the narrator discusses growing up and having a daughter of her own. A wonderful spread shows her daughter reaching triumphantly toward the sky, surrounded by a sunburst of rainbow color and empowered with the knowledge “that she is free to be anything she wants to be.”
“What happens when you are proud of where you come from?” asks Theodore in her author’s note. A History of Me is a moving reminder of what we gain when we draw strength and inspiration from the past.