Black experiences explored in books for children

When my family moved to Chicago in the late 1960s, our neighbor Ginny, picking up on my mother’s Southern accent, missed no opportunity to criticize “Rebel” racism. But when my mother described her loving relationship with Sally, her grandmother’s black cook, Ginny gasped: “You touched one? How could you touch one?”

Recommended reads

• “Miles to Go for Freedom: Segregation and Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years” (by Linda Barrett Osborne; Abrams, 128 pages, ages 12 and up, $24.95)

• “We March” (story and illustrations by Shane W. Evans; Macmillan, 32 pages, ages 4 to 7, $16.99)

• “Freedom Song: The Story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown” (by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls; HarperCollins, 40 pages, ages 4 to 8, $17.99)

• “Jazz Age Josephine: Dancer, singer-who’s that, who? Why, that’s MISS Josephine Baker, to you!” (by Jonah Winter, illustrations by Marjorie Priceman; Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 40 pages, ages 4 to 8, $16.99)

• “Ellen’s Broom” (by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Daniel Minter; Penguin, 32 pages, ages 5 to 8, $16.99)

• “When Grandmama Sings” (by Margaree King Mitchell, illustrations by James E. Ransome; HarperCollins, 40 pages, ages 5 to 9, $16.99)

• “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” (by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon; Penguin, 32 pages, ages 6 and up, $16.99)

• “Freedom’s a-Callin Me” (by Ntozake Shange, illustrations by Rod Brown; HarperCollins, 32 pages, ages 8 to 12, $16.99)

• “What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors” (by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld, illustrated by Ben Boos and A.G. Ford; Candlewick Press, 44 pages, ages 8 to 14, $17.99)

• “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans” (story and illustrations by Kadir Nelson; Balzer + Bray, 108 pages, ages 9 and up; $19.99)

• “To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement” (Flash Point, 208 pages, ages 12 and up, $22.99)

The ugly truth of Northern bigotry is just one of the facts no longer off-limits for children’s books. This month, Black History Month, brings scores of books dealing with the black experience in America. Here are several worth reading at any time of the year.

“Miles to Go for Freedom: Segregation and Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years” (by Linda Barrett Osborne; Abrams, 128 pages, ages 12 and up, $24.95) explores Northern bigotry along with the familiar pain of the Southern variety. The illustrations, from historic photos to a 1926 rejection notice from a famed music school, help to tell the tale.

For younger readers, “We March” (story and illustrations by Shane W. Evans; Macmillan, 32 pages, ages 4 to 7, $16.99) gives a simply worded, colorfully illustrated view of a family’s preparation for and participation in the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I have a dream” speech. Another Evans book, “Underground,” last month won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration.

When Henry Brown’s wife and children were sold, the slave was desperate enough to have himself nailed into a box and shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia. “Freedom Song: The Story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown” (by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls; HarperCollins, 40 pages, ages 4 to 8, $17.99) tells Brown’s true story in terms of the songs he sang: work songs, freedom songs and psalms. Qualls’ watercolors are joined seamlessly with the story, a quietly powerful indictment of the evils of slavery.

“Jazz Age Josephine: Dancer, singer-who’s that, who? Why, that’s MISS Josephine Baker, to you!” (by Jonah Winter, illustrations by Marjorie Priceman; Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 40 pages, ages 4 to 8, $16.99) is long on title but short in length. The story, written in bluesy verse, tells of Josephine Baker’s hard early life in St. Louis, and her life as a Jazz Age icon in Paris. Priceman’s vivid, fun-filled illustrations are the best part of the book.

Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault not only lived through the Civil Rights era; she helped make that history, as one of the first two black students admitted (reluctantly) to the University of Georgia. “To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement” (Flash Point, 208 pages, ages 12 and up, $22.99) is her first-person account of that era, taking readers through the pivotal years of freedom riders and marchers and school integration. Pages from The New York Times help to set the tone.

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