Seven fabulous picture books to celebrate Black History Month

Picture books are fabulous ways to start discussions about serious topics like friendship, discrimination, kindness, and prejudice. These three picture books are wonderful examples of books that express a wide range of messages and showcase a variety of styles of illustrations. All are excellent choices for school libraries and classrooms, as well as for any child who loves books.

Perhaps the most important picture book is “Carter Reads the Newspaper” by Deborah Hopkinson, about Carter G. Woodson, without whom there might not be a Black History Month. Carter’s parents were slaves, and although he grew up free, he heard about Carter readsslavery and its horror through his mother. The Woodson family was poor. Carter had to go to bed early on Saturday nights so his mother could wash his only shirt and pair of pants for church on Sunday. But even though Carter couldn’t attend school all year because he had to help make money for the family, and even though he couldn’t attend high school at all because he had to work, he wanted to learn. Carter continued learning by reading the newspaper to his father. They couldn’t afford to buy the paper, but sometimes found old ones or newspaper that had been used to wrap purchases. Driving a garbage wagon, working a farm, working in coal mines, all those strengthened his resolve to continue his education. Finally he returned home from the coal mines and finished high school in two years. He went to college, and became a teacher, and then became the second African American to attend Harvard University, and the first “African American whose parents had been slaves to receive a doctorate in history.” A professor at Harvard sparked Carter’s determination to show that Black people did (and do) indeed have a history. He founded Negro History Week which eventually lasted a month. The illustrations by Don Tate are richly textured and compelling. On the endpapers are significant figures from Black History, including Colin Kaepernick and the Obamas. This important picture book has additional information in an Author’s Note and an Illustrator’s Note. There is a listing of who the important historical figures are, a timeline of Carter’s life, sources for quotations, and a bibliography. (Peachtree Publishers)

“The Bell Rang” by James E. Ransome is a picture book for older children about the grim the bell rangreality of slave life. While the text is simple, the emotions and meaning behind the words are not. The story is told from the point of view of a slave girl living with her father, mother, and older brother Ben. Every day is the same. It begins with the sound of a bell ringing. The sun is not yet up. They wake, her father gathers wood and her mother cooks breakfast. They eat. The older three slaves go to the fields to work while the young daughter goes with the other young slave children. But one morning, her brother gives her a doll and says, “Good-bye.” He runs away. When the master rides in with two of the three runaway slaves, she is relieved that her brother is not there. But the reader never finds out what exactly happened to Ben. Did he die? Did he make it to freedom? A great question for readers is to ponder why Ransome chose to keep Ben’s fate mysterious. Is it because even the families of runaway slaves often didn’t know what happened to the runaways? What is the daughter looking at on the last page? The bird on the facing page? Why? Why did Ben leave his family to run away? This is an excellent book for showing the horror of slavery. (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)

“What is Given from the Heart” by Patricia C. McKissack is a beautiful story of generosity in the midst of poverty. The first person narration by James Otis, the young child in the given from the heartstory, makes it real. The first two pages set the tone for James’ life: “It was a rough few months for Mama and me.” He goes on to share that his father went to sleep on the front porch and didn’t wake up. Mama cried because they didn’t have a suit to bury him in. They lost their farm and moved into a run-down shotgun house that flooded. His dog ran away. But when the Temples, a mother and daughter, lose their house in a fire, the Reverend asks for donations for them. He tells the congregation, “Remember, what is given from the heart reaches the heart.” James sees his mother turning her beautiful white tablecloth, the only nice thing she has, into an apron. She tells him, “My hope is that this apron will give as much joy to Mrs. Temple as the tablecloth has given me.” James has to think carefully about what he can give to Sarah Temple — what would make her happy. And he does just that. The illustrations by April Harrison are a captivating mixture of paints, collage, and found objects, but the expressions on the faces of the people are all drawn with emotions beautifully captured. (Schwartz & Wade)

“Meet Miss Fancy” by Irene Latham and illustrated by John Holyfield is the story of a miss fancyyoung man who is obsessed with elephants. He happens to live in Birmingham, Alabama, and in the year 1913, Birmingham wanted to get an elephant who was retiring to live in Avondale Park. Frank was so excited that he helped raise money at school. If Birmingham could raise enough money, they could get the elephant. And they did. Frank was there when Miss Fancy, the elephant, arrived at the train station. He watched as she walked to the park. But Frank wasn’t allowed in the park because of a sign that read “No colored allowed.” Readers can imagine the devastation Frank feels after he raised money to help bring Miss Fancy to Birmingham and now wouldn’t be allowed to feed her or touch her like the kids who were allowed in the park. When his church applied to have a picnic on the park grounds, they were approved. But when there was a furor over it, the church withdrew their application. When the Reverend explained to Frank that some people didn’t want them in the park, and there might be trouble, Frank knew that ‘”Trouble” meant black people would be hurt or worse.” There is a happy ending — sort of — and the Author’s Note explains the real story of Miss Fanny and her life. Unfortunately, she did not end her days blissfully in Avondale Park, and her retirement was short-lived. The illustrations work beautifully with the text. The soft backgrounds compliment the focus of each page, which is rendered in lovely, colorful detail. (Putnam)

“Hands Up!” by Breanna J. McDaniel and illustrated by Shane W. Evans is the uplifting story of a young black girl whose arms are always uplifted just like her spirit. The book is upbeat, from the first lines, “Greet the sun, bold and bright! Tiny hands up!” to the last handspage showing a now older, but still vibrant and optimistic girl. With arms upraised, she and many others hold signs protesting a variety of social issues including immigration, Black Lives Matter, spreading love, and water=life. In between, the smiling girl is raising her hands to be called on in class, raising her hands for ballet (like Ms. Misty), raising her hands to reach books in the library, and raising her hands while singing in church. The author explains that she wanted to show that the phrase “hands up” can represent happy, everyday moments in a child’s life, and that black children all too often are seen as social problems, as victims, as villains, or as adults before they’re even grown up. Here, young Viv gets to be a child, to be happy — and to raise her hands. (Dial)

“Martin and Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank” by martin and anneNancy Churnin is the poignant story of two people born in 1929, both of whose lives were tragically cut short, but who both changed the world for the better. Side by side, the text tells the story of the two babies born in the same year. As they grew, both experienced discrimination and prejudice. They both had friends who stopped playing with them because of skin color or religion. Both had their activities restricted — they couldn’t buy ice cream or swim in pubic pools. They couldn’t go to certain public schools or eat in restaurants. And the story details the tragic ending of both lives. This is an important book, and even though it’s not explicitly stated, Hitler’s policy of exclusion of Jews from daily public life was based on the discrimination and Jim Crow laws that existed in the US at that time. It’s a perfect addition to any school library and a wonderful read aloud to children of all ages. (Creston Books)

“Sweet Dreams, Sarah” by Vivian Kirkfield is a nonfiction biographical picture book about Sarah Goode, the first African American woman to have a patent in her name. She sweet dreams sarahwas born a slave, but after the Civil War moved with her family to Chicago. There she married, and having learned about carpentry from her father and her husband, she saw a need for a fold-away bed. She invented a desk that could be turned into a bed. When there were problems with the first version she made, she just started all over again. When her first patent application was denied, she made changes until it was approved. There is an author’s note about what is definitely known about Sarah’s life and what is imagined. There is also a nonfiction section on “What is a Patent?” and a “Sarah E. Goode Timeline.” There is a timeline of black women who have held patents, and there is also a bibliography. This would be a great choice for Black History month or for any month. It’s about determination, trying again and again to achieve one’s goals, and the rewards that can come from working hard. (Creston Books)


Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publisher for review purposes. 

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