Black history comes alive with these 4 children’s nonfiction books

Black lives and books for Black History Month and every month

It’s February, and that means there are amazing new children’s books that are perfect for every month of the year, not just February, and which celebrate Black activists and Black heroes. Some you might already have read about, but some of these fascinating and important historical figures might be newly revealed to you through these worthwhile reads.

“Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter” is by Shani Mahiri King and Bobby C. Martin, Jr. and is a unique book. Its presentation is brilliant — in terms of color and layout. The cover of the book is the first hint that this book will be filled with colorful graphics and lots of positivity. You actually have to look at it a few times to see the order of the words. And words make up this book from the endpapers that are filled with the names of famous Black people with barely a space between, to the introductory letter from the author about why he wrote this book, to the pages filled with questions like, “Have I told you that we were among the 1st patriots to lay down our lives for the dream of an American independence and that a Black man named Crispus was the very first person to die for that dream?” One side of the page is filled with purple lettering on a teal background and the other side, with a stylized image of Attucks, features purple lettering on an orange background. The key is following the colors of the text to see what goes together. For example, on the page asking (telling) in purple letters that “we have long been world-acclaimed poets and authors,” there are names next to those purple letter in white lettering: Zora, Richard, Langston, James, Ralph, Maya, Toni, Ta-Nehisi, and on the facing page are those names, first and last, with the names of other acclaimed poets and authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Jacqueline Woodson, Countee Cullen (a few of my favorites). There’s a double page about Colin kneeling and those who went before him, including, “Jesse punctured the Nazi myth of racial superiority with four gold medals.” At the end are snippets about the lives of 116 Black leaders and artists and athletes. The author points out that choosing which Black lives deserved to shine was difficult, and that these form only a tiny sample. From its sentiment to the powerful presentation, this is a book that deserves a place in every school library and on every classroom bookshelf. (Tilbury House Publishers)

“Jump at the Sun: The True Life of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston” is another powerful nonfiction book about a Black writer who is not a household name like Langston or Jacqueline or Toni. Alicia D. Williams and Jacqueline Alcántara, the illustrator, create a picture book that literally glows with bright colors and images and words that seem to jump off the pages. The life of Zora was not easy, but it’s told in a way that is folksy and beguiling, like one of the folk tales that eventually got Zora published. From the start, Zora was entranced by stories, and she loved hearing them at Joe Clarke’s general store. She would linger after filling an errand until she heard her mother calling. But her mother died, and when her father remarried, her stepmother didn’t want Zora around, so she left the safety — albeit the unhappy safety — of her home. For twelve years, she traveled south to north, getting fired from jobs because she was reading instead of working; the only time she was happy was when she was telling her stories. In Baltimore, she cut ten years from her age and finished the last two years of high school. Then she went to college and began writing her stories. She moved to NYC and became part of the Harlem Renaissance, meeting such icons as Langston Hughes, who became a good friend. Keep reading and you’ll find out about how Zora was able to research and write down folklore from not just the US but Haiti and the Bahamas. Sadly, you will also find out that she died an unsung hero, never really getting any financial comfort from her artistic work. This story is told in a narrative voice that we can imagine is Zora, telling us her story. And in dialogue bubbles, we can hear snippets from the actual stories, in the dialect in which they might have been told. One of her quotes describes her love of her research into folk tales: “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” The illustrations are not simple, but bright, brilliant and complex — just like the life of Zora Neale Hurston. The lime green greenery frames the faces of people sharing their stories, and we see Zora, with hand over her ear, listening to those stories. Children will want to read the story and then go back and reread it, looking carefully at the illustrations and examining the bits of stories. Teachers will want to discuss the running metaphor of Zora “jumping at the sun.” Reading this book makes us feel that we are a bit closer to the sun. (Simon & Schuster Children’s books)

Two books based on the original book, “She Persisted” by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger are books about important Black women in history. They are written by Black authors who are known for their children’s books, Andrea Davis Pinkney and Lesa Cline-Ransome. “She Persisted: Claudette Colvin” introduces many of us to the person who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat with a different outcome. But Claudette’s bravery helped desegregate the buses in Montgomery. She had listened to her teacher in her segregated school and learned about her constitutional rights and screamed about those rights as the police were called and arrested her and took her to jail. Hero, indeed. Children can be heroes, and Claudette shows them how.

“She Persisted: Harriet Tubman” by Andrea Davis Pinkney is about someone who needs no introduction, a woman of incredible bravery and fortitude who risked her own life and freedom over and over and over returning to the South, where there was a huge price on her head, to rescue others who were living in bondage. We learn about Harriet’s childhood and her physical problems, which made her physical feats of walking from state to state, running from danger, hiding from slave catchers, all the more incredible. Both of these books are short and have a section at the end titled “How You Can Persist.” There are also references and websites for more information. This series is a perfect choice for young chapter book readers in second and third grade and for older readers who want a quick nonfiction read about these important historical personages. (Philomel)

All of these books, and many others, are important books to use in the classroom and to read with children. It’s important that all children understand the strength, the positivity, and the brilliance in diversity, and that the struggle for social justice never ends.

Read also:

Perfectly diverse picture books
Five diverse picture books for older readers
Children’s nonfiction picture books for Black History Month 2020

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