Six 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.

“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. 

‘Song for a Whale’ by Lynne Kelly is a beautiful story of a girl and a whale and the reason their lives touch

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“Song for a Whale” by Lynne Kelly follows her first book, the award-winning novel “Chained.” Kelly’s writing is as beautiful as ever, and the story just as touching — and perhaps more accessible to young readers as the setting is in the United States instead of India. It’s a story about Iris, who is deaf, and the connection she feels for a whale named Blue 55, who is unable to communicate with other whales.

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‘The Simple Art of Flying’ by Cory Leonardo is a sweet, poetry-filled middle grade story of two African parrots and love

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“The Simple Art of Flying” by Cory Leonardo isn’t a simple book at all. It’s filled with an erudite African grey parrot, a feisty octogenarian, an adolescent wanna-be medical doctor, and a pet store owner who shouldn’t be allowed to own even a goldfish. This middle grade tale is filled with quirky characters — both human and not — and a sweet message of acceptance and family. And family can certainly include our non-human family members.

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‘The Curiosities’ by Susan Gloss is a tale of coming to terms with life and loss and art

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In “The Curiosities,” author Susan Gloss creates a cast of characters who all come together in the home of Betsy Barrett, a deceased philanthropist, who left instructions to create a residency program, or artist colony, in her Madison, Wisconsin mansion. The main character, Nell Parker, has a PhD in art and the outstanding bills from many failed IVF attempts to have a baby, to compel her to take the job. The artists for the first session have already been chosen, and Nell will run and oversee the program.

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‘Hope’ by Matthew Cordell is a beautiful love letter from grandparents to their grandchild

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“Hope” by Matthew Cordell follows his beautiful picture book, “Dream,” which is “a poem of love and the book is a poetic ode in words and pictures to the power of parental care.” “Hope” features lions instead of gorillas, and the voice is one of the grandparents sharing their hopes and dreams and wishes for their grandchild.

“You will meet so many. Many who are like you. Many who are not. Continue looking. Continue seeking. And for the future, there will always be hope.”

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‘Watcher in the Wood: a Rockton Novel’ by Kelley Armstrong continues the mystery and excitement in the series

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“Watcher in the Woods” by Kelley Armstrong continues her “Rockton” series set in the fictional “town” of Rockton, in the Northern Yukon in the middle of thousands of miles of wilderness. Mixed in with the wild, the tundra, the vicious animals, and the cold is the primitive town of Rockton, where fugitives from society live. Some are victims seeking to flee their abuser(s) while others are criminals seeking to escape justice.

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‘Someday We Will Fly’ by Rachel DeWoskin is a complicated YA historical fiction about Jewish refugees in Shanghai

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“Someday We Will Fly” by Rachel DeWoskin is a fascinating account of Jewish refugees during WWII who escaped to Shanghai, one of the few places they could go without a visa. Not only is the setting unusual for a Holocaust story, main character Lillia and her family defy Jewish stereotypes — her parents are circus performers.

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‘Because’ by Mo Willems is a magical journey through the world of music and the arts

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“Because” is a perfectly lovely picture book by the prolific children’s author Mo Willems. Though Willems is also an illustrator of note, he turned over that particular duty to Amber Ren for this piece, and the result of their combined talents is a testament to the beauty and power of teamwork as well as a superb rendering of the beauty and power of music — the power to inspire, to change lives, and to add wonder to our universe through our universal language.

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