Just over 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Elizabeth Jennings refused to dismount from a New York City streetcar.
In 1854, New York was a so-called free state, and Lizzie Jennings was a freeborn, well-to-do African American woman. Accustomed to being permitted in the better-appointed streetcars reserved for white passengers, Lizzie is first taken aback and then angered when the white conductor tells her she must wait for one emblazoned “Colored People Allowed in This Car.” Her refusal to leave leads to a contretemps with the law—and a white witness, whose expression of support bolsters her enough to file an eventual, successful, groundbreaking lawsuit. Anderson’s third-person text allows readers under Lizzie’s skin as her indignation at injustice mounts. Children will readily recognize both the conductor’s capricious cruelty and Lizzie’s anger that “being born a ‘free black’ in a ‘free state’ ” does not mean being “treated as equal.” Lewis’ dappled watercolors depict the action and extend it. A picture of an angry Lizzie thrown to the cobbles, bonnet askew, is shocking; another, of the faces of five white, male jurors floating forbiddingly against a vivid, dark-blue background, underscores the injustice of the legal system. A two-page author’s note fleshes out the history, including mentions of Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks.
(bibliography, further reading)
(Informational picture book. 5-8)
A Haitian grandmother and granddaughter share a holiday, a family recipe, and a story of freedom.
It’s New Year’s Day, and Belle and Ti Gran are sharing in the annual tradition of making Freedom Soup. Though Belle jokes that the dish is named because “It’s free,” Ti Gran informs her that it is anything but. What follows is a breathless recounting of family slave history before the Haitian rebellion, with Freedom Soup as the conduit between the historical past and present day. Charles’ prose and Alcántara’s illustrations work perfectly in tandem to re-create a Haiti that is heartbreakingly lush and tropical. The mellow brown of the main characters’ skin contrasts with the darkness of their slave ancestors’, and the vibrant blue waters and endless yellow sugarcane fields are both breathtaking and oppressive when viewed through this historical lens. One particularly affecting double-page spread uses the sweep of the fields to draw readers’ eyes up to the white slave-owning family, to whom the soup is served by a girl young enough to be Belle herself. This tale features characters for whom cooking is an elaborate dance as well as family bonding, and the soup looks so tempting readers will swear they smell it.
A stunning and necessary historical picture book.
(Picture book. 5-9)
Cline-Ransome and Ransome, a husband-and-wife author-and-illustrator team, have again collaborated on an important story from African American history. Narrator Ruth Ellen, Mama, and Daddy awaken early to travel to New York without the permission or knowledge of the landowner on whose land they sharecrop. (The author’s note mentions that landowners often used threats and violence to keep sharecroppers on the land and perpetually in debt.) The family boards the train with luggage, tickets, and food in a shoebox—since black folks cannot eat in the dining car and must sit in the colored section of the train. The conductor calls out the cities as they progress North. When the conductor removes the “whites only” sign near Baltimore, African Americans can sit wherever they want—though it takes some time before Ruth Ellen and her family find white riders who smile a welcome. Ruth Ellen reads Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass aloud to Mama on the train ride, a gift from her teacher that parallels her own family’s journey. Ransome’s watercolor-and-collage illustrations effectively capture both the historical setting and the trepidation of a family who though not enslaved, nevertheless must escape as if they were. Cotton bolls throughout the images accentuate cotton’s economic dominance in the sharecropping system.
A beautiful portrayal of a historic and arduous family journey northward
. (Picture book. 4-8)
Mary Walker, who learned to read at the age of 116, is introduced to young readers in this lovingly illustrated picture book.
Born into slavery in Alabama, Mary Walker was not allowed to learn to read. When the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery, she was 15. She was later gifted a Bible, which she couldn’t read, but she kept it and made marks in it when her children were born. She worked hard and took care of her family and kept postponing her goal of learning to read. But she outlived her family, including a son who died at the age of 94. In 1963, she enrolled in a literacy program. “Could someone her age learn to read? She didn’t know, but by God, she was going to try.” By 1969 she had learned to read, been certified the nation’s oldest student (twice), received the key to the city of Chattanooga, and had her birthday celebrated by the city to recognize her achievement. While the author’s note mentions that some of the details that round out the text are invented, the most amazing facts of this story are the ones that are documented. Mary Walker was a living connection to a history people wanted to forget, and her indomitable spirit comes across beautifully in this book. Caldecott honoree Mora’s (Thank You, Omu!, 2018) collages endear Walker to readers, each spread creating an intriguing scene of textures and layers.
Enjoy this book with every child you know; let Mary Walker become a household name.
(Picture book/biography. 5-9)
A young black child ponders the colors in the rainbow and a crayon box and realizes that while black is not a color in the rainbow, black culture is a rainbow of its own.
In bright paints and collage, Holmes shows the rainbow of black skin tones on each page while Joy’s text describes what “Black is” physically and culturally. It ranges from the concrete, such as “the braids in my best friend’s hair,” to the conceptual: “Black is soft-singing, ‘Hush now, don’t explain’ ”—a reference to the song “Don’t Explain” made popular by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, the former depicted in full song with her signature camellia and the latter at her piano. Joy alludes throughout the brief text to poetry, music, figures, and events in black history, and several pages of backmatter supply the necessary context for caregivers who need a little extra help explaining them to listeners. Additionally, there is a playlist of songs to accompany reading as well as three poems: “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes, and “We Wear the Mask” and “Sympathy,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The author also includes a historical timeline describing some of the names that have been used to describe and label black people in the United States since 1619.
Both a beautiful celebration of black culture and an excellent first black history book for young children.
(Picture book. 4-8)
Sharon Langley became the first African American child to legally ride the carousel at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore, Maryland, one month before her first birthday, in 1963.
Her ride on the carousel followed a series of protests and the arrests of many, including children, who demanded the park integrate. The story is told through a conversational reminiscence between a school-age Sharon and her parents, interspersed with moments when Langley speaks to readers as an adult. The questions the little girl poses to her parents are those one would expect from a child grappling with injustice: “What about the Golden Rule? What about treating other people the way you want to be treated?” Her mother tenderly answers her innocent yet complicated questions with kindness and grace: “I guess some people forgot that the Golden Rule is supposed to include everyone.” Braided into the story are mentions of the other children who participated in the protests for the integration of the park. Backmatter includes photographs and a note from Langley, a timeline, and updates about the people mentioned in the story. Cooper’s grainy sepia and golden tones with bright bursts of color give the book a dreamy and nostalgic quality that fits well with the story.
This book delivers a beautiful and tender message about equality from the very first page. (Picture book/memoir. 6-9)
Two enslaved children become a legend when they escape the inhumane plantation system.
Siblings John and Millicent (whom some will remember as the mother of Thunder Rose, from the 2003 picture book of the same name, illustrated by Kadir Nelson) toil on Simon Plenty’s plantation as slaves. Their parents were sold away—“I don’t have to tell you the pain this could put on anyone, let alone a child”—but not before they “had sown the seeds of freedom in their children’s minds and hearts.” Samuel and Maggie had told their children that their people could fly and that such a time might come for them. One day, the overseer strikes an unusual, large bird out of the sky. John and Millicent rescue it under cover of night and nurse the creature back to health. Things get more difficult for John and Millicent, as first John is hired out for months at a time, and then it is rumored that he will be sold away. One night, when they are trying to free the bird, the overseer discovers them, and the two children run off, heading west after the bird. Nolen luxuriates in poetic and symbolic language in this satisfying story. The lengthy text, addressed directly to child listeners, frames the tale with historical, cultural, and mythical context that will leave some younger children wondering but nevertheless will hold them spellbound. Ransome’s paintings create memorable scenes that evoke the indomitable human spirit to which the book is a tribute.
Powerful storytelling and immersive art.
(author’s note, further reading)
(Picture book. 6-10)
“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin was once a shy child afraid to sing in front of a large audience. However, she came to learn that through music, she could ease her own pain and help others.
This thoughtfully illustrated biography of Aretha Franklin paints a clear picture of the artist from the time she was a child grappling with the loss of her mother in 1952 through refusing to sing before segregated audiences during the 1960s to winning multiple awards and honors. The narrative covers Aretha’s introduction to entertainers like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald as well as to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—all were often visitors of her father, famed preacher C.L. Franklin, at their Detroit, Michigan, home. The book moves fluidly through one phase of Aretha’s life and career to the next. The illustrations are vivid, and those of Aretha singing are full of emotion. Aretha is often dressed in gold to signify her queenly stature, and Freeman hides small crowns throughout the pages, often on Aretha herself. The final spread, featuring four overlapping, sequential images of Aretha Franklin at different stages in her music career against a white background, is especially well done and even moving. The backmatter begins with a two-page spread of photographs and more information about Aretha’s life; it’s followed by a list of songs that younger listeners can look up and hear for themselves.
An excellent introduction to an American icon.
(Picture book/biography. 4-8)