In a column this week, Kirkus’ Children’s & Teen Editor Vicky Smith writes about promising new titles for both children and teens, as publishers anticipate Black History Month, celebrated every February.
Also seeking out new titles for the month-long celebration will be teachers and librarians. I nodded when Vicky wrote, “here’s hoping that the industry does not forget or neglect books by and about African-Americans for the next 11 months.” Hear, hear! I hope educators remember this as well.
You definitely want to head over there for Vicky’s recommended titles. Included there is a mention of Kadir Nelson’s picture book biography of Nelson Mandela, which Kirkus starred in their review. Nelson’s oil paintings here are simply exquisite. (I hear some of you saying, well, what’s new? But Nelson nearly outdoes himself with these. Do yourself a favor, find a copy, and treat yourself to the spread that shows Mandela’s smiling face on the day of his release from prison after nearly 28 years. Such joy at the hands of a master illustrator.)
Also new, coming at the end of this month, is Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Light in the Darkness: A Story About How Slaves Learned in Secret, illustrated by James E. Ransome. This is the story of a young slave girl named Rosa, and her Mama, who creep through the woods at night to learn the alphabet in “pit schools.” Pit schools were large holes deep in the ground, covered with branches and sticks, which slaves used for secret lessons in literacy.
The author tells Rosa’s story with a compelling suspense; much was at stake for these characters. Ransome’s watercolor illustrations—laid out on mostly shadowy, night-time palettes, but with consistent moments of luminosity (lanterns, moonlight)—are dramatic, rife with tension. Many spreads depict the faces of those risking their lives in the pits to learn, looking up breathlessly and fearfully in the moonlight as the white men patrol the grounds nearby. “This book is a celebration of those who sought the light of knowledge during the darkness of slavery,” Cline-Ransome writes in a closing author’s note, which explains that she stumbled upon pit schools while researching Frederick Douglass. Rosa’s story is a powerful one.
An excellent picture book with which to pair the Ransomes’ would be Jabari Asim’s Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, illustrated by Bryan Collier. This was a Fall 2012 release, so if you missed it, have a look. It’s the story of the legendry author and educator, born into slavery but who fulfilled his dream to learn to read and write, “setting free the secrets that lived in books.” If we hear this book announced as a 2013 Caldecott winner or Honor book come Monday, I won’t be at all surprised. It’s very deserving.
I’ll mention two more titles, also released last fall but ones you won’t want to miss. Well, I’m a bit biased here, as I’m a fan of Floyd Cooper’s artwork—how do I love his illustrations? Give me a few hours to count the ways—and he illustrated both of these picture books.
If teachers and librarians have room in their Black History curricula for internationally renowned author Joyce Carol Thomas, which I hope they do, I recommend In the Land of Milk and Honey, which tells the true story of Thomas’ own childhood journey from Oklahoma to California in 1948. “Look at the people! / And their fascinating faces / Look at the people! / All ages, all races,” Thomas writes. People of many cultures headed west during this time, seeking the possibilities in “the Land of Milk and Honey.”
This is a poem of a picture book, a tribute to the promise of a new land, an homage to the joy of the journey. In a closing author’s note, Thomas writes of the special “quality of light” California held at the time (and still possesses for her), and Cooper’s illustrations are a perfect match for the wonder these travelers felt about the light, the promise of brighter flowers and greener grass. His artwork here sings with warmth and cheer, and I find his nature spreads especially beautiful. (After you seek out Kadir’s smiling-Mandela spread, go look for the “golden bears fish like men” spread here in the Thomas-Cooper collaboration.)
Lastly, as we wrap up inauguration week, I enthusiastically recommend another Cooper-illustrated title, Charles R. Smith Jr.’s Brick by Brick, which may still be new to many readers, as it was released at the tail end of 2012. Smith tells the story, in an immediate, rhyming text, of the construction of the White House, primarily at the hands of slaves. “Nameless, faceless / daughters and sons / build brick by brick / until each day is done.” Sand colors dominate Cooper’s spreads, thereby making the splashes of blue sky and the closing American flag all the more striking.
So, this February, take special enjoyment in these books, but don't forget these talented authors and illustrators, and the stirring subject matter, once the month is through.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.