Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph
Gordon Parks had a rough beginning to his life from being born almost stillborn to losing his mother at age 14. He was told by his white teacher that he and the rest of his all-black class would end up as either porters or waiters. Parks did do those jobs, but then he purchased a used camera and everything changed. He started photographing models and then turned his camera towards the struggling families in Chicago and Washington DC. He is pointed towards one specific subject who will create his most famous image, American Gothic, the picture of an African-American cleaning woman standing in front of the American flag with her mop in hand. Parks managed to show racism with a clarity thanks to just picking up a camera at first.
Weatherford keeps this book very friendly with a minimal amount of text in the bulk of the book. She does include an author’s note at the end that fills in more of the extensive career of Parks as a film director and Renaissance man. The focus here in this picture book biography is Parks’ photographic work and the impact he had on exposing racism and poverty in the inner city, showing hard working people who were still in poverty. Make sure to turn to the end of the book to see his photographs and their intense message.
Christoph’s illustrations are stellar. Using a subtle color palette, the images echo the photographs that Park took, but not too closely. Instead they build upon them, showing Parks taking the images and embracing the dark beauty of the back streets of urban spaces. He also beautifully captures emotions and the humanity of Parks’ subjects that also shines in his photographs.
An important picture book biography, this book shows how one person can make a difference and have a voice. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth by Ann Turner, illustrated by James Ransome
Told in her own voice, this picture book biography captures the childhood and emergence of Sojourner Truth as an orator and activist. The first pages of the book show the horror of slavery, the loss of family members when they are sold away, and the damage of loss, grief, battery and ownership. Then with her baby in her arms, Sojourner runs away, finding shelter. She eventually fought to get her son back with her, and finding her voice. Moving to New York City, she gains her new name of Sojourner Truth and begins to speak out. From wagon backs to formal lectures and then in print, her words travel and help destroy the institution of slavery across the nation.
Turner weaves Truth’s words into the text, creating poetry that is fiery and honest and burns with indignation about slavery. Using her own voice to narrate the story is a great decision, allowing readers to really see what has built the passion upon which Sojourner Truth draws again and again. The horrors of the loss of twelve members of her family never leaves her and it never leaves the book, as it begins and ends with that focus. The entire book is beautifully drawn and historically accurate. Readers can read the author’s note at the end and teachers will appreciate the book being reviewed for accuracy by experts.
Ransome’s illustrations are luscious and lovely. He shows the hard work, grueling labor of slavery and then with one page of running away, Sojourner Truth expresses freedom in the form of a large bed of her very own, something she has never experienced before. It is an image that is powerful and one that children will understand intuitively. As the book progresses, the images grow in power and strength as she comes into her own.
Strong, poetic and filled with history, this picture book biography of Sojourner Truth will be embraced by schools and public libraries alike. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama by Hester Bass, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Violence was a large part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. However in Huntsville, Alabama something quite different happened, quietly and successfully. They managed through cooperation, quiet civil disobedience, and courage to stand up for what was right for all members of their community. There were lunchroom protests where young black people sat at the counters they were not allowed to eat at. There were marches with signs. There were arrests, even one of a mother with an infant that gained national news. There were lovely protests like refusing to purchase new clothes for Easter and instead dressing in blue jeans to deny some stores their business. There were balloons with messages of coming together even as a segregationist ran for governor. There were brave children who attended schools where they were the only people of color. Yet it all happened in a community of support and with no violence at all.
Bass emphasizes throughout her book that there were challenges in the society and reasons for protest. Time and again though just as the reader thinks things will be more rough and confrontational, it abates and progress is made. Her use of details from the other cities in Alabama as well as the national Civil Rights Movement will show children how violent the struggles often were. It is against that backdrop that the progress in Huntsville really shines.
Lewis’s paintings also shine. He captures the strength and determination of those working for their civil rights. On each page there is hope from the children reaching to the sky with their balloons to the one black child in the class and his smile. It all captures both the solemnity of the struggle and the power of achieving change.
Beautifully told and illustrated, this nonfiction picture book offers a compelling story about a community’s willingness to change without violence. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
The author of Out of My Mind returns with a book that takes a hard look at racism in the United States. Stella lives in Bumblebee, North Carolina during the Great Depression. When her little brother wakes her up one dark night, they witness the KKK burning a cross in their town. Their community is segregated, so Stella and her family go to a different school than the white kids in town. It’s smaller and less fancy with one room but also one great teacher. They also can’t use certain stores and many of the white people in town are rude and even violent towards them. Stella’s father is one of the men in town who decide that they will push for their right to vote, even though they know the system is rigged, requiring tests for black people but not for white. Stella gets to witness first hand the ignorance of people in power and their disregard for others, but at the same time there is reason to have hope too.
Draper writes a dynamic story here. She evokes the time period beautifully, allowing readers to really experience the lifestyle, the poverty, and the deep racism of the times. This is not a book that is just darkness though, Draper creates a strong African-American community in Bumblebee. The neighbors look out for one another, help whenever possible, and face the worst of society together as a group. The racism and segregation is presented with an appropriate level of violence for children this age, allowing readers to see that it runs far more deeply than is depicted on the page.
Stella is an extraordinary protagonist. Her struggles with writing are presented cleverly on the page. One immediately sees that this is a girl who struggles with the mechanics of writing like spelling and getting the words out, but once they are on the page she has a unique voice and a poet’s eye. It is a subtle but strong message that if you struggle with something it certainly does not mean you are not gifted in it as well. These passages of writing lighten the book as do the various stories inserted throughout the book, paying homage to the oral traditions but also to the community and its strength.
Powerful and wise, this novel for young readers will expose them to racism after the Civil War and the basis for many of the problems we continue to see today. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Firebird illustrated by Christopher Myers, written by Misty Copeland
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker illustrated by Christian Robinson, written by Patricia Hruby Powell
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone illustrated by Frank Morrison, written by Katheryn Russell-Brown
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Zulay is in first grade along with her three best friends. She starts the day by linking arms with them and singing in the hallways and then waiting in line to hug their teacher hello. When she finds her desk, she feels with her legs to make sure she is sitting right and then readers see her cane, which she pushes to the back of her desk. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Zulay is blind. She still studies what everyone else does, but she also has extra classes to learn to use her cane. When Field Day is announced, Zulay surprises everyone by declaring that she wants to run in a race. Will Zulay be able to make her dream come true?
Best introduces Zulay as a person first and then reveals her disability. It offers readers a chance to meet Zulay as a first grade girl and see how she is just like her friends first and then realize that she is still just like the others in her class but with the added component of blindness in her life. Best also incorporates all of the details that children will want to know. How does Zulay find her desk? How does she do class work? What is her red and white cane for? The result is a very friendly book that celebrates diversity in a number of ways.
Brantley-Newton’s illustrations add to that friendly feel. They feature children of many different races together in school. She clearly shows the emotions of her characters too from worry to pride to joy. The illustrations are bright and cheery.
This is a book about diversity and meeting challenges head on. It’s a great addition to public libraries of all sizes. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
This is the story of Malcolm X’s boyhood and teen years. Malcolm Little grew up during the Depression, surviving on dandelion greens soup after his father is murdered. When his mother gains the attention of social services, Malcolm is moved out of the family home and away from his days of stealing melons from patches and apples from stands to fill his belly. When Malcolm gets a chance to leave his foster home and head to live with his half-sister in Boston, he jumps at the chance. Boston and its neighborhoods are a buzz with activity and nightlife and Malcolm immediately joins the fray, turning his back firmly on the way he was raised. Malcolm continues to explore the dangerous side of society by dealing reefer, drinking, and dating a white woman. He moves to Harlem where the jazz is even more incredible and where he really gets into serious trouble. This novel follows Malcolm from his childhood until he is imprisoned for theft at age 20 and eventually converts to Islam.
Shabazz is one of the daughters of Malcolm X and according to the Authors Note at the end of the book the story while fiction is firmly based in real life people and events. The writing prowess of Magoon is also here in full force, directing a story that is a headlong dash into sex, drugs and jazz into something that speaks volumes about the intelligence and emotions of the young man at its center. The result is a book that shines light on difficult years of Malcolm X’s life where he lost himself and then the tremendous results of having returned and found himself again.
There is such emotion here on the page. Malcolm’s heart shows in each interaction he has, each moment of losing himself that he manages to find. It is a road map of hope for those who are lost to these moments in their lives that you can return and be better than ever. It also shows the humanity behind the historical figure, the real boy behind the legend.
Powerful, gritty and honest, this novel expands what young readers know about Malcolm X and offers hope for those in their own crisis. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Candlewick Press and Netgalley.
Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Raul Colon
This picture book biography looks at the life of Leontyne Price, an African-American opera singer who burst through the color barrier. Born in Mississippi in 1927, Leontyne grew up poor in money but rich in music from both her parents. They also taught her that she was just as good as anyone else, no matter what their color. Leontyne was inspired when she saw Marian Anderson perform and then got to sing in the church choir when Anderson performed in 1939 after being barred from a whites-only concert hall. Leontyne headed to Ohio to college where she planned to be a teacher, but when her voice was discovered she changed her major to voice. She then went to Julliard and on to the world stage where she sang on Broadway in Porgy and Bess. She became the first black singer to star at La Scala and broke wide the door that Marian Anderson had first opened.
Weatherford writes in prose that reads like poetry, broken into stanzas and offering celebrations of this inspiring woman on the page. From the pride and power of her upbringing by her parents to the final pages that show how far she has come, the book captures the strength and determination that it took to take a natural gift and break down barriers with it. Weatherford’s words are filled with moments that are inspiring, times that are amazing, but she also keeps things down to earth, showing even on the final page that Price is entirely human even as she reaches incredible heights in her career.
Colon’s illustrations are beautiful. Filled with his trademark scratches and lines, they have a beautiful flowing texture that carries from one image to the next. He uses sweeping colors to show the beauty of the music coming from both Price and Anderson, filling the world with the colors of music.
A beautiful and powerful testament to one of the ground breaking artists of our time. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.