Tag Archive: African-Americans


my three best friends and me Zulay

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

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

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.

love is the drug

Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The author of The Summer Prince returns with another wild ride of a book.   Emily attends a prestigious prep school in Washington, DC.  Her parents have raised her not to ask questions and to show respect at all times.  She has her entire life under control: she’s part of the top group of girls at school, she has the ideal boyfriend, and she’s headed for Stanford in the fall, one of the small ways in which she is defying her mother.  But when she meets Roosevelt, a government agent, at a party, her entire life changes.  She wakes up days later with missing memories of that night, knowing only that her boyfriend helped get her into a car, took her away from the party, and that another boy, Coffee, desperately tried to stop them.  Meanwhile, the entire United States is caught in a viral disaster with many people dying.  Even Emily’s parents are trapped on the other side of the quarantine.  Now Emily is left to put the pieces of her memory back together and figure out the truth of why the government is interested in a high school senior.

Johnson writes with an elegant looseness here, along for the ride of the story arc with the reader.  There is a lot going on here, from budding romances to breakups to government agents to worldwide plagues to harsh parenting.  Yet somehow, amazingly, it holds together into a book that is an astonishing pleasure to read.  Well suited to the world of teens caught in a viral outbreak, the free flowing nature of this novel allows those teens space to breath, moments to connect, and a fairly rule-free environment to explore.

This is not a mystery where the pieces click together at the end into a satisfying result.  Rather it is an exploration of a theme with one great protagonist at the center, a girl who struggles with female friendship, refuses to fall in love with the boy she clearly connects with, and who battles her mother’s control even from afar.  Emily reinvents herself in this new world she finds herself in, and that is the story and the point.  This is a refreshing read that defies the expectations of dystopian fiction and creates something new.

A dystopian fantasy with an African-American heroine, this teen novel will appeal greatly to some readers who enjoy a lively, loose and wild read.  Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

brown girl dreaming

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Told in verse, this is Woodson’s memoir of her childhood.  Woodson shows the different influences in her life, from both South Carolina and New York City.  There is the richness of southern life, from the heat to the food to the family.  But it is not all sweetness as Woodson shows her family fracturing as she is raised by her grandparents for some of her childhood.  She also shows the racism and discrimination clearly on the page, never flinching in her powerful verse.  When Woodson and her siblings move to New York to live once again with their mother, the dynamic changes and the flavor is urban as the Civil Rights Movement becomes a focus in her life.  Taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, this book captures a time of change in the United States and is also a compelling look at what forces build a writer.

Woodson’s poetry is a gorgeous and lush mix of powerful voice and strong memory.  Her writing is readable and understandable even by young audiences, but it also has depth.  There are larger issues being spoken about as Woodson tells about her own childhood and family.  There are universal truths being explored, as this book is as honest as can be, often raw and unhealed too.  It is a book that begs to be read, shared and then reread.

One of the things I always look for in a novel in verse is whether the poems stand on their own as well as how they combine into a full novel.  Woodson manages to create poems that are lyrical and lovely, that stand strongly about a subject and could be read alone.  As a collection, the poems are even stronger, carrying the story of family and iron strength even more powerfully.

Rich, moving and powerful, this is one of the best novels in verse available for children.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin.

zane and the hurricane

Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick

Zane lives in New Hampshire with his mother and is sent to visit his newly discovered great grandmother in New Orleans.  Unfortunately, he is there when Katrina hits.  Headed out of the city with his grandmother’s pastor in their church van, Zane is safe until his little dog, Bandit jumps out of the open window because some larger dogs in another vehicle are barking at him.  Zane goes after him, walking for miles until he catches him.  Realizing he’s closer to his grandmother’s house than the vehicle, he heads back there.  Then the storm comes.  Zane is in a house that is leaking, the flood waters start to rise, and he climbs with Bandit up into the attic.  From there he is rescued by an older musician wearing a wild looking hat and a young girl.  As chaos descends on the city, Zane finds that all of the rules change but that it is human kindness that makes all the difference.

Philbrick has crafted a very well-written book about Katrina.  He melds the details of the storm and its aftermath in New Orleans into the narrative, allowing it to form the backbone of the story.  At the same time, this is Zane’s specific story, one of luck and bravery.  The flooded city becomes the foundation of the tale, those happy to take advantage of the situation appear and the support of police is nearly nonexistent. 

Philbrick’s story is very readable, the storm offering a structure to the book that readers will feel approaching in an inevitable and inescapable way.  The beginning of the book is rife with dread and fear, knowing what is going to happen.  That fear never lets up even after the storm has passed.  Zane is a strong and resourceful character, one who is forced to trust others and their generosity. Race plays an important role in the book, from Zane’s mixed race to his two African-American companions after the flood. 

This is definitely a story of Katrina, but it is even more a survival story of a boy and his dog.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Blue Sky Press.

all different now

All Different Now: Juneteenth the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Celebrate the beauty of freedom in this book dedicated to Juneteenth.  Told from the point of view of a young girl, the story is about the first Juneteenth, the day that freedom was first announced for the last of the slaves in the South.  Living in shacks on a plantation in Texas, the day is just another day for the girl and her family and the rest of the slaves.  They worked hard in the hot sun, not knowing that word of their freedom was steadily heading their way.  Then the news arrived and people reacted in different ways, but quickly they pulled their things together and left the plantation behind for freedom.  Now June 19th is celebrated as African American Emancipation Day across the United States.  It’s a joy to have such a beautiful picture book to give to children to explain Juneteenth and why it means so much.

Johnson manages somehow to show slavery in all of its bone-grinding hard work and lack of freedom but also infuse it with moments of beauty, like waking to the scent of honeysuckle.  Her words are poetry on the page, spare and important, speaking volumes in only a few phrases.  The book ends with a timeline of important events and a glossary of relevant terms, making this a very useful book as well as lovely.

Lewis’ illustrations are beautiful.  He plays with light and dark on the page, allowing the light of the hot Texas day to fill the tiny shack but also making sure that the barrenness is evident and the poverty.  The book is filled with light, the sky burned to a pale yellow.  Until darkness which has a richness and endlessness that is sumptuous.  There is such hope on these pages, almost achingly so, particularly as freedom is announced and they turn their faces to a new future.

Beautiful and timely, this book will be welcome in library collections across the country as one of the only picture books about this holiday.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

crossover

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Josh Bell is a 13-year-old basketball star along with his twin brother Jordan.  They are the sons of Chuck “Da Man” Bell, who used to play European ball.  Now their father plays only with them, helping them learn the tricks of being a great ball handler.  Josh also has a beat, a rhythm that he patters when he plays, creating rap riffs as he runs on the court.  As he tells his story in verse, he also reveals more than just playing ball, he shows how he and his brother are becoming strong young men.  It just may be though that the strongest man that they know has some weaknesses of his own, ones that come at a huge toll. 

Can I just say how important this book is?  It is a verse novel, A VERSE NOVEL, for pre-teens that is about young African-American boys who are being reared by two involved parents in a middle-class home.  This book takes stereotypes and turns them on their heads.  Then you have the incredible verse by Alexander, capturing the rhythm of basketball and also the beat of an entire family.  The writing is so strong, so vibrant that the book can’t be put down. 

Josh is a great character as is his entire family.  None of them are stereotypes and both boys are different and yet similar to one another too.  They both struggle with playing the best, meeting girls, living up to their parents’ expectations, and discovering the truth about their father.  This is a coming-of-age story, but one that is dynamic and fresh.

Perfect for sports fans, this verse novel will surprise with its rap feel and its incredible depth.  Simply spectacular.  Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

The very talented father and son, Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers have both written separate pieces in the New York Times on the need for more children’s books to be written featuring children and people of color.  Both pieces are powerful and vital.

Walter Dean Myers writes of his own complex relationship with books and then his own role as a writer:

When I was doing research for my book “Monster,” I approached a white lawyer doing pro bono work in the courts defending poor clients. I said that it must be difficult to get witnesses to court to testify on behalf of an inner-city client, and he replied that getting witnesses was not as difficult as it sometimes appeared on television. “The trouble,” he said, “is to humanize my clients in the eyes of a jury. To make them think of this defendant as a human being and not just one of ‘them.’ ”

I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.

Christopher Myers writes so poetically of the children we are not supporting and instead are abandoning:

We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.

My hope is that their voices are heard, that we move beyond platitudes to true inclusion of people and children of all sorts of diversity.  In the meantime, I will do my small part of selecting books for my community that show the rainbow of diversity that we serve and also blogging here and featuring books about diverse people.  We can make a change!

how i discovered poetry

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson

A celebrated poet and author of books for children and teens, Nelson tells the story of growing up in the Civil Rights era and her connection to poetry.  In fifty poems, several of which have been previously published, Nelson reveals her growing up from age 4 through 14 during the 1950s and 1960s.  The poems show her progression from child to a self-aware teen who is directly impacted by the changes in civil rights.  Nelson also touches on the Cold War and feminism along with race in these poems.  Each poem here is a gem, carefully crafted and firmly placed in its setting in the book.  Beautiful.

In her author’s note, Nelson mentions that she prefers not to see the character in the book as herself but rather as “The Speaker.”  The first person perspective though will leave readers assuming that this is Nelson’s personal story and journey and it’s difficult to change that perception after reading the entire book.  Perhaps even more than the historical period it is The Speaker’s love of poetry and writing that makes the connection to Nelson as that person ring so true.  It is that love of poetry and words that makes each poem so beautiful, but also makes the narrator come alive.

Beautiful and worth rereading and revisiting, this collection of poems that forms a story is deep and worth submerging yourself in.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.

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