Northbound by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein

Cover image for Northbound

Northbound by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein, illustrated by James E. Ransome (9780763696504)

Michael has always stopped work to watch the trains go by the farm he lives on with his grandparents in Alabama. Then one day he gets his dream and takes a train trip north with his grandmother to Ohio to visit cousins. Though Michael has caught sight of a boy his age on the train, he isn’t allowed to go into the car where the boy is riding, because it’s closed to Black people. As the train leaves Atlanta, the “Whites Only” sign on the door is taken down and now Michael is allowed to enter the car. The two boys quickly start to play together and explore the train. They discover they have all sorts of things in common. But when the train reaches Chattanooga, Tennessee, Michael has to return to his own car and the sign goes up again. Luckily, his new friend knows it is fair and shares a final drawing of all people riding in the same train car together.

In a book that starts with the wonder of trains and the joy of a train ride, this picture book shows the impact of arbitrary race laws throughout the United States in the early 1960s. While consistent racism in Alabama is an everyday occurrence for Michael, it is the on-again, off-again rules that will catch readers’ attention as well as that of the train passengers. It clearly demonstrates the differences in the way racism impacts lives in different parts of our country, speaking clearly to today’s issues as well as that of our past.

The art by Ransome is a grand mix of train travel with tunnels, bridges and cities together with a diverse group of passengers and staff on the train. There is a sense of frustration and limits in the illustrations with the closed doors and signs that is replaced with a joyous freedom as the two boys explore the train together.

A critical look at our shared civil rights history and a call for us to do better. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick

The ABCs of Black History by Rio Cortez

Cover image of The ABCs of Black History

The ABCs of Black History by Rio Cortez, illustrated by Lauren Semmer (9781523507498)

Offer even the smallest children a look at Black history in the United States with this alphabet book. Told in rhyming stanzas, this picture book invites exploration beyond its covers. It begins with A is for anthem, a call for voices to rise in song and to call for freedom. B is for beautiful, with that and other letters, the book speaks to the importance of not listening to voices that put you down. B is also for bright, bold, brave, brotherhood and believing. That use of multiple words continues through the book, offering a feeling that there is so much to say with each letter, so much to do, so much left to accomplish together.

This alphabet book is several things at once. It’s a call to action for people of all ages to vote, to protest, to be heard. It is also a look at history, so there are letters that focus on artists, writers, teachers, scientists, and more. It is also a statement for self-esteem for Black children, to see themselves as valued, beautiful and able to bring change. It’s a book about how much has been accomplished, but also how much is yet to be done. The end of the book is filled with additional information on the people depicted under each letter as well as resources for further exploration.

The art is filled with bright colors. The images are flat, hearkening back to folk art even as it looks forward to the future and change happening. The art is filled with Black people, unknown and famous, full of urban setting and farms, protest signs and portaits.

A colorful and optimistic look at Black history and a call for Black lives to matter in the future. Appropriate for ages 3-7.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Workman Publishing

All Because You Matter by Tami Charles

Cover image for All Because You Matter

All Because You Matter by Tami Charles, illustrated by Bryan Collier (9781338574852)

This picture book tells Black and brown children that they matter. They were dreamed of by their ancestors. Stars sprayed the sky on the day they were born. Their first steps matter, their first words, and the first time a book opened as a mirror for them to see themselves. The book speaks to how at times you may question your place in the world, like when people laugh at your name or when you see the news about racial injustice and Black people being killed. But that does not change the power and beauty within you that comes from the sun, oceans, mountains and stars. Because not only do Black Lives Matter, but each Black and brown child does too.

This one is on lots of Best of the Year lists for 2020, and yet it somehow snuck right past me. The words by Charles are incredibly powerful, tying children of color directly to their ancestors, to the stars in the sky, to the social justice movements happening right now. Charles doesn’t dip into history, instead staying current and calling out the existing injustices and how they impact children. This book grounds children, showing they matter and that Black people matter, period.

Collier’s illustrations are phenomenal. He mixes paintings with collage to create images that are alight with hope and possibility. He weaves Black hands, Black faces together into one image after another that is arresting and visually stunning. These are powerful images to match the text, insisting on being seen.

One of the best of the year. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

Loretta Little Looks Back by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Cover image of Loretta Little Looks Back

Loretta Little Looks Back by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (9780316536776)

This novel offers first-person monologues from three generations of a Black family from Mississippi. They are a sharecropper family, caught in the aftermath of slavery and the cycle of poverty that resulted. Starting in 1927, Loretta tells the story of growing up picking cotton on land her family did not own. Her loving father died from exposure to the pesticides they sprayed in the fields. He gave her sapphire socks made with his own hands and she placed her other most valuable possession inside them, a marble that glowed like the sun. Loretta found Roly left outside as an infant. He grew into a boy who had a way with plants and animals. When the family got their own plot of land, they were attacked at night by someone who brutalized their animals, killing most of them, and poisoned their land. Roly slept out in the fields, hoping to draw the poison out and return the land to fertility. Then he caught the eye of Tess, a girl who he eventually married and had a daughter with. Aggie was that daughter, a girl who would not back down, much as her father would not make a hasty decision. Aggie fought for the right to vote even when she was not old enough to. She and Loretta worked together to pass the racist voting test and then to pay the toll tax. Beaten by police, Aggie finds comfort in the sapphire socks and the glow of the marble passed down to her. Just like the others in her family, she never stopped and never gave up.

Told in three distinct voices that speak directly to the reader, this novel takes a direct look at the systemic racism that has created such privilege for some and injustice for others. The use of monologues is brilliant, as the voices come through to the reader with real clarity, each speaking from their personal experience and from history. There is a sense of theater to the entire novel, helped by the introduction to each chapter that give stage directions and offers a visualization of how this would appear on stage. Often these are haunting images, transformative and full of magical realism.

The three characters are marvelously individual, each with their own approach to life, each facing daunting challenges and each ready to take those on, though in their own way. It is telling that as each new generation entered to become the new main narrator, I felt a sense of loss as the other moved off stage, since each was such a compelling character and each had more to share. I was pleased to see they stayed as part of one another’s stories all the way to the end of the novel.

Incredible writing, important civil right history, and a brilliant cast of characters make this novel glow. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges

Cover image for This Is Your Time

This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges (9780593378526)

At age six, Ruby Bridges was the first Black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. She had to be escorted to school by federal marshals, leading to iconic photographs of her small size and the screaming, threatening crowds. In this book for children, Bridges tells the story of her harrowing time attending school, how she was taught in a classroom all by herself with a teacher who made her feel safe and loved, and how it felt to be that little girl. Filled with historical photographs, the book shows and explains the battle for desegregation across the country and also the modern fights for equity, inclusion and antiracism.

This is one of those books that gives chills. It is a profoundly moving read as Bridges shares photos that demonstrate the intensity of the battle, the danger she was in, and the bravery that it took her and her family to take such a public stand for change. As Bridges moves into talking about modern youth and their battles, she maintains the same tone, challenging all of us to join us in the fight for civil rights and social justice.

The photographs and the iconic Norman Rockwell picture add a deep resonance to this book, taking Bridges’ beautifully written words and elevating them. The photo selection is done for the most impact, at times mixing modern and historical photographs together to show how little has changed but also how important the fight is.

One of the most important books of the year, this brings history and future together in one cry for justice. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Children’s Books.

Black Lives Matter Books for Kids and Teens

Here are some great books that speak to the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, the righteous anger we are seeing on the streets, America’s long history of racism, and voices that have always been worth investing in and listening to:

PICTURE BOOKS

Big Papa and the Time Machine by Daniel Bernstrom

Big Papa and the Time Machine by Daniel Bernstrom, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Black Is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy

Black Is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Box Henry Brown Makes Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Michele Wood

Exquisite The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera

Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry

Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison

I Remember Poems and Pictures of Heritage compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins

I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins

i too am america

I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier

Lillians Right to Vote by Jonah Winter

Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

seeds of freedom

Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama by Hester Bass, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

we march

We March by Shane W. Evans

MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS

brown girl dreaming

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

lions of little rock

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson

Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson

this promise of change by jo ann allen boyce and debbie levy

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel, John Parra, and Meilo So

TEEN BOOKS

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico 

Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic HIstory of Women’s Fight for Their Rights by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

march

March: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (and the entire trilogy)

Slay by Brittney Morris

Slay by Brittney Morris

x

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights by Beth Anderson

Lizzie Demands a Seat Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights by Beth Anderson

Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights by Beth Anderson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (9781629799391)

In 1854, Lizzie Jennings boarded a streetcar in New York City. In that time, there was segregation on public transportation which was a custom not a law. Certain cars were marked for “colored people” and others were for white people who could allow people of color to ride, or not. So Lizzie didn’t know if she would be allowed to ride the car she boarded. No passengers disputed her right to ride, but the conductor did. He forced her off the car and when she argued and boarded again, the police were called. Lizzie was educated as a teacher and her family had fought for their civil rights, so she decided to fight back in court and sued the streetcar company. She even had a white passenger who offered to be a witness to the way she was treated that day. In the end, Jennings won a landmark case for civil rights in public transportation. It didn’t fix every streetcar in New York right away, but led to other people fighting for their rights to ride too. 

Anderson takes one of the first legal victories against segregation and creates a dynamic look at a critical moment in our national history. This little-known event, particularly compared to Rosa Parks, helps set the stage for the civil rights movement that followed. Lizzie also breaks stereotypes of African Americans on her time period with her level of education and wealth. 

The illustrations are done in watercolor with amazing backgrounds that illuminate the scenes with their inspiring colors. Lizzie and her battle are surrounded by swirls of peach, lavenders, pinks and blues with her at the center, calm and composed. 

A stirring picture book that captures early civil rights efforts. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: A Ride to Remember by Sharon Langley

A Ride to Remember by Sharon Langley

A Ride to Remember by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (9781419736858)

Back in the 1960’s, African-Americans were not allowed to enter the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore. They were not allowed to sit on the grass, share treats or ride on the carousel. As the world around them began to change and become less segregated, Gwynn Oak continued its policies. They became the center of protests where hundreds were arrested. A mother and child who were African American and light skinned covertly entered the park and were allowed to enjoy themselves for hours. They shared their story with the press. As the pressure built, the park’s owners agreed to allow everyone into the park and to drop any charges from the protests. The first day the park was open was August 28, 1963. That day, a little girl named Sharon Langley, was the first African-American to ride the carousel with her father holding onto her. A photo of the ride made the papers as did the other major news story of the day, when Martin Luther King, Jr. made his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. The carousel was moved to Washington, D. C. where Sharon took a ride on the fiftieth anniversary of her first ride in Baltimore.

The authors make a point of framing the tumultuous 1960’s for young readers. They have a child ask questions about why African-Americans were not allowed to enter the park. This is such an important moment in the book, giving modern children a lens into the inherent societal racism of the time, racism that is not erased in our modern society either, of course. They then turn to the protests about the park, showing the bravery of the people who protested, who went to jail, and who insisted on staying overnight to make a point. The body of the book does a great job offering historical perspective as well as details about the protests and efforts to desegregate the park. More information is also shared in the final pages, including more details of the events in the book, a bibliography and a timeline.

Cooper’s art is done with a lush softness to the lines. He used oil erasure on illustration board to capture an almost sepia-toned historical feel. The faces he shows of the people involved are tremendously moving, showing that this was about people insisting on change.

In a single story, children will deeply understand what the civil rights struggle was about. Appropriate for ages 5-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.

Review: Clean Getaway by Nic Stone

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone (9781984892973)

In her first middle grade novel, Stone takes readers on a trip across the southern United States in an RV. Scoob’s spring break has been ruined by getting in trouble at school until his grandmother shows up in her new RV and offers to take him on a road trip. The two of them travel together, retracing the trip that Scoob’s grandmother and grandfather took together. The two of them had big plans, but were unable to visit many of the sights because of their interracial relationship, segregation and general prejudice and racism. Scoob has never met his grandfather who died in prison after being convicted of being a jewel thief. On their trip together, Scoob begins to notice that his grandmother’s memory is slipping, that sometimes she doesn’t know who he is, and that she just might be pocketing some gems herself! She is also switching the license plates on the Winnebago and not answering her phone. When Scoob sees himself on the news as being kidnapped, he knows that everything has gone wrong once again in his spring break plans. 

Stone’s skill as a writer really shows in this shorter format. She writes with a deep empathy for both grandchild and grandmother, giving them both a real humanity. Her book offers insight into Civil Rights history and looks specifically at racism towards interracial marriages and families. But it is the history of this family itself that makes the book special. Laced with guilt, memories and anger, the story is unique but also universal, though it likely has more sparkle than most family tales. 

Stone writes with a great sense of humor as well that will appeal to middle grade readers. There is a little mystery at play too, both about his grandmother’s role in the thefts but also about how Scoob got himself into trouble. The book sets a brisk pace, unlike the Winnebago itself. 

A modern look at social justice history, race and families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Random House Children’s Books.