An enticing assortment of picture books with themes from African American history was published in 2015. Included here are some books I received from Bobbie Combs of We Love Children’s Books and Highlights Foundation, who shared her advance reader copies with me, and some I discovered at local libraries. I began writing this post as a look back on the year that had just ended. But each of the books held fascinating information that led me to further research. So I’m a few months late, but better educated. I’m amazed at how much I learned from these picture books! They are discussed in historical order. Please assume authors and illustrators are African American unless otherwise noted.
My Name is Truth by Ann Turner, illustrated by James Ransome
Ann Turner (who is not African American) retells the life story of the remarkable feminist, abolitionist, and inspirational speaker who began life as Isabella Baumfree (1797-1883), but who is better known by her taken name, Sojourner Truth. My Name Is Truth doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of life for enslaved African Americans. Being sold from one master to another, overworked, beaten, having family members sold, and ultimately escaping in fear with her baby while abandoning three older children—these details are all included honestly in a narrative that is not beyond the understanding of children. The story is told in first person, and the front jacket flap says that it is “written in the fiery and eloquent voice of Sojourner Truth herself.” I wasn’t clear what words of the text were taken from quotations—perhaps those in italics or bold print. (The author’s note cites some references and suggests books for further reading.) Sojourner’s first language was Dutch, and the famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, was actually recorded inaccurately by an audience member, 12 years after hearing it, and not reflective of the way Sojourner Truth spoke. Certainly, the language in the book is beautiful, and James Ransome’s lucid watercolor paintings match it to complete the story.
Ira’s Shakespeare Dream by Glenda Armand; illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Ira’s Shakespeare Dream introduces a figure from African American history that most children will not be familiar with—Ira Frederick Aldridge, considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his time. Born to free black parents in New York City in 1807, Ira grew more and more fascinated by theater. Against his father’s wishes, at age seventeen he left the United States to pursue a career in England and Europe that was overwhelmingly successful. Ira Aldridge was also an abolitionist, and spoke out against slavery to his audiences. Glenda Armand tells his story by choosing just the right details to appeal to young readers. Famous quotations from William Shakespeare and more information about some of Shakespeare’s plays are seamlessly woven into the narrative. Floyd Cooper’s signature technique of oil wash on board, with kneaded erasers, results in an evocative, dream-like quality that is perfect for this story. Just as young Ira is inspired, on the first page, by Polonius’s famous line from Hamlet, “This above all—to thine own self be true…” Young readers of this book will infer the message to follow their own dreams. Glenda Armand also authored Love Twelve Miles Long, a 2013 historical fiction picture book about Frederick Douglass illustrated by Colin Bootman.
Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Quilting artist Harriet Powers (1837-1910) was born to enslaved parents near Athens Georgia and learned needlework from the women in her (enslaved) community. Barbara Herkert (who is not African American) uses poetic language to tell her story, augmented by small quilt patches on each page displaying additional factual information. The book follows Harriet through her youth, marriage, the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, her first five children, and the hard times of Reconstruction. Harriet Powers’s two remaining unique and now priceless story quilts hang in the Smithsonian and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Decidedly upbeat, bright and cheerful illustrations depicting Harriet’s youthful years may recall, for some adult readers, the recent controversy about a 2016 book, also illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and set during slavery (A Birthday Cake for George Washington, now recalled by Scholastic Press). In Sewing Stories, women are smiling as they get together, spin, and quilt, clearly taking pride in their work and enjoying each other’s company. Nobody is smiling while picking cotton. Readers may judge whether the background information on the harsh realities of slavery is sufficient to place the story in context. Personally, I’m glad that we are beginning to have stories set during that time period that don’t focus only on escaping or the Underground Railroad. Most people did not have the opportunity to escape; many found other ways to be heroic.
Harlem Renaissance Party, by Faith Ringgold (Author-Illustrator)
Although picture books exist about a number of individuals who were a part of the Harlem Renaissance, this may be the first book to present the whole era to contemporary readers. Since this is Faith Ringgold, the story begins with a bit of magic, as Lonnie and his Uncle Bates read a party invitation written in the sky, and catch a time-travel airplane back to New York City’s Harlem Renaissance. (Ringgold grew up in Harlem in the 1930s.)There they meet nearly two dozen notable figures from the time period (1920s through the 1930s), and visit famous places like the Schomberg Library and the Savoy Ballroom. Lonnie is inspired by W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes to become a writer, and inspired by everyone to be proud of himself and his people. This is a joyful, celebratory book that invites the reader to find out more. Rendered in acrylic paint on canvas paper in Ringgold’s vibrant style, the paintings will capture the attention of even very young readers. But this book would probably work best with older elementary or even middle school age children, and could probably serve as a syllabus for a semester-long course. There’s a lot of information here, and the book includes an extensive four page glossary and suggestions for further reading. Readers who are curious about Lonnie’s pale skin, red hair, and green eyes can revisit Faith Ringgold’s earlier picture books, Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House and Bon Jour Lonnie, to be reminded that he is one of us.
New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer, illustrated by Eric Velasquez
In a break from factual non-fiction, I’m including New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer (who is not African American) and illustrated by Eric Velasquez (who identifies his heritage as Afro-Puerto Rican). As Meyer points out in her author’s note, “Ella Mae is a fictional character. But the discrimination that she faces was very real.” Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte have fun window shopping for shoes in the 1950s south. But Ella Mae is humiliated when she actually goes into the shoe store and she must wait until white customers are finished, the shopkeeper speaks disrespectfully to her mother and, worst of all, she is not allowed to try on the shoes before buying them. So Ella Mae and Charlotte (who had the same experience) come up with an ingenious plan. They do chores, scrub floors, pick vegetables and baby-sit, charging only a nickel—and a pair of old shoes. After some work cleaning, polishing and buffing the donated shoes, they are ready to open up a new business—a store where customers can try on all the shoes they want. The two delightful budding entrepreneuer/activists are depicted in Eric Velasquez’s wonderfully realistic oil color paintings that evoke the time period perfectly. Velasquez has illustrated many picture books on themes of African American history.
Love Will See You Through: Martin Luther King Junior’s Six Guiding Beliefs by Angela Farris Watkins, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
African American History is rarely discussed without a mention of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther. This blog post is no exception, as another picture book has been added to the many that already exist. Love Will See You Through covers the years 1955 through 1966 in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., but the focus here is not so much on his life as on his principles—values, strategies, and “Guiding Beliefs.” Angela Farris Watkins, PhD, the author, is Dr. King’s niece, and also an associate professor of psychology at Spelman College. It isn’t clear from the book whether King himself identified these six beliefs during his lifetime, or whether the author is doing that, looking back on her memories of him and studying his life. Nevertheless, they are sound concepts that children can explore living by:
- Have courage
- Love your enemies.
- Fight the problem, not the one who caused it.
- When innocent people are hurt, others are inspired to help.
- Resist violence of any kind.
- The universe honors love.
Each belief is amplified with brief examples from King’s life and teachings, and with striking illustrations by Sally Wern Comport (not African American) employing deep, rich, colors, with a larger than life quality. The numbered beliefs are painted across pages. Illustrations include jail bars, police officers, angry hecklers, and the aftermath of a firebomb, but no depictions of violence or attacks taking place. Angela Farris Watkins has written several other books about Dr. King.
The Case for Loving: The fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
The state of Virginia, where Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter lived, had upheld anti-miscegenation laws preventing whites from marrying any other race since 1691, longer than any other state. When Richard, who was white, and Mildred, whose heritage was African American and Rappahanock Native American, fell in love in Central Point, Virginia, they had to leave the state to get married (in 1958). After they returned home following the wedding, they were awakened by police in the middle of the night and arrested. The Lovings (yes, that was really their name) were released but, following court orders, moved out of state, to Washington D.C. There they added three children to the family, but wished to return to Virginia. The Supreme Court heard their case in 1967 and ruled in their favor, a landmark civil rights decision that impacted the whole country. The Lovings’ difficult story is sensitively told in language accessible to even very young readers. Selina Alko and Sean Qualls, themselves an interracial (white and black, respectively) married couple with children, worked together to create the mixed paint, collage, and colored pencil illustrations, spare like the text, but liberally sprinkled with hearts. Sean Qualls and Selina Alko also illustrated Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins (not African American), published in 2016.