Each Wednesday in February, I am highlighting great nonfiction picture books about African-Americans. These posts are my way of marking Black History Month and also part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge organized by Alyson Beecher.
Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Publisher’s description: A biography of William “Doc” Key, a formerly enslaved man and self-trained veterinarian who taught his horse, Jim, to read, write, and do math, and who together with Jim became a famous traveling performance act and proponent for the humane treatment of animals around the turn of the twentieth century.
My thoughts: Have you ever thought horses are just as smart as humans? This picture book tells the story of a remarkable man, William “Doc” Key and his educated horse, Jim Key, who traveled the country as one of the most popular shows in America. Touching on issues of slavery, segregation and animal cruelty, it is a great addition to historical collections of classrooms and children’s libraries. It would also make a great movie.
Bonus: lots of interesting extra information in the back matter.
View all my reviews
“Step Right Up” is also this month’s books in Lisa Rose’s Missing Voice Picture Book discussion group.
To celebrate Black History Month, I will highlight one or more great nonfiction children’s books about African-Americans every Wednesday.
These posts will also be part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted at Kid Lit Frenzy. Check out what nonfiction picture books others are blogging about this week here.
Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Publisher’s description: Grab your lantern and follow the remarkable and world-famous Mammoth Cave explorer—and slave—Stephen Bishop as he guides you through the world’s largest cave system in this remarkable homage to the resilience of human nature.
My review: I heard about Stephen Bishop, slave explorer/guide, during my visit to Mammoth Cave in 2014, and I’m so glad someone has written a children’s book about him. Not just that, I’m glad that Heather Henson in particular wrote a children’s book about him. Picture book biographies often follow a similar narrative pattern, but this one charts its own path. That’s likely driven by the limited historical records about Stephen Bishop, but Henson combined known info and thoughtful imaginings elegantly. In first person narration, Stephen guides the reader through his story just as he guided thousands of visitors through Mammoth Cave. The tour is as much a lesson on historiography as history, starting with the first passage:
“The past is like a cave sometimes. Dim and dusty, and full of twisting ways. Not an easy thing to journey down. ‘Specially when you’re searching out a path that’s hardly been lit, a trail that’s never been smooth or flat or plain to follow.”
It’s also honest about the time Stephen lived in:
“Why? Is that what you want to know? Why is it against the law to teach me my letters?
Because I am a slave. Because am the property of a white man. Because I am bought and sold, same as an ox or a mule; bought and sold, along with the land I work.”
The silhouetted faces cut and pasted like a wave over a water color ox remind me of imagery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the cramped, dark place full of bodies that the titular character disjointedly recalls). OK that makes is sound a little intense for a children’s book, but Bryan Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations are actually perfect, lending both a seriousness and intimacy to Stephen’s tale. This book is not a story of jubilant triumph over the odds, but one of quiet power in unjust circumstances.
Bryan Collier is one of my very favorite illustrators. Some of his other books I’ve loved include:
You know that phrase “I can’t even” that’s been floating around the past few years?
That’s how I feel about discussing this year’s election.
But when it comes to voting, I can.
And I will.
In the meantime, I’ll be distracting myself with these wonderful picture books about the women who made my vote possible. Let me know in the comments if you have favorites not listed here. In particular, I’d like to find a strong contemporary picture book about Sojourner Truth.
1. Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles by Mara Rockliff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book has it all! A cross-country road trip, activism for women’s suffrage, great female friendship, and a kitten.
By introducing readers to Nell Richardson and Alice Burke’s 1916 adventure, Mara Rockliff and Hadley Hooper show children that many people were part of a long journey to getting women the vote.
The text and illustrations work together to capture Alice and Nell’s verve and zeal. You’ll have the refrain “Votes for women!” running through your head well after setting the book down.
2. I Could Do That!: Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote by Linda Arms White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Well before women won the vote across the U.S., women in Wyoming had a say in their state government. This story shows how Esther Morris helped make that happen with a can-do spirit and a bit of tea time cleverness.
This biography covers the span of Morris’s compelling life. I’d love to see a picture book that focuses in more on how women in Wyoming got the vote and who else was involved. Continue reading
Grace Lee Boggs, a longtime civil and labor rights activist, died last week at age 100. I knew Grace’s name before but I didn’t know anything about her life or work, so I’ve been reading about her in the last few days.
I haven’t found any children’s books about her! That’s a hole that needs to be filled. But many of the resources geared toward adults could also be read/viewed by young adults, so here’s a list of three ways to introduce teenagers to Grace Lee Boggs. Continue reading
Yesterday I reviewed “Rad American Women A-Z,” an alphabet book written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl. Today I’m sharing a video interview I did with Kate last weekend. I enjoyed hearing how she chose the women and also how kids have reacted to the book so far. Hope you enjoy it, too!
I’m linking up with Alyson Beecher’s Nonfiction Picture Book challenge today. Find more great nonfiction picture books on her post and other bloggers’ links.
I’m sure it’s no accident that “Rad American Women A-Z” came out at the start of Women’s History Month. Written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, this alphabet book introduces readers to American heroes from political activist Angela Davis to anthropologist/writer Zora Neale Hurston, with a truly diverse collection of women in between. The opening offers a broad definition for the term “rad” in the title:
What does it mean to be “rad”? Well, it means a few things. “Rad” is short for “radical,” which comes from the Latin word meaning “from the root.” So a radical person can be someone like Ella Baker, who did grassroots organizing. A radical can be a person who wants to make big changes in society, like Angela Davis and the Grimke sisters, who fought to end discrimination of all kinds. Radical can also be used to describe something that is different from the usual, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial or Ursula LeGuin’s innovative science fiction. “Rad” is also a slang word that means “cool” or “awesome.” Like when flashy Flo-Jo ran faster than any woman in the world, or when Patti Smith takes the stage to rock out.
Each rad lady gets a one-page biography, complemented by a cut-paper portrait in bold colors. Some of the names, like Billie Jean King, were familiar to me, but lots were new, too, such as Jovita Idar, who fought for free, bilingual education on the Texas/Mexico border in the early 20th century.
Ella Baker and Yuri Kochiyama. Miriam Klein Stahl’s cut-paper illustrations from “Rad American Women A-Z.”
Something I love how Schatz tackles the ever-difficult “X” page: “It’s for the women we haven’t learned about yet, and the women whose stories we will never read.” It’s true that there are many women throughout history whose stories we’ve missed, but “Rad American Women A-Z” has 25 worth learning. Get yourself a copy and pass it on! (It’s currently only available through City Lights Books, the publisher.) And be sure to check back tomorrow, when I’ll post a video interview I did with the book’s author, Kate Schatz.
Mahalia Jackson and Melba Liston had a number of things in common. One was their love of music. Another was their talent.
Mahalia sang gospel. Melba played trombone. Both stood up for the rights and dignity of African-Americans.
These exceptional women are celebrated in the books, “Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens,” written by Nina Nolan and illustrated by John Holyfield (2015), and “Little Melba and Her Big Trombone,” written by Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustrated by Frank Morrison (2014).
Roses at her feet and tears in her eyes, Leontyne bowed. She glimpsed the spotlight casting a shadow. She knew that shadow was not just hers, but her parents’, teachers’, and Marian’s. Back in Laurel, Mississippi, songs of pride filled many a heart. The folks there were bowing, too.
That’s an excerpt from the nonfiction picture book, “Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century” by Carole Boston Weatherford, published last month by Alfred A. Knopf.
Born in 1927, Leontyne Price was a pioneering black opera singer. But she wasn’t the first, nor were her achievements reached without support along the way. This story makes that clear, through passages like the one above and repeated references to standing on Marian Anderson’s shoulders.
Those acknowledgements don’t distract from the book’s overall focus on Price’s talent, though, and I appreciate the balance.
I often read/hear in advice for writing children’s books that stories need to be laser-focused on the main character and how he/she overcomes the problem in the story. I agree that simplicity can be key in reaching younger audiences, but I also know that most successful people will be the first to tell you they couldn’t have done it on their own. (Think of all those “thank you” speeches the stars gave at last night’s Oscars!)
You know how a lot of people have been binge-watching TV shows like “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix? Well, I’ve been binge-reading books by Shana Corey.
That’s because she writes about “old-time gals with gumption.”
Who doesn’t love an old-time gal with gumption?
Okay, maybe kids who love truck books and the like, but the description applies to many of my beloved children’s book characters, like Anne Shirley. Continue reading