Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: Kidlit about Black Music History

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.
Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown SoundRhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound by Andrea Davis Pinkney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: From award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney comes the story of the music that defined a generation and a movement that changed the world. Berry Gordy began Motown in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. He converted the garage of a residential house into a studio and recruited teenagers from the neighborhood-like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross-to sing for his new label. Meanwhile, the country was on the brink of a cultural revolution, and one of the most powerful agents of change in the following decade would be this group of young black performers from urban Detroit.

My thoughts: I love Motown music and relished reading some of the stories behind the voices, instruments and business behind the sound. With great archival photos and much more text than could finished in a read-aloud, “Rhythm Ride” feels somewhere between a book and a documentary. But does that mean it’s dry and boring? Not in the least, because it’s narrated by “the groove,” and she talks as smooth and sweet as she should.
The frequent plays-on-words can be a little much at times but otherwise the conceit works wonderfully. Would we expect anything less from Andrea Davis Pinkney?

Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence MillsHarlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: From acclaimed author Renee Watson and Caldecott Honor winner Christian Robinson comes the true story of Florence Mills. Born to parents who were former-slaves Florence knew early on that she loved to sing. And that people really responded to her sweet, bird-like voice. Her dancing and singing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired songs and even entire plays! Yet with all this success, she knew firsthand how bigotry shaped her world. And when she was offered the role of a lifetime from Ziegfeld himself, she chose to support all-black musicals instead.

Trombone ShortyTrombone Shorty by Troy Andrews

Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Hailing from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. A prodigy, he was leading his own band by age six, and today this Grammy-nominated artist headlines the legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Along with esteemed illustrator Bryan Collier, Andrews has created a lively picture book autobiography about how he followed his dream of becoming a musician, despite the odds, until he reached international stardom.

Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and QueensMahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens by Nina Nolan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Even as a young girl, Mahalia Jackson loved gospel music. Life was difficult for Mahalia growing up, but singing gospel always lifted her spirits and made her feel special. She soon realized that her powerful voice stirred everyone around her, and she wanted to share that with the world. Although she was met with hardships along the way, Mahalia never gave up on her dreams. Mahalia’s extraordinary journey eventually took her to the historic March on Washington, where she sang to thousands and inspired them to find their own voices.

My thoughts: What I love about “Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens” is the voice. It starts from the first two lines:
“People might say little Mahalia Jackson was born with nothing, but she had something all right. A voice that was bigger than she was.”
That conversational tone carries through Mahalia’s youth into her adult singing career:
“Mahalia kept driving on those may-blow tires: tires so bald, they may blow any minute. No money to fix them. Keep singing and driving.”
I can just hear one of Mahalia’s relatives or neighbors from down south telling the story, and it makes me feel like I’m sitting on their front porch listening.

Little Melba and Her Big TromboneLittle Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Melba Doretta Liston loved the sounds of music from as far back as she could remember. As a child, she daydreamed about beats and lyrics, and hummed along with the music from her family’s Majestic radio. At age seven, Melba fell in love with a big, shiny trombone, and soon taught herself to play the instrument. By the time she was a teenager, Melba’s extraordinary gift for music led her to the world of jazz. She joined a band led by trumpet player Gerald Wilson and toured the country. Overcoming obstacles of race and gender, Melba went on to become a famed trombone player and arranger, spinning rhythms, harmonies, and melodies into gorgeous songs for all the jazz greats of the twentieth century: Randy Weston, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Quincy Jones, to name just a few.

My thoughts: The artwork really drew me into Melba’s story. There’s something about the curving, bending stances of the people Morrison paints that so exquisitely matches the smooth notes of jazz, and I love it. The figures also mirror the shape of Melba’s trombone.

Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-And-White Jazz Band in HistoryBenny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black-And-White Jazz Band in History by Lesa Cline-Ransome

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: A stunning picture book celebrates the first widely seen integrated jazz performance: the debut of the Benny Goodman quartet with Teddy Wilson in 1936 Chicago.

My thoughts: In a unique approach to a picture book, this dual biography tells the parallel stories of Benny and Teddy developing their love and talents for music as children. As adults they meet and form an interracial swing band that draws fans through recordings but doesn’t perform live — until one day in Chicago in 1936.

Detailed back matter acknowledges that Benny Goodman had to be coaxed to perform onstage in an interracial trio because of fear for the impact on his individual career. Good fodder for a classroom or parent-child discussion of values and choices.

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Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: “Voice of Freedom” by Carole Boston Weatherford

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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.

I don’t make annual “best of” book lists because I don’t read enough new books to feel comfortable with such sweeping judgments. But if I did make those lists, titles from Carole Boston Weatherford would be on them every year.

Writes nonfiction and fiction, poetry and prose, she is both prolific and talented. And her book topics are usually right in my wheelhouse: telling stories of underappreciated historical figures and important moments of social change.

I previously extolled her picture books “Freedom in Congo Square” and “Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century,” but my favorite (among those I’ve read so far) is a biography of civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer. I bought it immediately after reading a library copy.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou HamerVoice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer by Carole Boston Weatherford
Publisher’s description: A stirring collection of poems and spirituals, accompanied by stunning collage illustrations, recollects the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a champion of equal voting rights.

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Despite fierce prejudice and abuse, even being beaten to within an inch of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. Integral to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Hamer gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that, despite President Johnson’s interference, aired on national TV news and spurred the nation to support the Freedom Democrats. Featuring luminous mixed-media art both vibrant and full of intricate detail, Singing for Freedom celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and legacy with an inspiring message of hope, determination, and strength.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my Goodreads reviews


For fellow writers: you can take master classes with Carole Boston Weatherford this spring in Maryland and North Carolina. I’m signed up for one of her workshops in April.

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Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: Step Right Up by Donna Janell Bowman

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 KindnessStep 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.

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge: Lift Your Light a Little Higher

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-ExplorerLift 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:

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2 Picture Books about … family and migration

Within the first few pages of reading “The Keeping Quilt” this morning I was thinking about “This is the Rope.” It’s impossible not to make the comparison.

Both books tells stories of family and love by following an object that is passed down over generations. And both hint at larger histories of human migration.

First published in 1988, Patricia Polacco’s “The Keeping Quilt” is at this point a classic among picture books and comes from the real quilt and story of Polacco’s family. Jacqueline Woodson’s “This is the Rope,” is a more recent fictional work that I believe will one day be a classic.

The Keeping QuiltThe Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sweet (and true) story about the transformation of a young immigrant’s babushka into a quilt that is used at meals, weddings, births and more. The book spans several generations of a Russian Jewish family in America. Though the theme is continuity and connection, the small changes that happen to traditions over time and with human migration form a backdrop to the text and illustrations. The charcoal drawings, in which only the quilt gets a pop of color, are as timeless as Polacco’s quilt itself.

This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great MigrationThis Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An intergenerational story of a family’s move from South Carolina to New York City. The narrative centers on a rope that is first used for skipping under a sweet-smelling pine in South Carolina, then for tying suitcases to the car, later for hanging laundry on a city block, and so on.
Jacqueline Woodson makes the historical context of the book clear in an author’s note describing the Great Migration:

From the early 1900s until the mid 1970s, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to northern cities. … We came for better jobs, better treatment, better education and better lives. … The rope we brought to this ‘new country’ was Hope.

The warm colors and soft focus of James Ransome’s oil illustrations evoke the familiarity of home, even as the characters move across states and neighborhoods.

View all my reviews

Nonfiction picture book Wednesday: Fearless Flyer and Queen of the Track

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Check out the Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday link-up at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Last week I discovered an author kindred spirit.

It started when I pulled “Fearless Flyer” off the new books shelf in the children’s section of the library. After reading the story of pilot Ruth Law’s attempt to fly from Chicago to New York in one day in 1916, I did what I always do at the end of a when a book rings my kidlit bells: I read the author bio. Continue reading

True stories of 3 diverse athletes and 1 female sportswriter | #IMWAYR 4/18/16

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“It’s Monday! What are you Reading?” is a meme hosted by Kathryn at The Book Date. as a way for bloggers to swap reading lists. Kellee and Jen, of Teach Mentor Texts, gave it a kidlit focus. Check out the links on their page to see what others are reading this week.

It finally turned springlike in recent days, with buds on trees, and kids returning to baseball diamonds and lacrosse fields.

Apropos of the change in season, I’ve read several great children’s books about athletes (and one sportswriter) recently. Here are my Goodreads reviews for those books.

Catching the Moon: The Story of a Young Girl's Baseball DreamCatching the Moon: The Story of a Young Girl’s Baseball Dream by Crystal Hubbard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This picture book is about Marcenia Lyle, a girl who loves baseball more than anything. We learn in the afterword that Marcenia was signed to the Negro League Indianapolis Clowns in 1953, making her the first female member of an all-male professional baseball team, but this story doesn’t get into Marcenia’s adult life. It focuses on one spring when Marcenia dreams of being accepted to a summer baseball day camp run by the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. That means not only showing off her skills to the man in charge, but also convincing her father to let her attend.

Crystal Hubbard’s choice to highlight one emblematic chapter of Marcenia Lyle’s childhood is a great way of introducing a lesser known athlete through a conflict that builds and that draws in young readers.

The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the GameThe William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game by Nancy Churnin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

William Hoy is a man worth knowing about. Plenty of details and events in here for all kinds of kids to relate to. Well written and well illustrated.

Continue reading

In Carole Boston Weatherford’s latest picture book, she shows slaves’ joy and hope without ignoring injustice

Freedom in Congo Square1

Here’s an antidote to recent months of outcry over pictures books featuring smiling slaves. In “Freedom in Congo Square,” author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator R. Gregory Christie show us the humanity of slaves in the American South without ignoring or accepting the inhumanity of how their white owners treated them.

This nonfiction book – written in verse – takes up the topic of Congo Square, an open field in New Orleans where slaves and free blacks gathered to play music, dance and share news on Sunday afternoons in the 1800s. A Louisiana law at the time set Sunday aside as a day of rest, even for slaves, Weatherford explains in her author’s note. By spotlighting this little-known piece of history, she and Christie present a picture of the joy and hope people can find amidst harrowing circumstances.

That’s something Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall said they were trying to do in “A Fine Dessert,” which drew controversy last fall. In one part of the book, an enslaved mother and daughter hide in a closet to lick the bowl after serving blackberry fool to their masters. The difference between that scene and “Freedom in Congo Square” is that the context and open acknowledgment of injustice is not absent in the latter. Continue reading

It’s Monday! What are you reading? #IMWAYR 2/8/16

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“It’s Monday! What are you Reading?” is a meme hosted by Kathryn at The Book Date. as a way for bloggers to swap reading lists. Kellee and Jen, of Teach Mentor Texts, gave it a kidlit focus. Check out the links on their page to see what others are reading this week.

On Saturday, I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform at the Kennedy Center in D.C. In anticipation of the show, I recently read a picture book biography of Ailey and another one about Robert Battle, the company’s current artistic director.

Here are my Goodreads reviews for those books.
Alvin AileyAlvin Ailey by Andrea Davis Pinkney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This basic bio of Alvin Ailey, who brought the spirit of African-American traditions to modern dance, would be good for a classroom unit in which students write reports on historical figures. The text is active and the scratchboard illustrations create the sense of motion and flow that ought to be in a dance-centered picture book.

View all my reviews

My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle's Journey to Alvin AileyMy Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey by Lesa Cline-Ransome
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of how a little boy wearing leg braces became a 13-year-old beginner dancer and eventually the artistic director for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. While it highlights Battle’s hard work, this picture book doesn’t leave out the guidance and support he received from family members and teachers, who are also part of his story and his dance.

Pairs well with “Alvin Ailey” by Andrea Davis Pinkney, “A Dance Like Starlight by “Kristy Dempsey,” and “Firebird” by Misty Copeland.

View all my reviews

Are your bookshelves ready for Black History Month?

America’s 40th Black History Month begins today. Here are several links to help you find relevant books to read with your children or students throughout the month.

  1. 28 Books that Affirm Black Boys and 20 Books that Affirm Black Girls: These two lists from Baby & Blog are a great starting point.
  2. 28 Days Later campaign: Throughout February, The Brown Book Shelf blog will feature guest posts and Q&As from authors and illustrators of color. The line-up looks fantastic!
  3. Top 100+ Recommended African American Children’s Books: Titles compiled by the African American Literature Book Club. This list could keep you busy till next February!