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

fannie-lou-hamer

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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3 ways to introduce teenagers to activist Grace Lee Boggs #GraceLeeTaughtMe

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

“Voices from the March on Washington” and social justice poetry in the classroom

Voices from the March on Washington

After reading “Voices from the March on Washington” by George Ella Lyon and J. Patrick Lewis last month, I knew I’d need to read it again. Now I wish I had a classroom full of kids to read it with.

Why?

Because when I looked for more information on the book, I found this blog post on Sylvia Vardell’s “Poetry for Children” blog. The post consists of excerpts from a magazine article that Vardell, an author and professor, wrote for teachers and librarians aiming to integrate social justice and poetry lessons. She addresses the topic broadly and then does deeper dive on “Voices from the March on Washington.” The 2014 book is a novel-in-verse featuring the voices of six recurring fictional characters, as well as other nonrecurring characters and historical figures.

Vardell’s post is full of fabulous discussion questions and activity ideas for teachers, and many could be adapted by parents. Here are two of my favorites:

  • “Invite students to find news articles that address a social justice issue and encourage them to create ‘black out’ poems by drawing through all unwanted words in their news articles with a thick, black marker, so that the remaining words create a ‘justice’ poem.”
  • Perform “Voices from the March on Washington” in readers theater style with individuals students taking on a character. “Hearing actual voices reading can assist in discussing the title of the book and the concept of ‘voice’ in poetry,” writes Vardell. “Whose point of view is represented? Why is it important to be heard? How are the concepts of justice and voice linked?”

Heck, maybe I don’t even need a classroom of kids for those activities. I’d be happy to do them with a group of friends. But Vardell’s ideas are great for getting children thinking and talking about social justice issues past and present through
a creative medium. Her post also includes some interview questions with Lyons and Lewis (the authors of “Voices”) and a plethora of related book titles. Go check it out.

3 Children’s Books to Read After You’ve Seen ‘Selma’

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights marchers’ arrival on the steps of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. If you haven’t yet seen the movie “Selma,” about struggle for African-Americans’ voting rights, you should. If you have seen it, here are three books to read with your kids (or for yourself!) next.

1. “John Lewis in the Lead,” written by Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson, illustrated by Benny Andrews

This picture book biography provides more detail on the life of one of the main characters in “Selma”: John Lewis, a 25-year-old organizer who went on to become a U.S. Congressman representing Georgia. When watching “Selma,” it wasn’t apparent to me that Lewis had been at the lead of a range of other nonviolent resistance actions before stepping onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This book is a good introduction to those other events in the Civil Rights Movement. The narrative is unfortunately written rather passively, but I liked seeing illustrations by Benny Andrews, an African-American artist about whom another picture book bio was recently published.

John Lewis in the Lead

2. “March” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

I mentioned “March: Book One” in my February diverse reading post. I haven’t read  Book Two. Both are graphic novels, also about the life of John Lewis, but for older kids and adults. Book One covers Lewis’ youth, his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his involvement in Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins. Book Two focuses on his involvement in the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the March on Washington. There is supposed to be a third volume in what will then be the “March” trilogy, and I’m guessing it’ll feature the march from Selma to Montgomery.

March! Book one March Book Two

3. “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” by Lynda Blackmon Lowery as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley

This middle grade book tells us, in first person about the experiences of the youngest participant in the Selma march. The drama of the movie “Selma” is all about the attempts to march, but in Blackmon Lowery’s narrative we get to see details of the march itself, like where they slept and what they did when it rained. I was impressed that the voice sounded like a teenage version of the author, although she is of course far from that age now. I also liked getting to read about her impressions of some of the other participants, like Viola Liuzzo, an activist housewife who was shot by the Ku Klux Klan shortly after the march.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom

Your turn: What are your favorite books about the Civil Rights Movement and its many participants?