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:
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
That was fast.
In my weekend link round-up, I noted that a new picture book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, was drawing criticism for its cheerful portrayal of Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved cook. Scholastic, which published the title on Jan. 5, announced later on Sunday that it was halting the book’s distribution.
Here’s the full Associated Press story on the decision.
The criticisms of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” are similar to those leveled at “A Fine Dessert” last fall, but while author Emily Jenkins apologized for that book’s portrayal of slavery, Random House is still selling it.
I’ve been reading/listening to some interesting debates and discussions on social issues in children’s books and toys lately. Here are a few links worth checking out.
1. Missing in action figures
Without seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” I’ve heard enough about to know that the main protagonist, Rey, is female. So I was surprised to hear about her absence from most of the film’s merchandise. The Brood, a parenting podcast/radio show, dives into the details, reactions and corporate explanations.
2. More smiling slaves making desserts, more controversy
You may have heard about the backlash a few months ago over the portrayal of slaves in “A Fine Dessert.” Now a new picture book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” is receiving similar scrutiny.
3. ALA’s Youth Media awards are here, and so are some ugly reactions
The Caldecott, the Newbery and all the other annual Youth Media Awards from the American Library Association were announced Monday. I was happy to see many great books I read last year in the mix, including a good number with diverse characters and authors. Apparently not everyone was as pleased. The Reading While White blog rebuts some commenters’ claims that committees must have been kowtowing to PC-ness. The short post ends in a perfect way, by using the beautiful last line from Newbery winner “Last Stop on Market Street.”