Books that open eyes and hearts

I’m on the library’s hold list for 28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World (Charles Smith, Shane Evans), and I’m hoping it will give me a new avenue to highlight the history of social change with younger kids. It’s timed perfectly to coincide with Black History Month (also called African-American History Month) in February –28 days of new ways to think about the African-American experience.

One of my recent “book lady” booklists focused on rights and freedoms, so I have already been thinking about what’s available that goes beyond the biographies of the most well-known African-Americans.* Reading others’ stories can be a powerful way to open discussions about race with kids. Connecting with realistic fictional characters and true stories of regular people makes the discussion more lively and meaningful.

*Background information — When I did outreach work with kids and February came around, they’d often mention how they always seemed to talk about the same people at school, which sort of dulled their interest in the topic overall. So I see the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver and Ruby Bridges as starting points for a larger discussion. Different stories can bring the topic alive again for kids who feel like they already know enough.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 (Christopher Paul Curtis) and Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven are good places to start. They take you to a different time and place, and they have strong narrators with a sense of humor. These stories include uncomfortable parts of our shared past, and open up many ways to begin a conversation about what has changed and whether or not we have come very far in the time since.

I see The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 as a classic, but a lot of younger kids have not read it yet nor heard of Christopher Paul Curtis, who is an amazing person and author. His recent book, The Madman of Piney Woods, is another great read about friendship and history and limitations.   Rita Williams-Garcia will release Gone Crazy in Alabama, a companion novel to One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven in April 2015 — I can’t wait!

But back to the original topic…

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, a biography in verse, just won the National Book Award and is simply brilliant. She condenses everyday and life-changing experiences into a page or two of verse at a time, a technique which makes the story accessible even to readers who struggle with long passages, yet still captures the emotions perfectly. The story seems to bounce around at first, but eventually pieces together many parts of her life in such a fluid way that the harsh moments stop you cold. The pieces create a picture of a girl’s life, complicated and simple and predictable and surprising and beautiful.

The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement (Teri Kanefield) mixes photos, interviews and social history to tell the true story of Barbara Johns and her classmates in Farmville, Virginia, who stood up and demanded more after years of promises for better schools and better education.   It’s an excellent example of the power a few people can have to change the community around them.

Courage Has No Color: the True Story of the Triple Nickels (Tanya Stone) and The Port Chicago 50 (Steve Sheinkin) came across my desk at around the same time. They document the discrimination African-American men faced in the U.S. military by explaining the history of African-Americans in the military and then telling the stories of individuals, including some who were punished severely for speaking out and standing up. Both include great pictures and clear accounts with details that make the stories real.

Running Out of Night (Sharon Lovejoy) and Brotherhood (A.B. Westrick) tackle the historical treatment of African-Americans from a different angle. Both have white characters living in the South around the time of the Civil War. Lark and Shadrach come to realize that African-Americans are not what they have been taught to believe, realizations which threaten their closest relationships. The stories are very different – Running Out of Night is about a nameless young girl fleeing an abusive home life with an escaped slave, and Brotherhood is about a boy who learns to read from a freed slave and has brothers in the forerunner of the Ku Klux Klan. However, both highlight the issues of prejudice and education in a way that allows for a lot of discussion about beliefs and choices.

What did I miss? Leave a comment. I’m always looking for new things to add to my stack!

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