The point of Black History Month is to hear the stories that we often don’t hear in the mainstream narrative. Unfortunately, Black History Month is often an occasion for trotting out the same people year after year, people that children quickly tire of. More than a couple of kids have asked me if we’re going to “read about that peanut guy this year.” So while George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, and the rest of the typical roster are all important figures who made significant contributions, I think changing our approach would make for a more valuable observation of Black History Month.
If our larger purpose is to tell stories that are often overlooked or erased, to shed light on injustice, and identify the changes we need to make in order to establish a more just world, then let’s start selecting stories that reflect the daily lived experience of “regular” people and not just an All-Star cast of distant historical figures to whom children don’t really relate.
Storytelling, as I may have mentioned a time or 83, is a powerful way to convey moral lessons. I’ve selected books that I think can open a dialogue about:
- the ways and reasons we exclude people
- the ways and reasons we label some groups of people as less-than “real” people with less than fully human rights
- the effects of discrimination and oppression on both marginalized groups and society as a whole
Wind Flyers by Angela Johnson
A little boy tells the story of his idolized and adored uncle, who served as one of the Tuskegee Airmen. We see the reminiscences, the boy and his uncle revisiting his days as an airman, and sharing the experience of flying. The reader can feel the thrill of going up in a plane among the clouds, and feel the green Alabama ground, warmed by the sun.
An author’s note in the back gives historical information on the Tuskegee Airmen, which would make a great jumping off point for a study of the history of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Underground by Shane E. Evans
This depiction of slaves escaping along the Underground Railroad uses only a few words to describe the movement of black Americans from slavery to freedom. There is no more than one sentence per page, and the reader’s eye is drawn to the illustrations which tell the story by expertly conveying mood and feeling.
If your audience knows nothing about slavery and the Underground Railroad, you might have to fill in the gaps a bit, but that’s actually part of why I like this book. It doesn’t sugarcoat the reality; we learn that escaping slaves were frightened and that “some didn’t make it,” but younger readers won’t be exposed to information that is too mature for them.
Freedom on the Menu by Carole Boston Weatherford
Connie lives in Greensboro, NC during the famous 1960 lunch counter sit-ins. She witnesses the young men who first refuse to get up from their seats, and then watches as her older siblings take part in protests. Though she is too young to tag along, her parents allow her to watch the protests on television with them. Connie’s sister is even arrested and jailed for her activism. Throughout, the reader sees the sacrifices that were made on behalf of equality. Big sacrifices, like jail time, and small sacrifices like Connie’s family shopping from the Sears catalog instead of downtown stores. The illustrations are beautiful paintings, many of which are worth of few minutes of study on their own.
Sister Anne’s Hands by Marybeth Lorbiecki
Anna is a young white girl living in a small town during the early 1960s. Her new second grade teacher is Sister Anne. Sister Anne is the only black nun at Anna’s school, where the pupils are all white as well. Sister Anne is an engaging and fun teacher, and her second graders are learning a lot and having fun doing so. That is, until someone sends a paper airplane with a cruel note soaring through the air and into Sister’s desk.
Sister forgives the offender, and takes the opportunity to teach the children about the hateful ways black people have been treated, both in distant and recent history. Her gentle love and devotion to her students make an impression on young Anna. Even though her time with Sister Anne is brief, Sister Anne teaches her lessons about love, mercy, and receptiveness that stay with her for the rest of her life.
A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson
Two young girls slip out of their house early one morning to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak and to march with him. The sisters experience the leadership and passion of Dr. King, the feeling of marching with a group to achieve a greater purpose, and the shock of counter-protestors who shout ugly words at them. I love the human faces depicted in the realistic black-and-white pencil drawings, and the way that children are included as a part of the movement for equality and freedom.
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles
I saved my favorite for last. This sounds absurd, I know, but I actually had tears in my eyes the first time I read this one. John Henry and Joe are best friends. John Henry is black, and his mother works for Joe’s family, who are white. When the Civil Rights Act passes, the boys are ecstatic to be able to finally swim together at the public pool, where John Henry has previously been forbidden from entry. But when they arrive, city workers are filling the pool with asphalt, deeming it better to destroy the pool than to integrate. Joe is a good friend and tells John Henry he didn’t want to swim in the pool anyway, and suggests that they go back to the old creek where they’ve always swum together.
But John Henry isn’t consoled. “I did. I wanted to swim in this pool. I want to do everything you can do,” he says.
This is precisely what I mean when I say a story can convey a truth that no amount of lectures and statistics and fact-pointing-out can.
Young Joe (and I) get to swim in the pool, both literally in the case of this story and more figuratively in terms of the bigger picture. Yes, we can do the right thing, be a good friend, and join our friends who cannot elsewhere, but that doesn’t remove the sting and loss of being kept from the pool.
(This is also precisely why I say quality picture books are for everyone, not just little ones.)
I’d love to hear any recommendations you have for good Black History Month reads, for children or adults!
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