Posted in Intermediate, Non-Fiction, picture books

The Midnight Teacher’s bravery

Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School, by Janet Halfmann/Illustrated by London Ladd, (Feb. 2018, Lee and Low), $18.95, ISBN: 9781620141632

Recommended for readers 7-11

Lilly Ann Granderson was born a slave, taught to read by her master’s children, who played school with her. As she grew up, she practiced her spelling and reading in secret – in some areas, it was against the law to teach slaves to read – and eventually began teaching other slaves. She was determined to teach as many of her people as she could, to give them the chance at freedom made possible through education, and began a midnight school where slaves would gather after dark to learn, risking cruel punishment if they were discovered. Eventually, Lilly Ann won the right to start a school and a Sabbath church school, where she could teach her students with no fear of repercussion.

This picture book biography looks at the life of an overlooked champion for literacy and social justice and makes an excellent addition to biography collections. Lilly Ann Granderson’s determination and perseverance; her desire to to learn and promote learning among others is an important and, sadly, relevant topic today. Talk about how education leads to freedom, and mention that education is not always a right, even today. Malala Yousafzai’s picture book biography, For the Right to Learn, illustrates this and is a good companion to Midnight Teacher.

The artwork is realistic and subdued, made with acrylic paint and colored pencil; London Ladd gives character and expression to his characters, particularly Lilly Ann Granderson, whose determination and inner strength shine through. An afterword provides an overview of Granderson’s life and those of her descendants, who went on to become activists, had life in public service, and found professional success. A nice bibliography has more resources for interested readers, caregivers, and educators. Midnight Teacher has a starred review from Kirkus and is a must-add to collections where picture book biographies are available.

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Posted in Intermediate, Non-Fiction, picture books

Black History Month: Trailblazer – The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson

Trailblazer – The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, by Leda Schubert/Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, (Jan. 2018, little bee books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781499805925

Recommended for ages 6-9

Born in New York City in 1935, Raven Wilkinson was a little girl who fell in love with ballet and grew up to become the first African American ballerina to tour with a major American touring troupe. She faced racism at every turn; she auditioned three times for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo before they finally accepted her into the touring company. When they toured the American South in the 1950s, she faced adversity from hotels who wouldn’t allow her to stay, fearing repercussions from the Ku Klux Klan; ignorance in the form of racists running onto the stage to protest the “nigra in the company”; and dining in hotels where families left their Klan sheets in a pile in the back while they ate dinner together. She persisted, even when she was passed over time and again for the starring role in Swan Lake, finally achieving the spot in 1967 with the Dutch National Ballet of Holland. She later joined the New York City Opera, dancing until she was 50. She’s inspired countless dancers, including Misty Copeland, who became the first African American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater in 2015 AND danced in Swan Lake. Copeland has said of Raven Wilkinson, “She was a mentor in my life before I met her.”

This is a lovely look at Raven Wilkinson’s life and career, especially relevant in our racially charged society – the more things change, the more things stay the same, it would sadly seem. When Raven eats dinner in a hotel surrounded by families who leave their Klan sheets strewn across seats while they eat, it’s horrifying because it normalizes hate. The indignity of Raven Wilkinson having to endure this indignity is like a gut punch to an older reader, and we need to use that nausea, that anger, that outright disgust, as a teaching opportunity to de-normalize this for younger readers. The illustrations are soft, almost comic book-like, while retaining a realistic quality, that will appeal to younger readers.

This is a beautifully illustrated picture book biography of an African American pioneer few people may be familiar with. Let’s change that. If you ask kids to name African American role models, you’ll likely hear the big names, but let’s make MORE big names. Let’s put books like Trailblazer in our displays, showing kids that there are pioneers everywhere. Neil Degrasse Tyson, Mae Jemison, and Katherine Johnson? Heck yes, get them in front of kids. STEM and the sciences are important. And let’s show them Trailblazer and Firebird; Radiant Child and When Marian Sang, DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop and Muddy to remind readers everywhere that there are pioneers in the arts, too. Children need to see inspiration everywhere, and that there are advocates in every walk of life.

This 2015 video features Raven Wilkinson and Misty Copeland when Dance/USA, the national association for professional dance, recognized Raven Wilkinson, the 2015 Dance/USA Trustees Awardee, at the Dance/USA Annual Conference in Miami on June 17, 2015.

Leda Schubert’s most recent picture book biography, Listen, was about singer and activist Pete Seeger. Her website offers more information about her books, including downloadable activity guides and discussion questions. Illustrator Theodore Taylor III is a Coretta Scott King John Steptoe New Talent Award Winner. See more of his artwork and learn about his other books at his website.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Black Panther: The Young Prince: Middle Grade superhero fiction!

Black Panther: The Young Prince, by Ronald L. Smith, (Jan. 2018, Disney Book Group), $16.99, ISBN: 9781484787649

Recommended for readers 10-13

YES. A middle grade novel about an African superhero, written by a Coretta Scott King Award-winning author? ALL THE YES, PLEASE. Ronald L. Smith brings T’Challa to life with this first novel, where we meet the not-quite-yet Black Panther and his best friend, M’Baku, in their homeland, Wakanda. Ulysses Klaue (Marvel fans, heads up for continuity!) has shown up in Wakanda, and T’Chaka, current King of Wakanda and Black Panther, knows that’s never a good sign. He sends his son and M’Baku off to Chicago and safety while Wakanda braces for an invasion. T’Challa wants to keep his head down and blend in, but M’Baku couldn’t want anything less. The opportunity presents itself in the form of local middle school tough guy Gemini Jones and his gang, the Skulls. Kids whisper that Gemini’s a warlock, but that doesn’t stop M’Baku from falling in with Gemini and turning a cold shoulder to T’Challa. If middle school squabbling were the only problem, right? But nope, things are about to go south in a big wayl; luckily for T’Challa, his father packed a Black Panther suit for his son… just in case of emergencies.

This novel is SO GOOD. It’s unputdownable, whether you’re a superhero/Marvel fan or not. Ronald L. Smith brings his talent for creating interesting characters and conflict, plus his gift for writing about magic, and gives life to one of Marvel’s most exciting characters.

Yes, I’m a Black Panther fan. Yes, I’m thrilled about the movie coming out. And yes, this book is fantastic and deserves its spot on every middle grade/middle schooler’s library shelf. Representation counts, and by giving an African superhero his own novel, written by an award-winning African American novelist, Disney has shown readers their commitment to diversity and #ownvoices. I’m thrilled with The Young Prince, and want to read more. Maybe next, we can get a story about the Dora Milaje? How about a Shuri mention? (She’s Black Panther’s sister, in the comics.) Indulge me!

Posted in Graphic Novels, History

Two families find common ground during the Civil Rights era: The Silence of Our Friends

The Silence of Our Friends, by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos/Illustrated by Nate Powell, (Jan. 2018, First Second), $9.99, ISBN: 9781250164988

Recommended for readers 12+

Originally published in 2012, The Silence of Our Friends is getting a re-release next week.Set in 1968 Texas, The Silence of Our Friends tells the story of two families – a black family and a white family – who come together as the civil rights struggle comes to a boil. It’s a memoir of Mark Long’s childhood in a virulently racist Texan suburb; it’s the story of his journalist father, Jack, and his friendship with African-American professor at Texas Southern University professor, Larry Thompson; and it’s the story of a lesser-known event in civil rights history: a series of student protests at Texas Southern University, culminating in police brutality and shots fired at unarmed African-American students in a university dorm. Those same students were imprisoned and put on trial for the death of a police officer who was killed by a fellow officer’s misfire.

The Silence of Our Friends is taken from the Martin Luther King quote, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” It’s a powerful quote given powerful illustration in Long’s story. Jack Long is a journalist trying to do the right thing, but his racist boss wants a pro-white narrative in the press. Jack’s silence can kill.

Artist Nate Powell, who beautifully illustrated John Lewis’ March trilogy, creates strong, stark images here, using black and white artwork to create imposing shadows and menacing crowds and idyllic homes with tension thrumming throughout. The Silence of Our Friends is an ally’s story and a good additional title in civil rights collections.

Posted in Intermediate

Nina introduces a new generation to Nina Simone

Nina: Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone, by Alice Brière-Haquet/Illustrated by Bruno Liance, (Dec. 2017, Charlesbridge), $16.99, ISBN: 9781580898270

Recommended for readers 6-10

She is a legend in music and civil rights history. Author Alice Brière-Haquet and illustrator Bruno Liance introduce Nina Simone to new audiences with this beautifully written and illustrated book. Written as a story to Simone’s daughter, who’s having trouble falling asleep, Alice Brière-Haquet weaves a tale of achievement in the face of racism, using stunning imagery: the 52 white teeth “trapping” the 36 black teeth in the keyboard, and the white keys being whole notes while the black keys are half notes: “White was whole. Black was half. It was that way everywhere and for everyone.” Music was made by “important men in powdered wigs from past centuries”. Simone recalls her anger during a recital, when her mother was expected to give up her seat in the front, to white people who came to see her play; Simone refused to play until her mother resumed her rightful spot in the front row. She speaks of Martin Luther King, and his dream being her symphony – but the dream is fragile.

This book is gorgeous. The words are beautiful and strong, and using piano keys as an illustration of endemic racism is simply brilliant. Bruno Liance’s black and white illustrations are soft, dreamlike, beautiful. This spread is my absolute favorite; I’d love to give this print as a baby shower gift.

“Dream, my baby, dream, until you spread your wings…” (from Bruno Liance’s website)

Do kids know who Nina Simone is? Probably not, unless their parents are fans. Does that matter? Absolutely not – this is a gorgeous introduction to Nina Simone, and to activism, for all ages. This book is going on my shelves, in my storytimes, and in displays for social conscience, activism, and African-American history. If you’re so inclined, you can play Simone’s lullaby, “Hush Little Baby“, in your storytime or for your little one.

Nina was originally published in France in 2015. You can find more of Bruno Liance’s artwork at his (French/English) website, Pirate des Caramels, and you can follow Alice Brière-Haquet at her (French) blog, Alice in Wonderblog. Nina has starred reviews from Foreword Reviews and Booklist.

Posted in History, Middle Grade, Non-Fiction, Non-fiction, Tween Reads

Black History Month: Shackles from the Deep, by Michael Cottman

shackles-from-the-deepShackles from the Deep: Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship, a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy, by Michael Cottman, (Jan. 2017, National Geographic Society), $17.99, ISBN: 9781426326639

Recommended for ages 10-13

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Cottman investigates the wreck of a 17-century slave ship, the Henrietta Marie, and goes on a journey that will take him from the Caribbean islands, where the Henrietta Marie docked to unload hundreds of kidnapped Africans to be sold into slavery, to Africa, to see Goree Island – location of the Maison des Esclaves; House of the Slaves, and the Door of No Return; the last glimpse enslaved Africans would have of their homeland – with his own eyes.

Cottman’s journey is as personal as it is professional. He struggles with anger at the slavers themselves, and with the manufacturers of the shackles, discovered by African-American diver Captain Demostenes “Moe” Molinar, in 1972. Cottman discovers that many of the men behind the Henrietta Marie were members of their parishes, even philanthropists in their own communities, and yet turned a blind eye to the suffering of countless men, women, and children caught up in the slave trade. He wonders if the spouses and children of these men knew that their comfortable lifestyle came at the expense of human misery, and he agonizes as he tries to understand, and forgive.

Adapted for younger readers from Michael Cottman’s 1999 book, The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie, Shackles from the Deep introduces readers to the aftereffects of slavery, centuries later. Entire families have been lost to history; people feel unrooted, to some degree, to this day. Imagine wondering your ancestors endured the brutal conditions of slavery, and never being able to find out the answer? By personalizing his story, Michael Cottman makes this already important book vital reading for middle school students and above.

We are still dealing with the fallout from centuries of slavery. It is personal, and by adding his story to the story of the Henrietta Marie, Michael Cottman invites readers to look at events that may seem so long past through different eyes. What we also get, unexpectedly, is a call to action for young divers of color to continue exploring the waters of our planet to learn more about our collective past, and our future.

An important book for libraries and nonfiction collections, Shackles from the Deep has received a starred review from Booklist. There are four pages of full-color photos; an index, and further resources on deep-water exploration, shipwrecks, and slave ships.

The West Virginia Division of Culture and History has a comprehensive booklet on the Henrietta Marie, from their 2000 expedition at the West Virginia State Museum. It would be an excellent companion to any social studies unit on slavery and an accompaniment to Shackles From the Deep.

Posted in Preschool Reads

Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens is a beautiful biography for young readers

mahaliaMahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens, by Nina Nolan/illus. by John Holyfield (2015, Amistad/HarperCollins),$17.99, ISBN: 978-0-06-087944-0

Recommended for ages 6-10

Mahalia Jackson had a voice that could make the world stop. I’m only familiar with her through my mom’s records and Ms. Jackson’s enduring performance as a choir soloist in the movie Imitation of Life, but once you’ve heard her sing, her voice is with you forever.

Walking with Kings and Queens is Mahalia’s story, from her New Orleans childhood to her performance at the March on Washington. It’s a story of determination and endurance, of her faith, and her talent. Orphaned at a young age, she lived with her aunts, forced to drop in and out of school as other duties made themselves known. She always had her singing, though. As a child, it made her feel like a peacock, spreading his feathers, and as she grew, it was a source of strength and comfort to her. She drove to churches that would pay her to sing, and was finally noticed by someone from Decca Records. From there, her gospel was heard far and wide. Her aunt once told her she would “walk with kings and queens” one day, but she never counted on being a queen herself – the queen of gospel.

This book is gorgeous, with beautiful acrylic paintings bringing out the true joy that singing brought Mahalia Jackson. Her face is always tilted upward, illustrating her relationship with God and her music, a beatific smile lighting up her face. The story emphasizes Mahalia’s determination not only to keep singing, but her determination to continue her education. There are positive messages to be found through this whole story, and I’m hoping it finds a place on library and classroom shelves to introduce a new generation of listeners to Mahalia Jackson and her amazing voice.