On the Book Shelf: Black History Month

February 3, 2010

I’m sorry for abandoning my blog for a week! I was working on the most TERRIBLE transcribing project all weekend. Important life lesson: if you can’t really perform a given task in English, you will absolutely, positively, not be able to do it in Spanish.

I’m not done, but I decided to take a break from the horror of Express Scribe to honor the post-modern genius that is Black History Month. BHM was my exclusive curricular domain for two years, and a cause for much anticipation, planning and ransacking of the Teacher’s College library. Year one the theme was Harlem history, resulting in some of the greatest golden teaching moments of my career.  Year two my friends weren’t quite up to the previous year’s reading list so we switched over to African-American artists and musicians.

The good news about teaching Black History month is that all sorts of former Black Power folks ultimately became children’s book authors, so a beautifully written, exquisitely illustrated body of work is waiting for you on the shelves of an urban library near you.

The bad news is that it is near impossible to find picture books about Black women that are up to the standard of Martin’s Big Words or Dizzy. There are a few, some listed below, but I have misgivings about many of them, especially for younger friends. Also, the publishing industry is run by white people, who provide the capital for an endless number of mediocre paperbacks about MLK but don’t see Malcolm X as elementary school material. They are wrong. To my knowledge, there is only one picture book in print about Malcolm X (by Walter Dean Myers), which becomes a problem when one wants to avoid forcing a liberal integrationist narrative onto one’s second graders. Hence  my numero uno life goal: to write the Kindergarten-3rd grade Malcolm X picture book.

You may or may not be aware that February  is also Dominican History Month. Whoever had that brilliant idea was probably the same person who picked the shortest month of the year to honor 400 years of deeply complex, contradictory history. AND he obviously never taught in Upper Manhattan, where half the students are Black and the other half are Dominican.

What’s a teacher to do? Extend Black History Month through the third week of March, which totally kills Woman’s History Month but whatever, my ladies knew they were amazing.

Harlem by Walter Dean Myers. This poem-picture book is a little bit too advanced for most of the under-9 set, but would be perfect for 5th graders. My second graders were extra-special, so we read it too, but didn’t go in too deep or try to explain all the tricky words. Instead, we focused on how Walter Dean Myers (who is definitely at the head of the African-American children’s literature pack) used his senses to describe his community, and talked about the things we “see, taste, touch, hear and feel” in Harlem. Brilliant Social Studies tie-in.


Uptown by Bryan Collier. We used this book in our “urban community” unit, so I couldn’t reuse it for Black History Month. And it killed me, just killed me, because this book makes me a little teary it’s so beautiful.

Haga clic aquí para ampliar la imagen del libro Martins Big Words (The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Martin’s Big Words by Bryan Collier. If you are a teacher, you are likely to have read this one to your students two weeks before Black History Month rolls around, so it is unlikely to make the cut. But it is unquestionably the best of the MLK picture books, and deserves a nod.

Henry’s Freedom Box by Kadir Nelson. This is not a book to be taught lightly. It deals with slavery head-on, recounting the famous story of a slave who literally shipped himself to freedom. But it is brilliantly well done, resonating with the kind of emotional power that characterizes the very best children’s literature. I suspect it might work well for advanced, mature 3rd graders, but buy it for yourself regardless.

A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson. I wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole  in second-grade, but it is unquestionably a masterpiece of modern children’s literature. A heroic crown of sonnets – 15 linked poems- explore the brutal death of Emmett Till. Middle-school, this is all for you.

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan. I like this book. But I don’t love it. I LOVE Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride. When Marian Sang is probably a good book to teach segregation in historical context, but I still found it necessary to do a lot of explaining, which awkwardly interrupted my read-aloud. And there is almost no dialogue, a no-no in the era of Mo Willems. But it is still a beautifully illustrated and elegantly written book, and one of the few picture-book biographies focuses on Black  women. (Only Nikki Grimes’ Rosa has really made, deservedly but somewhat unsurprisingly, it into the “canon.”)

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Tree of Hope by Amy Littlesugar. This mini-masterpiece deals with the kind of world historical events most people wouldn’t assume children can handle: the Great Depression, Orson Welles, Haiti. And yes, even my especially brilliant second graders probably didn’t know what the WPA was after we finished. But after we discussed the challenges facing the heroine, a bright young girl in Harlem whose father acts in Orson Welles’ famous Harlem production of Macbeth, one of my all time favorite students observed that the mother was tired and frustrated, because she had to work to support the family while her father followed his dream of acting, and that it wasn’t fair. Connections successfully made between art and life.

Dizzy by Jonah Winter.  Filled with subtle humor and vivid language, Winter’s genius homage to the Jazz great reads like spoken word for children. We taught it with “Jazz art,” playing Gillespie’s best tunes and providing our students with paint and collage materials to interpret the sound visually. At the end of the year, one student wrote me a note: “Miss Holes, Thank you for reading us the Dizzy book.” Enough said.


Me and Uncle Romie by Claire Hartfield. If you, like me, want to cover all the art forms in your Black History Month unit, this is pretty much your only option on the visual art front.  At least until somebody writes the Gordon Parks picture book. But don’t get me wrong: this isn’t Tree of Hope or anything, but it’s certainly an educational way to pass the half-hour prior to your collage activity.  Hint: The Met has an absolutely fantastic Web site that explores one of Bearden’s most iconic works. http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/the_block/index_flash.html

Stitchin’ and Pullin’ A Gee’s Bend Quilt by Patricia McKissack. Skillfully weaving together the story of a quilt with the story of the community where it is made, Stitchin’ and Pullin’ is another beautiful book that is difficult to adapt to a lower-grade read aloud setting. I taught it last year by focusing on one poem, and trying to get my students to talk about how quilts can symbolize family and history. It didn’t quite work, but I am so thrilled that this book exists that  would happily try again.  The Patchwork Quilt, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, is another quilt picture book that focuses on an African-American family and would be worth teaching.

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold. Tar Beach is not exactly a Black History Month book, but it is heartbreaking, magical and absolutely necessary. In a recent interview with the NY Times, Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia, was asked if she had ever considered writing for adults. “When people say, ‘Don’t you want to write for adults?’ I think, why would I want to write a book that would be remaindered in six weeks?” she answered. “My books have gone on and on, and my readers, if they love the book, they will read it and reread it. I have the best readers in the world.” Tar Beach is one of those books that goes on and on.


One Response to “On the Book Shelf: Black History Month”

  1. J said

    And you always rocked that month turned six or seven weeks!

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