Today’s stack is mostly picture books (plus a handful of others) that are great reading for Black History Month—from the Queen of Soul to the First Lady, from a little kid to the oldest student, these are stories worth sharing.
Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment by Parker Curry & Jessica Curry, illustrated by Brittany Jackson
Two years ago, Parker Curry visited the National Portrait Gallery in DC and was awestruck by the portrait of Michelle Obama. A photo of her in front of the painting went viral, and she even got to meet the First Lady herself. (And, later that year, dressed as Michelle for Halloween.) Now, Parker and her mother Jessica share that story in this picture book about that day at the museum, and how seeing Michelle’s portrait opened Parker’s eyes to endless possibilities. It’s a striking (and adorable) reminder that representation matters: seeing people who look like you—on screen, in paintings, in books—helps you realize that the world is open to you, too.
A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
This picture book tells the story of the Gwynn Amusement Park in Baltimore, which was for whites only from the time it opened in 1894. In 1963, after many years of small protests, there was a massive turnout for two days of nonviolent protest, and more than four hundred people were arrested. The publicity from those arrests, which included religious leaders and even children, finally forced the park to desegregate. Sharon Langley was the first African American child to ride the carousel on the day that Gwynn Amusement Park was opened to Blacks, and she gets to share her tale here. The carousel has since been moved to Washington, DC, after the amusement park was destroyed by a storm, where kids of all colors can ride it now.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That’s something Aretha Franklin earned, and then some. Russell-Brown tells the story of Aretha’s career, from her first solo in church to her performance at Obama’s inauguration, with lots of stories in between, and Freeman’s illustrations depict her as a powerful, glamorous singer who deserves her title, the Queen of Soul. This is a book that needs a soundtrack to go with it, so queue up some songs while you read it!
Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Keith Mallett
Speaking of music, the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was composed in 1900 by two brothers, James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at an all-Black school in Jacksonville. The song was passed along from those students to their children, moved with them to new cities, and took on even more importance during the Civil Rights Movement. This picture book isn’t strictly non-fiction, but rather imagines one path that the song took through the generations, from the Johnsons all the way to today. It’s a message of hope and resistance, a song of survival, and it’s easy to see why it has had such a lasting influence. The endpapers of the book include the full lyrics, but it’s definitely worth looking up a performance of the song to share with your kids.
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora
Mary Walker was born in 1848, and as a slave, she was not allowed to learn to read. At age 15, she was given a Bible, but she wasn’t able to read it—and she never had the time to learn. She got married, had kids, worked as a sharecropper, and supported her family, listening to the Bible in church but never being able to read it herself. Eventually, she outlived her husband and her sons, who used to read to her. And that’s when she joined a reading class in her building, and learned to read.
It’s a remarkable story, not just because Mary Walker was celebrated as “the nation’s oldest student,” but because her life spanned such enormous shifts and changes in the world. The author’s note mentions that her Bible waited for 101 years before she was finally able to read it for herself! As Mary put it, “You’re never too old to learn.” Amen to that!
This is the third book in Harrison’s book series, after Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World. The book includes 35 Black men who made history, with a single page about each one, paired with an illustration in Vashti’s cute style. There are familiar names like Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong, and even Prince, but there are also names that were new to me: Bass Reeves, one of the first Black deputy US marshals; Ousmane Sembène, the father of African cinema; Eddie Mabo, an activist who challenged the Australian government for property rights for islanders. The back of the book includes an additional list of men with a few details about each one, and a reading list for further exploration.
This book is a collection of poems inspired by the #SayHerName campaign from the African American Policy Forum, raising awareness of Black women affected by police brutality and violence. In the poems, Elliott celebrates, mourns, rages, and reflects on what it means to be a Black woman today. The verses are painful at times, but powerful.
Big Black: Stand at Attica written by Frank “Big Black” Smith and Jared Reinmuth, illustrated by Améziane
I’ll wrap up today with this one, a graphic novel based on a prison uprising and subsequent massacre in 1971. I didn’t know about this story at all, but Frank Smith was one of the surviving prisoners. According to the introduction, after his release from prison, Smith became an early intervention drug counselor for addicted youth, and somehow remained optimistic and generous despite his mistreatment by the state. This book tells the story of the four-day event, and raises important questions about prisons and policing today.