Black history is, of course, an elemental part of American history. For kids of every color, the new books of Black History Month are an exciting introduction to some of the deepest agonies and glories of the American story.
Right at the top of the treasure heap is Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Hamilton is a majestic presence in children’s literature, and Many Thousand Gone is a stirring history of slavery, in the form of short biographies of slaves and their allies who resisted however they could. Hamilton includes such well-known people as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, as well as the remarkable but less famous, like Henry Box Brown, who mailed himself to freedom in a wooden crate.
Hamilton, herself the granddaughter of an escaped slave, narrates these stories of courage and poignancy with restraint and an infallible ear for spine-tingling details. The Dillons’ black-and-white illustrations are equally powerful in their dignity and depth of feeling.
Geared to younger children, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James Ransome , is an inspiring story about escaping from slavery. Quick-witted Clara, a slave who sews for the Big House, pieces together the scraps of information she overhears about the Underground Railroad and patches them into a quilt that serves as a secret map. After Clara’s escape to the North, the quilt helps other slaves find their way to freedom. Ransome’s expressive full-page paintings avoid the horror of slavery and focus instead on the affection, yearning, and intelligence of the book’s appealing characters.
In Bury My Bones But Keep My Words, African tales retold by Tony Fairman and illustrated by Meshack Asare, you can almost hear the chirping of tree frogs and feel the velvety darkness of an African night as a teasing grandmother mesmerizes listeners with tales told around the fire. Fairman makes the storytelling tradition sparkle with humor by using contemporary language (not a breath of quaintness here) and by leavening each gripping tale with songs, sound effects, and the banter between the grandmother and her avid listeners.
Hot southern colors sizzle off the page in Gullah artist Jonathan Green’s illustrations for Father and Son, by Denize Lauture. The rhythmic, poetic text celebrates without sentimentality the intimacy between a father and a young son, ”The heart of one/Reaching out to/The heart of the other.” As boy and man fly a kite, row a boat, or sing in church, the poet evokes both the sensual joys of childhood play and the unquestioned love that binds parent and child.
For older readers, the indispensable biography of the month is Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, by four-time Coretta Scott King Award winner Walter Dean Myers. Myers does a forthright job of explaining the evolution of Malcolm’s character and thought by setting him in his historic context. For non-African-American readers, this book is likely to be a revelation of how racism can blast hopes — and shape political activism. Similarly, Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories, by Ellen Levine contains 30 fresh, heartbreaking first-person accounts by those who, as children and teens, were involved in the civil rights movement. Many Thousand Gone: A+ Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt: A Bury My Bones But Keep My Words: A Father and Son: A Malcolm X: A- Freedom’s Children: A