Kadir Nelson for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray)
“Most folks my age and complexion don’t speak much about the past,” begins the unnamed narrator of this graceful and personalized overview of African-American history. But this doesn’t stop her from telling the story in a sweeping account that succinctly covers history from the Colonial era to the present day. The aged woman tells of her own grandfather, who was captured in Africa at age six and illegally sold into slavery in 1850. From Pap’s story, we get a sense of what it was like to be a slave, a Union soldier, a sharecropper during Reconstruction, and a Buffalo soldier in Oklahoma; eventually he heads north to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. From there, the narrator takes over with a first-person narrative that includes the women’s suffrage movement, the Depression, World War II, and the civil rights movement, and ends with the pride she felt voting for President Obama. “As I cast my vote, I thought about my grandfather Pap, who didn’t live to see this moment, and my three children and two brothers, who did.” As in We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (rev. 5/08), Nelson effectively creates a voice that is at once singular and representative. Each page of text is accompanied by a magnificent oil painting, most of which are moving portraits—some of famous figures such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Joe Louis; others of unnamed African-Americans, such as a Revolutionary War soldier, a child cleaning cotton, and a factory worker. The illustrations (forty-seven in all, including six dramatic double-page spreads), combined with the narrative, give us a sense of intimacy, as if we are hearing an elder tell stories as we look at an album of family photographs. A tour de force in the career of an author/artist who continues to outdo himself. KATHLEEN T. HORNING
From the November/December 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Eloise Greenfield for The Great Migration: Journey to the North illus. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist (HarperCollins/Amistad)
Following an informative introduction (which includes a note about Greenfield’s own family’s move North in 1929), poignant poems tell the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the promise of a better life in the cities of the North. Many of the poems give voice to unnamed travelers’ thoughts; Greenfield explores the heart of each person, from the young woman going North alone, who sees her mother secretly packing her teddy bear in her bag, to the angry woman who says, “I can’t wait to get away…I hear that train whistling / my name. Don’t worry, train, / I’m ready. When you pull / into the station, my bags and I / will be there.” Strong, proud people look directly at the reader in most spreads. Cut paper, ephemera, paint, and processed photographs create collages, adding the right air of seriousness and history to the poetry. An illustrator’s note would have helped explain the media used, which varies, sometimes dramatically, from spread to spread. Details in the art effortlessly remind the reader of historical items of the times: maps, cars, trains, porters, lunch boxes, and crowded stations all played a role in moving African Americans away from the South of Jim Crow and toward the promise of the North and a better life. Adults may want to pair this with books about other times where folks left their families and homes — the Dust Bowl, wars, emigration, and the Underground Railroad — connecting it to the larger themes of history. ROBIN L. SMITH
From the January/February 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Patricia C. McKissack for Never Forgotten illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon (Random/Schwartz & Wade)
By nature, McKissack tells homespun stories; the Dillons create monumental images. Together at last, can they find common ground? It’s McKissack — with her portentous title, with her mix of history, mythological entities, and griot ideophones (“Swi Swi a Swi”) — who budges. In 1725 Mali, Dinga the Blacksmith scorns advice that he remarry to provide milk and a gentle hand for his newborn, motherless son; and instead calls upon the Mother Elements — Earth, Fire, Water, Wind — to help him raise the boy Mustafa. (Fire, for one, blows the babe a warm kiss.) As his father’s apprentice, Mustafa is a dud at making spears or tools, a genius at making beautiful “useless objects,” like a “stand of savannah grass.” Then Mustafa disappears and Dinga, desperate, again invokes the Elements. Earth reports that Mustafa is one of the Taken, Fire’s attempt to intercede is stopped at the shore, Water follows the captives to coastal slave markets, and Wind waits her chance…until, with strategic help from Earth, Fire, and Water, she is transformed into a Hurricane and travels to a blacksmith’s shop in Charleston, S.C., where Mustafa is decorating gates with “birds, flowers, and animals inspired by his memories of home.” The son who was “never forgotten” hasn’t forgotten his heritage, either. The free-verse text can weigh heavily on the ear, but the Dillons’ rousing illustrations — at once bold, complex, and lucid — impart dramatic conviction to the thwarted Fire and the slave-boat beyond reach, the pursuing Wind peering into the Carolina blacksmith’s window. BARBARA BADER
From the September/October 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.