Four recent nonfiction books about African American trailblazers provide plenty to discuss during Black History Month — or any time of year.
Zora Neale Hurston presents a challenge to any biographer because she so often lied about herself in print, beginning with her birth date. In Zora!: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin make these discrepancies part of the story, using Hurston’s autobiographical tall tales to give readers a strong sense of this “picturesque, witty, electric, indiscreet, and unreliable” woman. Illustrated with carefully selected photographs, this well-documented biography is pleasurable reading as well as informative. (11 years and up, Clarion)
In Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, Gary Golio takes on the complexity of the gifted jazz musician and composer’s life. Having suffered more than his fair share of tragedy by adolescence, Coltrane found solace in his love of music — and in drugs and alcohol. Rudy Gutierrez’s sophisticated illustrations show human faces with a nearly photographic realism, while background scenes are abstracted into swirling shapes, capturing the intangibles of Coltrane’s story: his pain, his drug-addled mind, his spirituality, and his music. (8–13 years, Clarion)
Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America presents ten biographical vignettes in chronological order: Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack H. Obama II. Each profile, fifteen to thirty pages long, includes an introductory poem, a watercolor portrait, and spot illustrations. Brian Pinkney’s illustrations are a perfect marriage of line, color, and medium, and complement the ebullient text. (8–13 years, Disney/Jump at the Sun)
All-black Army paratrooper unit the Triple Nickles never saw combat (white soldiers refused to fight alongside them, and they weren’t even allowed access to ammunition), but they helped to pave the way for a more integrated military in later wars. In Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers, Tanya Lee Stone explores issues of segregation and stereotypes as well as WWII history, all brought to life with archival photographs and clear prose. (11 years and up, Candlewick)
From the February 2013 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.