Black history, American history

Take it from Ruby Bridges — one person can make a difference in the fight for civil rights, a fight that continues today. The following illustrated biographies (all #OwnVoices) highlight important figures in Black — and American — history. See also our Black History Month 2021 coverage.

This Is Your Time
by Ruby Bridges
Primary, Intermediate    Delacorte    64 pp.    g
11/20    978-0-593-37852-6    $15.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-37853-3    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-37854-0    $9.99

A letter of love and care from civil rights icon Ruby Bridges to twenty-first-century children marks the sixtieth anniversary of her integration of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Dedicated to John Lewis, the “conscience of Congress,” and addressed to “Young Peacemakers of the World,” Bridges’s book opens with a photograph of her first-grade self, looking inquisitively at the reader, her hand turning the page of a book. Powerful photographs, a mix of historical and contemporary, demonstrate hard truths throughout, with images shown of federal marshals escorting young Ruby and racist whites brandishing a Black doll in a casket in front of her school; the March on Washington alongside Black Lives Matter marches; and police turning fire hoses on teens in 1963 and spraying protestors with pepper spray in 2020. The book lays bare the ongoing consequences of racial inequality and injustice through descriptions and images of lost Black lives, including those of Freddie Gray and Bridges’s own son, Craig. The juxtaposition of historical and contemporary scenes maintains a serious mood throughout, but Bridges’s clear-eyed and comprehensible words — some acting almost as captions to explain the photographs; others expanding on large ideas — exhort young readers to stay united and positive, serve, and “keep your eyes on the prize” to make change. A boldly written, memorably illustrated message of hope for our time, from one who has fought for social justice all her life. MICHELLE H. MARTIN

One Step Further: My Story of Math, the Moon, and a Lifelong Mission
by Katherine Johnson with Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore; illus. by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
Primary    National Geographic Kids    48 pp.    g
1/21    978-1-4263-7193-6    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-4263-7194-3    $27.90

This picture-book biography isn’t just the story of NASA “computer” Katherine Johnson (1918–2020), who, among many noteworthy achievements, calculated the orbit for astronaut John Glenn’s historic spaceflight around the Earth. It’s also, importantly, the story of Johnson’s three daughters, Joylette, Connie, and Kathy (two of whom are co-authors of the book) — and it’s a poignant chronicle of the racism they all confronted. The book’s scrapbook-like design features an impressive array of photographs: personal snapshots of Johnson and her family, photos of Johnson at work, images of her NASA badge and the pearl necklace she always wore, archival photos of segregated public spaces and of segregation protestors, and stock images of astronauts — the list goes on. Grounding all these photographs are Barlow’s colorful illustrations; they unpack the emotion and lend immediacy, particularly to the daughters’ experiences. For example, after the family’s move to Newport News, Virginia, where Johnson soon started work at NACA (NASA’s predecessor), a beach scene shows the three frowning girls, with Joylette saying, in a speech bubble: “We were forced to go to the ‘Colored Only’ beach. White people were mean to us because of the color of our skin.” The blend of Johnson’s and her daughters’ voices is intimate and inspiring: “This is our story,” they tell us, proclaiming their history with courage and pride. Back matter includes historical context on racial segregation in America, a biographical profile of Johnson, a timeline, and a glossary. TANYA D. AUGER

The Highest Tribute: Thurgood Marshall’s Life, Leadership, and Legacy
by Kekla Magoon; illus. by Laura Freeman
Primary, Intermediate    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    40 pp.    g
1/21    978-0-06-291251-0    $17.99

“Thurgood would become the first to do a lot of things that a Black person had never done before.” When he attended Lincoln University, a Black college, Thurgood Marshall’s debate team became the first to participate in an interracial debate. As a young lawyer in Baltimore, he won a court case admitting a Black student to the University of Maryland, the first time a court had ordered the desegregation of a school. And he won the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case before the Supreme Court in 1954 and became a Supreme Court justice himself in 1967. Magoon’s title comes from Marshall himself: “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute.” The crystal-clear and accessible text, focusing on essential cases in the career of “Mr. Civil Rights,” does justice to the Justice. Freeman’s stately digital illustrations employ effective graphic elements: newspaper headlines, “whites only” signs, bits of the Constitution, the scales of justice. The superb back matter includes a timeline, a list of major court cases, a bibliography, and an excellent selection of books for further reading. DEAN SCHNEIDER

She Was the First!: The Trailblazing Life of Shirley Chisholm
by Katheryn Russell-Brown; illus. by Eric Velasquez
Primary, Intermediate    Lee & Low    40 pp.    g
8/20    978-1-62014-346-9    $19.95

“Unbought and Unbossed”: Shirley Chisholm’s 1968 campaign slogan, still relevant today. Russell-Brown (Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, rev. 11/14) engagingly presents the life of Chisholm, born in Brooklyn in 1924. Unable to support their children, Shirley’s parents took Shirley and her sisters to Barbados to live with their grandmother, “whose house was stocked with love, rules, and chores.” Shirley excelled academically and loved living among the Black Barbadians. She and her younger sisters returned home during the Great Depression, and her predominantly white school demoted her from sixth to fourth grade because she knew so little U.S. history. With a tutor’s help, Shirley soon took an interest in America’s political system and attended Brooklyn College, where she became an award-winning debater. A schoolteacher and community activist, Chisholm became a New York State assemblywoman, then the first Black Congresswoman, steadfastly following her grandmother’s mantra: “always…speak the truth.” Chisholm broke further ground as an African American woman running for president, in 1972. Velasquez’s vibrant watercolor illustrations capture Chisholm’s determination and passion for improving life for Americans with the fewest advantages. The informative and useful back matter includes an afterword, source notes, and photos. MICHELLE H. MARTIN

William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad
by Don Tate; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Peachtree    40 pp.    g
11/20    978-1-56145-935-3    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-68263-277-2    $8.99

Tate introduces readers to the African American abolitionist known as the Father of the Underground Railroad in this thorough and informative picture-book biography. Before William Still was born, his father had bought his freedom and settled in New Jersey, his mother escaping later, leaving behind two other children. The family grew to fifteen children including William, the last born in 1821. At eight years old, because of his acumen in navigating the woods, neighbors called on William to lead a fugitive slave to safety. The incident portended his longtime commitment to aiding freedom seekers: “The experience defined the rest of his life.” At age twenty-three, Still moved to Philadelphia, where he worked for the Anti-Slavery Society and turned his home into a station on the Underground Railroad. When he encountered his long-lost brother seeking refuge, he was inspired to create records of other freedom seekers and to collect stories of their escapes, hoping to help reunite families; a collection of these important documents and narratives was published in 1872. Tate’s writing style is engaging and accessible. Rich acrylic illustrations are perfectly matched with a poetic narrative that celebrates the subject and conveys the realities of the times. Back matter includes a timeline, an author’s note, and a bibliography. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
by Carole Boston Weatherford; illus. by Floyd Cooper
Primary, Intermediate    Carolrhoda    32 pp.    g
2/21    978-1-5415-8120-3    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-7284-1738-7    $27.99

In 1921, over the course of sixteen hours, the Black community of Greenwood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was all but destroyed, with most of its residents left homeless, injured, or dead. In picture-book form, Weatherford and Cooper skillfully present this history to young people. Great care is taken to describe the Greenwood community as it once was: known as “Black Wall Street” and home to Black professionals and working-class folk alike, “where some say Black children got a better education than whites.” Small details add to the authenticity of the narrative, such as Miss Mabel’s Little Rose Beauty Salon, where “maids who worked for white families got coiffed on their day off and strutted in style.” Far from romanticizing history, Weatherford is equally descriptive in explaining how a false accusation of assault brought simmering racial tensions to a violent end, with a white mob “looting and burning homes and businesses that Blacks had saved and sacrificed to build.” Many survivors left the area, and those who stayed “did not speak of the terror.” Not until 1997 was the little-known incident investigated and discovered to be not a “riot” but a massacre —­ abetted by both police and city officials. Cooper’s illustrations (“oil and erasure”) are the perfect partner to this history, the sepia-toned images resembling historical photographs. The portraits of Black residents are particularly moving, seeming to break the fourth wall to implore the reader to remember their story. The author’s and illustrator’s notes provide additional information, including their individual connections to the topic. EBONI NJOKU

From the February 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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