Black family love

The warmth, kindness, comfort — and silliness — of family shine through in these picture books starring Black protagonists and their loved ones, perfect for Valentine’s Day reading. See also our Black History Month and Black History Month 2022 coverage.

The Electric Slide and Kai
by Kelly J. Baptist; illus. by Darnell Johnson
Primary    Lee & Low    40 pp.    g
3/21    978-1-64379-052-7    $19.95

Kai Donovan, an African American boy whose family members can all dance, feels he doesn’t belong because he just can’t. The last time he tried the Electric Slide, he knocked his little cousin over. Granddad has given each of Kai’s siblings a dance-related nickname — D.J. Groove, Miss Boogie, and Baby Bounce — but so far, Kai has none. When a wedding invitation arrives from his aunt, Kai worries, knowing the Electric Slide will surely happen at the reception. He asks one of his sisters for lessons and practices diligently. On the wedding day, Kai surprises his whole family — and Granddad finally gives him the perfect nickname. Johnson’s colorful cartoon illustrations convey the family’s verve and exuberance as effectively as they do Kai’s worry and concern. Baptist’s conversational text gives each character a distinct personality. This uplifting story of one kid’s struggle to fit in with his own family will resonate with readers who have similar insecurities. And the centrality of the Electric Slide might prompt readers to turn on the tunes and get their own groove on. MICHELLE H. MARTIN

Soul Food Sunday
by Winsome Bingham; illus. by C. G. Esperanza
Primary    Abrams    48 pp.    g
11/21    978-1-4197-4771-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64700-042-4    $15.54

A dinner to remember! An unnamed African American boy describes a Sunday dinner at Granny’s with extended family. Granny decides that it’s time for her grandson to learn to cook macaroni and cheese; mixed greens (collard, turnip, and mustard); and grilled chicken, ribs, and sausage. As he prepares to grate three kinds of cheese, wash and tear greens, and prepare meat for the grill, Granny models each task, asking: “Did you see that, baby?” Doing his best, he says: “My hand hurt. My arm aches. But I don’t quit.” After the completion of each task comes Granny’s affirmation: “That’s the best grated cheese [or greens, or meats] I’ve seen in all my life.” While Bingham’s writing captures the sound and cadence of this African American family’s speech, Esperanza’s oil paintings effectively portray the lively characters’ perpetual motion and reveal each person’s style, from Granny’s maroon cornrows and colorful apron displaying an African mask, to the protagonist’s blond-tipped high-top twists with lightning bolts shaved into the sides of his hair, to the barbecue master’s dreadlocks and flip sunglasses. In the end, the young cook adds one more tasty delight to the meal and radiates pride as the family sits down to dinner. A gustatory and olfactory family feast that will evoke strong memories for some and make others wish they had them. MICHELLE H. MARTIN

When We Say Black Lives Matter
by Maxine Beneba Clarke; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-5362-2238-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5362-2564-8    $16.99

Clarke (The Patchwork Bike, rev. 11/18) pens a love letter from parent to child. The title page depicts a pregnant Black woman with one hand on her belly and the other held by a Black man, presumably the child’s father. The vibrant colors and the positioning of their heads and hands give off a positive and affectionate feeling for the new baby. The poetic text opens with “Little one, / when we say Black Lives Matter, / we’re saying Black people are wonderful-strong.” The images that accompany these lines show the infant in the arms of their parent. As the child grows, the poem continues to define what it means to say “Black Lives Matter,” with action verbs throughout: “…when we call out / when we scream out / when we sing…whisper…sob.” The story ends with the child in cap and gown, preparing for the future. Textured, motion-filled collage art depicts Black lives as full and loving despite the pain inherent in much of Black history. Throughout, Clarke highlights the joys and struggles of what it means to be Black in ways that are affirming for all readers. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

Born Ready: The True Story of a Boy Named Penelope
by Jodie Patterson; illus. by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
Primary    Crown    40 pp.    g
4/21    978-0-593-12363-8    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-12365-2    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-12364-5    $10.99

Penelope knows he is a boy, despite his name and how others see him — if only his family weren’t too busy to notice. Penelope stomps through the house and acts out in school, hoping that someone will heed his frustration. Finally, Mom asks why he’s so upset, and Penelope tells her who he truly is. Immediately, Penelope feels a rush of relief, and we see his first real smile. “For the first time, my insides don’t feel like fire. They feel like warm golden love” — ­powerful words for a child, illuminating the emotions Penelope was carrying inside. With the help of his family and community, Penelope navigates his transition and is able to focus on his next mission: mastering karate. The digitally rendered, watercolor-esque illustrations add softness to each page. Penelope’s daydreams are displayed in wispy clouds of blue, green, and gold. Patterson’s closeness to the protagonist (she is the real-life Penelope’s mother) makes the first-person narration even more relatable, as we see the world through Penelope’s eyes. Penelope and his family are Black, adding a necessary level of intersectionality to the pool of children’s books exploring gender (see also When Aidan Became a Brother, rev. 7/19). Readers will be rooting for Penelope from the first page to the last. HILL SAXTON

A History of Me
by Adrea Theodore; illus. by Erin K. Robinson
Primary    Porter/Holiday    32 pp.    g
1/22    978-0-8234-4257-7    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-4379-6    $11.99

This picture book is a love letter of recognition to children of color who have been “othered” in their school experiences (“I was the only brown person in class…”) and singled out to bear the brunt of a history that has been so cruel (“…so when we talked about slavery, I could feel every eye staring at me”). The protagonist’s mother’s stories about the struggles of their ancestors reminds the child, “I should be grateful,” and she is grateful, but also filled with shame for how she is unfairly perceived by her white classmates. The story progresses, and as she grows into adulthood, she guides her own daughter who is walking the same path — this time with pride and empowerment. Robinson’s illustrations, “created using digital techniques and abundant love,” depict cottony puffs of hair and timid glances (at the start) from the main character, contrasting with the strong, dark-skinned, softly featured ancestors beckoning her to move forward. The colors go from subdued to vibrant, with the protagonist’s daughter shown on one page as an almost literal beam of light as she starts to “sit up straight and fly high into the sky.” Per an appended note, the author drew from her experiences growing up as the only brown child in her classes, and this story line will resonate with readers who have also been there. MAIJA MEADOWS HASEGAWA

Dream Street
by Tricia Elam Walker; illus. by Ekua Holmes
Primary, Intermediate, Middle School    Schwartz/Random    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-0-525-58110-9    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-525-58111-6    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-0-525-58112-3    $10.99

Dream Street: a microcosm of the African Diaspora where relationships matter and dreams thrive. It’s “the best street in the world,” as described by the book’s offstage narrator. To reveal the fabric of this community — based on the childhood of cousins Walker (Nana Akua Goes to School, rev. 5/20) and Holmes (Black Is a Rainbow Color, rev. 1/20) — the author creates descriptive vignettes about individuals and families from many different backgrounds. Children play outside until the streetlights come on; Mr. Sidney, a dapper retired postman, reads the paper on his front stoop and tells all who walk by to make the great day they want to have; a girl named Belle catches butterflies in a jar but then releases them (she aspires to become a lepidopterist). Accompanied by Holmes’s lively and layered collage illustrations, these vignettes emphasize what each person contributes to Dream Street. From the youngest children to Ms. Sarah (a.k.a. the Hat Lady, “who has lived on Dream Street longer than anyone”), everyone has dreams that others honor. The images, created with acrylic paint, found and handmade papers, and fabric, display vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and detailed portraits that reveal the beauty of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. A stunning work of art that dismantles stereotypes about Black communities and portrays a place where love abounds. MICHELLE H. MARTIN

The Year We Learned to Fly
by Jacqueline Woodson; illus. by Rafael López
Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.    g
1/22    978-0-399-54553-5    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-399-54554-2    $10.99

Woodson and López (The Day You Begin, rev. 9/18) follow a brother and sister over the course of a challenging year spent mainly indoors: “That was the year we learned to fly.” In Woodson’s poetic text, the children’s grandmother suggests that they use their imaginations to cure their boredom: “Lift your arms, / close your eyes, / take a deep breath, / and believe in a thing.” Later, when they move across town and are faced with the challenge of making new friends, their much-practiced skills help them succeed. The book reminds children that imagination is a powerful tool in any situation, and López’s colorful, eye-pleasing art enhances this message. Readers also are reminded that they have support from the past: “My grandmother had learned to fly / from the people who came before / They were aunts and uncles and cousins / who were brought here on huge ships / their wrists and ankles cuffed in iron / but, my grandmother said / nobody can ever cuff / your beautiful and brilliant mind.” In the accompanying art, the young girl stands with head bowed and her grandmother’s hand on her shoulder. Images of ships on the sea are silhouetted against her afro, and away flies a brightly colored bird, now unshackled. In an author’s note, Woodson discusses how Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales inspired her to write stories. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

From the January 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
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