Review of An American Story

An American Story
by Kwame Alexander; illus. by Dare Coulter
Primary, Intermediate    Little, Brown    56 pp.
1/23    9780316473125    $18.99

Alexander and Coulter have created a powerful counternarrative in their efforts to answer the question, “How do you tell a story about slavery?” Starting before Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas, both text and art reinforce the family structures, cultural traditions, and ways of life Africans enjoyed. When chattel slavery enters the story and white colonizers work “to steal them away / from their lives / and sell them / in America,” the pain of separation and removal is poignant and brutal. The poetic text insists enslavement be explained from the perspective of humanizing the Africans and African Americans at the heart of this American story, while reinforcing motifs of agency, resistance, and flights to freedom. Coulter’s mixed-media illustrations bring the text to life with a powerful combination of two-dimensional paintings and photographs of her three-dimensional ceramic and polymer clay sculptures. She juxtaposes her depictions of African Americans with drawings (in a yellow and black palette) of modern-day children grappling to understand the past and channeling their need for truth with their own desires to create change. The narrative ends on a hopeful note, encouraging the telling of an accurate story in an attempt to offer healing for a broad audience. Notes from the creators are appended.

From the January/February 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Kim Parker

Dr. Kim Parker is Director of the Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard University, and co-chair of the Books for Black Children and Youth initiative of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement. She served on the 2019 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards committee.

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