Black History Month Book Suggestions

By Carol Kennedy

Are you a young person (or a parent of one) looking for some book recommendations for Black History Month? Here are three books that look at important persons and events in the struggle for civil and human rights. All are available at the Swarthmore Public Library.

A good one for the younger set is Carole Boston Weatherford’s excellent Voice of Freedom: Fanny Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. This picture book about the life of Civil Rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer is a great introduction to the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a portrait of a courageous woman whose sense of justice began to develop from the time she was a little girl helping her sharecropper parents pick cotton in the field. It highlights her work for voting rights during Freedom Summer in 1964, culminating in her stirring speech to the Democratic National Convention that year. The illustrations are gorgeous, and the poems tell Hamer’s story in an easy-to-read format. Also very helpful are the author’s note at the end, the lists of resources for further study, and the timeline. It is recommended for kids of six or seven on up through middle school.

For middle-school students, I cannot say enough about Cynthia Levinson’s fine book We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. It profiles four youngsters who participated in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March for desegregation, and in so doing provides a day-by-day record of the movement for Civil Rights in one city and in the country as a whole. Levinson conducted interviews with these four and many others who were involved 53 years ago, as well as doing extensive archival research. She has created an exciting and revealing picture of a movement developing and learning lessons along its way to victory. Some things are not well known, even to people who were alive at the time … for example, that all of those jailed in Birmingham in early May 1963 were children and teens, ranging in age from eight to sixteen. The triumphs, the temporary defeats, the debates on strategy within the movement, the violence, and the Gandhian tactics … all are vividly described by the author in this wonderful book. The voices of the four people that Levinson zeroes in on give the story an intimacy even as it shines a light on the broad political issues of equal rights and democracy. This book gets my “Wow!” vote.

Another must-read by one of my favorite authors, Russell Freedman, is Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship. This book is appropriate for slightly older kids, middle school to high school. (And adults will love it, too.) For those who have a basic knowledge of the Civil War, this is an essential text highlighting something that is rarely mentioned, the fact that President Lincoln developed a friendship with the firebrand abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass throughout the war years. We begin with the picture of Douglass’s visit to the White House in August 1863, seeking redress for the poor treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army. He is sitting outside Lincoln’s office on a step, surrounded by hordes of others wishing to see the President, and unsure of whether he will be able to get in, and if so, how long he will have to wait. Next, Freedman takes us back to an overview of the life of Douglass, painting a vivid picture of this remarkable man in just one chapter. Then he does the same thing for Lincoln, describing his hardscrabble childhood and intellectual drive and determination all the way to the White House. By the time Lincoln and Douglass meet, the reader is completely engrossed in the personalities of these two towering figures, and is moved immensely by their meeting and the development of their mutual respect. As in all of Freedman’s books, the citation and attention to detail is meticulous, with plenty of notes, a helpful bibliography, a detailed list of picture credits, a thorough index, and even a facsimile of The Columbian Orator, a book written in 1816 that influenced both Lincoln and Douglass.

Carol Kennedy of Swarthmore is a retired school librarian and a member of the TriState Young Adult Review Committee (tristatereviews.org).

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