Book Reviews for Black History Month

By Carol Kennedy

With the arrival of Black History Month, kids and parents may be looking for appropriate reading material, and there are some excellent titles available. Some that were featured in last year’s February Swarthmorean are still excellent choices: for younger children, Granddaddy’s Turn: A Journey to the Ballot Box by Michael S. Bandy and Voice of Freedom: Fanny Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford.

For older elementary-age and middle-school children, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson remains one of my favorites, along with Russell Freedman’s Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Because They Marched, also by Freedman, is likewise an excellent read about the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights march.

Here are some other recommended titles that may interest young readers.

Cynthia Grady’s Like A Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song compiles 13 spirituals that originated in American slavery, with full-color illustrations by Michele Wood, sheet music, and historical information on each song. Sprinkled throughout the book are images of a white bird, embodying Harriet Tubman’s dream of flying “over the landscape like a bird” to freedom. This is a great picture book appropriate for any age, and families may want to sing the songs together.

Rich and Sandra Nell Wallace have written Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights, a great read for middle-school and high-school students wanting to learn about the Civil Rights movement. Daniels was a white seminary student from New Hampshire who gave his time, his career and ultimately his life to fight for justice for African Americans in the American South. In the course of learning who he was, the reader also learns a great deal about the movement and its significance.

Another good one for anyone from the age of 12 on up is Gretchen Woelfle’s Answering the Cry for Freedom. In this eye-opening history, 13 important African American figures who were fighting against slavery at the time of the American Revolution are profiled. We meet such colorful characters as Jarena Lee, a house slave who gave up her family and home to travel widely preaching against slavery, Philadelphia’s own Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sally Hemings, whose owner was Thomas Jefferson. The subtle black-and-white illustrations by Gregory Christie enhance the text.

Roxane Orgill has written a book called Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, which discusses the well-known photograph of 57 jazz musicians that was created by Art Kane in 1958. Through a series of beautifully illustrated poems, the author recreates the events of the day and participants in the photo shoot, which lasted four or five hours and included Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and other jazz greats. Biographies of the more famous participants and a list of additional resources are included. This book is recommended for any age, but especially those in the 9-12 range.

Sally Derby’s biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the great African American poet, is called Jump Back, Paul: The Life and Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. It reads like a conversation rather than a biography, and the author describes her voice as a “grandma’s” voice, which makes it an engaging book for teens and pre-teens. Events from Dunbar’s life are interspersed with his poetry, bringing context to the work. Simple black-and-white illustrations add a surprising emotional depth to the text. A chronology, detailed source notes, a bibliography, and an index are included.

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

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

If pre-teens and teenage readers are looking for fiction based on African American history, I cannot recommend Laurie Halse Anderson’s Seeds of America series enough. The books in the series are Chains, Forge, and Ashes. We start out with Chains in the Revolutionary War era, when a young girl named Isabel discovers that she was supposed to be freed upon the death of her mistress, but instead remains a slave and is sold to a very cruel family. She befriends a young man who is spying on behalf of the revolutionary cause, and he convinces her to do likewise. Although this series has been available for several years, it should continue to attract new readers, as it is excellent.

In Jon Walter’s novel My Name is Not Friday, Samuel is a 12-year-old African-American free-born boy living in an orphanage with his little brother. Suddenly one day he is accused of a crime he did not commit and is sold at auction into slavery. He quickly learns that even on a plantation run by a kind and compassionate woman and her son, life can be very unfair and cruel. With the goal of freeing himself and finding his brother, Samuel comes of age in this gripping novel, which is recommended for older teens and adults.

In The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters, Hanalee is a biracial girl living in a bigoted town in the early 20th century. As she seeks to avenge her father’s murder, she must figure out how to balance what is right with what is legal.
In this well-written and thoroughly researched work, appropriate for teens and young adults, issues that remain contemporary today are covered, including interracial families, homosexuality, bigotry, and official corruption.

Deborah Wiles’ Revolution was written as part of a trilogy. The story takes place in Greenwood, Mississippi, during the summer of 1964, known as Freedom Summer because young Civil Rights workers were registering African Americans in the South to vote. The main character is twelve-year-old Sunny, who is coping with her father’s remarriage and her new blended family. In addition, she is curious about the newly-arrived “outside agitators” everybody in town is discussing. Chapters narrated by Sunny are interspersed with others written from the point of view of a young African American boy named Ray, who represents the younger generation of black people who are more than ready for change. The author has done her homework, and in addition to the story, she presents documents, song lyrics, biographical material on people like LBJ and Muhammad Ali, news photographs, and other primary-source materials. This book is a must for middle-school and high-school students who really want to learn about the period.

Another novel that was published recently concerns not African American history, but the Civil Rights movement in South Africa during Apartheid. The World Beneath by Janice Warman concerns a young boy named Joshua who is living with his mother in the home of her employer in 1976 and learning first-hand of racial injustice, as well as of the burgeoning movement to make a revolutionary change from the Apartheid system. When the reader first meets Joshua, he is just trying to survive. He learns that his older brother, who was involved in the anti-Apartheid movement, has just been murdered in Johannesburg. By the end of the novel, Joshua has become involved with the underground movement that will soon end Apartheid. The style is terse and suspenseful, and a glossary in the back explains some commonly used terms.

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