In Honor of Black History Month, 5 Award Winning Books

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

In Honor of Black History Month, 5 Award Winning Books

Every January the American Library Association announces the much-anticipated Youth Media Awards, some of the highest honors given to books for children and young adults in this country. The Coretta Scott King Book Award is one of those awards. It commemorates the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and honors Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and continuing work for peace. The annual award recognizes outstanding books for children by African-American authors and illustrators that reflect the African-American experience.

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans

The 2012 Coretta Scott King author winner is Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, written by Kadir Nelson. This epic work, told by a nameless grandmother narrator, who interweaves her family’s trials and tribulations with the history of America, sheds light on how African Americans helped shape our country’s history. From colonial times and abolition, through several wars, Reconstruction, and the Great Migration, to the Civil Rights Era and a 21st century presidential election, the narrator takes listeners on a perilous journey, that in the end, leads to freedom and equal rights. The book comes to a close as the narrator proudly tells how she cast her vote for the first African-American president, Barack Obama.

The storytelling voice is direct, no-nonsense, unflinching in its truth telling. But the narrator’s tone and warmth, her endearments of “honey” and “chile,” which are sprinkled throughout, add a sweetness that makes this difficult period in American history a bit easier for children to swallow. This intimacy pulls the listener right in, you want to listen, even though what she’s saying is often hard to hear. There’s a sense that receiving her story is a gift, and a responsibility, to remember the past and to always be moving toward equal rights and justice.

Heart and Soul was also awarded the 2012 Coretta Scott King honor award for illustration. Kadir Neslon’s lush oil paintings are rendered in deep, colorful tones that shine with an inner brilliance. Their impact is enormous, powerful, arriving with every turn of the page, some spreading across two pages at once. These portraitures of history tell a story of their own.

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, published by Balzer & Bray of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2011. 108 pg. ISBN: 978-0-06-173074-0

The Great Migration: Journey to the North

Two books received Coretta Scott King honorable mentions for authorship. One is The Great Migration: Journey to the North, written by Eloise Greenfield and illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, a picture book about a transformational time in American history.

More than a million African-Americans left the south and moved north between the years of 1915 and 1930. They left behind all they had known to escape the brutalities of the Ku Klux Klan, a dire economic situation, and the harsh realities of segregation.

Greenfield herself was part of that great migration. When she was three months old, her family left North Carolina and moved to Washington D.C.

In free verse poetry, that is pitch perfect for read alouds, Greenfield tells what it was like for African-Americans to say goodbye to their lives in the South. She takes readers onboard a train traveling north, full of people, rolling past fields of tobacco and corn, through starry nights, and on to cities where their destinies await. Greenfield weaves her own family’s story into the ending, giving the book a personal, authentic touch. The simple, emotional language paired with Gilchrist’s distressed collages of ephemera and photographs on painted backgrounds conveys the emotion, worry, and excitement of a people for their uncertain future.

The Great Migration: Journey to the North, written by Eloise Greenfield and illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, published by Amistad of HarperCollins Publishers, 2011. 32 pg. ISBN: 978-0-06-125921-0

Never Forgotten

The other honor award goes to Never Forgotten, written by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon. Through a series of poems, that feel like a griot’s song, McKissack tells the story of a seventh-generation Mende blacksmith named Dinga, who could speak the names of the Mother Elements: Earth, Fire, Water and Wind. When his wife dies in childbirth, Dinga decides to raise his son, Musafa, himself. Musafa grows up running free through the tall grasses of the West African Sahel, and learning the craft of his father.

On a day that Dinga will never forget, Musafa is captured by slave traders and sent across the ocean. Though his Mother Elements try to stop it from happening, Musafa is sold into slavery. Dinga is devastated and his passion for blacksmithing dries up. In time, Mother Wind brings news of Musafa back to the Sahel: he is a blacksmith’s apprentice in Charleston, creating beautiful metal pieces, decorated with memories of his African home. Dinga rejoices to know his son is alive. And though the villagers think he has gone mad, Dinga celebrates his child who was taken, but never forgotten.

This sad but beautiful story was born out of the author’s curiosity of how Africans mourned the Taken, how African mothers and fathers grieved and cried for their lost children. In looking for the stories, songs, and rituals that would ensure the lost ones would never be forgotten, McKissack found this riveting story inside of her.

The Dillon’s distinctive art work is inspired, and helps the story to leap and sing. The wood-cut style illustrations done in acrylic and water-color bear strong outlines and soft, pastel interiors. The images reveal depth, texture, and feeling, and portray the power and magic the Mother Elements wield.

Never Forgotten, written by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon, published by Schwartz & Ade Books, of Random House Children’s Books, 2011. 48 pg. ISBN: 978-0-375-84384-6

Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom

The 2012 Coretta Scott King Award for illustration goes to Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom, written and illustrated by Shane W. Evans. With spare, dramatic text and striking illustrations, this picture book story follows a family of slaves during their nighttime escape on the Underground Railroad. The opening pages are frameless and dark as night, rendered in shades of midnight blue and green. And the family’s eyes, shown in close-up, are full of fear and urgency. They run and crawl and hide and find help from friends along the way.

As the family draws closer to safety, golden rays of hope are revealed through a porch light and the rising sun. In the brilliant ending, gold streams through the sky as the family celebrates their freedom and a newborn baby is lifted to the sun. Readers will want to rise up singing too.
With only 2-3 words per page, this book is a perfect introduction to the Underground Railroad for the youngest readers.

Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom, written and illustrated by Shane W. Evans, published by Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2011. 32 pg. ISBN:978-1-59-643538-4

Black & White: The Confrontation Between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor

Another Youth Media Award is The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award, which honors the most distinguished informational book published in the preceding year for its significant contribution to children’s literature. One of the 2012 honorable mentions bears importance to black history: Black & White: The Confrontation Between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor by Larry Dane Brimner.

Based on FBI documents, court records, oral histories, archived newspapers, and other primary source documents, Brimner chronicles the courageous story of Fred Shuttlesworth, an African-American preacher from Birmingham, who risked his life to end segregation and Jim Crow in the south during the 1950’s and 1960’s. With flawless writing and dozens of photographs, the decades-long confrontation between Shuttlesworth and Bull Connor, the white Commissioner of Public Safety who held deep-rooted beliefs in segregation and oppression, is laid out with clarity and accuracy. Young people will connect with the show of support from brave youth who helped put an end to racial injustices during this time.

Black & White: The Confrontation Between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor by Larry Dane Brimner, published by Calkins Creek, PA, 2011. 112 pg. ISBN: 978-1-59078-766-3


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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