African-American history. Presidents Day. Valentine’s Day. There’s plenty to celebrate during the month of February — and plenty of good books for children on those subjects, too.
Black History Month
“To the Mountain Top” is a memoir for young people, written by noted journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the first two African-American students to attend the University of Georgia. As such, it offers a personal bird’s-eye view of the South during the early days of our country’s civil-rights movement. Hunter-Gault’s readable and candid narrative is an important contribution to the history of the African-American experience.
“The Girl From the Tar Paper School” by Teri Kanefield chronicles the efforts of an African-American high-school girl named Barbara Rose Johns, who led classmates in a peaceful demonstration during the early 1950s in segregated Virginia. The protestors’ purpose? To demand that the local school board finally make good on its promise to create a high school for black students that rivaled the town’s high school for white students. An extraordinary and inspiring story.
“Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles” by Tanya Lee Stone is a history of the 555th Parachute Infantry, made up of African-American paratroopers who fought for freedom abroad … and justice at home. As Stone notes, “Historian Charles E. Silberman said [WW II] was the time in which ‘the seeds of the protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s were sown.’ White Americans found it difficult to ignore the fact that they had been fighting Hitler while perpetrating atrocities and inequalities on their own black citizens — especially when those black citizens had done their part to unite in the fight against the same foe.” A treasure trove of period photographs complements the book’s text.
One of my favorite picture books of 2013 is “A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin” (written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet). To be sure, the story of Horace Pippin, a self-taught African-American primitive artist, is an interesting one. But what I especially love are Melissa Sweet’s imaginative illustrations created with watercolors, gouache and mixed media. Her work beautifully honors the spirit of Pippin’s work.
Other titles worth looking at during Black History Month include “March: Book One,” a graphic novel written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell; “Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me,” a picture book written by Daniel Beaty and illustrated by Bryan Collier; “The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights” by Steve Sheinkin (author of “The Notorious Benedict Arnold,” which is fabulous); and the recently reissued “Bud, Not Buddy” by Christopher Paul Curtis (winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and the Newbery Medal) and its companion “The Mighty Miss Malone.”
“Abraham Lincoln Comes Home” (written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor) tells the story of a young boy who takes a long buggy ride with his father in the middle of the night. Their plan? To pay their last respects to Abraham Lincoln, as his funeral train rumbles across the Illinois prairie on its way to the fallen president’s final resting place. This somber picture book beautifully captures a nation’s sorrow, in addition to providing information about the funeral train’s epic journey.
I’m full of admiration for Maira Kalman’s picture book titled “Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything.” Fans of Kalman’s whimsical narrative and visual style will not be disappointed. And her enthusiasm for the subject matches Jefferson’s famous enthusiasm for gardening, architecture, reading, American Indian artifacts, the violin and every other subject under the sun. Kalman also outlines Jefferson’s considerable achievements as one of our country’s founding fathers. What makes this book unique, however, is that the author speaks truthfully, even sadly about the fact that Jefferson owned 150 slaves, in spite of his stirring injunction against slavery: “This abomination must end.”
Other founding fathers —John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington — make cameo appearances in “Thomas Jefferson,” as do Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Napoleon and the Marquis de Lafayette. All in all, this is a terrific introduction to our third president.
“Love Monster” (written and illustrated by Rachel Bright) tells the story of a hairy monster’s search for love in a world that prefers “cute, fluffy things” such as bunnies. And kittens. And puppies. Will Monster find the girl of his dreams? This likable picture book has a predictably happy ending (a good thing in a love story!), but the text and illustrations have an original charm all their own.
I especially love the illustrations in “The Runaway Hug” (written by Nick Bland and illustrated by Freya Blackwood), the story of a little girl named Lucy who “borrows” a hug from her mother and shares it with everyone else in the family, including the dog who scampers off before Lucy can get the hug back. With her depictions of messy bedrooms, kitchen spills and half-opened drawers, Blackwood (a winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal) affectionately captures the lived-in look of a home occupied by very young children.
“Never Too Little to Love” (written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Jan Fearnley) is a charming lift-the-flap book about a mouse who keeps stacking objects —thimbles, matchboxes, watermelons — because he wants to give his friend a kiss. Why all the effort? Because his friend just happens to be a giraffe.
Another nice selection for Valentine’s Day? Or any day? “Plant a Kiss” (written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds) is a sweet imagining of what might happen if you could literally plant kisses like seeds in a garden.
Other good choices? “Foxy in Love” (written and illustrated by Emma Dodd), “Catching Kisses” (written by Amy Gibson and illustrated by Maria Van Lieshout) and “Love You More Than Anything” (written by Anna Harber Freeman and illustrated by Utah’s own Jed Henry).