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Gripping Historic Books for Black History Month

By on February 7, 2011

During this month when we recognize the historic struggles for Civil Rights through the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s in the United States, the titles featured here are worthy accounts of how many lives have been affected by the impact of African slaves on the national identity. Deepen your understanding by introducing yourself and your children to one or all of these mesmerizing books.

Birmingham Sunday

by Larry Dane Brimner
Calkins Creek, $17.95, Ages 10-14
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Beginning in the late 1940’s, the city of Birmingham, Alabama received “so many racially motivated bombings— more than 40—that” it was “nicknamed ‘Bombingham.’” But until the Sunday referred to in the title, none had been fatal. At 10:22 am on that Sunday morning, a dynamite blast so intense it “blew a passing motorist out of his car” rocked the church, thundering “thirty-inch-thick stone and brick walls” until they tumbled in on five young girls, killing four, and blinding the other in one eye.

This stirring photo essay by award-winning author Brimner features his accessible writing augmented with detailed sidebars and accompanied by well-researched captions under quality black and white photos. His documentary writing provides context for the tragedy by giving his readers facts about Jim Crow laws, the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in schools and other public places, the beginning of the NAACP, the resistance of Rosa Parks and subsequent Montgomery (AL) bus boycott, leadership from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and another black preacher–Fred Shuttlesworth, sit-ins at lunch counters, and more.

The writer’s skill at blending information, from his thorough exploration of primary-source material surrounding the deadly Sunday bombing, with personal reflections by members of the victims’ families, strengthens readers’ understanding of the emotional impact and human consequences from this important segment of the Civil Rights era. Profiles, with photos, of the four who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, on September 15, 1963 are included in the final pages, which also register the profiles of two additional children, who were victims that day. A bibliography, Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, Source Notes, and Picture Credits are featured at the back.

Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation

by Pat Sherman, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Eerdmans, $16.99, Ages 8-12
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Ben is a slave boy, apprenticed to a tailor in 1850’s Charleston, South Carolina. He has learned the alphabet from his father, who had a bit of education, but was sold. Ben teaches himself to read and write by learning from street signs, shop windows, and discarded newspapers. Although he kept these skills secret from whites in the pre-Civil War south when slaves were often punished for literacy skills, other slaves knew and were eager for him to teach them. Later, in the slave prison, waiting to be sold after his tailor master flees town, Ben reads the Emancipation Proclamation aloud, urged by other slave inmates who have bribed a guard for a newspaper. The cheers that break out following this remarkable reading are a celebration for the good news of freedom, and for Ben himself–likely the first time other slaves had ever heard a black person read out loud.

Award winner Cooper uses his signature sepia-toned style once again, shedding light throughout this dynamically written episode of a dark period in US history. An especially poignant painting shows the young Ben, wearing a newspaper hat, reading cross-legged under the dense branches of a large beech tree, suffused in a golden glow. This adept weaving of story with illustration simultaneously salutes the power of freedom and the power of the written word in a tapestry of truth.

The subject of this nonfiction picture book, Benjamin Holmes; about whom author Sherman explains in an Author’s Note, was passionate about education. He attended Fisk University and taught in a Tennessee rural school. (Additional sources and websites are also included at the end.)

Finding Lincoln

by Ann Malaspina, illustrations by Colin Bootman
Albert Whitman, $16.99, Ages 6-10
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By 1951 there were no black slaves in Alabama, but black children and their families were prevented from using libraries throughout the American south by segregation laws. Louis, who can “play all his piano scales and roller-skate backwards”, is, nonetheless, prevented from borrowing books from the library. Following a class discussion about the Civil War and President Lincoln who wanted slaves to be free, Louis’s teacher suggests he write an essay, to answer a question she cannot answer, about Lincoln as a boy.

When the book she gives him says nothing about Abe’s childhood, and neither his father’s stack of books nor the books in the small basement library at his church include any books about Lincoln, Louis takes courageous steps into the public library with its WHITES ONLY signs. One brave librarian finds a way to help him, whispering, “Come back tomorrow after five.” Finding the information he needs is only part of Louis’ success: his parents applaud him, reminding him to be careful; and he is able to complete his report on Lincoln who, even as a boy, “shook people up….Just like you, Louis,” says his mother.

Artist Bootman’s watercolor paintings feature his award-winning realistic expertise, and enhance this passionate story, based on real-life experiences of black people in the days before the Civil Rights movement. Back matter includes a Note from the author with historical information about library segregation in the south, information about President Lincoln, and bibliographical references.


Meribeth C. Shank works in the library at Miami Country Day School, an independent school in Miami Shores, Florida, teaches classes on Writing Books for Children, and earned her MFA in Writing for children from Vermont College.

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