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Although Black History Month is winding down, there should be shelf space for these picture-book biographies all year round. Each tells the story of African Americans who have contributed to the ongoing battle for civil rights. The beauty of these titles is that they can be used for all ages as introductions to the lives of these individuals, as well as to the ideals they espoused. In addition to the text and illustrations, additional information about the subjects is provided at the end of each book, making them useful resources.
It's interesting to note that a number of books for young readers dealing with the African-American experience were recently singled out for recognition by the American Library Association, including "Freedom Over Me" by Ashley Bryan (a Newbery Honor Book), "Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat" by Javaka Steptoe (the Caldecott Medal winner), "Freedom in Congo Square" by Carole Boston and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (a Caldecott Honor Book) and "March: Book Three" by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (the Sibert Medal winner).
The Youngest Marcher: the Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
In May 1963, more than 3,000 children were arrested in Birmingham, Ala., for participating in marches organized by civil-rights leaders, including Martin Luther King. The youngest of these was 9-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks, who marched because she wanted access to the same basic things she saw white children enjoy. After being arrested, Hendricks spent a week in a jail cell normally reserved for adults. The experience turned her into a lifelong champion for equal rights. This engaging new picture books tells her story from her growing awareness of inequality to her participation in the march to her incarceration to the changes she personally witnessed as the lines created by segregation began to blur.
Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Muhammad Ali aka "The Greatest," aka "The Louisville Lip," aka "The People's Champion" was certainly one of the biggest personalities to emerge from the world of professional sports. The details of his singular career are well known. Less well known, perhaps, is the reason Ali took up boxing. This vividly illustrated picture book tells that story. As a young boy, Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) had his bike stolen. He was so enraged that he told police officer Joe Martin that he was going to beat the thief to a bloody pulp. Martin's response was surprising: He told Ali in that case, he'd better learn to fight and invited the boy to begin working out in a local boxing gym. Initially mentored by Joe Martin, Ali immediately took to the sport and a future star and eventual activist was born.
Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Laura Freeman
The great-granddaughter of a slave, Ann Cole Lowe rose from an impoverished Southern childhood to become the first African-American designer of haute couture. Best known for designing and creating Jacqueline Kennedy's iconic wedding dress (as well as the gowns for her bridesmaids), Lowe made another piece of civil-rights history when she delivered the dresses to the mansion where the reception was to be held. Told by the butler to enter through the back door, Lowe refused. If she wasn't allowed to walk through the front door like everyone else, Lowe told the butler, the bride would have to find herself another dress. The refrain that runs through the text sums up the grit that lifted Lowe above circumstances designed to keep her down: "Ann thought about what she could do, not what she couldn't change."
The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunan
Remembered by many for her silvery "Stormy Weather" voice and extraordinary beauty, Lena Horne was also an ardent supporter of the civil-rights movement. "You have to be taught to be second class," Horne said. "You're not born that way." A member of the NAACP from the age of 2, Horne was the first African American to be signed as a contract actress by a major movie studio. She turned down any role that reinforced racial stereotypes, refusing to play maids and mammies. As an entertainer, she was fully aware of the irony of her situation. Although Horne regularly performed as a headliner for all-white clubs, she and band members were not allowed to mingle with the audience. Furious that German POWs were seated before African-American soldiers at a performance during WWII, Horne entertained black servicemen at the base in Tuskegee, Ala., at her own expense. Later, she performed at civil-rights rallies and appeared with Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, where she uttered one word to the crowd of thousands: "Freedom."
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams by Ashley Bryan
Perhaps the most stunning and sobering of the books listed here, "Freedom Over Me" isn't strictly a biography. Rather, it's based on historical documents detailing the sale of an estate, including its 11 slaves, identified only by their names and genders, as well as the amount of money for which they were sold. Three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner Ashley Bryan has given voice to these individuals by imagining their lives, both in America and in Africa before they were captured and sold into slavery. Here, for instance, are the words of Charlotte: "As a child in Africa, I shaped things from river clay cups, bowls, animals. The village potter taught me. She fired my pieces in her kiln. My fingers were never still. I cut reeds and grasses, wove them into mats and baskets. This became my work. In the Big House [referring to the estate home] I make baskets shaped for all purposes. I work hard to fill the estate's needs and outside orders that profit the estate's income and reputation."