An American Story by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dare Coulter

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  “How do you tell a story that starts in Africa and ends in horror?”  Kwame Alexander was moved to write this poem after he realized his daughter’s fourth-grade teacher wasn’t teaching students about slavery, because she was anxious and hadn’t been trained in how to teach that piece of the American story.  With distinctive illustrations that combine sculptures and paintings, the book portrays life in Africa, people being captured, the Middle Passage, and the horrors of slavery once they arrived in America.  The narrative is interspersed with pictures of a class learning from a teacher who is somewhat hesitant to teach the story, but who is encouraged by her students to tell them the truth.  How do you tell the story? “You do it/by being brave enough/to lift your voice,/by holding/history/in one hand/and clenching/hope/in the other.”  56 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  I have been sharing Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated with fourth and fifth graders this week, and I think this book is even more powerful.  I know I can feel uncomfortable talking to elementary students about racism and slavery, but they are ready to hear about it, and this is an important book for making sure that happens.  The illustrations are equally powerful and mark my first Caldecott prediction for 2024.

Cons:  I saw recommendations in several places for ages 4-8, but I think it’s more appropriate for older elementary kids.

If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders from Around the World by Hillary Homzie, illustrated by Udayana Lugo

Published by Aladdin

Summary:  If you were a princess, what would you do?  These real-life princesses are smart and brave, standing up for human and animal rights, competing in sports, and earning advanced degrees in various arts and sciences.  Since ancient times, princesses have studied the stars, led others into battle, and made important discoveries and inventions.  You may not be a princess, but you can be inspired by royalty to stand up for yourself and others and to dazzle the world. Includes a paragraph of additional information about each princess and a list of works cited.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Cinderella, step aside to make way for these amazing real-life princesses from all over the world.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had requests for princess books, and I can’t wait to have this one on hand to teach kids some unexpected princess facts.

Cons:  Forced me to rethink my anti-royalist tendencies.

The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs by Chana Stiefel, illustrated by Susan Gal

Published by Scholastic Press

Summary:  Yaffa Eliach had a happy childhood in the Jewish town (shtetl) of Eishyshok, playing with her friends and older brother and helping her grandmother in her photography studio.  But when Yaffa was six years old, German tanks rolled in and the village, along with most of its inhabitants, was destroyed.  Yaffa’s family managed to flee and lived in hiding for the next several years.  They left their possessions behind except for a few photographs Yaffa hid in her shoe.  After the war, Yaffa moved first to Israel, and then to the United States, where she became a history professor specializing in the Holocaust.  When the Holocaust Museum was built in Washington, DC, President Jimmy Carter asked Yaffa to create an exhibit to show the lives of people who were lost.  Yaffa searched all over the world for photographs of people who had lived in Eishyshok.  Over the course of 17 years, she traveled to six continents to collect over 1,000 photos that were turned into the “Tower of Life” exhibit at the Holocaust Museum.  Includes a timeline of Yaffa’s life, a bibliography, and a brief author’s note.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  An inspiring story of an amazing woman who emerged from tragedy to create a beautiful tribute that celebrates the lives of those who died in the Holocaust.  The illustrations capture those lives as well, incorporating photos into the paintings.

Cons:  I would have liked more information about Yaffa in the back matter.

Going Places: Victor Hugo Green and His Glorious Book by Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Published by Quill Tree Books

Summary:  Victor Hugo Green had a successful career as a mail carrier in Leonia, New Jersey, but he also liked to travel.  In the 1930’s, more people were buying cars and using them to visit new places.  Black travelers were less hassled in their cars than on trains, but they also faced Jim Crow laws that prevented them from using certain hotels, restaurants, and other establishments, and sundown laws that prohibited them from being in certain towns after dark.  Green used newspaper ads and articles and the knowledge of friends and co-workers to put together a directory of places that were safe to go.  Known as the Green Book, it started as a pamphlet in 1936, covering the New York City area, but continued to grow to cover the entire U.S. as well as Mexico and Canada.  In 1953, Victor Hugo Green retired from his postal career to spend his time running a travel agency and keeping up with the Green Book.  He died in 1960, a few years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made much of the Green Book obsolete.  Includes a timeline, selected sources, and a list of places to learn more about the Green Book.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  This fascinating look at the man behind the Green Book weaves in plenty of details about the ways racism affected Black travelers for much of the twentieth century.  The vivid oil paintings bring traveling to life with their colorful postcards, reproductions of black-and-white photos, and maps.  Worthy of a consideration for a Coretta Scott King award or honor.

Cons:  While I was hoping to see a page from the actual Green Book, the illustrations offer only tantalizing glimpses.  Guess I will have to peruse the digital editions listed in the back matter.

Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Modern Retelling of the Classic Spiritual by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  Carole Boston Weatherford has created new words based on the traditional spiritual to trace the history of Black people in America.  Beginning with slavery, the verses and illustrations continue through Emancipation, the Great Migration, and the fights for integration.  The last few pages reflect the recent past and present: Florence Griffith Joyner, Colin, Kaepernick, and the Black Lives Matter Movement.  Includes additional information on each of the subjects, a list of online resources, and an author’s note.  32 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Another beautiful resource for teaching Black history, with gorgeous thought-provoking oil illustrations.  The text, including the back matter, could serve as an excellent introduction to a variety of topics; readers can use the excellent list of online resources for further research.

Cons:  I wasn’t familiar with this spiritual and would have liked to have had the traditional words included somewhere.

Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday by Denise Kiernan, illustrated by Jamey Christoph

Published by Philomel Books

Summary:  Starting with a few thoughts about gratitude and how it’s expressed around the world, the book moves to the history of American Thanksgiving, with Sarah Josepha Hale’s campaign to create a national Thanksgiving holiday.  Abraham Lincoln finally agreed, declaring the holiday for November 26, 1863.  It was challenging to find much to be grateful for in the midst of the Civil War, but people celebrated and have continued to up to the present.  Turkey dinners, marching bands, and soup kitchens are all depicted as ways Thanksgiving is observed, and readers are asked to cite their own favorite parts of Thanksgiving.  Includes additional resources.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An excellent resource for those revisiting the history of Thanksgiving, as no mention is made of the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag.  It’s a good update to Thank You Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson (2002).  The excellent illustrations will serve as a good springboard for discussing kids’ heritages and traditions.

Cons:  It felt like the book tried to cover a lot of ground, making it feel a bit disjointed at times.

I Am Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

Published by Orchard Books

Summary:  Ruby Bridges tells her story of integrating William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 at the age of six.  While she has heard of Brown v. Board of Education, she is more interested in making friends and who her teacher will be.  She is surprised to be driven to school by four white men, to have a white principal, and most of all, to discover that she is the only student in her classroom.  Seeing that empty classroom makes her finally realize what is going on: she is the first Black child to attend the school, and that will allow other Black students to go there too.  “And that’s a good thing, for Black kids.  For white kids, too…for all the kids, once they finally get here!”  Includes a glossary and notes from the author and illustrator.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An inspiring autobiography with bold illustrations that capture young Ruby’s humor and courage.  If you’re looking for a Black history read-aloud for primary grades, this is a perfect choice that shows kids the powerful difference one six-year-old made in a way that they will relate to.

Cons:  You will probably want to supplement this with additional material to explain to kids exactly what it was Ruby did.

Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Angela Joy, illustrated by Janelle Washington

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Beginning with Mamie Till’s decision to bring her son Emmett’s body home to Illinois after his horrific murder in Mississippi, the story goes back to trace Mamie’s life to that point.  A smart, hardworking girl who graduated at the top of her high school class, Mamie married an abusive man, escaping the marriage with her son.  Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he was murdered by white men who believed he had violated Jim Crow laws when interacting with the wife of one of the men at a store.  The sheriff planned to quietly bury Emmett’s body, but Mamie insisted on bringing him home and having an open casket funeral.  Photos were widely published, giving impetus to the civil rights movement.  After Emmett’s death, Mamie remarried, went to college, became a teacher, and continued to work for civil rights until her death in 2003 at the age of 81.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator, a playlist, a glossary, a timeline, and a list of sources.  64 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This is a powerful book, both the free verse text and the cut paper illustrations.  The tone is appropriately somber, but also inspiring, showing Mamie’s love for her son, her grief, and her incredible resilience.  A Coretta Scott King Award contender for sure. 

Cons:  The narrative may be somewhat confusing to readers who aren’t familiar with Emmett Till’s story.  They might want to start with the back matter.

Black Boy, Black Boy: Celebrate the Power of You by Ali Kamanda and Jorge Redmond, illustrated by Ken Daley

Published by Sourcebooks Explore

Summary:  A Black man and boy walk together on a colorful path that takes them past Black heroes from the present and past, like Colin Kaepernick (football player), Elijah McCoy (inventor), and William Goines (first Black Navy Seal).  Famous men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama are also on the path, which ends with the man encouraging the boy to believe in himself and work hard so that he can have his own adventurous journey.  The final page shows the boy off and running down the path on his own, with the men from the book watching him and cheering him on.  Includes brief information of the nine men mentioned in the book.  40 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  An empowering book for Black boys that would make an excellent choice for a Black History Month read-aloud and belongs in all libraries for any time of year.  Here’s hoping there will be a Black Girl companion book.

Cons:  The rhyming felt a little forced, making me wonder if rhyming text was the best choice for this book.

H Is for Harlem by Dinah Johnson, illustrated by April Harrison

Published by Christy Ottaviano Books

Summary:  An author’s note introduces Harlem, giving a little historical context before exploring the neighborhood from A to Z.  Whether historical (W for Madam C. J. Walker, X for Malcolm X) or contemporary (C for Harlem Children’s Zone, I for Impact Farm), the text and illustrations combine to bring Harlem to life as a vibrant neighborhood with a rich history.  Readers will learn of places to visit like the Apollo Theater and the National Jazz Museum and of performances like the Boys (and Girls) Choir of Harlem and the Harlem Globetrotters that they may want to attend someday.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  I was ready to hop on the train and take a trip to Harlem after reading this colorful book with its lively illustrations of so many fascinating people and places that have shaped this amazing neighborhood over the years. A definite contender for a Coretta Scott King Award.

Cons:  Some additional resources, particularly websites, would have been a great addition.