Diverse Kids Books–Reviews

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Early Literacy: 3-year-old reads, writes, recites Countee Cullen’s “Hey Black Child”

Peighten for twitter of her performancePe’tehn Raighn-kem Jackson has been reading since she was 18 months old. Now three, she memorized and recited Countee Cullen’s poem, “Hey Black Child” for a Black History Month event. 7 online invited her  to perform the poem on air on February 25th of this year.

She and her parents speak a little about teaching a child to read and write early on. They’re just a start. Do you have a video or photos of your child reading or reciting  a story? If so, we’d love to share your child’s enthusiasm for books and literature with our Diverse Kids Books community. Submit your photos or videos to us in accordance with the guidelines on our Children Read Submissions Page.

With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzanne Slade & Nicole Tadgell #BookerTWashington #DiversekidsBooks

cover with books and bricksWith Books and Bricks by Suzanne Slade is a beautifully written biography of an important historical figure whose life story is not nearly as well-known as it should be. Delicately illustrated by Nicole Tadgell, the book chronicles Booker T. Washington’s evolution from enslaved biracial boy to dedicated educator and leader.

Washington was nine when the Civil War ended and all slaves were freed. But, as Slade writes, “Booker didn’t feel free. He had to work long hours in a salt mine so his family could survive.” Having been drawn to books as a child, he begs his mother to get him a book “And somehow, as often happens with mothers, a miracle appeared,” in the form of a spelling book. (more…)

Poems in the Attic by Nikki Grimes and Elizabeth Zunon #WeNeedDiverseBooks #WeHaveDiverseBooks #DiverseKidsBooks #Blackpoetry #MilitaryKid

cover Poems in the AtticPoems in the Attic is the picture book story of a seven-year-old African American girl who, during a visit to her grandmother’s attic, finds a box of poetry that her mother wrote as a child. Her mother’s poems are full with the yearning for an Air Force father who is often away and the wonder of discovering new places as the family moves again and again when her dad returns from deployments.

Nikki Grimes, the author makes several bold, creative choices in the telling of this story. The protagonist is never named and the story has a polyphonic poetic narrative voice. The protagonist’s mother’s voice comes through on the right side of the pages in the Tanka poems the protagonist is reading and the protagonist’s voice is represented on the left side of the pages in free verse poetry. (more…)

A Wreath For Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson #WeNeedDiverseBooks #DiverseKidsbooks

cover EmmettTillThis is a somber and sobering collection of poems with illustrations which attempt to capture the kind of cruelty that nobody wants to explain to their children, but we have to, don’t we? Nelson writes, “Forget him not. Though if I could, I would / forget much of that racial memory,” and she writes with such charge, with such sorrow that sits in your mouth, the kind of sorrow that you don’t want to swallow because if you do, maybe you’d forget.

Marilyn Nelson remembers the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955; she was nine. Emmett was 14 years old, and the book, although strong enough for the minds of adults is gentle enough for a discussion with a bright, open child. The vocabulary is advanced, probably more suited for a pre-teen, but a smart 8 year old would be fine with the language. In fact, it could be a good vocabulary building book with phrases like parallel universe and terms like witness and atrocity.

While reading the piece I often wondered, is this the kind of thing you read with a child? And over and over the answer is yes. Nelson addresses this in her foreword, where she explains the form which her poems take, “Instead of thinking too much about the painful subject of lynching, I thought about…the strict form [and how it is] a way of protecting myself”. So would a parent have to delve into the harsh topic of lynching? Not unless you felt your child was ready for such a thing, but this book would still reach out to your child because children are smart and understanding. They have sadness and complications. They understand our sadnesses, our triumphs and sorrow, and although deep and dark, sadness must break to light. The illustrations in this book lend themselves to brightness, they call on those silver-lining moments, and they represent, just as Emmett Till does, innocence.

Recommendation: Recommended; Ages: mature 8 year olds – 14

Review by Rachelle Escamilla

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Award Winning Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown_Girl_Dreaming with all the awardsJacqueline Woodson’s lyrical memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, is memorable, and not only because it won the prestigious National Book Award in 2014, the 2015 NAACP Image award and is a 2015 Newberry Award Honor Book. At its roots, Brown Girl Dreaming feels distinctly American.

Woodson’s memoir speaks of a connection and separation with family as she reflects on her birth in Ohio, her early years in South Carolina, and her family’s move to New York City. Throughout the memoir she recalls the absence of her father, the strength of her grandparents’ love, and the disconnect of what makes a place “home” as she moves between the American North and South during the 1960s and 1970s.

Woodson’s narrative is linear: the book is organized into four parts and chronologically follows Woodson’s life from her birth to the later stages of her childhood. Told completely in poetic free verse, Woodson’s poetry is easily accessible, following more traditional modes of form and lineation. Each poem is powerful, yet they work cohesively to tell Woodson’s childhood stories of learning to love writing and herself.

Brown Girl Dreaming is not a story that will disappear lightly. Its themes are strikingly contemporary as Woodson’s young narrator lets the reader in on a journey that seeks to understand how race and faith shape a person’s childhood, family, and friendships. This book is one that walks quietly and affects deeply. In short: Brown Girl Dreaming is a book to return to, and a book that will continue to hold its head high for a long time.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended, Ages: 11+

Reviewed by Erin Koehler

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A Kiss Means I Love You by Kathryn Madeline Allen

cover for A Kiss Means I Love YouIt’s as important for babies and toddlers to feel like their emotions are understood and validated as it is for them to learn how to express how they feel, whether it’s through body language or words. A Kiss Means I Love You, a picture book with photographs of diverse children and families in various emotional and physical states, does just this.

Ranging from a smile to coughs and sneezes, the formula of “a ___ means I’m ___” will help babies and toddlers expand their vocabulary for expressing themselves, and hopefully develop sympathy and empathy through seeing the different children in various moods and states in the book. Like Dr. Seuss’s My Many Colored Days, the simple words on each page may help a child feel their emotions validated and shared by others.

This book would be great for daycares, especially diverse ones—my daughter took it to school and the toddlers matched one another’s names to the children on the pages, seeing themselves in them. A Kiss Means I Love You makes a good bedtime story as well, ending with the familiar line (in a new order), “I love you…goodnight.”

Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao

Recommended: 2-5 years

Firebird by Misty Copeland

Firebird by Misty Copeland coverFirebird is American Ballet Theater principal dancer Misty Copeland’s first children’s book. Now fast rising to the top of the American ballet scene, a feat that is virtually unheard of for a dancer of color, Copeland has been very vocal about the old-fashioned but very prominent and largely inescapable role of race in ballet, of her own struggles to be accepted and to advance as a so-called “non-traditional” ballerina. That she only just graced the cover of Pointe Magazine, a leading ballet monthly, at the very same time she debuted as Odile/Odette in Swan Lake makes the subject of this colorful picture book all the more a propos. Speaking to other young dancers of color, Firebird seeks to hearten those who face what seems to be insurmountable adversity. Through illustrations and a simple text that read as honest in their positivity and that, despite the meaning between the lines (i.e. it is ridiculously and yes, unjustly difficult for non-White dancers to make a serious career of dancing), communicate no bitterness and throw out no blame.

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A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream by Kristy Dempsey

cover A Dance Like StarlightA Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream follows the aspirations of one little girl in Harlem in the 1950s. Told in lyrical prose, the reader learns that the unnamed African-American girl spends her afternoons dancing backstage at the dance school her mother works at. She spends her evenings wishing upon unseen New York stars for a dream most consider unthinkable during this era. Still, every single day she practices her pliés and chassés with fervor.

One day, her backstage routine catches the eye of the Ballet Master himself. He invites her to join in on a daily lesson with the white girls in the class (in the back row), although she’ll never be able to perform onstage with them. Since joining the class, she pushes herself harder to be the best ballerina she can be. And whenever she’s asked to demonstrate a movement for the whole class, the little girl thinks for a fleeting moment that even a “colored girl like me” could become a prima ballerina someday. (more…)

Perfect Lil Blends by Luke Whitehead

cover for Perfect Lil BlendsPerfect Lil Blends: A Reality Book that Celebrates the Diversity  of Multicultural Children  is like a series of love letters from parents to their children accompanied by their children’s portraits. Compiled by Luke Whitehead, the founder of Mixed Nation, this is a photo essay of children of mixed heritage from almost every racial, cultural, and ethnic background. Yes, most of these children are exceptionally beautiful however, similar to, but more personal than, Kip Fulbeck’s photo essay book Mixed, each photo of a child is accompanied by a description of the child’s life interests and a note of dedication from the parents to the child, making this more than a vanity book of portraits. (more…)

When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright

cover for When a Black Girl SingsIf When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright was a dish served at a fancy restaurant it would be described as “adoption woes over a bed of teenage angst served with a side of parental problems and an empty glass of communication.” Doesn’t sound like a favorite dish you would order time after time, but it does fill a definite need on the menu.

The main character, Lahni, is a 13 year old black girl who was adopted by white, heterosexual parents when she was a baby. Living with white parents in Connecticut, Lahni attends a private school, with only a handful of non-white students. She feels completely out of place, alone and unable to connect with friends. Adding to her troubles, her parents are getting a divorce and her father has a new “friend”. Then her mother suggests they try going to church, where Lahni meets and befriends the choir director and the church’s soloist who are both black. She is coerced by her music teacher, who sees promise in her, into joining a singing competition at her school. Lahni joins her church choir to help her prepare for the competition and in the end finds her voice.

I found at many times in this book I was frustrated with Lahni and her parents mainly because they seemed to be hopeless at communicating honestly with one another and others around them. After a particularly upsetting incident at school where a classmate calls Lahni an “African baby on a television special” her mom says, “Maybe she meant it as a compliment.” Or when Lahni’s dad finds her waiting outside the door listening to her parents scream at one another, he simply takes his suitcase and gets into the taxi. Lahni, following the role models set out for her, never talks with her parents (or anyone) about how it feels to be a black child adopted by a white family or about the troubles she has as the only black girl in her grade. Lahni keeps her best friend at bay, only telling her about her parents impending divorce at the very end and then again shuts her friend down when she asks questions. Lahni’s struggle with communication does not end with her inability to share her thoughts, but it seems she is not able to garner messages others are telling her as well. Her music teacher and choir director clearly express on multiple occasions their admiration for her singing, yet even to the end Lahni refuses to have confidence in her ability. That said, the teenage years are not perfect. Transracial adoption is not always heart-to-heart chats and a warm cup of cocoa. And I am NOT a black, teenage girl being raised by struggling white parents, so perhaps I just don’t get it. And perhaps there is some reader in Lahni’s exact situation who will want to take Lahni into her heart because she is singing the reader’s song.

At one point in the story, Lahni is being stalked by a white boy in school who calls himself Onyx 1. This boy focuses his affection on Lahni purely based on his desire to date a black girl. Later he gets in a knife fight with two black boys and he calls them “two black apes”. When Lahni hears this, she is so confused about how a person can want to date someone who is black, nickname themselves “black” and then use racial slurs. In typical teenage style, although scared of Onyx 1, she chooses to handle it on her own. Lahni never mentions it to her parents or to another adult until the end of the book after she is forced in a deserted parking lot to confront him. I dislike the fact that the author had Lahni deal with this issue on her own. Obviously, in fiction the author managed the confrontation to work out in Lahni’s favor but in real life confronting a stalker is truly dangerous. I want the message to young adult readers to clearly state, “ask for help from an adult if this happens to you.” I did however like that the author kept Onyx 1’s character as undesirable and Lahni told him to get lost. Too many times, plots include the “good girl” falling for a “bad boy” when she discovers his soft side.

This book has a light Christian theme to it, but it is not overwhelming. In the beginning Lahni attends church for the first time and by the end she performs “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and realizes she is not singing but she is in fact praying.

Recommendation: This book is suitable for readers age 13+.

Reviewer: Amanda Setty