Sunday, February 13, 2011

Books by African Americans

The morning of Friday, February 18, will find a hush falling over our school as we engage in an African American Read In sponsored by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The goal is to have everyone in the school from the youngest kindergarten student to the head of school take 30 minutes to Drop Everything and Read. The NCTE encourages us to take this time during Black History Month to read a book by an African American author.

The goal of finding reading material for each member of our school community got me thinking about many issues. Last spring when I heard Christopher Paul Curtis speak at a luncheon, he pointed out that there are still only two widely published male African American authors for young men in grades three to eight, Curtis and Walter Dean Myers. As I found books in our collection that comment kept coming to mind.

Our middle grade fiction by African American authors is something that I think about often as a part of collection development. Pulling books by African American authors makes clear how difficult it is to find good books--perhaps any books--that fit in this category.

Bud, Not Buddy, The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 and Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis are all popular in our collection though his Mr. Chickee books are a bit harder sell, perhaps because they do not have the historical aspect and the more intense stories or simply that they are aimed at a big younger audience. I have met Curtis and listened to him talk several times and he seems to be just what we want as a model for our young men. He is caring, thoughtful, philosophical, and filled with energy, enthusiasm, and humor.

Walter Dean Myers is amazing but harder to get young men in our school to read. I am not sure why. My favorite of his books is Monster, but that is only for the oldest of our students as it is a difficult topic, dealing as it does with a young man standing trial for robbery and murder. Fallen Angels and Handbook for Boys are also good titles that I clearly need to promote more actively. Myers has a wide array of titles in addition to his fiction. Poetry, history, picture books, and even a memoir (Bad Boy) are brought to us by this talented author. Don't miss Walter Dean Myers son Christopher Myers' exciting adaptation through illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. It is a book that any basketball player will love.

We have a few fiction works by Julius Lester (Days of Tears, This Strange New Feeling), but, once again, they are for older readers and a hard sell for me. Lester has done one of the most beautiful versions of an African American legend in The Old African and has some history and even a picture book discussion of race, Let's Talk about Race, in our collection. I have great admiration for everything that Lester has created and urge you to seek out his writings.

Other fiction African American fiction for middle grade readers is almost exclusively written by women--Virginia Halmilton, Pat McKissack, Jacqueline Woodson, Mildred Taylor and Sharon M. Draper. All of these authors well deserve the accolades that they have received for their many works of fiction.

We have more non-fiction by African American authors than we do fiction. Not surprisingly, I suppose, many of them deal with the civil rights movement and the history of slavery. There are a few titles that I must mention that fit in this category. Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High by Melba Beals is a just what the title promises. Being among the first to integrate a hostile high school was an honor of sorts but also a horrible experience. Picture, if you will, being escorted to high school with the National Guard not always willingly being called in to protect you from jeering and threatening fellow students.

Toni Morrison offers a somewhat gentler look at school integration in Remember: The Journey to School Integration though the stunning black and white photos will grip at your heart on each page.

Two other historical works that are worthy of your consideration: Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage by Walter Dean Myers which looks at the the 369 Infantry of World War I, an African American regiment that had to fight both the war and the battles of racism. They stood up for democracy when few American would stand up for them. Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African American Whalers by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack looks at another under-recognized group when they look at the impact of African Americans on whaling ships and how they helped shape the abolition movements.

Non-fiction by African Americans is not limited to history and social movements. Wynton Marsalis has a beautiful book about jazz called A-B-Z Jazz which uses poetry and modern art to present brief looks at 26 jazz musicians. This is not a simple picture book, but a work of art and biographical collection for readers with the time and interest to pursue it in detail.

Sports lovers will find that many of their favorite athletes like Tiki Barber and Venus Williams have written about their sports. Other people have written biographies of some of the greats. Walter Dean Myers has written ultimate boxing biography in The Greatest:Muhammad Ali. The most beautiful sports book I have ever seen is We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. Pick it up just for the pictures and you will soon be drawn into the narrative.

There are some beautifully illustrated works of some poetic greats. The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes is beautifully illustrated by E. B. Lewis in a book which drew accolades when it was published in 2009 and has drawn many to discover this moving work. Maya Angelou's Life Doesn't Frighten Me is perfectly suited for the bright and powerful paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. I wish I had Angelou's voice to read this aloud with the proper impact, but whatever your voice it cries to be read out with emotion. Ntozake Shange uses poetry to remember growing up in presence of African American leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Robeson and others. It is history told with love and lyricism.

The most beautiful new art book is an award winner this year (Coretta Scott King Award, Caldecott Honor Book). Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill uses amazing illustrations by Bryan Collier to supplement the text about a slave who created beautiful pottery. Dave has no last name because he was a slave, but he left his simple poems on each pot he created so historians are able to trace a bit of his story. This is a must have book for anyone who loves pottery, especially those who have had the chance to use the wheel.

Don't forget the beautiful folk tales by such people as Verna Aardema (Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain), Ashley Bryan (Beautiful Blackbird), Virginia Hamilton (The People Could Sing, Her Stories), and John Steptoe (Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters). There are many, many more that fit in this section, but this will give you a start.

Finally, look to the picture book section. This section offers much from which to choose, so I will simply list a few of my favorites. My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me by Maya Angelou, The Big Box by Toni Morrison, Precious and the Boo Hag by Pat McKissack, Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carole Boston Weatherford, and Sweet Music in Harlem by Debbie A. Taylor, an Ann Arbor author.

While the number of African American authors for young people is slowly growing, the books that are currently available will offer something for every reader and listener. Consider joining us at 8:30 on Friday, February 18, 2011, to take some time to enjoy some fascinating writing by an African American author.

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