black history, nonfiction corner, social studies

Nonfiction Corner: From Here to There/How Do You Spell Unfair?

From Here to There: A Book of First Maps (Candlewick)
Written by Vivian French
Illustrated by Ya-Ling Huang

For ages: 3-7
Anna lives in the suburbs. Her friend Zane lives in an apartment building. Zane sends Anna an invite to play and includes a hand-drawn map. However, Anna finds Zane’s map “wrong” because he put his house in the middle. So she decides to make her map based on the locations significant to her, including Grandma, who lives far away. In this lesson, Anna learns about scale and perspective. Her dad explains how maps can be scaled to show greater or smaller regions. She also learns about labels on maps and that maps can serve different purposes.

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african, author spotlight, black history, black lives

Author Spotlight – Leah Henderson

Leah Henderson has always loved to travel. Her family made many trips when she was a child, which continued into adulthood. Home was Andover, Massachusetts, where she also cultivated a love of reading. When Leah couldn’t physically go somewhere, books could take her there. As she grew, the young woman noticed how little some books she read resembled the world she knew and herself. There were so many people that got overlooked in the media that Leah decided to write about them. Today she lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches in the graduate writing program at Spalding University. Leah also has spent many years mentoring & volunteering in Mali, where her family has their roots. In her books, the author consistently highlights what it is to be a Black person worldwide over many periods.

Daddy Speaks Love (Nancy Paulsen Books)
Written by Leah Henderson
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

For ages: 4-8
The ripples caused in the wake of the murder of George Floyd are still being felt today. There was a palpable and justified anger at the time has, which has cooled slightly but still simmers. The problem of the murder of Black people at the hands of police hasn’t stopped, and the fight certainly needs to continue. Leah Henderson was inspired by the words of Gianna, George’s daughter, who was only six at the time of his murder. We have an unnamed Black child talking about their father and their joy in spending time with him. The lyrical text focuses on the refrain of “Daddy speaks love.” The book holds a sense of momentum that builds to a beautiful spread of a child beneath a mural of the late Floyd with the words declaring “Black Lives Matter” and that we will change this world for the better. Relevant, beautiful words should not be hidden from children by white folks who fear the truth. 

A Day for Rememberin’ (Harry N. Abrams)
Written by Leah Henderson
Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

For ages: 6-9
Telling the origins of today’s Memorial Day, we go back to when Black Americans celebrated Decoration Day. A community of formerly enslaved people in 1865 faces a future with opportunities they never dreamed would be possible. Eli wants to go to work with his dad, but he’s still a child, and they tell him school is what he needs to do. One day, he gets to skip school, go with his father, and help as the adults prepare a special event to memorialize Black soldiers killed in the American Civil War. There’s a lot of work to do, and then a parade with songs, sermons, and flowers laid on simple graves. The legendary late Floyd Cooper illustrated this book, a perfect pairing between her and Henderson—another reminder of how fantastic his painted illustrations were.

One Shadow on the Wall (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
Written by Leah Henderson

For ages: 8-12
This middle-grade novel tells the story of Mor, an 11-year-old Senegalese child. The child’s father had died, leaving Mor and his two younger sisters as orphans. Mor’s father comes to him in a dream encouraging him to do everything he can to keep the family together. There are dangers in this place, including a gang of men intent on doing harm & taking what they want. Eventually, Mor learns his best friend has joined this gang and wonders if he should too. They don’t seem to ever go without. Henderson presents Senegal with so much life and detail that it makes you feel like you are there. So often, African countries are ignored in Western children’s literature that it’s a refreshing surprise to read about one. This is slower than some middle-grade readers might be used to. Still, its message of determination and loving one’s family is a universal sentiment everyone can connect with.

black history, nonfiction corner, sports

Nonfiction Corner – Take A Picture of Me, James VanDerZee/The Replay

Take A Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee (Lee & Low Books)
Written by Andrea J. Loney
Illustrated by Keith Mallett

For ages: 7-12
The novelty of having someone take a picture of you has lost some of its magic as we walk around with digital cameras in our pockets all the time. Of course, people are taking pictures more than ever now because of its ease, but in the early years of the analog camera, it was a memorable moment. James VanDerZee was a young boy growing up in Lenox, Massachusetts, when he saw a camera for the first time. The book tells us how he got a camera as a young man, turning the closet in his bedroom into a makeshift dark room. Reaching adulthood, James moves to Harlem, which is undergoing a cultural transformation at the time. He captures that movement in photographs that would end up being hidden for decades. Eventually, his work was discovered and put on exhibition garnering him the rightful praise he deserved.

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author spotlight, black history, black lives, family, illustration

Author Spotlight: Floyd Cooper

Damn cancer. On Friday, July 16, 2021, it took children’s author-illustrator Floyd Cooper from us. What remains is a body of work that will be carried on into the future. He wrote stories about Black children living ordinary lives but found immense beauty in their perspectives & observations. Cooper was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1965 and started making art at three. Using a piece of gypsum, he etched “little shapes onto the side of my Dad’s house.” His parents’ divorce turned his life into chaos, causing Cooper to attend 11 different elementary schools in Tulsa over his early years. He credits his teachers for keeping him focused, and he earned an art scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. Adult life began with work in the greeting card & advertising industries doing illustrations. In 1988, Cooper landed his first children’s picture book Grandpa’s Face. About his style, Cooper said, “I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work. Real faces = real art. That’s the goal anyway.” Cooper’s grandfather survived the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and, over his life, shared these experiences with his grandson. Cooper would go on to illustrate a book about the event titled Unspeakable, ensuring we do not forget the evils of racism. The influence of his grandfather can be seen throughout his work, often a character popping up to guide a child.

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black history, black lives, climate collapse, science

Nonfiction Corner – To Change a Planet/Song for the Unsung

To Change a Planet ( Scholastic Press)
Written by Christina Soontornvat
Illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell

For ages: 4-8

It’s become evident that the continuance of life as we know it on this planet is over. A small percentage of humanity hoards the way resources, the environment has been left ravaged over centuries of extraction, and the pollution caused by fossil fuels all clearly indicate that we cannot keep living like this. Based on the severity of the problems, they will not be solved handily in a single election cycle but throughout the next generation and likely the one that follows (if we can keep humanity alive). This means it is vital that we empower our children to understand the role they will need to play in this global rescue mission & how necessary collective action will be.

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author spotlight, black history, black lives, social-emotional

Author Spotlight: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Vanessa Brantley-Newton was born in Newark, New Jersey. She learned early on to celebrate being Black and living in a diverse community. One of her earliest reading memories is picking up Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day. Brantley-Newton has said that it was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book, which had been Keats’s goal in making his protagonist Black. That began a life-long love of art, particularly picture book illustration. Although, like many artists before her, Brantley-Newton didn’t go straight to kids’ books and studied fashion at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Later, at the School of the Visual Arts, she took up children’s book illustration, which is now her job. Now she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband & daughter, regularly collaborating with writers on books that continue what the Snowy Day once did for her.

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black history, black lives, history, middle grade, social-emotional

Middle Grade Must-Reads: Swim Team

Swim Team (HarperAlley)
Written & Illustrated by Johnnie Christmas

For ages: 8-12
The story of how white supremacy erased beautiful cities has been shielded from white people’s view for at least a generation or two since it happened. Only in the last year have I learned that many cities across the country used to have public swimming facilities and even public amusement parks with rides. Where did these places go? When segregation was finally ruled unconstitutional, and these places were opened up to Black families, only then did the municipal leaders decide to shutter and demolish them. Now, most American suburbs and small towns have an absence of places for young people to play safely. I know the small Southern town I come from has nothing for the youth and plenty of drug problems caused by this cancerous boredom. How foolish that some white people should be filled with so much hate that they would torpedo their own children’s & grandchildren’s enjoyment of public spaces. 

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author spotlight, black history, black lives, social studies, social-emotional

Author Spotlight – Jacqueline Woodson

From top to bottom, Jacqueline Woodson is someone who was born to write. She grew up splitting her life between time in South Carolina and New York, learning a lot from both places. After college, Woodson did a lot of technical writing, from children’s packaging to the California standardized tests. After enrolling in a children’s book writing class led by Delacorte editor Bebe Willoughby, Woodson finally found someone who saw the immense talent she possessed. I find Woodson’s work to be some of the most beautiful and pointed in addressing the social-emotional needs of children, especially Black children. She has been forthright in her opinion that “bleakness” and “hopelessness” have no place in children’s literature without at least a strong notion of hope added to counter them. While Woodson has written for all ages, I am only familiar with her picture book work, and it is some of the best out there right now. She can deftly tackle things many educators may be scared of at the moment, aggressive right-wing movements making it “awkward” to talk about. Woodson’s writing is so laser-focused on speaking to the child that she is not interested in catering to adult hatemongers who want to muddy the child’s thinking. 

While you are likely to hear about Woodson’s more recent books (like The Day You Begin or The Year We Learned to Fly), I want to recommend some older pieces from her bibliography. 

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black history, culture, disabilities, hispanic, illustration, social-emotional

Book List: Our Beautiful Hair

Happy to Be Nappy (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Written by bell hooks
Illustrated by Chris Raschka

For ages: 1-5
This board book is not your typical baby lit. Instead, it’s taken from the words of noted author bell hooks and celebrates the beauty of Black hair. Hooks provides beautifully descriptive language to talk about her hair, comparing it to the fluffiness of cotton, frizzy, fuzzy, and able to be styled in a seemingly endless number of ways. Hair is evoked as a method of bonding. Mothers & daughters spending time together. The illustrations by Chris Raschka evoke the crayon drawings of a young child for whom this book is intended, playful stick figures with colors going outside the lines. While appearing simple from the outside, Happy to Be Nappy is a beautiful celebration of Black hair and its many styles and presentations.

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author spotlight, black history, fairy tales

Author Spotlight – Jerry Pinkney

On October 20th, 2021, the world lost a fantastic children’s author & illustrator. Jerry Pinkney was born in Philadelphia in 1939, the middle child out of five. Dyslexia plagued him in school, so he found drawing to be a comforting escape from the confusion of reading. As a teen, he continued to hone his artistic skills while working other jobs and eventually caught the eye of cartoonist John Liney who mentored Pinkney. After art school and marriage, Pinkney got a job making art for greeting cards. In 1960, the young artist illustrated his first children’s book, retelling the African Anansi stories. In 1980, he won his first award for children’s book illustration, and by 2010 Pinkney won his first and only Caldecott Medal for The Lion and The Mouse.

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