Books by Black Authors for Kids
By Jennifer Bergen, Program and Children’s Services Manager
In February, the library’s ReadMHK reading challenge focuses on Black authors, encouraging everyone to enjoy the diversity of literature produced by African-American authors and illustrators. Last week, the American Library Association announced their children’s literature awards, several of which went to “Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre.” Written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, this picture book account of the 1921 massacre in Oklahoma received the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Illustrator Award, a Caldecott Honor, and a Sibert Honor for best children’s nonfiction.
The first half of “Unspeakable” shows the birth of the Greenwood district where 10,000 Blacks from various backgrounds created a thriving community, which Booker T. Washington called the “Negro Wall Street of America.” Cooper features specific businesses, houses, old cars and fancy hats, theaters, barber shops, and hotels. Weatherford’s straightforward writing paired with Cooper’s expressive painting skillfully carry the horrific story to an end that is hopeful and inspiring. Children must know our sad history in order to ensure a better present and future, “to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope.” Both Weatherford and Cooper have many other wonderful books that explore and Black history.
“Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky” by Kwame Mbalia is the first of a fabulous fantasy series based in African-American mythology and part of the “Rick Riordan Presents” collection. Tristan’s best friend Eddie has died in a tragic bus accident where Tristan tried to help him but couldn’t save him. Now Tristan must work through his feelings of sorrow, guilt, and anger, and the only thing that comforts him is knowing he has Eddie’s precious journal.
Things get weird quickly when Tristan notices an odd glow coming from the journal, and then a small, very impertinent creature hops through his window and tries to steal it. Tristan has a lot to learn when he accidentally enters the world of Alke, where real-life Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit, John Henry, Gum Baby and the elusive Anansi have powers and agendas. “Tristan Strong Destroys the World” and “Tristan Strong Keeps Punching” continue the adventurous tales, and Mbalia’s anthology “Black Boy Joy” is currently on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Basketball lovers who enjoyed Kwame Alexander’s Crossover series will love reading the graphic novel adaptation of the first book with illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile. “The Crossover” feels like it was made to be interspersed with Anyabwile’s emotive and action-packed illustrations of black, white, and orange. The text itself seems to be making basketball plays as it moves wildly across the pages. Even if you have read the novel already, the startling plot will surprise and grip you as Filthy and his brother JB work through family quarrels, secrets, and tragedy, with a tender conclusion any sibling will appreciate. Jason Reynolds’s new middle grade book, “Stuntboy, In the Meantime,” is a similar format with the words of the humorous story intermingled with fun illustrations by the super-cool Raúl the Third.
The new “Twins” graphic novel by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright is a perfect fit for Raina Telgemeier fans. Francine and Maureen are identical twins, and everyone has trouble telling them apart, until now. “Fran” wants to look different when they enter middle school as sixth graders and begins to separate herself from Maureen in classes, friendship circles and interests. When they both decide to run for class president, tensions grow to epic proportions. Wright’s colorful panels depict the ups and downs of middle school and family life, and Johnson captures both the insecurities and excitement of finding out who you really are.
Finally, there are hundreds of excellent biographies of Black men and women who have made their mark on America’s history throughout the ages. New short biographies in the “She Persisted” series include Harriet Tubman, Ruby Bridges and Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith Joyner. Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders series for kids has two volumes on the best sellers list – “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” and “Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History.” Harrison’s board book adaptations of these books are accessible for preschoolers, and other picture books she has illustrated are some of my favorites: “Hair Love,” “Cece Loves Science,” and “Sulwe,” which is written by actress Lupita Nyong’o about learning to love the darkness of her skin.
February is Black History Month, but exploring the amazing books by contemporary Black authors in fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, young adult, and children’s literature is valuable all the time. Check out our booklists available from mhklibrary.org/readmhk. You can also sign up for ReadMHK, a 9-month community wide reading program, and come to a book discussion at 7 p.m. on February 17 for a relaxed small group discussion of what books we have read and enjoyed by Black authors. A zoom option will be available for the book discussion.