So Amy has been sharing some books with you for African American History Month. Now it’s my turn, and since my speciality seems to be young adult books that’s what I’m going to share. There are some wonderful stories out there. First I want to share a non-fiction book that I read aloud during February the one year I taught fifth grade. Now often non-fiction books can be uninteresting to kids, especially longer ones but this book caught both their attention and mine. It helps that it’s a biography, but the writing is very much in narrative format so it’s much more story like than dry non-fiction reading and by a YA author that I highly recommend: Walter Dean Myers. The book is Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. This book, as you would expect, tells the life of civil rights leader Malcolm X and it is totally accessible for kids at least as young as fifth grade. I’d say there are probably even third or fourth graders that could read this one. Btw just a plug Walter Dean Myers has written many more books both fiction and non-fiction and my favorite of his books is Monster.
Next one of my favorite picture books from my classroom library: I Have a Dream, this book is the text of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech which before you read it aloud may need to be clarified. I read this book to a class of third graders that was largely African American and they were seriously miffed at the use of the word Negro. We had to stop reading and have a discussion that at that point in America’s history that was acceptable term for African Americans and a reminder that it was MLK Jr himself who was using it in this speech. Besides being the inspirational words of Dr King, the pictures are all by artists who have won the Coretta Scott King (Dr. King’s wife) Award for art. They are amazing, my copy of the book also came with a poster that I laminated for my classroom.
Now on to fiction books. There are a number of wonderful historical fiction books that can be used to help teach the history of African Americans, and more generally the history of America. All that I’m sharing are books I have used in my classroom that I have “taught”, or rather facilitated, discussions about. The first is by author Christopher Paul Curtis: The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963. The Watson family is an African American family living in Michigan. Being as they live in the North, they don’t experience the same things as African Americans living in the South at that point in time. The story centers on Kenny the middle child of the family. Kenny’s older brother Byron is well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent when their parents have an idea, they will take Byron to live with Grandma in Birmingham, Alabama. While the parents are well aware of the differences between the way they live in the North and how they are allowed to live in the South, this is all new to the three children. While they’re visiting Grandma her church is bombed, Curtis uses the real life bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church as a catalyst in this story. It is chilling and the type of book you just can’t put down.
Another of Curtis’s books that I really enjoy and enjoyed reading aloud to my students is Bud, Not Buddy. Bud is a ten year old orphan tired of living in foster home after foster home, he decides to set out and find the man he is sure is his father Herman E Calloway and jazz musician. The story starts as Watsons did in Flint, Michigan this time though in 1936. Bud takes off on a journey to find Calloway, and has quite a few adventures along the way. It is certainly interesting to read about the Great Depression through the eyes of this 10 yr old African American boy. As Bud is in the North there are some differences between the way he and the band are treated when he finds them and African Americans living in the South.
To get a better picture of those differences I’d recommend a book that was a required read for my eighth grade classes: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. Roll is the story of the Logan family; a rare African American family that owns its own land in the South rather than sharecropping on a white owner’s land. Yet this does not change how the Logans are treated by their white neighbors, or maybe it does but not in a good way. Much of the story centers on nine year old Cassie. Through her eyes we see the difference in education of African Americans, their treatment in stores, and why the land is so important to the Logan family. Teaching in a school that was predominantly white with few other nationalities present at all I found this book to be a great way to show exactly what life was like in the 30s, especially for African Americans. There are several other books about this family as well. Two prequels: The Land about Cassie’s grandpa, and The Well: David’s story about Cassie’s dad and uncle give some great background on this family. Then there are shorter stories that are almost companions to Roll: The Friendship and Song of the Trees both center on Cassie, Mississippi Bridge is about Jeremy Simms and happens not long before the events of Roll. There are two direct sequels that follow the Logan kids as they grow up, especially Cassie: Let the Circle Be Unbroken and The Road to Memphis.
While we’re featuring these books right now for African American history month please note they are great to read anytime, especially along with a history curriculum as you cross those time periods.
WAIT – I nearly forgot one of my favorite books while not one I teach it is one I’ve read and referenced with my students (I taught middle school and knew they would read it in high school) To Kill a Mockingbird, I think the trial of Tim Robinson for the rape of a white woman being seen through the eyes of a young white child, especially the child of the man defending Tim is powerful.