Then Came the School

Nine-year-old Booker T. Washington was no longer a slave, but he didn’t feel free. Instead of learning the tools of freedom, Booker spent his hours toiling in a salt mine so he and his family could survive.

With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzanne Slade With Books and Bricks How Booker T Washington Built a School by Suzanne Sladetells the inspiring story of how Washington managed to found what is now known as Tuskegee University.  We learn that Booker not only taught himself to read, but went on to walk and hitch rides 500 miles away to Virginia, where, at the age of 16, he could finally attend school. After graduating, he found a job teaching in the small town of Tuskegee, Alabama.

He encountered lots of eager students ready to learn — but no school. He procured an old shed, but the roof was so leaky that when it rained, “students took turns holding an umbrella over Booker so he could keep teaching.”

As more students came, the shack became more and more crowded. Booker knew they needed a real school, and it seemed obvious that the only way to get it was to build it themselves.

After borrowing money to buy an abandoned farm, Booker went to work clearing land. But where could he get the bricks necessary for the walls? Again, Booker relied on his own strength and knowledge. He studied how to mold and bake bricks and learned how to lay them. He and his students then took on the back-breaking work of digging for the clay they needed to make bricks. Nicole Tadgell’s lively pencil and watercolor illustrations help readers realize how grueling the task would have been. She shows the young people chopping down huge trees, digging muddy pits, holding red clay in blistered hands, and then lining up their many bricks.

They made 25,000 of them — only to have the kiln Booker had built explode and ruin them. Booker built another, and the same thing happened.

But Booker would not stop. He took his only precious possession, a gold watch, and sold it to pay for a kiln. This one did the job, and they built the walls and installed the front door and nailed on a waterproof roof.

More students kept coming, though, so they continued building– a dining hall, a chapel, a dorm where students could live. Those students went on to become the next generation’s teachers and leaders. I think most of us would agree with Washington’s observation, which closes the story: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

The author complements her well-paced narrative with an afterword containing more information on Washington, as well as a bibliography and source notes for the quotes she used.

While others have written picture books on Washington, I recommend using this one for ages 6 to 9, as Slade’s focus on the challenge of building a school creates enough drama to keep children interested and engaged.

See also …

my previous posts on Black History Month, featuring Martin & Mahalia Made Their Mark and the award-winning Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell



Josephine Sizzles

Just in time for Black History Month, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is a vibrant biography of a woman who defied society’s stereotypes and restrictions as she danced around the world.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby PowellWith lively free verse that evokes the Roaring Twenties ragtime that Josephine Baker reveled in, the author crafts a story worthy of such a unique artist. Ms. Powell’s use of  quotes gives young readers a feeling for Josephine’s energy, drive, and creativity. This, for instance, is how the bio begins: “I shall dance all my life. … I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.”

She also varies the typeface, font, and size of some of the words: “She flung her arms,/she flung her legs./Like she flung her heart and her soul./’Cause DANCIN’ makes you HAPPY/when nothing’ else will.”

We follow Josephine as she leaves the slums of Saint Louis to join the Dixie Steppers in performing for audiences as far south as New Orleans, “where signs for one latrine read WHITE ladies/and another, COLORED women, where a white person wouldn’t sell you/a cup of coffee./Because you were/NEGRO.”

From there, Josephine Baker made her way to New York and finally to the City of Light, Paris, where, she recounted, “For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.” She was all the rage, and, unlike in segregated America, people tried to dress like her, arrange their hair like her, and tanned to look like Josephine. She would stride down the Champs-Elysees with her pet leopard, Chiquita, “each wearing a diamond choker–/as REGAL as a queen by day/as WILD as a leopard by night.”

Later, when France entered World War II, Josephine Baker joined the Red Cross and spied for the country that had given her so much. She also showed her brave, generous spirit by adopting 12 children of various races from nations around the world. She “felt the whole world was represented in her family. She called them her RAINBOW TRIBE.”

Divided into six acts, or chapters, this biography vibrates with Christian Robinson’s spirited illustrations done in acrylic paints. The abundance of bright two-page spreads will keep many a reader engaged and longing for more.

This is one DAZZLING tribute to one sassy woman. Highly recommended for upper-elementary and middle-school students.

And don’t miss:

My post on Carole Boston Weatherford’s Freedom on the Menu
and my post of the Coretta Scott King winner, Bryan Collier.

Martin and Mahalia Made Their Mark

That dynamic husband-and-wife duo otherwise known as the Pinkneys deliver a fresh, inspiring look at the Civil Rights Movement with their latest picture book, Martin & Mahalia: His Words Her Song. This vivid biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson reveals a significant friendship honed by common struggles, hopes, and strengths. Martin & Mahalia His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Author Andrea Davis Pinkney struts her storytelling stuff here, employing a warm, intimate tone of voice, a powerful yet simple evocation of segregation’s degrading effects on daily life, and a pleasing parallel structure that zeroes in on the two African-American heroes’ shared values and contributions to a more just society. For instance, she writes that “Martin SPOKE the gospel./PRAYED the gospel./SOUGHT the gospel./TAUGHT the gospel.” On the following page, she notes Mahalia “… SANG the gospel./WORKED the gospel./LED the gospel./SPREAD the gospel.” Not only that, the author injects a remarkable sense of movement: “Martin’s sermons and Mahalia’s spirituals told their listeners: YOU ARE HERE./ON THE PATH./COME ALONG./STEP PROUD./STAND STRONG./BE BRAVE./GO WITH ME./to a place,/to a time,/when we all will BE FREE.”

The synergy between her words and Brian Pinkney’s swirling, energetic watercolor paintings ensures a remarkable read-aloud experience, whether one-on-one or with a group. The book design choices to vary the size, font, and color of the typeface serve to pump up the story’s energy level. The illustrator reinforces the relevance of particular verbs (such as “sang,” “worked,” etc.) by encircling the subject with those same words.

Use this powerful picture book to launch discussions of the Civil Rights Movement, the power of peace and justice, and the continuing possibilities for positive change.

See also …

My prior post on Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America
and these links:

Who Built It?

With Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America, Andrea Davis Pinkney has outdone herself. And that’s saying a lot, friends. I’ve followed her sparkling career for years, sharing her picture books on such interesting, talented achievers as  Alvin Ailey, the brilliant dancer/choreographer; jazz great Duke Ellington; and abolitionist/women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Such true stories, told with Pinkney’s increasingly sure and confident voice, help us build a foundation where children can appreciate the diversity that has made our nation strong.Hand in Hand by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Pinkney’s clear, strong voice is a defining and delightful highlight of her latest collective biography, which won the 2013 Coretta Scott King Author award. Her goal, she writes in the preface, was “to create a testament to African American males.” She chose to profile 10 men: the Colonial surveyor/almanac creator Benjamin Banneker (featured in her earlier picture-book bio Dear Benjamin Banneker), the eloquent abolitionist Frederick Douglass, educator Booker T. Washington, author W.E.B. DuBois, organizer A. Philip Randolph, Justice Thurgood Marshall, baseball great Jackie Robinson, activist Malcolm X, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Pres. Barack H. Obama. Do NOT mistake this for some dry textbook!

Spiked with husband Brian Pinkney’s exuberant full-page portraits and lively spot illustrations, Hand in Hand is vibrant in its visual and verbal ways. Brightly colored pages hold her rhythmic free-verse poems that play with fonts, voices, and lively language. The author goes on employ an intimate, down-home tone as she describes each leader’s life. Here, for instance, is how she lures us into the story of Frederick Douglass: “Late one night, when the moon was full of milk, and the sky was as black as molasses, a boy-child was born on the Holme Hill Farm near Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. His mama named him Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Frederick came from two worlds. His father was the color of that moon. His mother, Harriet, was as dark and as beautiful as that sky.”

Pinkney infuses her energetic prose with a nuanced and carefully balanced perspective. She points out that Frederick Douglass became a powerful speaker and writer — and was also invited to the White House by Lincoln. “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours,” Lincoln told him. (Perhaps Spielberg should have picked up a copy of this book!)

In other entries, she contrasts the somewhat limited goals of Booker T. Washington with the intellectual fervor of DuBois.  Her account of Jackie Robinson includes not only his struggles and triumphs on the field but also the fact that he pooled his resources with others to found the Freedom National Bank, a black-run bank based in Harlem. Humorous details punch up the biographical details, as when young Barry (Barack Obama) acquired the nickname “Barry O’Bomber” for his long shot that helped the team win the state basketball championship.

Hand in Hand provides inspiration for all Americans, especially males, and is a powerful portion of the answer to the question, Who built this country? Let Pinkney remind you of a few of those contributors. I highly recommended this for ages 10 and older.
Let It Shine by Andrea Davis PinkneyAnd, until she compiles a similarly inspiring collective biography on outstanding women, consider turning to Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters

Brick by Brick by Charles R. SmithYounger children, ages 5 to 8, might instead pick up the poetic Brick by Brick, written by Charles R. Smith, Jr., and illustrated with characteristic verve by the acclaimed Floyd Cooper. Who built the White House? Slaves were among those builders, and this is a great way to let children know it.

My previous post on Love Twelve Miles Long, a lovely picture book on Frederick Douglass and his mother.

Howard Fineman: Alvin Ailey, the Obamas and America (

Armed with a Conscience

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave owners to capture runaways anywhere in the U.S., not only brought terror and pain to countless people. It presented a daunting challenge to those who listened to their conscience when it told them slavery was evil. The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery reveals the true story of hoPrice of Freedom by Judith and Dennis Fradinw the people of Oberlin, Ohio, risked their lives and, in some cases, their freedom, to save John Price, who had escaped from Kentucky.

The dramatic picture book, brought to life with gripping, realistic paintings by Eric Velasquez, describes how “rough looking” men keen on getting a reward, pulled guns on John and abducted him. As they drove the wagon toward the nearby town of Wellington, John noticed an Oberlin College student walking down the road. John called out that he was being kidnapped. The student kept walking and seemed not to hear him.

Soon, the kidnapper pocketed his ill-gotten money. The Kentuckian Anderson Jennings, who had paid the reward, squirreled away in the attic of Wadsworth’s Hotel with John Price until they could board the next southbound train.

Back in Oberlin, things were not so quiet. That student had raced to town to announce that slave catchers had their friend John Price. In no time, hundreds of citizens — young and old, men and women, rich and poor, black and white — clogged the road on the way to Wellington.

“Bring him out!” they chanted as they reached the hotel.

Anderson Jennings stood on the balcony and refused, saying the law was on his side. Anyone helping a slave escape could be thrown into jail, he reminded the crowd.

The train arrived, but Jennings dared not board.

Then a dozen bold men entered the hotel and made their way upstairs. The men fought, and one fired a gun (that missed). They rescued John just in time.

From there, the abolitionists’ network of safe homes known as the Underground Railroad led John Price to freedom.

The Price of Freedom, by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin, presents an exciting, little-known episode in our nation’s history. Highly recommended for ages 9 to 12.

For more thrilling nonfiction and historical fiction, see my post on Carole Boston Weatherford
and these titles …

Abe's Honest Words by Doreen RappaportHenry's Freedom Box by Ellen LevineFreedom River by Doreen Rappaport

Unspoken by Henry Cole

Pippin’s Colorful Path

The surprising story of the self-taught African-American artist Horace Pippin leaps to life with the surefooted collaboration of writer Jen Bryant and illustrator Melissa Sweet, the award-winning team who created A River Of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams.Splash of Red by Jen Bryant

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin introduces readers to an active, good-natured child who would draw on any old scrap of paper he could find. With charcoal in hand, Horace sketched the parade of animals, people and events of his life. He explained his method this way: “Pictures just come to my mind … and I tell my heart to go ahead.” Color came to his artwork the day he won his first real art supplies: colored pencils, brushes, a box of bright paints.

Ms. Sweet’s own pleasing toolbox includes, as is her way, a joyous array of images, materials, textures, hues, and perspectives. For instance, the double-page spread where Horace gets his supplies shows scraps of colored paper, the child’s winning drawing, the luscious new watercolors in their glossy white circles, wooden brushes, and sharpened colored pencils from Acme. In the bottom right-hand corner, Horace grips a paintbrush as he paints a picture of “Hattie and the Rooster.” Such a scene is enough to make you want to run out and buy your own art set.

When Horace was in eighth grade, his father left, and the family needed his help. He quit school and went to work. Undaunted, he kept drawing whenever he had the chance. A few years later, the U.S. entered World War I, and the newly enlisted Horace was sent to France. He filled notebook after notebook with his art, even though he spent much of his time there in cold, dark trenches.

A bullet to the shoulder damaged Horace’s right arm. Home from the war, he and his bride, Jennie, settled near West Chester, PA, where Horace had spent his early childhood. Things had changed, though; he couldn’t lift or move his arm the way he used to, and it seemed Horace’s sketching days were over. Now he could only wish to draw.

Or could he? One night, pondering the many images he longed to capture, Horace reached for a poker that stood by the fire. He grabbed his right wrist with his left hand and was able to scorch lines into wood.

That was the first step Horace took to finding his way back to art. As he practiced, he grew stronger and gained better control. He spent three years painting what he had witnessed during the war. From there, he turned to all manner of subjects, from the milkman on his deliveries to the children playing in the yard.

Horace Pippin Art Institute of Chicago

Cabin in the Cotton by Horace Pippin, at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Martin Beek via Flickr.

After years of painting, the famous artist N.C. Wyeth saw his work and told Horace he should have his own one-man exhibition in West Chester. Today, museums across the world display the work of Horace Pippin, praised for his masterful use of color, form, and composition. It doesn’t get much more inspiring than that, does it?

Share this lovely book — and a museum visit — with a child or two or three …

See also …

It Jes' Happened When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don TateDave the PotterArt from her Heart by Kathy Whitehead

My previous post on the fabulous illustrator Bryan Collier

Freedom on the Menu

Carole Boston Weatherford is the vibrant author of some of the best children’s books  exploring African-American history.  I met Carole a year ago after she flew up from North Carolina to come visit our school library. As a snowstorm barreled in that day, we felt forced to change our schedule. Carole mastered the situation with grace and verve, adjusting each of her three sessions to relate perfectly to the age group. She recited poems to the youngest; she had children participating by chanting, jingling bells and tapping a triangle. They left the library joyous and inspired!

A section of lunch counter from the Greensboro...

Image via Wikipedia

With the fourth and fifth-graders, she discussed Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins and presented a sensitive and nuanced look at Jim Crow as it still existed when she was a child in Baltimore. She showed a photograph of the park where she and her family were not allowed to go. The students were solemn and spellbound. Carole Boston Weatherford knows how to make history real to children.

Freedom on the Menu (Dial, 2004), is one my favorite read-alouds for Black History Month. Told from the point of view of eight-year-old Connie, the story takes readers to the Woolsworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Connie and her mother often stop there for a soda after shopping downtown. Connie would like to sit down and have a banana split instead, but can’t; only whites may sit at the counter.  “All over town signs told Mama and me where we could and couldn’t go,” Connie lamented. Lagarrigue’s somber, impressionistic paintings show the hateful Jim Crow signs that warp the community. Changes are in the air, though, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to town. Connie sees her older siblings become politically involved and join in the lunch counter sit-ins. As the protests spread through the South, laws change. Six months later, Connie gets to savor her banana split at the counter, and it tastes like so sweet — like freedom. The author’s note about the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins provides additional information that will help young people understand the Civil Rights movement. See Weatherford’s web site for lesson plans inspired by this exemplary picture book, which works well with ages 6-10.

And don’t miss these treasures …

For older children:

The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights. illus. by Tim Ladwig. Eerdmans, 2009. Ages 7-12. Anyone looking for a picture book to illustrate the role of religion in helping people survive and eventually overcome tragedy should take a look at this beautiful book. Weatherford illuminates the path from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to African-Americans’ long struggle for freedom and equality. From the dark Middle Passage in the bowels of slave ships to the inauguration of Pres. Barack Obama, people have found hope, strength, and inspiration in their religious faith. Concise biographical profiles of famous African-Americans are included.

Birmingham, 1963. Wordsong, 2007. Ages 10+ This stunning little masterpiece pairs actual black-and-white photographs with Weatherford’s poems to describe the ruthless bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls, an event that became a turning point in the struggle for equality. Told from the perspective on an unnamed fictional girl, we hear how

The day I turned ten
Our church was quiet. No meetings, no marches.
Mama left me in Sunday school
With a soft kiss and coins for the offering plate.

In addition to her moving poems, Weatherford provides a section that profiles the four young girls who died in the bombing. Additional historical background and photo citations are included, as well.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. illus. by Kadir Nelson. Jump at the Sun, 2006. Ages 7-12. This fictionalized story of Harriet Tubman focuses on the spiritual journey of the woman who risked her life time after time to help others escape from slavery, as she had done. In spare, poetic text, we hear how she flees Maryland, in hopes of reaching Pennsylvania. “A boatman rows her upriver. Back on shore, hounds snarl, sniff for Harriet’s trail. She races as fast as she can. Lord, I can’t outrun them. God speaks through a babbling brook: SHED YOUR SHOES, WADE IN THE WATER TO TRICK THE DOGS.” As Tubman encounters a series of dangers along the way, she calls upon God for help each time. When she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania, she finds her journey has just begun. Now it is time to help others. Nelson’s grand, atmospheric oil and watercolor paintings won a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award. Weatherford provides an accessible foreword on the institution of slavery, as well as an author’s note with a brief biography.

For younger children …

Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane. illus. by Sean Qualls. Holt, 2008. Ages 5-7. Read it and then put on some Coltrane and dance!

First Pooch: Malia and Sasha Pick a Pet. illus. by Amy Bates. Marshall Cavendish, 2009. Ages 5-8. Light-hearted story of the First Family choosing their first dog.

Jazz Baby. illus. by Laura Freeman. Lee & Low, 2002. Ages 4-7. Rollicking, rhyming fun for little ones

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