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 (huffingtonpost.com)


Ashley Bryan’s Bright and Beautiful Books

Ashley Bryan deserves a special valentine for bringing so much joy to the realm of children’s literature. From his witty, rhythmic retellings of folktales to his bold and beautiful paintings, woodcuts, and collages, Bryan has enriched the lives of countless readers around the world. You can meet this beloved author/illustrator by opening Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song (Atheneum, 2009). This engaging autobiography shines with light, color, and love. Bryan, 87 and still thriving, invites us to hear his story, enlivened with his own poetic language and with a potpourri of photographs that reveal his childhood world, his family, his artwork, his Bronx neighborhood, his parents’ home back in Antigua, as well as his life on Little Cranberry Island, off the coast of Maine. We get a sense of how he evolved as an artist; one touching painting shows him as a wide-eyed child, book in hand, staring out the window at night. Images of birds — which filled the family’s living room — and the echoes of his mother singing will pop up in Bryan’s books, as shown in the illustrations reproduced in this book. Bryan’s childhood was punctuated by drawing, painting, reciting poetry, and listening to the Bible stories his mother read to him and his siblings. He recalls how they were the first black family to join the pretty St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church — where he would one day design a stained-glass window over the altar, showing a magnificent, dark and honey-hued image of Jesus rising from the tomb. After high school, he went, portfolio in hand, to a prominent art institute. A representative there told him his artwork was the best he had seen and that “it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person.”
Bryan persevered. He was accepted at the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, and his world widened. After serving in WWII and graduating from Columbia, he taught art (from prep school to Dartmouth), and eventually made his way to the peak of children’s book illustrators.  This autobiography does not brag about Bryan’s multiple awards; instead, it beams with his humble, respectful and indomitable creative spirit. It invites us all to reach inside and listen to that still, precious voice … and to celebrate life while we can.
Note: Bryan will speak March 16th at the Virginia Festival of the Book. If you’d like to read more about him, see this fabulous 2009 interview in Horn Book.

Of Ashley Bryan’s nearly three dozen books, which do you like best? One of my favorite read-alouds for children ages 7-9 is Beautiful Blackbird.

In Bryan’s rousing version of an Ila folktale from Zambia, all the birds have solid-colored feathers, with no patterns or specks of black. Only Blackbird has black feathers that “gleam all colors in the sun.” Generous Blackbird stirs up a brew in his medicine gourd, and then gives the birds their own splash of blackness. Bryan’s gorgeous cut-paper collages show the joyous birds with their now-striking patterns and designs. It’s unanimous: “Black is beautiful, UH-HUH.” This books offers caring adults and their children a fun way to celebrate the many hues of humanity. Oh, what a wonderful world it would be if we all opened our eyes and marveled at that variety! 

More Beauties by Ashley Bryan:

All Things Bright and Beautiful. Atheneum, 2010. All ages. Bryan’s cheerful illustrations make this lovely old hymn by the Irish woman Cecil F. Alexander come alive. The vibrant cut-paper collages celebrate the diverse people, animals, and plants that fill our multicolored Earth. An illustrator’s note and musical notation are included in this richly rendered interpretation, which should be considered the definitive version of the several children’s editions that have been published.
Bryan’s rhythmic retellings of African folktales are must-re ads. This compilation includes 14 stories from previous collections. Highlights include “How Animals Got Their Tails” and “The Foolish Boy,” a touching story about a boy harshly judged by the villagers. His loving, patient parents, however, take time to teach Jumoke well and have faith that he will learn from his mistakes. He shows them how right they are when he outwits that crafty Spider Ananse!
This winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award includes the lyrics to “This Little Light of Mine,” “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Energetic, brilliantly colored cut-paper collages evoke the love and faithful spirit of these popular spirituals, created by slaves and now sung throughout the world.

Shining a Light on Bryan Collier

This Black History Month, why not introduce
children to one of today’s most creative children’s book illustrators: Bryan Collier. A good place to start is with Collier’s latest, a picture-book biography that won the 2011 Coretta Scott King Award and a Caldecott Honor for its stunning illustrations.

Hill, Laban Carrick. Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave. illus. by Bryan Collier. Little Brown, 2010.

Hill’s spare, poetic text opens with the image of dirt. “But to Dave it was clay, the plain and basic stuff upon which he learned to form a life as a slave nearly two hundred years ago.” The simple words work with Collier’s art to focus on the growth and development of a unique artist. Known simply as Dave, this talented man went on to create about 40,000 pots, some of which are displayed in museums today. The concise biography gains heft and power with Collier’s textured, earth-colored watercolor/collage images. The illustrations feature Dave’s strong hands, especially in Collier’s four-paneled foldout showing how “Dave’s hands, buried in the mounded mud, pulled out the shape of a jar.” Collier clearly situates the artist’s remarkable achievement within the context of South Carolina’s lush green landscape and its cotton fields, worked by enslaved field hands. Living in a time when that state outlawed the education of slaves, Dave often wrote brief poems on his pots. The final illustration shows him picking up a stick to write a few lines that “let us know that he was here.” Facts about Dave’s life and art, a photograph of his work, and the author’s sources are included. This is a beautiful book that will lead to discussions on justice, slavery, and the nature of creativity.

Note: On February 5 you can see Bryan Collier at the African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia, happening 1 to 3 p.m. at the Philadelphia Community College.

A Sampling of Collier’s Outstanding Books

Freedom River by Doreen Rappaport. Jump at the Sun, 2000. Ages 9-12. Rappaport and Collier make a fantastic team: exemplary nonfiction prose and striking, thought-provoking collages. This thrilling, true story tells of a little-known hero: John Parker, an ex-slave who helped hundreds escape from slavery into freedom. Risking all, Parker crossed the Ohio River time after time to bring slaves from slave-owning Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. Rappaport zeroes in on one particular family Parker managed to free from the Shrofe plantation. She builds tension by repeating simple action verbs: “Run, run”; “Row, row”; “Listen, listen.” Complicating this rescue attempt is the fact that Master Shrofe realizes the family nearly fled with Parker before. Knowing the mother will not leave her baby, he now keeps the infant the foot of his bed each night. Risking all, Parker quietly enters the house and retrieves the infant. Shrofe awakes, and the chase is on! The watercolor and collage illustrations capture the intensity of the story and provide historical context, at times using a ripple effect across people’s faces to evoke the river that forms a boundary and a passage to freedom.  Notes at the beginning and end of the book provide additional fascinating information, and endpapers show a useful map of the Ohio River. This superb picture book won the 2001 Coretta Scott King Honor for Illustrations.

John’s Secret Dreams: The Life of John Lennon by Doreen Rappaport. Hyperion, 2004. Ages 8-12. Another fabulous collaboration! See my October 1 post featuring this picture-book biography.

Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship by Nikki Giovanni. 2008. Ages 8-12. This book captures the unexpected friendship between two American leaders: the president and Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave but escaped in 1838 and became a key figure in the abolitionist movement. The men found they shared important values and worked for the same goal.

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport. Ages 6-10. If you have time for only one children’s book on Martin Luther King, Jr., make it this one. The focus is on King’s powerful words, enhanced with Collier’s magnificent illustrations. Provide plenty of time to discuss King’s life and the beauty and wisdom of his words. For lesson plans, see these from Read.Write.Think.

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. Holt, 2005. Ages 7-10. Acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni portrays Rosa Parks as the strong, politically aware woman she was. She takes us back to that Thursday afternoon in December when Rosa left work. The bus was full, but Rosa found a seat in the middle, “neutral” section of the bus. After a few stops, the bus driver approached Rosa and demanded she give up her seat for white passengers. Mrs. Parks refused. When the police officer came to arrest her, she quietly asked, “Why do you push us around?” Collier’s painted collages, incorporating both dark and golden hues, won the 2004 Coretta Scott King Award and a Caldecott Honor.

Uptown by Bryan Collier. Holt, 2000. Ages 6-8. Collier wrote and illustrated this lively picture book, in which a boy shows off his hometown, Harlem. A melange of sights, sounds and smells fills the pages: from the row of brownstones that “look like they’re made of chocolate” to the sisters in their matching Sunday dresses; from the busy shoppers on 125th Street to the hopping jazz clubs; from the playgrounds where kids shoot baskets to the hot platters of chicken and waffles. Collier’s debut book won the 2001 Coretta Scott King Honor for illustrations.

Related resource: See Reading Rockets: Black History Month for more teaching tips and for video interviews with noteworthy author/illustrators, including Collier.

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