Honoring Mandela’s Journey

Resplendent with expressive paintings and simple prose, Kadir Nelson’s picture book biography Nelson Mandela does justice to the Nobel Peace Prize winner and revered South African leader.  Nelson Mandela from NYJB

The larger-than-life cover image sets the respectful tone for this tribute. Readers soon catch a glimpse of him when he was “the smartest Madiba child of thirteen,” the only one chosen for school. His new teacher gave him the name Nelson rather than use his given name, Rolihlahla, which, according to the author’s notes, means “troublemaker” in Xhosa.

Next we see a moving image of mother and son as they say goodbye. To continue his education, Nelson must move in with a chief who lives miles away. In this way, the boy learns from the community of elders who recalled how bountiful and peaceful their country was before the European settlers conquered it.

Nelson Mandela went on to study in Johannesburg, where he became a lawyer who “defended those who could not defend themselves.” Injustice infested the city and far beyond.

The author/illustrator’s vibrant double-page spread of a bright, shining beach provides a brilliant space for showing young readers the warped reality of apartheid. The scene is filled with Caucasians blithely sunbathing near the stark black and white sign designating the beach as “white area by order secretary.”

While the gritty details of oppression are omitted, young readers will come to appreciate the price Mandela paid for speaking out against apartheid. By doing so, he broke the law and endured threats, jail, and worse. Mandela’s determination transcended these risks, however. The author/illustrator switches to a panoramic view of a plane soaring over pyramids to show how Mandela traveled to experience other cultures and ideas relating to freedom and justice.

The contrast between that scene and the next, a double-page spread highlighting an undaunted Mandela behind bars, is eloquent and haunting, especially as what follows is a description of his new life in a cramped cell on a small island off the coast of Africa: “Every day/ the world passed him by./ Cold mealies, thin blankets, hard labor./ Nelson hammered rocks into dust, and/ read, studied, and educated fellow prisoners./ Days turned into weeks, months, and years.”

Yet Mandela promised the people he would return. During his 27 ½ years in prison, South Africa eventually abandoned its policy of apartheid, as depicted in Kadir Nelson’s wide-angle image of an integrated beach open to people of all shades and hues.

Upon his release, the triumphant, but snowy-haired Mandela was elected to lead South Africa. Concluding notes provide additional details of Mandela’s dramatic life.

Kadir Nelson has created a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to an icon of social justice.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books

See also …

I Have a Dream illus by Kadir NelsonGod's Dream by Desmond Tutu

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Women Rock the World

To get an idea of the fantastic resources exploring women’s crucial contributions to society, take a look at KidLit Celebrates Women’s History Month, a month-long blogging collaboration hosted by The Fourth Musketeer , a library science student, and Shelf-Employed, a children’s librarian. The site features thirty bloggers and authors from across the kidlitosphere. I am happy to be a part of this project; on March 22, look for my post on the unique children’s book author/illustrator Wanda Gág.

Last week, I featured Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of my favorite novel for children. Today I’ll highlight five inspiring picture-book biographies that won a place on the 2011 Amelia Bloomer list.

Annino, Jan Godown. She Sang Promise: The Story of Betty Mae Jumper, Seminole Tribal Leader. Illus. by Lisa Desimini. National Geographic, 2010.

Ages 8-12. In an era when many of her people lived “under cabbage palm roofs, without clean water or electricity” and did not understand English, Betty Mae Jumper became the first woman to be elected as a tribal leader of the Florida Seminole Tribe. She surmounted a barrel of obstacles  to become educated and to train as a nurse. After she received her nursing degree, she chose to return to her people, even though the pay was so low she had to supplement it by selling crafts and, occasionally, by wrestling alligators. She helped start the Seminole Indian News and served as an interpreter in courtrooms and emergency rooms. Annino’s respectful, nature-filled free verse is enhanced by the lush, saturated colors of Desimini’s illustrations. Included are an afterword by Jumper’s son, a map, chronology, glossary, blibliography,  and author’s notes. This fine biography will enhance units on Native Americans or women leaders.

Johnson, Jen Cullerton. Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace. Illus. by Sonia Lynn Sadler. 2010. Lee & Low. Ages 6-10.
What a marvel this little biography is: visually striking and quivering with sensual details and a sense of hope and respect for all living things.We see young Wangari and her mother eating sweet figs, just as the monkeys and an elephant are doing. The Kikuyu people of Kenya, we learn, believe their ancestors rest in the tree’s shade, so Wangari promises never to cut down the tree. While few girls in her village learn to read, Wangari’s parents respond to their daughter’s desire to learn, and arrange for her to go to the local school. At age 11, however, she can advance no more. To continue, she must move to the big city of Nairobi. From there, she goes the U.S. to major in biology. When Wangari decides to return home, she finds a world out of balance. Because the government has sold much land to big foreign companies, the forest habitat has dwindled, and native cedar and acacia trees have vanished. The people of her village have abandoned their custom of not cutting down the mugumo (spreading fig trees). Erosion has caused soil to stream into the rivers. Crops are drying out, and people are hungry. Wangari’s seed of an idea will bring the community together and restore the ecology of the land. Sadler’s lush oil and scratchboard illustrations show the belts of green saplings planted by the women. After being arrested by corrupt police officers, Wangari gets out and takes her case to the world. The woman called Mama Miti, mother of trees, helped get 30 million trees planted, making for cleaner rivers, abundant fruit, and healthy crops. She won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first African to do so. Seeds of Change is a great story to include in units on ecology, peacemakers, Kenya, or outstanding women. A brief biographical note and sources are included.

Napoli, Donna Jo. Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya. Illus. by Kadir Nelson. Simon & Schuster, 2010. Ages 5-8.
Napoli employs simple, engaging words and images to tell the story of Wangari Maathai. The source of her wisdom, the author notes, sprang from the stories she heard from the village elders. This biography centers on the role of the community; the land was transformed tree by tree, woman by woman by woman. Nelson captures this aspect with his large, layered images of oil and printed fabrics. Each time Wangari gives a woman a sapling, she tells her, “Peace, my people.” The restoration of the environment takes place alongside the renewal of a strong and peaceful nation. “A green belt of peace started with one good woman offering something we can all do: Plant a tree.” Napoli includes an afterward on Maathai’s life, a Kikuyu glossary, an author’s note with sources, and an illustrator’s note.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis and Brian Pinkney. Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride. Disney/Jump at the Sun, 2009.  Ages 6-10.
This dynamic husband-and-wife team has crafted a lively yet sensitive biography of Sojourner Truth, whose slave name was Isabella. She was a big, bold, beautiful woman who booted out her slave name and chose the more evocative one, Sojourner Truth. Andrea Davis Pinkney uses a lively, conversational tone as she traces Truth’s early enslavement and separation from her family, her escape, her abiding religious faith, and how she came to tell her life story to the abolitionist Olive Gilbert. Truth traveled extensively, speaking for the causes of freedom and women’s rights. The author quotes from Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech — modulated by a “Bam!” from her strong fists. Brian Pinkney’s energetic dry-brush lines and earthy watercolors match Truth’s feisty spirit. Author’s note and bibliography are included.

Winter, Jonah. Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in Brooklyn/ La Juez Crecio en el Bronx. [bilingual] Illus. by Edel Rodriguez. Atheneum, 2009. Ages 6-10.
The glow of a loving family infuses this story of how Sonia Sotomayor excels at school, becomes a stellar lawyer, and then a Supreme Court justice. The reader gets a sense of the obstacles she had to overcome and the culture shock she experienced at Princeton, where she heard crickets for the first time. She couldn’t help but wonder, “Where were the subways? Where was the merengue music? Where were the people who looked like her?” It was in college that she first felt inferior and self-consciously Latina. But she did not let this deter her from her goal. She read voraciously, graduated at the top of her class, and became the court’s first Latin American judge, distinguished not only by her outstanding record but by her life experience as one who knew poverty and prejudice firsthand. The warm, sprightly illustrations, done in pastel, acrylic, spray paint and oils, provide a pleasing match to Sotomayor’s optimistic approach. Additional details and an author’s note are included, and the Spanish translation allows for multiple curricular uses for this engaging biography.

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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