This February, like many Februaries before it, we take the time to celebrate Black History Month. It’s a time when we can acknowledge the pain and suffering caused by slavery, racism, and discrimination. But, more than that, it’s a time to celebrate the accomplishments of this vast and varied group of people.
The books this month highlight those accomplishments. Some are large, like helping land a spaceship on the moon, others are smaller, like bringing diversity to the pages of picture books, but all are important and worthy of recognition.
One book that uncovers many of these hidden heroes and helpers is Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Candlewick Press, 2017). This biography is about a historical detective: Auturo Schomburg. As a child he was told that his people had no history worth mentioning because they had done nothing of note. He didn’t believe his teacher and dedicated his life to uncovering the truth.
Throughout his life, Schomburg hunted down facts about John James Audubon, Alexandre Dumas, Frederick Douglass, and so many more. These facts were found in the pages of over 5,000 books, several thousand pamphlets, prints, and papers. When there was no more room in his house for these books, they became the foundational texts for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints. His incredible biography is showcased next to captivating illustrations that bring Schomburg and the individuals he found to life. For ages 9 to 12.
Other individuals that don’t appear in the biography about Schomburg are Miss Lou, Katherine Johnson, James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson. Here are some stories that cover their triumphs.
A Likkle Miss Lou by Nadia L. Hohn and illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes (Owlkids books, 2019) focuses on Louise Bennett Coverley or Miss Lou. Miss Lou is a Jamaican poet who wrote her poems in Jamaican patois. When she was in school and began writing poetry, patois was frowned upon. But with a bit of encouragement from her mother, her new teacher, and her burgeoning fans, she persisted. And, because of her perseverance and spirit she brought patios to the world and freed a language that others were trying to suppress. The vibrant colours and pictures highlight the fear, the excitement, and the love of words that Louise felt as she was growing up. For ages 4 to 8.
A Computer Called Katherine by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison (Little, Brown and Company, 2019) is about the African American woman named Katherine Johnson who helped Neil Armstrong land on the moon. Growing up Katherine believed that skin colour and gender shouldn’t determine what someone was able to do. She knew women could be anything. Yes, they could be teachers and nurses, but they could also be scientists and mathematicians. And so to prove it, she got a job as a computer, which meant she solved long math equations.
But, as many mathematicians are, Katherine was curious about how her equations were being used. Eventually, all of the questions she asked ended up with her being asked one: would she help America send its first astronaut into space? The beautiful illustrations will help you and your children see the beauty behind numbers and parabolas and the mystery of space. For ages 4 to 8.
Sing a Song by Kelly Starling Lyons and illustrated by Keith Mallett (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019) isn’t a biography about the Johnson brothers. Rather, using stories from the author’s own life and those of her family members, it highlights how the song they created inspired generations.
One hundred and twenty years ago, James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson wrote a song called “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” James, who was the principal of the all-Black Stanton School, wrote the lyrics, while his brother put it to music. Then, on February 12, 1900, as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, 500 of the students from James’ school sang the song. From there the song took on a life of its own and inspired generations. As Lyons explains this song “is a symbol of faith, brilliance, resistance, and resilience.” For ages 5 to 8.
While there is a lot of beauty and courage in these individuals and their wider communities, there is also a lot of pain. Some of this pain is caused by the residual effects of slavery that continue to trickle down through the generations. And so this month, it is also important to acknowledge the hurt and dehumanization that has occurred. However, slavery is not an easy subject to broach with four-year-olds. They seem too young, too innocent, to burden with the hate and callousness adults can cause.
The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome (Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2019) is one book that can gently shed light into this atrocity. It teaches children about slavery through the eyes of a young slave girl. Without going into too much detail it explains that her parents and older brother had to work, it shows the fear and anxiety caused when slaves (her older brother and his friends) flee, and it gently highlights the pain that was inflicted if the runaways were caught. This book is a good stepping off point for some harder conversations, but it leaves it up to you to decide how much your children need to know about why Ben chose to flee, or why the girl’s family was afraid of their master. For ages 4 to 8.
This month, channel your inner Schomburg. And, maybe, as you become historical detectives, you and your children will find other stories about amazing Black Canadians like the Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander (the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario), Carrie Best (who was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a theater and founder of The Clarion), Senator Anne Clare Cools (the first Black person in the Senate of Canada), and Josiah Henson (who after buying and being denied his freedom fled to Canada where he taught other former slaves to be farmers). Then use these books to continue to uncover the hidden people in our history who helped shape our world, our music, and our lives.