Time to take a break from toys and write about what I should have been writing about in February. Of course, all of these books are relevant all year long, not just during Black History Month.
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson
It’s no small task to explain apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s role in ending it in a picture book, but Kadir Nelson makes it both digestible and meaningful. The book follows Nelson Mandela’s life from the point where he was born Rolihlahla in Qunu (the endnotes explain that Rolihlahla means “troublemaker,” a detail I just love) to his leadership of South Africa. It’s incredible to think that the only way to be educated was for Mandela to be sent away from his family — I think that will really resonate with kids, as will the unfairness of the depictions of apartheid, like the all-white beaches. The only drawback of this presentation is that time is so compressed, you lose the sense of what it means to be in prison for over 27 years. The paintings carry the emotional weight of the material, as Kadir Nelson so fully captures the facial expressions of Nelson Mandela. I mean, just look at that cover. Is it wrong that my impulse on seeing that cover was to hold it over my face and say things to my kids like, “Nelson Mandela wants you to eat your vegetables!” Yes, probably very wrong.
I’ve Seen the Promised Land by Walter Dean Meyers, Illustrated by Leonard Jenkins
As I began this book, I was taken with how matter-of-fact the text is in this biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. It plays out a bit like a history textbook, starting with MLK Jr. being energized by the actions of Rosa Parks. Her refusal to leave her seat on that historic bus ride is presented here as the catalyst for his leadership, when MLK Jr. was asked to lead the boycott of the Montgomery buses. We learn more about his path to nonviolence (even in contrast to figures like Malcolm X), his historic speeches, and his brutal end, presented throughout the text as inevitable. I could have used a bit more point of view in the text, but that came through the vibrant, lush illustrations of Leonard Jenkins.
Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Earlier today I was writing about the ancient Egyptians using slave labor to construct the pyramids. It’s just so… so… ancient-seeming. Never, ever do I think about the slave labor used to create some of the great monuments in this country. Brick by Brick chronicles the slave labor used to build the White House. It’s told in verse, focusing on the hands of the slaves and the incremental progress they made on building brick by brick as a metaphor to working towards their freedom in equally small steps.
Slave hands saw
twelve hours a day,
bug slave owners take
slave hands’ pay.
Slave hands bleed
under a hot, haze sun;
save hands toil
until each day is done.
These verses are punctuated, powerfully, with lists of slave names as a brilliant reminder that these were individual people working away to benefit their owners and the country leaders. I found it a difficult book to read because it forced me to hold in mind the contradictory thoughts of White House as an icon of our democracy, and how our democracy has not always been… and still is not… equally accessible to all of its people. I’ll never look at the White House the same way again.
When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by J. Patrick Lewis, Various illustrators
This last book transitions us to Women’s History Month as well. Children’s Poet Laureate gives us poems about seventeen men and women who fought for their own rights and the rights of others in the faced of systematic discrimination. This ranges from well-known figures like Coretta Scott King, Mohandas Gandhi, Jackie Robinson, Harvey Milk, and yes, Nelson Mandela, to lesser known people that I was inclined to do research further (what a terrific outcome of a poem — to make the reader want to know more). This group included Muhammed Yunus, who developed the concept of microcredit to foster economic development in extremely impoverished situations; Helen Zia, journalist and Asian American activist; and Mitsuye Endo, who challenged the constitutionality of the interment of Japanese Americans in “War Relocation Camps”.
There’s an important word in the title: for. This books isn’t about civil rights leaders, it’s for them. I love that distinction, as anyone who has a light within them to fight injustice will find inspiration in these poems.