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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Recommended Picture Books for Black History Month, Part One

Just in time for Black History Month come three excellent picture books which help teachers discuss the experiences of Black Americans by examining both well- and little-known real life events.

My personal favorite of the three titles featured here is Let Them Play. One reason is that it shared a story I hadn't heard before. But what made more of an impression upon me was the reminder that not even children were immune from the racism of 1950s America. Written by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Chris Ellison, Let Them Play is the story of the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars, an all-black team from Charleston, South Carolina with dreams of becoming Little League World Champions.

But what happens when every other team in the sixty-two leagues of South Carolina refuses to play them, going so far as to drop out of Little League to form their own white-only leagues? When the boycott spreads to eleven Southern states, the Cannon Street All-Stars become "the team nobody would play." How can they advance to the World Series in Williamsport if they don’t play a single game?

This book will become a class favorite, one which your students will want to talk about, research, and read more than once. SPOILER ALERT: I highly recommend you visit the site to read more details concerning this little-known event in youth sports, but skip this if you'd rather read the outcome for yourself. (Looking for companion titles? Willie and the All-Stars by Floyd Cooper and Just Like Josh Gibson, written by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Beth Peck, are my immediate suggestions).

Pappy's Handkerchief, written by Devin Scillian and illustrated by Chris Ellison, relates the story of the Oklahoma Land Run and the lesser-known opportunity it provided for many recently freed slaves to finally own land. Through the eyes of one fictitious family, Pappy's Handkerchief tells the tale of hundreds of black families who came to the Territory seeking their dreams. Staking a claim required both risk and sacrifice, and not every family was up to the challenge. But those who dared to chase their dream (literally!) helped to build a new state that would at one time boasted more all-black towns than any other state. Scillian’s word choice is exacting, while Ellison’s paintings bring to life the historical era. Teachers can download a teaching guide containing guiding questions as well as activities which can be adapted by age and grade level.

One interesting extension activity is to see how some residents of Oklahoma (Oklahomans?) reenacted this event in 2007. Students might write about one event from their state's history which is, or should be, reenacted to celebrate its historical significance.

You can also contrast what children learn in Pappy's Handkerchief to Hollywood's representation of that same event. In the Tom Cruise film Far and Away we see not even one black American at the Oklahoma Land Run, although we do catch a glimpse of the Native Americans whose land this once was. (Are you as shocked as I am that we can't trust Hollywood to get history right?).

Most elementary children at one time or another study the Underground Railroad, but few realize that its conductors were ordinary people like themselves: men, women, and children willing to risk their own freedom to help others (the Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime for anyone, even whites, to help escaping slaves). In Friend on Freedom River, written by Gloria Whelan and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen, young Louis must choose whether to help a runaway family cross the icy Detroit River to freedom in Canada. Although his father has done this many times before, Father is away up north and the night is colder than any other Louis has ever experienced. This book puts faces on a part of our history which really needs to be seen from a personal perspective to be fully appreciated. Be sure to check out the downloadable teacher's guide from Sleeping Bear Press.

In studying the Underground Railroad I'd also highly recommended several interactive sites including National Geographic's The Underground Railroad, Scholastic's Underground Railroad: Escape From Slavery (supported with a teacher's guide as well as printable pdfs for students), and an Interactive Map from Thinkport's terrific Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad contains loads of activities which can be completed both online and off (if you're unfamiliar with Thinkport, check out a recent post from my How to Teach a Novel blog).

I highly recommend these three gorgeous books for your home or classroom library. Sleeping Bear Press has generously offered one copy of each which they'll ship directly to three lucky readers of Teach with Picture Books. To enter, email me by 11:00 PM EST, this Wednesday, February 3rd. Simply write "Black History Books" in subject line, and you're all set. You can include your whole address if you're feeling especially lucky!


Ginger Snaps said...

I teach SC history in 3rd grade and Let Them Play is one of my favs! I love Margot Theis Raven period though...

Keith Schoch said...

America's White Table was my first encounter with Margot Theis Raven, but I just love this one! I heard that Disney has some interest in making a feature film from this story (Let Them Play). Hope they get it right!