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The Things We Share: Themes for Black History Month

Children’s Books

The Things We Share: Themes for Black History Month

Use the power of stories to explore what’s different and the same, new and shared, about ourselves and our experiences. These nine books find wonderful ways to express universal themes through African Americans, both fictional and real.

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Back in the 1950s and 60s, children’s books had very few people of color and even fewer books in which the main characters were African American. Neither pictures nor stories presented African Americans diversely.

Many things happened to begin to change that, and today’s illustrators and authors – and their delighted readers – owe much to Carter G. Woodson, the creator of the organization that founded Black History Month.

A time to learn and remember

Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves who became a Harvard-educated scholar, wanted to learn the stories of African Americans. What he discovered, though, is that history books generally did not include them.

Woodson, a man of action, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) in 1915. A year later, Woodson established the Journal of Negro History. Ten years later in 1926, Woodson initiated Negro History Week to focus attention on the significant contributions of African Americans throughout the history of the United States.

Woodson purposely chose to place Negro History Week – now Black History Month – in February as it is the month in which the African American orator, reformer, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born. Woodson worked to broaden everyone’s understandings of the contributions of African Americans because he felt that without access to broader information, students and teachers would become victims of “selfish propaganda.”

Diversity and commonality

The world in which our children grow up today is increasingly diverse. All people have a unique story, but all stories, like all people, have many things in common. And nowhere is this more apparent than in books for children.

During Black History Month, we hope you’ll take the opportunity to celebrate the diversity and commonality of our country and its people. One wonderful thing about children’s books is that they can be a mirror that reveals something within ourselves, or a window that shows us something new in the world outside.

Children’s book author Patricia McKissack notes that “When you have African American children in your classroom, it is so good for them to see themselves. If you see yourself in a book, you’ll be more likely to pick it up. And if you pick it up, you’ll read it. And if you read, you’ll read more. And if you read more, you read better. And, of course, that all leads to success.”

And for those children who are not African American, children’s books can be a window for seeing and understanding another’s history and experience. Says McKissack: “They open doors for readers who, perhaps, do not know a lot about the African American experience in this nation or some of the contributions made by African Americans to its growth and development.”

Universal themes

The following nine new books find wonderful ways to express universal themes through memorable African Americans, both fictional and real. We heartily recommend these books about dreams, struggles, wisdom, and expression, not just for Black History Month, but all year long. (See also Reading Rockets’ Favorite Books for Black History Month for additional suggestions).


Celebrations often begin with hopes and dreams. Children dream to explore, to escape, and to envision.

I Dream of Trains

I Dream of Trains

While picking cotton in the heat of a Mississippi morning, the young narrator in I Dream of Trains by Angela Johnson (illustrated by Loren Long, Simon & Schuster, 2003) shares his imaginings as he hears a train whistle.

It’s Casey Jones’ train with Sam Webb, his African American fireman, on board. The sound of their train transports the boy as “Short days, cold days,/turn back into long, warm planting days…” while he waits for Casey and his engine to return and “dream me away.”

Evocative language combines with Long’s expressive paintings to reveal one child’s dream for a better life. The author’s endnote invites readers to think about the impact of Casey Jones on black sharecroppers. The book also invites discussion between adults and children about getting away from things you don’t enjoy (through dreams or in actuality) and about trains, work, fathers and sons, and the dreams that parents have for their children.

I've Seen the Promised Land

I’ve Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a well-known dreamer. He dreamed that there would be a day when people would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I’ve Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Walter Dean Myers (illustrated by Leonard Jenkins; HarperCollins, 2004) provides a well-paced biography of a major leader of the 20th century viewed against the world and events that shaped him.

King wanted to be remembered as someone “who had tried to do his best and to serve all people, regardless of race.” And because of that, King is remembered as “a man who tried to keep our country on the righteous path to freedom.”

The semi-abstract illustrations present an opportunity to explore both Martin Luther King, Jr. and the way illustrations extend the emotions of the straightforward text. You can talk to children, for example, about the use of bold line, shape, and strong color in the picture of the dog on the double-page spread that discusses the violence of 1963 and how King refused to be drawn into the hatred that was directed at him.

Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport (illustrated by Bryan Collier; Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, 2000) uses a collage technique and a simpler text to achieve a similar emotional effect. Collier won a Coretta Scott King award for this unforgettable book.


All people struggle. Sometimes the struggle is to learn something new, as Papa does before voting for the first time.

Papa's Mark

Papa’s Mark

Papa’s Mark by Gwendolyn Battle-Lavert (illustrated by Colin Bootman; Holiday House, 2003) presents the triumphant story of Simms and his father in Lamar County soon after the Civil War. It is the first election in which black men can vote, and Papa wants to write his name rather than just mark the ballot with an X. Simms gently helps his father learn to write his name.

Though learning to write your name is difficult, standing up for your rights is tougher. Battle-Lavert provides a fascinating author’s note covering the historical context of voting rights for blacks in the South that may generate discussion about why voting remains an important activity.

Parents can talk with children about how and where they vote, how they decide whom to vote for, and how campaigns work. Adults and children can also learn about elections together in another excellent book, Vote! by Eileen Christelow (Clarion, 2003).

The Hard-Times Jar

The Hard-Times Jar

Emma Jean Turner has a different struggle in The Hard-Times Jar by Ethel Footman Smothers (illustrated by John Holyfield; Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003). She knows how to read and even writes her own books on grocery sack paper. But Emma and her family are migrant workers, and she doesn’t own any “store-bought books” because money is scare. Their hard-times jar and its coins provide a safety net in case the family needs something important between paydays.

Yet another struggle is Emma’s reluctance to attend school in their temporary Pennsylvania location. She feels isolated in her third grade class where the teacher and all the students remind Emma of “buttermilk, all creamy and white,” a very different experience for Emma who attended a segregated school in Florida.

Emma, intrigued by the school’s library and its ceiling-to-floor books, does a foolish but understandable thing: she takes books home with her, which is forbidden by this school. But later, after confessing to her mother, Emma takes responsibility for returning the books to school, acknowledging her wrongdoing but still yearning to read. Readers will readily identify across time and lifestyles in this satisfying and emotionally true story.


Everyone loves folktales because there is universal truth and wisdom as well as just plain entertainment for all ages in these traditional tales.

What's the Hurry, Fox?

What’s the Hurry, Fox? And Other Animal Stories

What’s the Hurry, Fox? And Other Animal Stories (collected by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by Joyce Carol Thomas, illustrated by Bryan Collier; HarperCollins, 2004) presents wise and witty pourquoi tales, stories with animals that behave like humans and with actions that explain why or how something happened.

The buzzard, and the reason why he has no home, provides the framework for this book and its short, punchy, playful tales, each illustrated with handsome artwork that appears to be watercolor and collage. These folktales are drawn from those collected in the South by folklorist, novelist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, in the 1930s. The adaptations make these appealing tales accessible and inspiring for young readers who will likely create their own pourquoi yarns as well as the pictures to go with them after exposure to these.

Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl

Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl

The Tar Baby is a character all children should know and a fine introduction is Virginia Hamilton’s fresh retelling of Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl (illustrated by James Ransome; Blue Sky Press, 2003).

Bruh Rabbit is a wily trickster who outsmarts hardworking, earnest but gullible Bruh Wolf. Bruh Wolf gets the upper hand for a short time when he makes an attractive but sticky tar baby girl to which Bruh Rabbit becomes attached. But the tricky rabbit induces the unsuspecting wolf to throw him back into the briar patch where he can gloat: “I was bred and born in this place.”

Hamilton’s authentic telling makes use of Gullah dialect that will delight listeners who can figure out what “day clean” is just by listening. Lighthearted watercolors complement this well told tale that demands to be read aloud and is easily dramatized. It’s a great introduction to other Bruh Rabbit stories or other tricksters, such as Anansi the Spider or the Native American Coyote.


An individual’s story, as well as a historical story, can also be told through art. Two new books now feature the art and life of major 20th century artists, Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden.

Parents, teachers, and librarians can use the artwork of Lawrence and Bearden to encourage children to explore what art represents, the different styles and media used, the time it was created, the stories it reveals, and the sounds or emotions it generates.

The Great Migration

The Great Migration: An American Story

Jacob Lawrence was part of the Great Migration, a time he documents in The Great Migration: An American Story (HarperCollins, 1993). Lawrence defines this period just after World War I as “an exodus of African Americans who left their homes and farms of the South… and traveled to northern industrial cities in search of better lives.”

In 1940, Lawrence began a series of paintings that visually described the unforgettable journey: where it began, what happened on the way, and how it felt. The powerful images depict people’s pain, isolation, courage, and strength. It is the individual story and the collective story of “people all over the world… trying to build better lives for themselves and their families.”

Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories

Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories

Romare Bearden was a contemporary of Jacob Lawrence. Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories by Jan Greenberg (Abrams, 2003) creates page designs that are reminiscent of Bearden’s unique collage technique. The text invites readers to celebrate “the struggles and triumphs of African American life in the twentieth century,” and to “step inside Bearden’s world, where jazz, rhythm, and the blues meet a kaleidoscope of shimmering, shimmying color.”

An invitation to explore

In the Land of Words

Books are invitations to visit people and times, places and experiences we otherwise would not know. They also offer the chance to see ourselves and to find what’s universal among all peoples, times, or cultures.

The poet Eloise Greenfield gets the last word. In In the Land of Words: New and Selected Poems (illustrated with joyful fabric collage by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, HarperCollins, 2004), she invites children to become readers and writers, noting the power of words.

in the land of words,
…My thirst
pushes me through
the open door.
The more I drink
of the falling water,
the more I know.
I drink.
I think.
I grow.

We echo Greenfield’s eloquent invitation. With the children you touch, use the power of stories and illustrations to explore what’s different and the same, new and shared, about ourselves and our experiences.

Drink. Think. And grow.

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