Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Black History Month: Picture Book Edition

It's Black History Month, and in the Kids Department, the display looks beautiful. Local blogger Kitri and the Animals recently blogged about one of the coolest books on our display, Bad News For Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshall, here (have I mentioned I'm a sucker for a super-long subtitle?). A coworker says he has to stop and look through that book almost every time he passes by. Cover art success!

Anyway, even though that display is mostly nonfiction, honoring the History part of Black History Month, there's another thing that Black History Month reminds me: there are just not enough picture books with black protagonists that aren't historical, or biographical, or dealing specifically with the topic of race, or with a focus on sports or music. It's pretty startling, if you start to go and look for a regular old narrative picture book. So I thought I'd highlight some favorite titles that do what narrative picture books do best: capture small moments in a meaningful way, keep the voice and perspective true to the age group, make the text and pictures interact and complement each other well, and work well as a read aloud. They also happen to have black main characters.

Who doesn't remember Ezra Jack Keats's Peter? From The Snowy Day to Peter's Chair to my favorite, Whistle for Willie, these books were published in the '60s and were, for a lot of people, the only African American picture book character in their house/library/school. Whistle for Willie is my favorite of them all because learning to whistle is this sort of meaningless but fun and empowering milestone for kids that grownups mostly forget about. Most kids at a storytime aren't old enough to whistle, so we often all end up trying together, and when Peter finally whistles at the end, there's a lot of triumphant smiles. Keats's stories do a great job of highlighting specific sensory and emotional experiences that stay in the realm of small moments but are really fun to read about. In The Snowy Day, Peter (in his unforgettable red snowsuit) makes lines and footprints in the snow for pages. "Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank into the snow. He walked with his toes pointing out...he walked with his toes pointing in...then he dragged his feet slowly to make tracks."

In Willie, Peter tries whistling but can't. "So instead he began to turn himself around— around and around he whirled... faster and faster...." until Keats's iconic stoplight at the end of the block looks like this:

On his way home, Peter draws a chalk line all down the sidewalk, all the way back to his house. I always love Keats's brick walls and neighborhood scenes:

Once Peter gets home...

"He went into his house and put on his father's old hat to make himself feel more grown-up. He looked into the mirror to practice whistling. Still no whistle!"

Over 40 years later, Keats's books are still some of the most beloved narrative picture books around. And his life story is pretty interesting, too.

Next: The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring.

--Anna, Kids


  1. I remember reading Snowy Day when I was little!

    p.s. Check out my Nanette Lepore giveaway!


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