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Historical Picture Books in Honor of Black History Month

Henry's Freedom Box

Black History Month begins tomorrow and the library has recently updated the bibliography, “Our Stories: The African-American Experience,” recommending many wonderful recently published titles.   Here are just a few of the historical picture books that made the list.

Two titles are Caldecott Honor winners. Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad, by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, tells the true story of Henry “Box” Brown. When his wife and children are sold to pay for their master’s debts, Henry can stand it no longer. With the help of a white doctor, he hides inside a wooden crate and mails himself to an abolitionist in Philadelphia. Travelling by train and boat he at last arrives to freedom. 

The details painted on every character’s face are a powerful complement to the text. Henry’s joy in his family and the pain at their loss are beautifully conveyed. The picture of Henry upside down in his box is my favorite. One hand is splayed, reaching towards the reader as he struggles to hold himself up just a little, attempting to relieve some of the pressure on his head, neck and shoulders. 

Coming on Home SoonComing on Home Soon tells the story of Ada Ruth whose mother has headed North during World War II to earn much needed money on the railroads. Leaving Ada Ruth on her grandmother’s farm, she promises she loves her “more than anything in the world…More than rain. More than snow,” but time passes with no letter and no idea if she is safe. Ada Ruth’s worry abates somewhat on the arrival of a stray kitten in need of love and care. Although her grandmother doesn’t want her to keep it at first, she soon realizes how important the kitten has become to them both as they wait. Written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis, the soft colors and dimly lit interiors create a warm, comforting environment for this small, worried family.    

Show WayAnother Jacqueline Woodson book, this time illustrated by Hudson Talbott is Show WayTracing Woodson’s maternal descendants, this Newbery Honor book begins in the time of slavery. As each daughter is sold, she takes with her a piece of muslin, some needles and thread and, in her new world, learns how to make a Show Way: a quilt whose squares are a map guiding runaway slaves toward freedom.  Once slavery ends, Woodson’s descendants march for civil rights with quilt squares sewn in their clothes, helping them to be brave. The difficulty of the subject matter is delicately handled in the text, but it is the illustrations that make me recommend this one for older elementary students. Talbott uses quilting as his inspiration and vividly portrays how it ties the generations together. However, the harder truths are carefully and appropriately illustrated on several pages using moving collages that serve as the background.
Ruth and the Green BookAuthor Calvin Alexander Ramsey tells the story of Ruth and the Green Book with illustrations by Floyd Cooper. Ruth is thrilled when Daddy comes home with a sea mist green 1952 Buick so that they can travel from Chicago to Alabama to visit her grandmother. She’s never been on a road trip before, but unfortunately it’s not long before the harsh realities of Jim Crow laws interfere. The family tries to keep their spirits up by singing through the night when they are unable to find a hotel that will let them stay. Luckily, they are introduced to the Negro Motorist Green Book. This actual guide directed African-Americans to places they were welcome throughout the South. Empowered, Ruth’s excitement is restored and she guides her family from restaurant to boarding house as they finish their journey.