Picture Books That Bring Black Heroes to Life | Modern Society of USA

Picture Books That Bring Black Heroes to Life

Picture Books That Bring Black Heroes to Life

African-American picture books have always been successful at capturing the breadth, depth and beauty of the black experience, allowing children to gain much-needed access to the strong legacy and vibrant history of African-American art and storytelling. But how we present this story is always undergoing revision and refinement, as four new books — from a closer view of plantation life to a visually rich depiction of the history of hip-hop — show. In these books, word and art combine to give us fresh insight into the lives, creativity and achievements of a truly resilient and profound people.

James E. Ransome’s THE BELL RANG (Atheneum, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8) beautifully captures several days in the life of an enslaved girl living with her family on a plantation. Plantation life is seen through the innocent yet fiercely observant eyes of the young, nameless narrator. Each day begins with the ringing of a bell, a warm hug, a loving kiss on the forehead or a gentle touch on the shoulder, followed by a simple goodbye from her big brother, Ben. Ransome doesn’t shy away from the trauma of slavery, but he balances the terror that sits at the core of the story with moments of joy, skillfully painting a subtle smile across the young girl’s face when she’s given a doll, or the shadows of children running, skipping rope and playing hopscotch.

We don’t witness the daily, backbreaking work in the field, and a whipping happens offstage, but we do see the pervasive, watchful overseers, with their guns and their hound dog. At one point Ransome paints tears streaming down Mama’s face, Daddy’s bowed head against a wall with our narrator leaning against him, and an overseer with clenched fists standing in a doorway. “No sun in the sky. Mama crying. No Ben. Daddy crying. Ben ran,” he writes.

The book’s color palette, strong on grays and pale blues, conveys its honest yet hopeful depiction of its young narrator’s situation. We are left with the question, Will she run, too, some day? In “The Bell Rang” Ransome has given us a bittersweet slice of plantation life, one in which innocence, familial love and safety are juxtaposed with pain, loss and the resilience of the enslaved.

LET ’ER BUCK! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion (Carolrhoda, 40 pp., $18.99; ages 4 to 8), written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (“Bad News for Outlaws”) and illustrated by the Newbery Honor winner Gordon C. James (“Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut”), tells the story of the black cowboy George Fletcher, whose journey began when his family set out on the Oregon Trail from their Kansas town. After they met with racism, young George found solace among the children on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. There, he nurtured his love of riding with a make-believe bronco, but over time, the tribal horsemen taught George how to “buck.” He became a star at local rodeos, even while being shut out of more popular ones, which opposed black cowboys competing against white cowboys. But in 1911 the 21-year-old George competed against the fiercest cowboys in the Northwest: the Nez Percé Indian Jackson Sundown and the white rancher John Spain.

What follows is a detailed account, rendered adroitly through Nelson’s clear prose and James’s elegant paintings, of one of the most important rodeo shows in American history, which established Fletcher as the “people’s champion” — even though the judge declared Spain the winner. With its energetic pairing of words and art, “Let ’er Buck!” comes alive to unearth an unsung American hero.

Gwendolyn Brooks, who died in 2000, was one of the most important, prolific and distinguished poets of her time, and as with most brilliant artists, her creative force was evident when she was a child. In A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS (Sterling, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), Alice Faye Duncan and Xia Gordon unfurl Brooks’s evolution from a precocious girl growing up in Chicago through her boundary-breaking accomplishments, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950. “Sing a song for Gwendolyn Brooks. Sing it loud — a Chicago blues,” Duncan’s text begins. Gordon’s soft, velvety, earth-toned illustrations convey the sweetness and innocence of Gwendolyn’s imagination, set against the vibrant urban landscape of her childhood. Duncan mimics the short, poignant stanzas and lyrical observations in many of Brooks’s poems — a few of which are placed throughout, beginning with “The Busy Clock,” written in 1928 when she was 11. Yet it is the way Duncan conveys the unwavering family support of Brooks’s creativity that most stands out. “Her parents are wise and see the light. … Gwendolyn is free to sit and think,” she writes. Brooks writes and rewrites a poem titled “Ambition” between 1930 and 1933, as she went from 13 to 16 years old, and Duncan uses it to illustrate the persistence, isolation and deep self-reflection that poetry required of Brooks. As she goes on to achieve fame, we are reminded that the joyous freedom of her work traces back to the remarkable achievements of a child poet.

THE ROOTS OF RAP: 16 Bars on the Pillars of Hip-Hop (Little Bee, 32 pp., $18.99; ages 4 to 8) captures a specific African-American experience — one that is rooted in jazz, hip-hop and the liveliness of urban culture. Carole Boston Weatherford’s 16 bars of homage to the history of hip-hop accompany the celebrated illustrator Frank Morrison’s pulsing and vibrant images, which not only convey the development of hip-hop, they dance on the page.

The opening pages are a tip of the baseball cap to the poets Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, as well as to James Brown — innovators of spoken word and funk music, and thus contributors to the roots of hip-hop. Graffiti figures prominently throughout the book, too, as it is a foundational aesthetic in hip-hop, and provides a colorful backdrop to the groovin’ and movin’ black children who populate the illustrations. The well-placed centerfold illustration is of a cool and smooth DJ Kool Herc, known as the founding father of hip-hop, with his turntable and mic. “DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx, block party under his command, rocks and rocks nonstop; mic clutched in his hand,” Weatherford writes. While “The Roots of Rap” certainly does document the history of hip-hop, Weatherford forgoes the ingenious wordplay, jazzy meter and funky rhyme scheme found in early rap songs like the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks.” It is Morrison’s illustrations that give “The Roots of Rap” its beat, its bass, rhythm and soul.

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