Feb 17, 2013

The Power Within-- Young People

In spite of my previously stated concerns about designating "theme months", I can't let February and Black History Month pass without shining a light on three picture books worth sharing any time of year. We have been hearing it from every source- that children need to have "tools" for tomorrow's society. In the process are we over-stressing the tools and ignoring the child who will be using them?
Sleeping Bear Press, 2009

These titles are from Sleeping Bear Press, and the first two are by award-winning author Gloria Whelan.  Of the many stories told about slave life, this first title shares a slice of history that children will especially appreciate. THE LISTENERS, illustrated by Mike Benny, depicts a seldom described role of the youngest slaves. In the evenings they were sent to "play" quietly under the open windows of the parlor of the master's house, listening for news and plans that would affect their lives. They might overhear gossip or music, but they were most attuned to word of slave sales and changes in plantation supervision. Of all the hardships children suffered as slaves, this heavy responsibility served the needs of their families rather than those of the master.

Sleeping Bear Press, 200
Another outstanding historical fiction title is FRIEND ON FREEDOM RIVER, also by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. This story finds a slave family trying to complete the final leg of the Underground Railway. When they arrive at the northernmost crossing point into Canada's safety at the "Gateway to Freedom", the Detroit River, the "conductor" is away. Young Louis steps up to play his part even though his grandfather has tried to isolate and protect him from involvement. He not only delivers the family safely but returns alone across the icy river to reassure his mother that he wasn't drowned or captured. Excellent documentation notes about the significance of this location is included in back matter.

Sleeping Bear Press, 2005

Moving black history in America forward into the twentieth century is LET THEM PLAY, by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by Chris Ellison. A team of African America boys defied the odds and rode the support of their community to become the best Little League team in South Carolina in the summer of 1955. The Canon Street boys could not be declared the South Carolina State Champions or even compete in the finals because every other team refused to play them. In an exhibition game they overwhelmed the other team, but went home without a trophy or an opportunity to prove themselves on a level playing field. The epilogue includes a report of  the team reuniting in 2002 at the World Championship Little League Opening Ceremonies to be presented with the 1955 State Championship banner.

What I love about these stories, fictionalized or actual, is the dignity and resourcefulness of the children depicted. In times when kids are getting the message more and more often that their worth is determined by correct responses on a bubble sheet or their ability to get hits on a YouTube video, the young people in these books offer a view of real strength and character. Share them, and suggest other titles that do the same.

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