Yesterday, I reviewed three picture books at PBS Booklights where I shorthanded the title as “Black History Month and Libraries.” Awkwardly worded, but the books are indeed all about kids going to the library in the South before Civil Rights and the place that the library had in the context of African American History.
Two of the books were published this year and nominated in Cybils Fiction Picture Books. The funny thing is that I preferred one over the other until I started to write the review. All of sudden, what had seemed like a deficit in that book its levity became a positive. And I’ll tell you why.
At the beginning of this month I saw a number of posts that questioned Black History Month. Some wondered about the benefit of covering the same people without bringing out the achievements of lesser known African American role models. Some questioned the focus on slavery and Jim Crow laws, reinforcing victimization instead of empowerment. Some related the awkwardness of being the only black student listening to books about mean white people. I know that there was far more subtlety and nuance conveyed in these posts, so please don’t call me out on my paraphrasing.
I saw value in all of these concepts, and so I did what I often do when confronted with complicated and intense issues. Nothing. In that I didn’t post about books for Black History Month because I suddenly wasn’t sure what it meant. I haven’t been the only black student in the room during Black History Month, but I have been the only Jew in room during the world history lessons on the Holocaust and know that it is awkward being that kid, and it feels strange to hear about your people as victims. At the same time, I think that the significance of the African American journey is rooted in the context of its beginnings.
So back to those two books. Both were about boys going into a library in the South and checking out a book, against the rules of the state and the mindset of a society. Originally I liked one because the watercolor illustrations appealed to me and the story provided more background on the level of discrimination at the time. But as I reread the books and began to write the review, I preferred the second book because what I had originally dismissed as too light a treatment of the topic both in the text and in the bolder artwork seemed to answer some of the questions I had about Black History Month. Here the kid has a mission to check out a book at the library, and while several white folks nicely try to help him, he insists on taking a stand against the law. Within one book, we have a lesser-known African American role model, a focus on an empowering stance instead of victimization, and a portrayal of an unfair law instead of mean people.
I’m not saying that this is the only way that a topic in African American history can be discussed. Obviously that’s silly. But it was refreshing to see this approach in a book for kids, specifically younger kids. What are the books? Head to PBS Booklights to find out. (You’ll also find a bonus classic book on the same topic.)