In honor of Black History Month, TIME For Kids rounded up a few new books that celebrate the stories of African Americans who have played an important role in our country’s history. The books range in reading level and subject matter but all aim to give students and teachers a better understanding and appreciation for diverse newsmakers throughout history. TFK talked to the authors, editors, and illustrators about the inspiration behind the new books.
The Legendary Miss Lena Horne introduces young readers to one of the underappreciated heroes of the civil rights movement. Lena Horne was a singer and actress during the 1940s and 1950s. She was the first black actress to receive a contract from a major movie studio. Horne’s rise to fame was met with obstacles. Author Carole Boston Weatherford spoke with TFK about the importance of sharing Horne’s story with young readers. “History lessons aside, every child will deal with adversity at some point,” she told TFK. “Stories like Lena Horne’s can be both an inspiration and a guide to overcoming obstacles.” While Horne was recognized as one of the most popular performers of her time, Weatherford says Horne’s brightest moments came as a civil rights activist. “Lena Horne was more than a pioneering entertainer with a pretty face. She was a fierce freedom fighter. She used her celebrity to effect change.”
Can you keep a secret? Mary Bowser kept one for most of her life. Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring tells the true story of a former slave who became a Union spy during the Civil War. During the war, Bowser collected information for the Union and even attempted to burn down the Confederate White House. But being an exceptional spy also meant that historians overlooked Bowser for years. To add to the mystery, the government destroyed records of Southern spies to protect their identities, including Bowser’s, after the war ended. Spy on History brings the story of a little-known Civil War hero to readers as they attempt to solve a mystery within the book. “You don’t quite understand how difficult it was unless you try for yourself,” Daniel Nayeri told TFK. Nayeri, who edited the book, hopes readers learn about spy craft by testing their wits against Bowser. Nayeri also hopes readers learn about Bowser’s life after the war, when she became a teacher to freed Southern slaves (a job that was illegal at the time). “It’s hard to imagine someone giving more to her community than that,” Nayeri said.
Frederick Douglass is one of the most well-known figures in African-American history. In Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History, the late author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of how the former slave became educated and fought his way to freedom before dedicating his life to doing the same for others. Douglass’s words and life story still have as much impact among kids as they did when he was alive, says the book’s illustrator, Floyd Cooper. “He was a true torchbearer, blazing a trail through the wilderness of what black people would become in America before slavery and much more so after slavery,” Cooper said.
It’s not always easy to stand up for what is right, but it’s even harder as a kid. Audrey Faye Hendricks did just that as a 9-year-old in Birmingham, Alabama. Author Cynthia Levinson tells Audrey’s story in The Youngest Marcher. In the early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Audrey’s family and inspired her to take action. In 1963, more than 3,000 kids marched to protest segregation and Audrey was the youngest. She was sent to jail briefly. But eventually, she saw barriers come down between black and white people. “The story is also about knowing in your heart what is right and facing down your fear,” author Cynthia Levinson told TFK. “You’re never too little to make a difference.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the famous U.S. Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia. In 1967, the Supreme Court overturned a law that banned people of different races from marrying each other. The new documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving and a legal struggle that changed history. Author Patricia Hruby Powell uses mostly verse to tell Loving’s story. Her words are paired with illustrator Shadra Strickland’s drawings. “It’s really a simple love story,” Strickland told TFK. “It’s empowering to read about normal people who [are] able to find great courage and overcome challenges in life.” To read TFK’s full interview with Shadra Strickland, click here.
In her new book, Martin’s Dream Day, Kitty Kelley transports readers to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C. The book is filled with news photographer Stanley Tretick’s color and black-and-white pictures of the March. “I hope kids who read this book will better understand Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and be able to dream themselves,” Kelley told TFK. “That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind for all children.” To read the full interview, click here.
Ann Cole Lowe faced many obstacles on her quest to achieve her dreams. Some have called the talented African-American fashion designer “society’s best-kept secret.” While she is known for designing the dress that Jacqueline Kennedy wore at her wedding to future president John F. Kennedy in 1953, most of Lowe’s beautiful creations didn’t get much recognition during her lifetime. Author Deborah Blumenthal and illustrator Laura Freeman tell Ann Cole Lowe’s story in their new picture book, Fancy Party Gowns. “Ann was able to succeed in spite of racism and tragedy at a time when even aspiring to be a fashion designer was unheard-of for an African-American woman,” Freeman told TFK. “She was an incredibly strong woman who didn’t give up.”
Have you ever wondered about the origin of your favorite songs or games? In Patricia McKissack’s newest book, Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African-American Childhood, she explains the origin of her childhood favorites. She gives readers a history lesson on songs such as “Patty-Cake,” while also giving the inside scoop on superstitions, fables, and popular African-American sayings. “It’s an opportunity to be familiar with African-American folktales and fairy tales and to play with them,” says Brian Pinkney, the book’s illustrator. “Even play has a history to it.”