Six Black History Books for Children and Teens

The future, present, and past are intertwined in this group of books about Black history, culture, and family—from today’s newborns to 15th-century teenagers.

Andrea Davis Pinkneyauthor and Brian Pinkneyillustrator, presents exuberant and assertive games for babies and parents in Light brown baby: a treasure (Scholastic, 64 pages, $24.99, infant to three-year-old). Shameless rhymes and hugs – “Count to love with belly kisses… 1-2-3-4. Make wishes…” — swirl with bright colors as babies and parents hug, tickle, kiss each other on the belly and bounce in each other’s arms. An afterword guides new parents in sharing books with babies, especially those that celebrate the beauty of black and brown babies.

Family and friendship problems plague 10-year-old Anthony in Varian Johnson plays the cards dealt to you (Scholastic, 313 pages, $22.99, ages 8 to 12). When Ant’s regular card partner drops out of the Spades tournament, Ant asks the smart new girl, Shirley, to partner with him. But being teased about this new “girlfriend” is nothing compared to Ant’s painful dilemma when he finds out his dad drinks and gambles in secret. With deft style, Johnson maintains a fast-paced plot dynamic while getting to the heart of Ant’s anxieties: should he tell his mother about his father’s behavior? Johnson explores Ant’s courage and moral growth with compassion.

Caribbean Kemosha by Alex Wheatle, Black Sheep, 293 pages, $22.50, ages 12+

Caribbean Kemosha by Alex Wheatle (Black Sheep, 293 pages, $22.50, ages 12 and up), dates back to 1668 in Jamaica. Sold as a slave to a sleazy tavern keeper, Kemosha flees a sexual assault and is taken in by Ravenhide, a free black man. He teaches her how to use a sword, helps her free herself from her owner, and hires her for the next voyage of plundering and murdering pirate/privateer Captain Morgan. With her salary, Kemosha aims to free her family from slavery and start a home with her love, Isabella. Inspired by the tales of female pirates, this fantastic tale depicts the cruelty of the time without romanticizing it. Kemosha’s love and perseverance combine with energetic action, the terror of harsh racism, and passionate, colorful language.

Skin of the Sea, by Natasha Bowen, Random House, 309 pages, $24.99, ages 11 and up

West African deities and magic come into play in Natasha Bowenthe fantasy of the quest, skin of the sea (Random House, 309 pages, $24.99, ages 11 and up). Thrown from a slave ship and drowned, Simi is transformed into Mami Wata (mermaid) by the Yoruba deity Yemoja. As Mami Wata, Simi frees the souls of the drowned, but when she saves Kola’s life – chained, drowned, but not yet dead – she unwittingly transgresses. Solving her mistake involves a complex quest on land and sea with Kola, but it also leads to the sad impossibility of mermaid/human romance, a version of “The Little Mermaid”. Bowen’s first-person, present-tense style emphasizes visual imagery and action, which fits perfectly with popular YA fantasy.

Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to the People, by Kekla Magoon, Candlewick, 390 pages, $33.99, ages 12+

Satisfying, substantial, and certainly intensely relevant reading for the present, is Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon (Candlewick, 390 pages, $33.99, ages 12 and up). Magoon contextualizes the birth of the Black Panther Party in relation to American slavery and the civil rights movement; then, in lucid prose and with extensive supporting documents and photographs, she traces the community activism of the movement, grounded in the concept of self-defense and extending to community services, breakfast programs, education, health care and services for the elderly. While it is the tragic story of the organized infiltration of the Black Panthers by the FBI, it is also the inspiring and empowering story of groundbreaking black activism that engaged thousands and made a material difference which still persists. The latest chapters of Magoon connect this in a sharp and passionate way to youth activism, Black Lives Matter and current issues. Highly recommended.

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, Amistad, 218 pages, $7.99, ages 9 to 12

And a nod to the backlist: For a gripping story about the Black Panthers for middle school students, search Rita Williams Garciais multi-award winning A crazy summer (Amistad, 218 pages, $7.99, ages 9 to 12). It’s clever and full of character, the story of three quarrelsome sisters who are sent to Oakland in 1968 to stay with their estranged mother/poet. The story is as funny and surprising as it is educational and moving.

Deirdre Baker teaches children’s literature at the University of Toronto.

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