Our recommended children's books for Black History Month include the riveting stories of a former slave who taught a horse to read, a Confederate White House servant-cum-spy, and an incredible scholarly journey that starts on the ocean floor with centuries-old slave shackles.
Detectives-to-be will be fascinated by the Spy on History series debut, Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring (Workman, $12.95, hardcover, 96p., ages 10-14, 9780761187394, December 13, 2016) by Enigma Alberti (the nom de plume of a group of authors, each writing a book in the series). Mary Bowser was a real-life former slave who pretended she couldn't read so she could serve as a suitably "dull-witted maid" for Confederate president Jefferson Davis--and spy on him at the same time. Clues to the whereabouts of Mary's hidden diary are cleverly embedded in the book's text, as well as in Tony Cliff's illustrations, and a replica Civil War cipher wheel and other spycraft materials are tucked into an envelope to aid in deciphering the mystery. A thrilling read for lovers of history and mystery.
Thirteen American Revolution-era African American writers, preachers, sailors and enslaved servants who took risks to change the course of history are profiled in this big, handsome collection, Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills, $18.95, hardcover, 96p., ages 9-12, 9781629793061, October 4, 2016). Gretchen Woelfle tells the remarkable stories of the lives of Sally Hemings, Boston King, Agrippa Hull and others in an engaging and historically accurate style. The biographies tell of slaves who fought in the Revolution, slaves in Boston and in the South and slaves who became free and advocated for others' rights. Graceful black ink silhouettes by R. Gregory Christie further elevate this elegant volume.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and scuba diver Michael H. Cottman learned of the discovery of dozens of slave shackles on the ocean floor where a slave ship sank 300 years ago, he was moved to trace the history not only of this particular ship, but of the African slave trade and his own ancestry as an African American. Shackles from the Deep: Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship, a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy (National Geographic, $18.95, hardcover, 128p., ages 10-up, 9781426326639, January 3, 2017) tells of his often heartbreaking quest, from Florida to England to Barbados to Senegal, as he ponders the lives of the men, women and children who were wrenched from their villages and transported in horrific conditions to the New World. This utterly fascinating story concludes with heartening information about the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, which sponsored a dive to the sunken slave ship wreck for inner-city African American kids from Tennessee.
Debut author Linda Williams Jackson's powerful, vividly told novel Midnight Without a Moon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99, hardcover, 320p., ages 10-12, 9780544785106, January 3, 2017) opens during the summer of 1955 in Mississippi. Thirteen-year-old Rose Lee Carter, whose dark skin has "sentenced her to the [cotton] field" begins to awaken to the injustice in black people's lives, especially when her aunt visits from Saint Louis, where she has become active in the Civil Rights movement. Rose must choose between staying in her beloved but deeply troubled Mississippi or heading north where she may be safer. Either way, it becomes clear she cannot remain silent forever.
Veterinarian and former slave William "Doc" Key (1833-1909) teaches a horse he calls Jim to sit, fetch and play dead... and, with time and patience, to count, read and do arithmetic! Doc raised awareness for the humane treatment of animals and broke down racial barriers at the turn of the last century. In Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness (Lee & Low, $19.95, hardcover, 48p., ages 7-12, 9781620141489, October 15, 2016), Donna Janell Bowman and illustrator Daniel Minter tell his amazing true story with energy, heart and stunning linoleum-block prints.
Grace, a light-skinned, blue-eyed African American girl, is called up from the slave's quarters to work in the Big House for "hateful as a toad" Missus Allen. After being told her whole young life to "keep those eyes/ looking up--/ that's where the good Lord/ n His angels live," it's nearly impossible to start keeping her eyes down and her mouth closed. When she loses the fight to stay silent, she and her family escape into the marshy area between Virginia and North Carolina called the Great Dismal Swamp. Ann E. Burg's moving and lyrical Unbound: A Novel in Verse (Scholastic, $16.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 9-12, 9780545934275, September 27, 2016) is based on narratives of escaping slaves.
--Emilie Coulter, freelance editor and reviewer