I used to pride myself on the fact that I felt my kids were living a post-racial existence. I thought they didn’t see color, that they were, as people like to say, “colorblind.”
When they were very young, I didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to the fact that we elected our first Black president, for example. I wanted to note it, of course, and I did—crying on election night, as I opened our apartment windows to better hear the shouts of people celebrating in the streets on the Upper West Side, crying again at the sight of the masses on inauguration day—but I was afraid of loading it up with something they didn’t see. They were excited to take it all in, excited for our new president, his beautiful family, and Beyonce singing “At Last” at the ball.
More and more, I realized what a mistake this was. We are, of course, not post-racial at all. We are a white, Jewish family living in Long Island in a diverse community filled to the brim with people whose lives and whose history enrich this community and whose struggles and concerns are our struggles and concerns.
Recently, I watched a local cop pull over a white guy in a Mercedes. The white guy got out of the car when the cop approached his car window, and the cop shook they guy’s hand. I didn’t want to read too much into this. We live in a small town. I suppose maybe they knew each other and this afforded the white driver some leeway. But my kids were in the back seat, and I felt the urgent need to point out the obvious white privilege unfolding before our eyes. I wanted to give this moment some context so that they might never pretend they don’t understand, might never pretend not to see all the way back through history to where this all began, to why it matters, to why I wouldn’t look away. Context, both historical and emotional, breeds empathy, and it holds us accountable, makes us mindful. As a writer and as a mother, I seek it out at every turn.
Lucky for us, there is a new book out in the world of children’s literature that isn’t just for kids. In honor of Black History Month, and because it is as good a time as any to read about experiences outside of your own reality, I’m recommending it here because it is a wildly entertaining and important collection of stories by a set of superb and diverse authors, and it gets to the heart of what it is to be a creative person in a diverse world, which really, relates to all of us.
Highly entertaining, and intended for middle grade readers (9 year olds and up), the book is “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” and includes stories by Kwame Alexander, Matt de la Peña, Walter Dean Myers, Grace Lin, and many others. The book is edited by Ellen Oh, co-founder of We Need Diverse Books. These are the absolute best of the best and this book belongs not just at the top of your Black History Month reading list, but at the top of your reading list, period.
In a sea of must-have Black History Month reads, here is but a sampling of books that either tell some of the story and history of being Black in America, or that feature riveting characters who happen to be black, and who your kiddos should get to know pronto. From picture books about the Civil Rights movement, the Underground Railroad, and some of the greatest musicians and dancers, to the triumphs and challenges of the black experience captured in these middle grade and young adult novels, there is something special in this list of award-winning books for everyone. Dig in.
Picture Books (not to be limited to younger children):
“Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans” by Kadir Nelson
“A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day” (the first mainstream book to feature an African American child) by Andrea David Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
“Martin’s Big Words” by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier
“The Story of Ruby Bridges” by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford
“We March” by Shane Evans
“Henry’s Freedom Box” by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
“Trombone Shorty” by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and Bill Taylor, illustrated by Bryan Collier
“Firebird” by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
“Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop” by Chris Raschka
“When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop” by Laban Kerrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
Middle Grade (8 and up)
“One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia
“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” by Christopher Paul Curtis
“As Brave As You” by Jason Reynolds
“Ghost” by Jason Reynolds (OK, pretty much anything by Jason Reynolds)
“One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance” by Nikki Grimes
“The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander
“Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life” by Ashley Bryan
“Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson
“Stella by Starlight” by Sharon Draper
“Garvey’s Choice” by Nikki Grimes
“Like Magic” by Elaine Vickers
Young Adult/Teen (10 and up)
“March Trilogy,” a series of graphic novels chronicling the Civil Right Movement, by Representative John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell (this is a must-read for older readers, and by older readers, I mean 10 years old to 100 years old)
“Monster” by Walter Dean Myers
“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (comes out on February 28th)