Friday, February 8, 2008

Poetry & Picture Book Biographies for Black History Month

When I was still teaching in an elementary school, I usually began my unit on biographies in mid- January with the reading of books about Martin Luther King, Jr. The first month of the year seemed like a good time to introduce my second grade students to biographies. I think they are excellent vehicles for exposing young children to different periods in our country’s history and for introducing them to people who were important figures of the past, to scientists and explorers, artists and composers, writers and inventors, and to individuals who had to face great obstacles in their lives and yet were able to forge ahead. Biographies can provide children with a more personal view of history and bring the subject to life better than a social studies textbook can. They can show how people are affected by the times in which they live.

Starting in January and continuing through February, I would read a number of books about famous African Americans, including Benjamin Banneker, Jackie Robinson, Langston Hughes, Wilma Rudolph, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. I’d also read books about the lives of presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and of other remarkable individuals. My students, too, read biographies that they had selected from the books I had available in my classroom.

Before beginning the unit, I’d gather dozens of biographies from the school library and my own collection and set up a display table and bookcase where my students could peruse the biographies for a few days and then select the ones they wanted to read in class. Because I always liked to use poetry across the curriculum and to connect poetry to other literature, I had a folder of poems about famous people that I had collected over the years to share with students during the course of this unit. In the folder, there were poems about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Nancy Hanks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglas, Langston Hughes, and others.

Today, I am recommending a book of poems about thirteen famous African Americans. The book was written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by John Thompson. It is perfect for use during Black History Month…or whenever your students are reading biographies. I’m also listing a few of my favorite picture book biographies and nonfiction books about some famous African Americans.

Classroom Connection: Instead of asking children to write a book report of a biography they have read, why not have them write poems about the subjects of their biographies? This kind of writing exercise allows children more freedom of expression and an opportunity for a creative response to a work of nonfiction. The poems in the following book can serve as excellent examples for your students own poems.

Here are a two examples of poems written by my second grade students about Abrham Lincoln in 1991:

by Elizabeth S. and Lisa R.

We do not have a President
Like Abe—
Not as smart
And not as brave.
Abe was tall and touched the sky.
He fought for freedom for the slaves.
And when Abe died,
I know how much the people cried.

by Lisa M.

Abraham Lincoln, tall and thin,
With little brown whiskers that covered his chin.
Abraham Lincoln, honest and smart,
Inside he had a very kind heart.
Abraham Lincoln worked very hard at what he did.
He became famous for his stovepipe lid.
Abraham Lincoln hangs proudly on the wall.
He is my favorite President of them all.


Written by
J. Patrick Lewis
Illustrated by John Thompson
Creative Editions, 2000

FREEDOM LIKE SUNLIGHT is a collection of poems about African Americans who were freedom fighters, athletes, musicians and singers, and writers. Lewis wrote “praisesongs” for the following individuals: Arthur Ashe, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leroy “Satchell” Paige, Rosa Parks, Langston Hughes, Jesse Owens, Marian Andersen, Malcolm X, Wilma Rudolph, and Billie Holiday. Thompson’s illustrations serve as a fine complement to Lewis’s poetry.

The Poems: Lewis uses a variety of poetry in praising the thirteen African Americans who made their marks on history. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X are persona poems in which Lewis speaks in the voices of these five individuals.

Here is the first stanza of Harriet Tubman:

I packed corn bread
And salt herring.
I packed my favorite patchwork quilt.
The shabby rags
That I was wearing
Came from the House that Evil built.

Here is an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.

For having told
The truth, I am
Alone and cold
In Birmingham.

I speak to them.
They spit at me
Because it’s Mem-
phis, Tennessee.

In Langston Hughes, Lewis addresses the poet. This poem consists of four stanzas—each of which has four lines and an ABCB rhyme scheme. All of the stanzas begin in the same fashion. The repetition is quite effective.

The beginning lines of the four stanzas:

Someone said they saw you in Paris
Someone said they saw you in Africa.
Someone said they saw you in Harlem
Someone said they saw you, Langston.

The final stanza:

Someone said they saw you, Langston,
Spiriting summer. What was it they heard?
Poems that endlessly echoed…
A dream deferred.

The poem about Rosa Parks tells of her refusal to give up her seat on a bus and the debt that is owed to people like her. The poem about Leroy “Satchel” Paige speaks of his amazing ability as a pitcher to throw a variety of pitches, including “The looper/the drooper/the jump ball/the wobbly ball.” In Jesse Owens, Lewis focuses on the athlete’s triumph at the 1936 Olympics held in Germany and how “The Fuhrer looked away without seeing/the man jump over Germany.”

My favorite poem is Marian Andersen. With few words, Lewis captures the delicate beauty of Andersen’s voice:

She brushed
Her voice
Across the air
In colors
Not seen

In colors
And strong,
She brushed the air…
And painted song.

The Illustrations: Like Lewis’s poems, Thompson’s illustrations are a fitting tribute to these thirteen people. Done in a variety of media, the pictures are elegant and sometimes moving. Most of the illustrations that accompany the poems are portraits of the people: Marian Andersen is depicted singing. Louis Armstrong, trumpet in hand, is shown singing, too. Captured in black and white, Arthur Ashe’s quiet grace speaks out to readers from the page. For some of the people, the artist chose to illustrate a pivotal moment—a Black women crying for the assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., or something symbolic of the individual’s life—an empty bus for Rosa Parks and a typewriter with sun shining on it for Langston Hughes. Thompson also illustrated two double-page spreads on which no text is printed—pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., bent over a counter at a police station when he was being arrested and Malcolm X, viewed from behind, speaking to a crowd of onlookers in a city. In the final illustration, we see Rosa Parks sitting on a bus and gazing out the window.

At the back of the book, Lewis included Biographical Notes about the thirteen Black Americans he honored with his “praise songs.”

Some Recommended Picture Book Biographies and Nonfiction Books about Famous Black Americans

Written & illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Philomel, 1994

Cooper’s book is by no means an in-depth biography of the famous writer —but it touches on many of the important relationships and experiences of his life. It is a fine book to read aloud and an excellent way to introduce children to a great American poet.

Written by Nikki Giovanni
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Henry Holt, 2005

This Caldecott Honor Book focuses on the historical event of December 1, 1955 in Montgomery Alabama, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus—and the ensuing boycott of buses by Black Americans.

Written by Peter Golenbock
Illustrated by Paul Bacon
Harcourt Brace, 1990

My elementary students loved this book about Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, two remarkable and brave sports figures. This book takes readers back to the 1940s—a time when Black baseball players were not allowed in the Major Leagues and had to play in the segregated Negro Leagues. The book tells about Branch Rickey and the reasons why he selected Jackie Robinson to be the first Black player signed to play for a Major League team, the Brooklyn Dodgers; about the prejudice and hostility Robinson faced from fans and other baseball players; and about Pee Wee Reese, a man who believed in doing what was right—a man who had the courage to stand up for his Black teammate at a time when that was not a popular thing to do. Illustrated with watercolor paintings and photographs.

Written by Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by David Diaz
Harcourt, 1996

Wilma Rudolph was stricken with polio before she turned five. It was believed that she would be crippled for life. This biography tells of Wilma’s struggle to regain her ability to walk again, to triumph over adversity, and to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. Wilma Unlimited is a truly uplifting and inspiring story.

Written by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Harcourt Brace, 1994

This is an interesting biography of Benjamin Banneker, a free Black man who was born in 1731. Banneker, a self-taught mathematician and astronomer, was the author of the first published almanac by an African American. If Black people were not enslaved, he felt that they could study and learn as he had. He decided to write a letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to express what he thought of Jefferson owning slaves even though he had written in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”

Pair the reading of Dear Benjamin Banneker with the picture book Molly Bannaky, a fictionalized account of the life of Benjamin Banneker’s grandmother. The book was written by Alice McGill and illustrated by Chris Soentpiet.

Molly (Walsh) Bannaky was an English dairy maid who escaped being put to death for the crime of having spilled a pail of milk because she could read the Bible. She was sent to America as an indentured servant. After working for a planter for seven years, she gained her freedom, started farming, and bought a slave to help her. Later, Molly married the slave whose name was Bannaky. The couple had four girls. Benjamin was the child of their eldest daughter.

Written by Doreen Rappaport
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, 2001

Although this is a very brief biography with a spare text, this book opens a door to a discussion about a great American and an inspirational leader who believed in fighting for the rights of Black people through non-violent means. The text in the book is printed in two different fonts and sizes: the narrative is printed in black and Martin’s “big words” are printed in large, bold letters in a variety of colors. This is a biography not just about this man’s life—but also a book about the way he used words to express his beliefs, to communicate his hopeful vision, and to inspire people to work peacefully in their quest for equal rights. Collier’s multi-media illustrations provide a window into the past...into American history...into the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and the man who spoke with such eloquence about his dreams for a brighter future for all citizens of our country.

Written by Anne Rockwell
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Dell/Random House, 2000

This is a powerful and riveting biography that reads like fiction. Sojourner (Isabella) Truth was not a slave of the South—but of the North. This book begins with Sojourner being sold at auction in New York in 1806 when she was just nine years old. It follows her through her experiences with different masters, her forced marriage to an older slave, her eventual freedom, her court case against a slave owner who broke the law when he sold her son Peter to a plantation owner in Alabama, and her later years when she became a great spokesperson in the fight to abolish slavery.

Only Passing Through is an excellent and poignant biography of a brave and strong woman who suffered great cruelty during her life as a slave. It would be an outstanding book to read aloud to third and fourth graders—and even to older children.

Written by Pam Munoz Ryan
Illustrated by Brian Selznick
Scholastic, 2002

This biography of the famous Black contralto, a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, is visually stunning. Selznick’s gorgeous, rich artwork draws a reader into the pages of this fine story of the life of the talented opera singer who grew up in America during the “Jim Crow” days. This is a book for all ages. It includes extensive Author and Illustrator Notes, a list of Notable Dates in Marian Andersen’s Life, and a Selected Discography.

Written by Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, 2006

This is a fictionalized account of Harriet Tubman’s escape to freedom and her return to the South to show other slaves the route to follow out of bondage. As in Martin’s Big Words, there are threads of more than one text running through the book: the third person narrative tale, the words Tubman speaks to God, and the answers Tubman hears from the Almighty. Weatherford’s lyrical text and Nelson’s powerful images combine to make this an outstanding picture book to share with children. Weatherford includes a Foreword with some details about slavery and a comprehensive Author’s Note with information about the life of Harriet Tubman.

Click here to view some of the illustrations from Moses.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is at AmoXcalli this week.


MotherReader said...

We were thinking the same way this month. I've got picture books for Black History Month over at ForeWord this month, and there's certainly a lot of overlap with your choices. Now to make sure that teachers, librarians, parents, and kids know about them. One step at a time.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

What an excellent list, as usual, Elaine. I'm making notes for my next library trip.

Jules, 7-Imp

Unknown said...

What an amazing list Elaine! Lots to think about and a lovely post. I'm adding all these to my list for purchase and will love sharing your list with others. Thank you!

Elaine Magliaro said...


I read your post at ForeWord the other day. Then I went back yesterday to get the URL and couldn't find it. I found the direct link this morning at Jen Robinson's blog. I want to post links to your article and to Jules' reviews of some new picture book biographies at 7-Imp that she posted several days ago.


I just picked up DIZZY, which I ordered after seeing Sean Qualls' illustrations at 7-Imp.


Thanks. In addition to new books, I like to write about some of the older books that I recommend to students in the children's literature course that I teach.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Nice ocllection of biographies Elaine! We've got most of them in our library. I read biographies to second graders all year long. February isn't long enough for all the Black Americans I want to read about...

I am putting FREEDOM LIKE SUNLIGHT on my book order right now. It looks great! I particularly like those lines from the Tubman poem: "The shabby rags
That I was wearing
Came from the House that Evil built."


tanita✿davis said...

The House That Evil Built just gave me goosebumps. Wow. I am LOVING that there are so many great picture books out there! I also think the Marian Anderson one was another favorite. Beautiful!!!

Liz Garton Scanlon said...

Oh my gosh, Elaine. My cup runneth over. What a POST!!!

If I were running for president, I think I'd use this as my slogan:

We do not have a president like Abe, not as smart and not as brave...

Charlotte said...

Wow, thanks for the rich posting! I have not cared much for the little J. Patrick Lewis I have read, but what you quote makes me inclined to seek out Freedom Like Sunlight--

Someone said they saw you, Langston,
Spiriting summer....

I'm not sure what it means, but it sure is echoing in my head!

Elaine Magliaro said...

Cloudscome, Tadmack, Liz, Charlotte--

Thanks for stopping by. It's funny that I had forgotten to include FREEDOM LIKE SUNLIGHT in my two previous posts about poetry books I recommend for use during Black History Month. I think it's one of Lewis's best collections--at least of the ones I own. He's such a prolific poet that it's difficult to keep track of all the books he publishes.

Thompson's realistic illustrations certainly add greatly to the appeal of the book. They're wonderful.

laurasalas said...

I love your students' poems, Elaine. They're just amazing, especially the first one.

And I've just put Freedom on reserve at the library. Thanks for recommending it--I'm not familiar with it.

Anonymous said...

Great suggestions - the best part is that a few of the suggestions are in our school library collection.

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