African-American Literature for Youth

Case-study
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

This book is a little gem. Under what appears to be a simple book, there are multiple layers of culture, history, and identity finely woven with sparks of humor and hope.

The main story revolves around 11 year old Delphine and her two sisters (Vonetta and Fern) who are sent from Brooklyn to California to spend summer with their mom Cecile. 

Delphine has taken care of her younger sisters, with meticulous routine, after her mother left the family seven years ago and moved to California. When their father sends them to be with Cecile, they never imagined they’d spend their vacation in a Black Panther summer camp, while barely seeing their mother, who clearly is not thrilled they are there with her.

The ambiance of 1968 is depicted masterfully and with elegance. As for the story, the first descriptions and impressions of Cecile -the abandoning mother- are slowly transfigured. Like fog disappearing from a landscape, little by little the characters evolve and draw clearer images of their times and expectations. No character is trivial in this book. Although the story may look simple, the truth of the matter is that is delightfully elaborated. 

From the multicultural point of view, this is a well-thought book of the civil rights years. However, it is much more than that. It is complex and deep. In simple phrases, it manages to paint a tremendously difficult time with enough tenderness to be handled by children, without turning it into a simplistic book. 

Latin and Asian characters are also part of the Black Panthers movement. The books shows that revolutions and changes have many faces. Feminism is also present and front row. A remarkable phrase by Cecile to her daughter Delphine summarizes life “It wouldn’t kill you to be selfish, Delphine” (110) Finally, there is also the redemptive power of art and poetry, which seems to be the great passions of Cecile.

Religion is also portrayed in the book in refined ways and tied to identity and self-awareness. “With Cassius Clay you hear the clash of fists […] With Muhammad Ali you see a mighty mountain, greater than Everest, and can’t no one knock down a mountain” (3) This sole phrase is a history class, a snapshot of the difficult years that were the 60s, and most importantly, a powerful message for the African American community. There is pride, strength, and also hope along the whole story. Characters build themselves from their experiences, away from stereotypes, and learn to discover what it is hidden under the obvious.

To conclude, it is important to mention the personal journey that each of the three sisters develop during the story. It is a growing process that ultimately will connect them with their mother. It is resolved at the end, when Fern demonstrates her talents of observation and poetry -same as her mother’s- It is at the end, also, when Cecile finally mentions Fern’s name. Shortly after the reader discovers the real name of Fern, or at least the name her mother wanted for her, Afua. With the same strength by which Cecile changed his name to Nzila, she finally calls her daughter’s name. The recognition of the identity is the ultimate connection. It is the acceptance and recognition of the other.

In all senses, this is a book about identity and respect.

List of resources: 

Organizations

Awards

Blogs and Websites

Reviews

Books

  • Multicultural Children’s Literature Through the Eyes of Many Children by Donna E. Norton
  • Multicultural Children’s Literature. A Critical Issues Approach by Ambika Gopalakrishnan
  • Hearing All the Voices by Mary Ann Darby; Miki Pryne
  • From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books by Kathleen T Horning
  • Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors Through Reading by Jamie Campbell Naidoo; Sarah Park Dahlen

“Top 5 Books” list.

Uptown 
By Bryan Collier

It is a delightfully illustrated story of boy touring (ushering) the reader through his hometown, Harlem. A day in the life of Harlem offers culinary pleasures, artistic activities, sports, and entertainment.

The most striking part is the extraordinary sense of belonging, pride, and love that the book conveys through the child’s voice.

The storyline is accompanied by rich illustrations made as collages using real photos and drawings. Saturated with details, each page is a feast. It is almost possible to hear all the city noises. Although, it is a children’s book, the richness of the imagery is a pleasure for all ages.

The book has been honored with the Coretta Scott King Award and the Ezra Jack Keats Award

The Dream Keeper and other poems
By Langston Hughes
Illustrated by Brian Pinkney

It is not that Langston Hughes requires a long presentation since he is considered as one of the finest poets of America. Charged with passion, love, and hopes, while using the simplest and briefest forms, the poems in this book are poignant and moving. They embody pain with the same strength as they offer beauty and love. His poems are not feel-good ones, they are feel-alive poems. In their simplicity, they speak a universal language.

The illustrations accompanying this book are a great complement. Done with a not very common technique -in which the drawing is made by scratching the black ink that covers a whiteboard- the image creation seems more an image discovery.  In other words, the core of the illustrations relies not on creating the lines but in taking out the unnecessary. They become metaphors of the simplicity of the poems themselves. 

Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Brown Girl Dreaming
By Jacqueline Woodson

A magnificent collection of poems picturing what it meant to be an African American growing up during the 60s and 70s. It also plays with the differences between North and South and what that meant for children’s interaction even when they are of the same race. This is an interesting, intelligent, and emotional book winner of a long list of awards including the National Book Award, Coretta Scott King, NAACP Image Award, a Newbery Honor, Sibert Honor, E.B. White Read-Aloud, and the Bank Street Claudia Lewis Award.

Halfway home #1 (extract)

[…]
I want to ask:
Will there always be a road?
Will there always be a bus?
Will be always have to choose
Between home

And home?

How it went down
By Kekla Magoon

A well-crafted book of the assassination of Tariq, an African American adolescent, at the hands of a white man. With 20 characters telling their story as they saw it, as they experienced it, and as they lived it from then on, the book offers a critical view of our society and black poor communities. An outstanding book on assumptions and how we are all creatures of context. It dwells into the complexities of daily life and how simple, small decisions may have life or death consequences. The book forces us to question our own beliefs as well. How sure can we be of anything? 

Finally, the book explores a simple, and at the same time, a profound idea coming from a character that is considered mentally slow. Tina -the sister of the dead adolescent- asks if her brother was bad. She ended up answering herself “I think Tariq was just Tariq”. That’s the core of the book “You just be you”

The book has been awarded the Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King, Printz Honor, and LA Times Book Prize winner, as well as being a National Book Award finalist.

Look both ways
By Jason Reynolds

This latest book by Reynolds combines 10 different stories (one per block) talking about events that may happen on the way home after class dismissal. As usual, the author takes simple ideas -starting with boogers, for instance- to depict the life of middle schoolers including their fears, joys, and everything in between.

This is an extraordinary author with a special gift for talking to children with empathy and understanding without trivializing what does it mean to grow up.

“But it dawned on her that he seemed freaked out dealing with the things that wouldn’t smash or smear. The things already invisible living all around him, and even maybe on him, and there was nothing he could do about it”

The author has been a Coretta Scott King Award honor, a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, as well as an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teen. 


Williams-Garcia, R., & Kapusto, O. (2010). One crazy summer. Amistad.

Authors

Kwame Alexander
Ashley Bryan
Bryan Collier
R. Gregory Christie
Christopher Paul Curtis
Leo and Diane Dillon
Sharon Draper
Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Grimes
Virginia Hamilton
Julius Lester
E. B. Lewis
Kekla Magoon
Patricia McKissack
Christopher Myers
Walter Dean Myers
Kadir Nelson
Marilyn Nelson
Andrea Pinkney
Jerry Pinkney
Jason Reynolds
Christian Robinson
Javaka Steptoe
John Steptoe
Mildred Taylor
Rita Williams-Garcia
Jacqueline Woodson