Freedom In Congo Square (Carole Boston Weatherford)

Hello, friends! We’re wrapping up Black History Month tonight with the award-winning Freedom In Congo Square, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.

They count the days. Each day, the unnamed slaves of a Louisiana plantation labor without rest under the watchful eye – and occasionally cruel lash – of their masters and overseers. Anonymous, featureless figures with bent backs toiling over crops, washbins, stoves and hearths. They tend the animals, harvest the fields, cook the meals, clean the house, even raise the children of their owners. Some disobey; they are beaten. Some try to run; they risk capture and far worse. So they count down to Sunday, the half-day every week when they are allowed to gather, slave and free black man alike, in Congo Square in New Orleans. They play music, dance, exchange information. It’s here they can remember their roots, it’s here that jazz will be born, and it’s here that they can, for a few short hours, taste life without servitude as free men and women.

Gorgeous and moving. The story is flawlessly laid out in elegantly simple couplets, introducing the oppressive lives of the slaves first to make the cathartic emotions of their precious freedoms all the more impactful. The text is honest without being sensationalist, presenting the themes and emotions plainly yet poignantly. The art is stunning – faceless black bodies work against backgrounds that nearly breathe with heat and exhaustion, giving way to the vibrant images of Congo square, where at last the figures are given features and life as they shake off their subjugation for a while. The length is great, and JJ liked it a lot. We highly recommend it, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved.

Gordon Parks: How The Photographer Captured Black And White America (Carole Boston Weatherford)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Gordon Parks: How The Photographer Captured Black And White America, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jamey Christoph.

Gordon Parks nearly left this world as swiftly as he came into it; the doctor who delivered him saved him from stillbirth. And while his entrance into life was dramatic, being born into the US in 1912 limited his prospects – his white teacher memorably told her all-black classroom that they would be “nothing but waiters and porters”. Gordon was not satisfied with the status quo. Seeing a moving photo essay on Dust Bowl migrants, he bought a camera for $7.50 – the best purchase he ever made. From there, Gordon’s talent was obvious, and he was hired by magazines, companies, and the US government. Gordon used his work to document the unfair treatment of black Americans. He would go in to write books, compose music, and direct films – and it all started with a $7.50 camera and a talent that could not be denied.

Very interesting! Parks is someone who feels like he should be a household name, but is often overlooked in the discussion of great photographers (I encourage you to check out his work, he was astoundingly ahead of his time). While he is possibly best-known for his film Shaft, I like that this story focuses on his early life and work, showing how he overcame prejudice to follow his dreams and abilities, then turned around to use to that opportunity to bring awareness to the struggles of others. The text is great, moving swiftly while still exploring what Gordon’s life and work was like. The art is wonderful too, creating defined, vibrant characters and environments while also interpreting Park’s photos for young readers. As I mentioned, there is a stillbirth shown on the first page, and while Parks survives, it may take some explaining for younger bookworms. The length is fine, and JJ really liked this one. We recommend it, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

Hidden Figures: The True Story Of Four Black Women And The Space Race (Margot Lee Shetterly & Winifred Conkling)

Hello, friends! Our book tonight is the wonderful Hidden Figures: The True Story Of Four Black Women And The Space Race, written by Margot Lee Shetterly and Winifred Conkling and illustrated by Laura Freeman.

Based on Shetterly’s book of the same name, Hidden Figures examines the contributions of four remarkable women of color to the space and aeronautics industry from WWII to the height of the space race. Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Johnson were all good at math… VERY good. And math is what the government needs to build planes, then rockets, then craft capable of safely carrying and returning men to space. However, all four live in a time in which women, especially black women, are held back by racist and sexist laws and conventions. But these women knew that they had valuable gifts, so they fought, studied, and persisted to have their work recognized for the indispensable contribution it was. They and many other computers used their brilliance to further the space program and helped NASA touch the stars.

Anyone who’s familiar with the original book or the movie it was based on knows what a fantastic story this is. The women of Hidden Figures are remarkable, both in their natural intellect and the fortitude they showed in fighting for advancement and recognition, and this book does a good job of editing their stories down for young readers. Focusing on both their scientific and civil rights contributions, as well as giving an idea of the limitations black women faced at that time, it manages to tell a concise yet compelling story spread out over nearly 30 years. The illustrations are fabulous, staying grounded in reality yet adding just a touch of artistic flair to drive vital points home. The length is best for slightly older readers, though JJ made it through fine. A knockout that celebrates science, women, and people of color and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

Hey Black Child (Useni Eugene Perkins)

Hello, friends! Our book today is the joyful Hey Black Child, written by Useni Eugene Perkins and illustrated by Bryan Collier, a poem to encourage, enlighten, and inspire little readers of color.

Using the spare yet impactful text of Perkins’s beloved 1975 poem, words and visuals weave together to form a message of motivation for little black boys and girls. The poem asks three simple questions of its listener: Do you know who you are? Do you know where you’re going? Do you know you are strong? The answer to all three is the same – it all depends on you, and the only limits are the ones you set for yourself. The world is waiting, so go forth and do great things, and you will build a better world for doing so.

Love. This. Going in, I had no knowledge of Perkins’s poem, which is often attributed to other sources. It’s a compact powerhouse, using an economy of words to spread a message of self-confidence, faith in oneself, and hope for a better tomorrow. It translates beautifully to book form, with a flawless rhythm that makes it a joy to read aloud and straightforward text that is sure to engage little bookworms. Collier’s work is gorgeous as always, and there are some especially breathtaking spreads here: a stargazing young girl with the expansive cosmic universe spread out behind her, balloons rising from a piano as a little girl grows into a ballerina, the real-life faces of dozens of black children forming radiant beams of sunlight. The length is great, and JJ loved it. A perfect staple for any child of color’s library at any age, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

Ella, Queen Of Jazz (Helen Hancocks)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Ella, Queen Of Jazz by Helen Hancocks, the true story of Ella Fitzgerald breaking the color barrier at the Mocambo Club with the help of a famous friend.

In the 1950’s, there was no better blues and jazz singer than Ella Fitzgerald. But there was terrible prejudice in the way of Ella achieving all her dreams as a singer. You see, Ella and her Fellas were not allowed to play in the most popular clubs because they were black. At the fanciest joint in town, Ella was turned away at the door, and she was heartbroken. But Ella was about to receive a very surprising call, thanks to one of the most famous women in Hollywood…

Stylish and sweet, with a fantastic message. For those unfamiliar with the story, SPOILER ALERT: Ella’s advocate was Marilyn Monroe, who was an enormous fan and was incensed to hear that Ella had been turned away from the Mocambo. She called the manager and said that if Ella was booked, she would sit in the front row every night and they could take all the pictures they liked, using her massive notoriety at the time to ensure that Ella got a fair shot at mainstream (read: white) music. It’s a wonderful story of women helping women, and Hancock’s does a fabulous job of telling it. She wisely keeps the focus on Ella until the very end, noting that it was her talent and perseverance had earned her the opportunity, and Monroe’s intervention was simply to force the hand of the racist club policies. Then, she celebrates the real-life friendship between the two, showing little readers that the key to overcoming our differences is by bonding over our similarities. It’s all wrapped up in a beautiful package of simple yet engaging text and colorful period-inspired art. The length is great, and JJ and I both loved it. This one is absolutely Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)