February is African-American History Month, also known as Black History Month. I wanted to use the occasion to highlight several children’s books that feature African-American history throughout the eras of slavery and segregation. Each includes a child’s perspective on the experiences of slavery and/or racism. Though the stories include the painful truths of our country’s history, the beautiful illustrations and positive messages of endurance, community, and hope create narratives that younger children can understand and appreciate.
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad, written by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
Henry was born into slavery; he didn’t even know his own birthday because slaves weren’t supposed to have birthdays. When Henry was still a young child, his master sent him to work for his son in a tobacco factory. He later met and married another slave; however, their family was torn apart when his wife and children were suddenly sold.
Henry could do nothing but watch as they were driven away, knowing he would never see them again. Despite his heartbreak, Henry devised a plan to escape to freedom: he would hide inside a crate and mail himself to a free state! With the help of the Underground Railroad and incredible courage, he did just that. The text of Henry’s story is beautifully accompanied by Nelson’s superb illustrations which capture all the story’s poignant moments with truth and beauty.
Published by Scholastic, Henry’s Freedom Box is recommended for grades 2-5. The story may be upsetting for younger, sensitive children, as there are several mentions of enslaved families being torn apart and generalized references to beatings. However, Henry’s unshakable desire for freedom, his heartbreak, determination, and his courage are all compelling reasons to read his story.
White Socks Only, written by Evelyn Coleman and illustrated by Tyrone Geter.
White Socks Only is a story of a young girl in segregated Mississippi. A grandmother, encouraged to tell a story by her granddaughter, recounts her own experience as a little girl when she snuck off to town on an adventure; unaware of the bigotry she would encounter, and the powerful, peaceful protest her innocence would inspire.
Determined to solve the mystery of whether one could truly fry an egg on cement, a young black girl sneaks off to town all by herself. Dressed in her best Sunday dress, her shiny black shoes, and clean white socks, she finds a drinking fountain with a sign that reads, “Whites Only.” Thinking that means she had to take off her shoes and stand in her white socks to have a drink, she is quickly accosted by a racist white man who knocks her down and threatens to beat her.
All alone, she is terrified by the man’s anger and the growing mob of people surrounding them. Then, quietly, one by one, black adults step forward to drink from the fountain, removing their shoes just as she had done. The white man whips all of them with his belt until an old man known as the “Chicken Man” enters the scene. Rumored to be able to turn people into chickens, his presence scares the white man, who finally stops the beating.
“All the black people surrounded me. They were all crying and hugging me. Then they took me home.” The story ends on a hopeful note, as the narrator concludes with a tale of what might have happened to the white man (does anyone notice the big black chicken near the water fountain?), and the fact that the “Whites Only” sign was gone from then on.
Despite the obvious racism described within, White Socks Only is a positive story. It demonstrates the power of peaceful resistance, the importance of community, and the beautiful innocence of children when it comes to issues of race. Geter’s illustrations have a soft, watercolor touch, adding to the emotional depth of the narrative. Published by Albert Whitman & Company, White Socks Only is recommended for preschool to grade 3.
The Other Side, written by Jacqueline Woodson with illustrations by E.B. Lewis.
The Other Side is a story about a fence that runs through a town; white families live on one side, and black families live on the other. Mamas on both sides of the fence tell their children not to cross to the other side.
But one summer, Clover and Annie, two little girls living on opposite sides of the fence, gradually find themselves drawn to each other. Talking though the posts, the new friends decide that there isn’t a rule about sitting on top of the fence. So that’s what they do – all summer long.
At first Clover’s friends don’t understand; they don’t want to play with someone from the other side of the fence. But eventually, new friendship proves too tempting, and they all end up sitting on the fence together after long hours of play. The book ends with the girls’ sharing their thoughts about the fence and its future: “Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down,” Annie said. And I nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “Someday.”
The simple symbolism of the fence separating the two main characters in The Other Side can clearly be explained to and understood by younger children. Discussion points readily available to those who want to dive deeper include questions like: Are there still “fences” around us in our own neighborhoods? How have they changed since this story took place? How will we tear down the fences that remain? Published by Penguin Random House, LLC, The Other Side is recommended for grades 1-4.
Jennifer S. (she/her) is a graduate of Fresno State University. She spent a number of years working for non-profits before becoming a full-time stay-at-home mother. She currently lives in Central California with her husband, two children, and two codependent cats.