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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Excellent Black Lives Matter Picture Book Bios (Some Pre-BLM)

It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are not enough books for kids being published in 2020 by and about Black people. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some remarkable ones out there. Just off the top of my head I can say that I’m a huge fan of picture book bios like Don Tate’s Swish (to say nothing of his William Still and His Freedom Stories), Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, and The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison.

And of course, there have been Black picture book biographies coming out for years and years and years. Often their publishers either wouldn’t or couldn’t put the marketing dollars behind them that they so clearly deserved, and so these books would sink from view and be forgotten. Today, I want to revisit some of these books, just in case someone had a hankering to rediscover them. *hint hint*

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate (2015)

Status: Still In Print (thank you, Eerdmans!)

“It’s the story of a guy who in ten years went from teenage field slave to U.S. Congressman.” Put another way, it’s the book that taught me that history doesn’t work in a smooth, straight path towards progress. This is the book to hand to kids to show them where the country went wrong wrong wrong. An excellent Reconstruction book to boot.

Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter by Kathy Whitehead, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (2008)

Status: Still in Print (thank you, Putnam)

You know what I’d like to see? A lot more books illustrated by Shane W. Evans, that’s what. And if you’re unfamiliar with his work then this fantastic biography of Clementine Hunter if a good place to start. This year (2020) we’ve been seeing a lot of picture book bios about older people that have done amazing things. Well, Hunter picked up her first paintbrush at 50 and became the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at major museum. Worth rediscovering.

Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton, illustrated by Raul Colón (2009)

Status: Still in Print in paperback (thank you, Schwartz & Wade)

With kids on the march today more than ever and marching itself a daily event, not just something you read in history books, it’s good to see a book with a child on the front lines. This is written by the daughter of activist Andrew Young and is probably the only memoir on this list. For that matter, you just don’t see that many four-year-olds in nonfiction, do you?

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin (2013)

Status: Still in Print (thank you, Readers to Eaters!)

Urban gardening with an engaging text and great story. Plus, this was the first time I saw the art of Eric Shabazz Larkin. Did you catch his book The Thing About Bees last year? Magnificent. It’s particularly nice to see high-quality picture book bios of people alive today. You don’t want to give kids the impression that you have to be dead to rate a book of your own.

How good is this book? New York Public Library used one of its images on the back cover of their best book list of 2013:

I and I, Bob Marley by Tony Medina, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (2009)

Status: Still in print in paperback (thank you, Lee & Low)

I could have told you that this book came in 2009. Why? Because it came out the same year as Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse and I remember doing a cover comparison between the two book jackets. It’s funny that Bob Marley doesn’t have more picture book bios these days. Hm.

By the way, notice how many of the books on today’s list are by Lee & Low. That’s not on purpose, I just happen to gravitate to their titles more frequently. They’ve been in this game a long time and they tend to know what they’re doing.

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (2012)

Status: Still in Print (thank you, Lee & Low)

This was the first R. Gregory Christie book I saw that really played up to the man’s strengths. Long before he’d go on to win a Caldecott Honor for Freedom in Congo Square, he was trying his hand at bios like this one. Christie turned out to be an ideal artist for a book about Traylor. Without replicating the style exactly, Christie invokes the self-taught artist. This is true outsider art.

Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by Greg Couch (2007)

Status: Still in print in paperback (thank you, Dragonfly)

Every few years we’ll see a new Althea Gibson picture book bio come along. I think this year it’s Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis’ Fleet-of-Foot Girl by Megan Rein, ill. Laura Freeman. Back in 2007, though, this was my Althea of choice. Stauffacher does an excellent job of showing how Althea was a complicated hero. Greg Couch (who doesn’t seem to make picture books anymore) really put his all into the art of this book. Specifically, he found an interesting way to indicate movement, when it came to Althea’s playing. Very happy to see it still in print.

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Duane Smith (2008)

Status: Still in print in paperback (thank you, Lee & Low)

When it was first released I didn’t know a thing about Robert Smalls. These days it feels like his name comes up on a regular basis. This story of a slave who managed to steal an entire steamer and take it to the North is completely gripping, and may deserve some wider attention with younger audiences.

Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey by Gary Golio, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (2012)

Status: Out-of-Print

It’s crazy to me that of all the books listed here so far, this is the only one that’s out-of-print. Rudy Gutierrez, I don’t need to remind you, won a Caldecott Honor this year for his work on Double Bass Blues but go back in time with me eight years or so and see the work he did on this bio of Coltrane. My suspicion is that it’s no longer possible to purchase this book because Golio didn’t pussyfoot around the man’s drug habit. You see the good of Coltrane and the bad and kids are allowed to make their minds up about him. How many books do that? Few, and those that do go quietly out-of-print.

In honor of this book, here are some of Gutierrez’s magnificent spreads:

Yours for Justice: Ida B. Wells by Philip Dray, ill. Stephen Alcorn (2008)

Status: Still in print (thank you, Peachtree!)

What this list is sorely lacking in is a little social justice. Now Ida B. Wells is one of those subjects that we should have 100 picture book bios of, not just the occasional one or two. The text is good but it’s Alcorn’s art that gets the star billing here. I don’t usually like to quote other reviewers but PW got all kinds of loquacious when they said this of it: “A large trim size accommodates the stylized illustrations, soaring vignettes in muted hues that portray a statuesque and self-assured Wells. Fluid lines swirl or jut across spreads, establishing a brisk visual pace. In one scene, a hand extended from a fancy sleeve labeled ‘Whites Only’ pushes down an African-American man wearing overalls. In another, Wells the writer drifts from an ink bottle like a genie from a lamp, the spectral-shaped black ink forming her dress.”

So this is kind of funny. I just was looking through the list I have of my old reviews and I saw I’d looked at the book My Country, ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights in 2014. Perhaps I should include it on today’s post . . . and then I saw the cover and title. Wow. It is amazing how my perceptions can change in just 6 years. Just . . . wow.

By the way, take a moment to look back over this list. Heck, look at the books I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Now do a little count. How many of these are by White people with Black illustrators? Far more than half. Nothing wrong with that from time to time, but here’s hoping we see more Black authors getting published in the future.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.