Tag Archives: African-American history

Perfect Pairing – Fights Racial Discrimination & Segregation

When we think about the fight against racial discrimination and segregation, most of us think about mid-twentieth century fights to gain access to schools, public transportation, lunch counters, and the vote. But this fight began long before that era and was fought on many fronts by people of all ages, as two new picture books show.

A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story

Authors: Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan

Illustrator: Floyd Cooper

Publisher/Date: Abrams Books for Young Readers/2020

Ages: 6-9

Themes: segregation, African-American history, amusement parks, carousel, courage, Civil Rights

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The true story of how a ride on a carousel made a powerful Civil Rights statement

A Ride to Remember tells how a community came together—both black and white—to make a change. When Sharon Langley was born in the early 1960s, many amusement parks were segregated, and African-American families were not allowed entry. This book reveals how in the summer of 1963, due to demonstrations and public protests, the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Maryland became desegregated and opened to all for the first time. Co-author Sharon Langley was the first African-American child to ride the carousel. This was on the same day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Langley’s ride to remember demonstrated the possibilities of King’s dream. This book includes photos of Sharon on the carousel, authors’ notes, a timeline, and a bibliography.

Read a review at The Picture Book Buzz.

 

Lizzie Demands a Seat! Elizbeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights

Author: Beth Anderson

Illustrator: E.B. Lewis

Publisher/date: Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane/2020

Ages: 7-10

Themes: segregation, courage, New York City, New York State history, African-American history, streetcars, Civil Rights

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

In 1854, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jennings, an African American schoolteacher, fought back when she was unjustly denied entry to a New York City streetcar, sparking the beginnings of the long struggle to gain equal rights on public transportation.

One hundred years before Rosa Parks took her stand, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jennings tried to board a streetcar in New York City on her way to church. Though there were plenty of empty seats, she was denied entry, assaulted, and threatened all because of her race–even though New York was a free state at that time. Lizzie decided to fight back. She told her story, took her case to court–where future president Chester Arthur represented her–and won! Her victory was the first recorded in the fight for equal rights on public transportation, and Lizzie’s case set a precedent. Author Beth Anderson and acclaimed illustrator E. B. Lewis bring this inspiring, little-known story to life in this captivating nonfiction book.

Read a review at Picture Books Help Kids Soar.

I paired these books because they provide a broader history of the long-fought battle to end racial discrimination and segregation. In A Ride to Remember, readers learn about the efforts to integrate an amusement park in Baltimore, MD in 1963, and the role a young child and her courageous parents played in that effort. In Lizzie Demands a Seat, readers meet Lizzie, a courageous, young, free African-American woman, who went to court to secure her right to ride any streetcar in New York City in the mid-19th century, before the abolition of slavery in the South. These accounts show that discrimination and segregation weren’t just southern practices, nor were they confined to institutions like schools and publicly-owned transport. Rather, they existed across the US at various times of our history, and affected people’s lives in more ways than many of us realize.

 

PPBF – Overground Railroad

I was fortunate enough to meet today’s Perfect Picture Book author at a Highlights Foundation course last summer. I had read many of her picture books and her middle grade debut, Finding Langston, so when I saw this new picture book, I knew that I had to feature it here.

Title: Overground Railroad

Written By: Lesa Cline-Ransome

Illustrated By: James Ransome

Publisher/Date: Holiday House/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: African-American history, the Great Migration, moving, train journey

Opening:

Some walked./ Some drove./ But we took the train north./ Me and Mama and Daddy got to the station/ crack of dawn early before anyone/ could see us leave./ Daddy holding tight/ to me with one hand/ three tickets to New York in the other.

Brief Synopsis:

A young African-American girl recounts her family’s 1939 journey from a sharecropping shack in North Carolina to New York City.

Links to Resources:

  • Have you ever moved to a new city or town? How did you feel about moving? What did you miss most from your prior home? What did you like best about your new neighborhood?
  • Learn about the migration of African-Americans from the rural south to northern cities in the US from World War I through 1960 in what has been termed the Great Migration;
  • How is the journey described in Overground Railroad the same as, or different from, the journeys of refugees, migrants, and those seeking to travel north from Central America to the United States today?

Why I Like this Book:

In free verse poetry, Cline-Ransome relates the story of one family’s journey from a sharecropping shack in rural North Carolina to The Promised Land, New York City. Narrated by young Ruth Ellen, readers experience the train ride north from her perspective. We see Ruth Ellen saying tearful goodbyes to extended family, passing time playing cards and reading, noting the change in scenery, and especially seeing the “whites only” sign removed as the train chugged from the segregated south to the relative freedom of the north.

Although Overground Railroad is a work of fiction, Cline-Ransome ties Ruth Ellen’s story to that of others making the same journey by, for instance, noting the crowded “colored” car and how many more joined the journey at each stop. She also ties it back to the journeys that slaves made along the Underground Railroad by placing the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, a gift from her teacher, in her hand and having her remark on the Chesapeake and the Delaware River, important waterways for slaves seeking freedom.

I think Overground Railroad will be an important addition to schools, libraries, and homes, especially with the Author’s Note, in which Cline-Ransome places the migration in context, and notes that this story was “inspired by just one of the many stories of people who were running from and running to at the same time…” I also think the story will appeal to younger children, who can focus merely on Ruth Ellen’s journey, and older children, who can use this picture book as a springboard to learn more about the Great Migration.

For me, who, as regular readers know, usually focuses on international migration, I think Overground Railroad will be a useful tool to compare and contrast the myriad human migrations occurring today to this period in our American history when millions of blacks fled the poverty and violence of the sharecropping system and segregation, seeking a better life for themselves and their families in the North.

Using graphite, paste pencils, watercolors, and collage, Ransome created stunning full-spread illustrations. I especially liked the scene showing so many people scrambling to board the train, and two spreads showing first, young Frederick Douglass alone in a dark forest lit by the North Star, and a few spreads later, young Ruth Ellen arriving in New York City, with a “sky/bright as a hundred North Stars.”

A Note about Craft:

As always, a journey related from the first-person point-of-view resonates with me and brings an immediacy to the story.

As Cline-Ransome admits in the Author’s Note, she hadn’t heard the term “overground railroad” to describe the Great Migration until recently. To help explain this little-known term, she has created a fictional narrator, an Every Child, so to say, through whom readers can experience this life-altering journey. But in addition to this focus, Cline-Ransome has added details which tie this journey to that of millions more and also to the Underground Railroad that preceded it.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

Perfect Pairing of African-American Heroes

Regular readers may notice a theme these past few weeks – I’ve been reading, and featuring, many picture book biographies. Not only do I enjoy learning about the past through these informative picture books, but I’m reading to learn more about the genre as I research and write picture book biographies, too. And as you read this, I’m attending a Highlights Foundation non-fiction master class with, among others, the author of these two fascinating biographies.

Before She Was Harriet

Author: Lesa Cline-Ransome

Illustrator: James E. Ransome

Publisher/Date: Holiday House Publishing, Inc./2017

Ages: 4-8

Themes: biography, African-American history, women’s history, slavery, underground railroad

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A lush and lyrical biography of Harriet Tubman, written in verse and illustrated by an award-winning artist.
We know her today as Harriet Tubman, but in her lifetime she was called by many names. As General Tubman she was a Union spy. As Moses she led hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad. As Minty she was a slave whose spirit could not be broken. An evocative poem and opulent watercolors come together to honor a woman of humble origins whose courage and compassion make her larger than life.
A Junior Library Guild Selection

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

 

Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass

Author: Lesa Cline-Ransome

Illustrator: James E. Ransome

Publisher/Date: A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers/2012

Ages: 5-8

Themes: biography, African-American history, slavery, literacy

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The inspirational, true story of how Frederick Douglass found his way to freedom one word at a time.
This picture book biography chronicles the youth of Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent African American figures in American history. Douglass spent his life advocating for the equality of all, and it was through reading that he was able to stand up for himself and others. Award-winning husband-wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome present a moving and captivating look at the young life of the inspirational man who said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

Read a review at Kirkus Reviews.

I paired these books because they are biographies of two famous 19th century African-Americans who escaped slavery and worked to abolish it. Although written by the same author, their stories are shared in very different ways. In Before She Was Harriet, Cline-Ransome relates the life of Harriet Tubman in verse, in reverse chronological order, beginning, and ending, at old age. Cline-Ransome utilizes names, titles and roles to describe Harriet during the distinct phases of her life in this life-spanning biography. In Words Set Me Free, Cline-Ransome uses first-person point-of-view to recount a short period in the life of Frederick Douglass, when he learned to read and shared that skill with fellow slaves. Despite the different approaches, both picture books reveal pivotal moments in the lives of these iconic figures.