Monday, October 01, 2007

African American Children's Literature: The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators

I'm not quite finished with my books for the African American children's books entry. However, I'm anxious to tell you about the books I have read, so on we go!

John Steptoe's Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters is one of my favorite folktales. It's basically a "Cinderella" story (Cinderella stories exist in an extraordinary number of cultures). Nyasha is kind, considerate, and beautiful; Manyara is also beautiful, but selfish and inconsiderate. A prince, a mysterious woman and a hungry boy, and a satisfying resolution make this an appealing choice for any time of the year, but definitely one to keep in mind if you are looking for African folktales for a Black History Month storytime.

I haven't read all of Virginia Hamilton's books, but she must have had a thing for old mysterious houses that hold secrets. It's apparent in The House of Dies Drear ( a very spooky book), and I noticed it again in Zeely. Zeely (originally published in 1967) is the story of eleven year old Geeder's summer on her uncle Ross's farm. Geeder meets the beautiful and elusive Zeely, who lives nearby. Zeely is unlike anyone Geeder has ever seen; the tallest and most regal woman Geeder has ever known. Geeder finds a picture of a Watutsi queen who looks just like Zeely. Convinced that Zeely is royalty, she spreads the word to the other children in the village.

Like The House of Dies Drear, Hamilton has created an otherworld feeling in this story. The books are not fantasy, but calling them mysteries isn't quite accurate. Zeely, Hamilton's first children's novel, is not as complex or mysterious as The House of Dies Drear, but it an excellent, gentle, and loving story.

I vaguely remember reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in middle school. I had not reread it until I picked it up for my Essential Guide series. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the story of the Logan family (there is a prequel and sequel to the book). The Logans grow cotton in Depression-era Mississippi; a hard time for most people, but doubly so for African Americans. The Logans are the lucky ones; unlike most of their friends and acquaintances, they own their own land. However, this doesn't make them immune to humiliation and injustice.

Mildred Taylor, who drew upon her own childhood experiences, makes no effort to soften the harshness of the time. Everyday indignities, such as receiving the hand me down raggedy textbooks of the local white school, and more serious injustices, such as a teenage boy falsely accused of murder, are exposed in all their ugliness.

However, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is also about a family living and loving together in extraordinary circumstances, church socials, and neighbor helping neighbor. The book won the Newbery Award in 1977. Throughout the years, the book has been challenged by those who are offended by Taylor's (historically accurate) language and themes. Mildred Taylor addressed those issues in her acceptance speech for the 1997 ALAN Award.

I am reading the prequel and sequels to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, but won't post about them here. I'm sure that if Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry makes you want to to learn more about Cassie, Little Man, Christopher John, and TJ, that you will seek out the other books in the series.

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