Four Novels to Celebrate Black History Month with Older Children

A few months ago, I shared a list of picture books that promoted racial reconciliation along with a rationale for why books like these are important for all children. This week, I’d like to share four young adult novels that do this as well and can be used to help older children (upper elementary-middle school) celebrate Black History Month.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
by: Mildred D. Taylor
Winner of the 1977 Newberry Medal, Taylor shares what life is life for the Logan Family in the South in 1933. Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, nine year-old narrator Cassie wrestles with the injustice she and her family experience as everything around her is separate but not equal from the school she attends to the opportunities available to the safety afforded to those in her community.  With well-developed characters and witty dialogue, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry also explores the themes of place and family. Over forty years after it was first released, this young adult novel rooted in Taylor’s own experience continues to be one of the most important, well written books of its kind.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 by: Christopher Paul Curtis
The story begins in Flint Michigan as narrator Kenny Watson tells several humorous stories about his gregarious family. After older brother Byron’s tough exterior and poor choices become problematic, the Watson parents believe that spending time with their grandma in the South may provide an experience and perspective that everyone in the family needs. After making careful preparations for the journey, the Watsons arrive and adjust to the slower pace and limitations of the segregated south. During their stay, 16th Avenue Baptist Church is bombed killing four young girls and injuring others. The family struggles to know how to process and live in an imperfect, broken, and unpredictable world. Weaving the historical events of 1963 Birmingham with the fictional story of the colorful Watson family, Paul Curtis explores the themes of race, family, and perseverance with humor, wit, and developmentally appropriate gravity.

Brown Girl Dreaming by: Jacqueline Woodson
Describing her book, author Jacqueline Woodson writes, “Brown Girl Dreaming tells the story of my childhood, in verse. Raised in South Carolina and New York, I always felt halfway home in each place. In these poems, I share what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. It also reflects the joy of finding my voice through writing stories, despite the fact that I struggled with reading as a child.” Woodson’s poetic voice grapples with the themes of childhood, race, identity, and purpose in a memoir that invites others into her own experience.

by: Kwame Alexander
The Bell twins Josh and Jordan are also twelve year-old teammates. Using poetry/rap, Alexander tells the story of family, conflict, basketball, and friendship in a way that is easily accessible for the most reluctant of readers. Winner of the 2015 Newberry Medal, The Crossover tackles issues many middle school students can easily identify with.

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