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The best children’s books are appreciated by all ages. Perhaps they appeal to the child within us all, eager for play — wordplay, imaginative play, “what if” play — that can be found in picture books. Perhaps they tell stories we all — of all ages — want and need to hear. Those are the books I want to share here.
“Unspeakable” (Lerner Books, 2021; $17.99) written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, tells the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre, May 31 and June 1, 1921. This heart-wrenching story starts: “Once upon a time near Tulsa, Oklahoma, / prospectors struck it rich in the oil fields. /The wealth created jobs, raised buildings, /and attracted newcomers from far and wide, /seeking fortune and a fresh start.”
Seven page spreads begin with “Once upon a time…” reminding readers that this is a story of events that happened some time ago. Weatherford describes Greenwood, the 35-square-block area where 10,000 Black people lived. “So many Black businesses cropped up/along a one-mile stretch of Greenwood Avenue, / that educator and business leader Booker T. Washington/called the area the “Negro Wall Street of America.”
Greenwood had barbershops, beauty salons, two movie theaters, a hotel, restaurants, grocery stores, furriers, a pool hall, a bus system, libraries, a hospital, post office, and school system, two newspapers, and 15 Black doctors. It was indeed a thriving community full of possibility, activity and hope.
But in 1921 a white elevator operator accused a Black shoeshine man, Dick Rowland, of assault. (A report by the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commissions states: “His charges were later dismissed and highly suspect from the start.”) “Fearing the man would be lynched/ … thirty armed Black men rushed downtown to his rescue.” They met 2,000 armed white men. Two Black men and 10 white men died. And the next day a white mob rushed into Greenwood. They looted and started fires, “blocked firefighters from putting out the blazes…. Families fled with only what they could carry.” Three hundred Black people were killed. “More than 8,000 were left homeless.”
Weatherford tells readers that an investigation begun 75 years after the event revealed that police and city officials had worked with the white mob “to destroy the nation’s/wealthiest Black community.” Weatherford ends the story with Tulsa’s Reconciliation Park “… a place to realize the responsibility we all have/to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope.”
Floyd Cooper’s illustrations are haunting and powerful and remind us of how much was lost when he recently died.
An author’s note at the end provides more history of the event and information about ongoing work to create a history center in the Greenwood District. Floyd Cooper adds that his Grandfather had grown up in Greenwood and lived through the Tulsa Race Massacre. He concludes, “Now the same way my grandpa told the story to us, I share it here with you. My grandpa passed away many years ago, but I hope that my art and Carole Boston Weatherford’s words can speak for Grandpa.”
Opal’s Greenwood Oasis
“Opal’s Greenwood Oasis” by Naja-Amatullah Hylton and Quraysh Ali Lansana (The Calliope Group, 2021; $22.50) focuses on Greenwood the place in the days before the Race Massacre. “On Mondays in Greenwood, all the children wake up and eat breakfast. We grab our books get on our bikes and ride off to school.” Opal tells us of each day of what Greenwood residents do — mothers cook and clean, wash and cut hair, serve sodas and more. Fathers “read papers at the law office,” sell groceries, practice medicine, fix cars and more.
On Sunday, the day before Memorial Day 1921, everyone in Greenwood is getting ready for the town picnic at the park. Opal goes on an errand for her mother and rides her bike through town, giving readers a close-up look at the businesses and shops. The book mentions Dick Rowland, but Opal is told not to talk about it at the picnic. No one could know what would happen the following day.
For those wanting to know more about this event, the Tulsa Historical Society has a web page. On this page we can read: “The Tulsa Historical Society & Museum has created a traveling exhibit on the history of the Greenwood Area and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre for the purpose of educating the community. The panels may be checked out for display in schools, libraries and other similar organizations. All requests to borrow the exhibit will be submitted to the Director of Education who will review and schedule as the calendar allows.” It would be a gift to any community to be able to see this traveling exhibit.
As Carole Boston Weatherford writes: we must “choose hope.” A book to give us hope is “Wishes” (Orchard Books, 2021; $18.99), written by Muon Thị Van and illustrated by Victo Ngai. In only 75 words the author gives us the heartbreak, danger and hopefulness of the refugees’ journey. The book begins: “The night wished it was quieter. /The bag wished/it was deeper./The light wished it was brighter.” And in the incredible illustrated pages that follow we see a mother and three children pack and leave a grandfather to get on a boat, make their way in a roiling ocean (“The sea wished it was calmer.”), under burning sun to finally be picked up by a coast guard boat near Hong Kong.
In an eloquent author’s note Van writes that she has told the story of her own journey from Vietnam, and of course, the journey of thousands of others. She also says, “It is not always easy to decide whom to help and when. But I think it is easy to open our hearts and to do what we can when we can. Sometimes it means volunteering as a language tutor, a guide, or a driver. Sometimes that means demonstrating to show support and solidarity, and sometimes that means petitioning to change laws and policies. Sometimes doing what we can just means saying, ‘Hello.’”
Perhaps it also means sharing honest beautiful books. Let’s read and share these three.
Jacqueline Briggs Martin of Mount Vernon writes books for children.