In the midst of this trying time, I am looking for books that can give us all hope. Hope because of the care and the passion that went into their creation, hope because they remind us that we can do better, be better, because others have.
First, I want to share the Caldecott winner for 2020 — “The Undefeated,” written by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by the brilliant Kadir Nelson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019; $17.99). Because of our current isolation I watched the author read this book. It begins, “This is for the/unforgettable. /The swift and sweet ones/who hurdled history/and opened a/world of/ possible.” On that first spread we see four-time Olympic Gold Medalist Jesse Owens, considered one of the swiftest of all time, leap onto the page.
The early spreads in this book celebrate bravery (“The audacious ones/who carried the/red, white,/ and Weary Blues/on the battlefield/to save an imperfect union/”) persistence (“the/undeniable./The ones who scored/ with chains/ on one/ hand and/ faith in/the other.” )
The middle sections go to the place of violence, injustice, and horror — the horrific violence that brought Africans to this country; the violence that killed four girls going to church, and the violence that continues to take Black lives. The first illustration in this section shows outlined Black bodies packed head to toe in the hold of a ship. The second is four photographs of girls in broken picture frames: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley. These four are the victims of the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Denise McNair was 11 years old. The others were 14 years old. Unspeakable. The final “Unspeakable” spread features four other Black people from recent times — Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland who were victims of various brutalities.
The book doesn’t end with suffering. It ends with celebration, with pages that celebrate athletes, musicians, and political leaders, and all the undefeated.
“This is for the
This is for you.
“Us,” who can all be uplifted by these examples of courage, persistence, talent, brilliance. The words and the pictures remind us of what is possible, even in the face of hardship and horror. Back matter provides details and historical context for the poem and the illustrations. This is a book for all ages to share, to discuss, to be thrilled by.
The next is not a new book, but a good companion to “The Undefeated.” “Let’s Talk About Race” by Julius Lester (illustrated by Karen Barbour) was published in 2005 and is now available in paperback (Harper Collins, 2008; $7.99). Lester begins in a conversational tone, reminding us we all have a story, which includes where we were born, who our parents are, even our favorite foods (Lester’s is fish), hobbies (Lester likes crossword puzzles, taking photographs and cooking). We learn his favorite color is red, or maybe all the colors. He’s Jewish, from the United States, and his favorite time of day is night.
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We know a lot about Julius Lester by the time he gets to “something else that is also part of our story — race.” We are all a race, he reminds us. But he also reminds us that a frequent problem in talking about race is that some people say, “MY RACE IS BETTER THAN YOUR RACE.” He asks readers to consider why people would say that. “Because they feel bad about themselves. Because they are afraid,” he answers.
But then he challenges us to remember the times each of us have thought we were better than others because of where we live, what school we go to, our economic class.
The beginning — learning about Julius Lester — is charming. The next — the problem with our organizing ourselves into hierarchies — is disturbing, if universal. The last, what Lester calls the real story — is brilliant. He asks readers to gently feel the top of their cheekbones, just under the eyes, to feel “the hard bones” beneath their skin. Then ask a family member if they can check the hard bones underneath another skin.
He writes: “Beneath our skin/I look like you/And you look like me …. And we look like them and they look like us.
He reminds readers that we are all so much more than race. “I am so, so, so many things besides my race. To know my story, you have to put together everything I am. (Like I bet you didn’t know I have asthma.)”
He closes this captivating book with “Beneath the skin we all look alike. / You and me.
I’ll take off my skin.
Race is an important. Too often it is the defining, factor in our lives. Lester reminds us to remember the rest.
Taking on kindness
The people don’t take off their skin in “Zero Local Next Stop: Kindness” by Ethan and Vita Murrow (Candlewick, 2020; $17.99), but Julius Lester would be pleased by some of the heroes of this nearly wordless story. The Zero Local subway train is plagued by delays. “Monday — Major delays.” As people become impatient and short with each other, we see an artist in a striped yellow hat with a yellow bird on their back drawing cartoonish ducks. When they are done, they give the “Thank You” card to the conductor.
“Tuesday — On Time.” And the yellow-hatted artist makes another thank you card for the conductor. Same on Wednesday, and this time the smiling passengers watch the artist. The artist’s acts of kindness have made a community of the car’s passengers.
The artist’s seat is empty on Thursday but during the long delay, a child on the train has an idea. On Friday, she calmly sits and cuts paper during another long delay, as other passengers become bad-tempered and short with each other. A fight begins and has to be stopped. Then the girl (a beautiful child with long Black braids and brown skin) gives her own art — lovely birds — to the once-fighting passengers, who break into smiles. And she hands one to the conductor.
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As the girl and her mother walk across the train plaza we see a bird in the sky that looks like one of the girl’s cutouts come to life. We notice people laughing and talking with each other. This book will reward repeated readings. And each time readers will notice the value of a little kindness on hard days.