Category Archives: Book Reviews & Recommendations

Post contains at least one book review or recommendation, and possibly both.

Teaching Harriet

Kasi Lemmons’s biographical movie Harriet was a box office sensation in 2019.  There has been both outcry and support for the film with some viewers homing in on points of historical accuracy as well as the choice of lead. 

Image source:

Debates aside, the fact of Harriet being the first big screen depiction of Tubman makes it likely that it will be used to teach history in homes and classrooms for years to come.   This being so, context is key.

Below is a collection of books that parents and teachers can use to help youth round out their understanding of the complex world that existed in Harriet Tubman’s time. Published over the last twenty-five years, all have either won a Coretta Scott King Book Award or Honor or are ones that were written or illustrated by CSK laureates. 

The content of these selections range from the songs and spiritual beliefs of the enslaved, to Black Jacks and free African American communities (whose historical presence and stories remain important yet are often grayed out in collective memory) as well as the sad reality of black slave catchers who abetted the “peculiar institution” and many topics in between. 

Elementary Readers

Image credits: Before She Was Harriet (Holiday House) / James Ransome, Never Forgotten (Schwartz & Wade) / Leo and Diane Dillon, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Hyperion) / Kadir Nelson and In The Time of the Drums (Lee and Low) / Brian Pinkney

Middle School Readers

Image credits: Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic), Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl (Harry N. Abrams) and The People Could Fly: The Picture Book (Knopf Books for Young Readers) / Leo and Diane Dillon


Jené Watson is Chair of the CSK Technology Committee as well as a mother, writer, educator and librarian who lives and works in suburban Atlanta. She is the author of The Spirit That Dreams: Conversations with Women Artists of Color.

Freedom on the High Seas: Teaching Maritime History with CSK Books and Authors

“Very often, the way to freedom was not by land, but by sea. Countless slaves made it to freedom with the help of a ‘black Jack,’ a black seaman or a Nantucket whaleman.” ~Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African American Whalers

Did you know that from the early to mid-1800’s, a significant number of free men of color worked as waterfront workers and seafaring men and that Frederick Douglass escaped bondage by disguising himself as a sailor? Or that the early American whaling industry was roughly equivalent to the oil industry of today and was strongly connected to abolition? While it’s well known that black people were transported to the Americas aboard slave vessels, many also used ships and various types of maritime work to secure their freedom.   Several CSK Award winning authors and illustrators have written or illustrated books about real and imagined heroes from this fascinating part of American history.


CSK Author Award winner Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Peggony Po: A Whale of a Tale is a Pinocchio-meets-Moby Dick tall tale.  This story pairs beautifully with Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Whale Trails, Before and Now. In addition, Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by CSK Illustrator Honor winner James Ransome, shows the important role that the shipyards of Baltimore and the Eastern Shore played in opening the path to Douglass’ bright future.

I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer by Coretta Scott King Award winner Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by CSK/Steptoe Award winner Eric Velasquez introduces young readers to Matthew Henson, the groundbreaking explorer who began his career as a cabin boy at the age of twelve. Weatherford’s book pairs well with Deborah Hopkinson’s Keep On!: The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-discoverer of the North Pole. This teacher’s guide supports    the content of both titles.


Two rich and informative chapter books about blacks in maritime history are Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African American Whalers by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack and How They Got Over: African Americans and the Call of the Sea written by 2018 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement author, Eloise Greenfield and illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. Both of these CSK related titles can be nicely supplemented with graphic novels The Amazing Adventures of Equiano and The Prison-Ship Adventure of James Forten, Revolutionary War Captive .  

Public and school librarians can incorporate these titles in ocean- and pirate- themed displays or create book bundles that include the above-named titles alongside an assortment of water-themed folktales, nonfiction titles related geography, oceanography, navigation and astronomy.

Classroom and homeschooling teachers can use these books to expand their teaching of topics related to African Americans in the antebellum South and Reconstruction years. Teachers may also choose to incorporate Black Sailors and Sea Shanties, an electronic resource, into their presentation of this material.

Whether offered in the library or classroom, these resources will  shine light upon an often overlooked yet significant aspect of global history.


Jené Watson is a writer, mother and public librarian who lives in suburban Atlanta.  She loves arts and history and is the author of The Spirit That Dreams: Conversations with Women Artists of Color (

Explore the Westward Expansion with CSK Award-Winning Titles

“There are Black American stories somewhere between slavery and ghetto that deserve telling.”

~Joyce Carol Thomas, author, playwright, and CSK Honor Award winner

The Underground Railroad and Canada are well known for their part in African Americans’ escape from bondage. However, in their search for peace and freedom, escaped and freed slaves left virtually no land untrod.

Though the story is often marginalized, regions west of the Mississippi River were a Promised Land for African Americans after Reconstruction. The call beckoned as strongly to Black whalemen of Nantucket and New Bedford as it did to hands that harvested cotton, sugar, and tobacco in the Deep South. And while stories about the roles of people of color in the American West are comparatively few, they do exist.

Below is a roundup of outstanding resources. It includes CSK Award-winning titles and other support materials useful in building an enriched and inclusive curriculum.

Black Cowboys, Wild Horses tells the story of Bob Lemmons, the legendary Texas horse tracker. This true account was written by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, both CSK Award- winners. Similarly, Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West by Lillian Schlissel is a collection of powerful photographs that give testament to the mettle of this forgotten band of migrants. Before delving into these texts, teachers can have their students read the Junior Scholastic article, “The Other Pioneers: African Americans on the Frontier.”

I Have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas centers on an African American woman pioneer and is a poetic tribute to African Americans who migrated to the Oklahoma territory. Floyd Cooper illustrated the text with quiet, muted tones that harmoniously blend with the author’s voice, an African American writer who had ancestral connections to the region. It beautifully complements Pappy’s Handkerchief. The latter is by Devin Scillian (illustrated by Chris Ellison) and centers specifically on the Oklahoma Land Rush. Visit this link for a teacher’s guide for Pappy’s Handkerchief. 

CSK Award-winning author Patricia McKissack’s middle-grade book Scraps of Time: Away West is an intergenerational family saga alternating between modern times and the Reconstruction era of the 1870s. For early elementary school readers, Barbara Brenner’s Wagon Wheels (illustrated by Don Bolognese) offers an adventure that charts the odyssey of a father and his sons as they make their way to Kansas. This teacher’s guide, along with Nicodemus: The Black Experience Moving West, a short video produced by the National Park Service, pair well with these texts.

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, tells the story of a man whose life and career took him from a plantation in Arkansas then on to Texas, what would eventually become Oklahoma. Bad News for Outlaws was awarded the 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award. Gregory Christie, the book’s illustrator, was awarded a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. Another with a similar setting and feel is Thunder Rose, written by Jerdine Nolen and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Nelson was recognized for this work with the 2008 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. It’s an amusing tall tale with dense text and lovely illustrations that evoke the grace and grit woven into prairie life.

Librarians and educators wishing to expand their coverage of this complicated segment of United States history can enrich their collections and class content with these books that explore the African American experience and contribution to Westward Expansion.

Post by Jené Watson

Jené Watson works as a public librarian at a system in suburban Atlanta, where she coordinates Books in the Barbershop and family meditation programs. She is the author of The Spirit That Dreams: Conversations with Women Artists of Color (

Beautiful Blackbird – A School-Wide Celebration

The Gregory-Lincoln Education Center, a magnet School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, has chosen their author of the month: Ashley Bryan. The school community celebrated Bryan, a brilliant artist, filmmaker, and storyteller, focusing on Bryan’s Coretta Scott King Award-winning book, Beautiful Blackbird.

Beautiful Blackbird encompasses timeless themes for both young and old! Without giving away much of the plot, this wonderful picture book includes themes of being true to oneself, loving one’s own unique features, and handling the inevitable jealousy/envy that pops up in life. Though it’s an adaptation of a Zimbabwe folk-tale, this book has a universal theme of “wonderfully me.” Additionally, this book works well for those kiddos who don’t feel like they fit in with the popular crowd: “Color on the outside is not what’s on the inside.”

As School Librarian, I worked with my “lunch-bunch” Blerd Book Club to create a little podcast of our debriefing discussion. Please enjoy our very first PODCAST!

For our younger students (grades 2nd-4th), we kept the lesson simple with four easy steps and, of course, fun. The four steps are “Do Now,” “Do Together,” Do Next,” and “Do Reflect.”

DO NOW: Choose your favorite color and defend it with this sentence stem: My favorite color is ______ because of _______.

“I love purple and gold because my mother wears a lot of gold ring and I love to wear my favorite purple dress. In India, gold is a treasure. My mommy says I’m her treasure.” Khanak T.

DO TOGETHER: Read the story Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan.

DO NEXT: Create your own community bird pond, decorating your birds like those in the story. (Link to Beautiful Blackbird slides from our 2nd-grade class.)

DO REFLECT: Turn to your shoulder partner and discuss what each of you loves about yourselves for 2 minutes. Be prepared to stand up and share what your partners love about themselves and vice-versa.

We had a whole nestful of fun celebrating all the beautiful colors in the world! We hope you enjoyed our cut-paper artwork and our thoughtful discussion!

Post by Jean Darnell

Jean Darnell is a magnet arts school librarian from Houston, Texas. She’s an avid social media user, active with her state library association and future-ready librarian. Discover more on Twitter (@AwakenLibrarian).

Classic CSK Titles

Oftentimes when the term “classic” is used in discussions about children’s books, there are references to titles such as Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Polar Express. Seldom are books written by and about African Americans like Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World, and The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 mentioned in these discussions. In my opinion, books written by and about People of Color can also be designated as classics.

In an article published in The Reading Teacher in 2010, I argued that there are African American classic children’s books. I identified a sampling of such titles—after surveying scholars of children’s literature— and placed them into the following three categories: universal experiences (e.g., death, love, and friendship) from an African American perspective, breakthrough books that are a “first” in some way or break new ground, and literary innovation (e.g., use of language, style, etc.). The above-mentioned CSK winning titles reflect these three categories. For example, Everett Anderson going through the stages of grief after the death of his father is a universal experience, while Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World is one of the few African American children’s books to focus on the experiences of Blacks settling in the western part of the United States.  The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 displays literary innovation for its unique use of racial humor.

My article identified additional African American classics that are recipients of the CSK Award/Honor such as Meet Danitra Brown, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, Monster, Toning the Sweep, Mirandy and Brother Wind, Let It Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals, Tar Beach, and Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo.

What CSK titles do you consider classics?

Post by Jonda C. McNair

Jonda C. McNair is a past chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee. A former elementary school teacher of students in grades K-2, she is currently a professor of literacy education at Clemson University in South Carolina.

The Heart and Center

Love. Family. Science. Poetry. Deportation? A fascinating mix of subjects that Nicola Yoon blends very well in her story The Sun is Also a Star, the 2017 Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for New Talent.

At the heart of this story is a romance between Natasha, a Jamaican, and Daniel, a Korean American.  Natasha is a realist, stating scientific and mathematical facts and figures.  Daniel, on the other hand, is a poet who speaks from the heart.  When they meet in New York, Daniel believes Natasha is “the one,” while Natasha is reluctant to accept feelings and sticks to the facts.  For an intense 12 hours in New York City, Natasha and Daniel grapple with their feelings, Natasha’s possible deportation, and their families.

However, The Sun is Also a Star is more than a love story.  It is also a story about Natasha’s and Daniel’s family and their cultures. Yoon carefully reveals the family history and culture in short vignettes.  Connecting these stories, one learns why Natasha is facing deportation and why Daniel’s family owns an African American hair supply store.

Young people will love the intense relationship between Natasha and Daniel. Teachers, on the other hand, will try to figure out how to include this book into their curriculum/and or literary study.  The Sun is Also a Star can spark many ideas and activities. Love is such a universal theme that books like The Sun is Also a Star would easily fit in with other love stories.  Comparing and contrasting love between characters from different cultures could be compared to other love stories with characters from different backgrounds.  Studies in Jamaican and Korean culture would give students a greater understanding of different cultures.  Immigration laws, particularly during this time, would certainly be a good topic for any Government/Social Studies course.  Because the sun is really a star, students can state  scientific facts while also making literary inferences and meaning from the title.

By Karen Lemmons