7 books to help kids appreciate history of blacks in America

From Nikki Grimes’ creative poetry honoring the Harlem Renaissance, to a powerhouse young adult novel that speaks to Black Lives Matter, here are seven new books for young people, timed to the month when homes and schools turn attention toward the history of blacks in America.

‘Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born’ by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee — his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see!” Kids are treated to a brief preview of boxing thrills, but this is mostly the Kentucky boyhood story of Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam at age 22. This account unfolds with affection and authority amid action-packed oil illustrations.

At the back, Barretta provides a succinct overview of the champ who retired in 1981 and died last year. (Ages 4-8, Katherine Tegen Books, $17.99)

‘Martin’s Dream Day’ by Kitty Kelley, photographs by Stanley Tretick

Pop-culture journalist and biographer Kelley has a fine way with words and chooses just the right amount to relate a memorable account of King’s civil rights efforts and his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

“The crowd was spellbound as Martin’s voice rose to the sky …” This moment has been told plenty. Images by the late photojournalist Tretick are a strong reason to choose this latest endeavor. (Ages 5 and older, Atheneum, $17.99)

‘Answering the Cry for Freedom’ by Gretchen Woelfle, illustrations by R. Gregory Christie

The subtitle: “Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution.” Each of 13 chapters is devoted to a hardly known individual, perhaps a preacher, writer or enslaved worker. While “well fed, well dressed and well liked,” Ona Judge (1773-1848), enslaved maid of Martha Washington, craved freedom. At age 22, Martha’s “favorite” slipped out of the presidential home in Philadelphia, fled to New Hampshire and managed to avoid being carted back to the Washingtons, even though they tried and failed to retrieve her.

The wide-ranging subjects include Agrippa “Grippy” Hull (1759-1848), a “popular personality” in the war, and Richard Allen (1760-1831), who bought his freedom and in 1794 founded the first independent black denomination in the United States.

Woelfle’s storytelling clips nicely along. What elevates this effort are the saucy, old-timey ink illustrations by Christie, of Mableton. (Ages 10-15, Calkins Creek, $18.95)

‘One Last Word’ by Nikki Grimes

The prolific poet turns her mind to the Harlem Renaissance, pairing classic works by heavyweights like Langston Hughes with her own new “golden shovel” poems. The result: a feast of African-American soul and artistry on familiar themes such as hope, struggle and resilience.

Poetry fans should enjoy contemplating this work in which Grimes crafts new verse using the challenging “golden shovel” method, where a poet incorporates words from a line (or lines) from an existing poem and puts them in a specific order in a new poem. The result: magical, thought-provoking wordplay. The diverse and vibrant artwork is by top talents including Brian Pinkney, E.B. Lewis and R. Gregory Christie. (Ages 11 and older, Bloomsbury, $18.99)

‘The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights’ by Steve Sheinkin

History lovers, adults too, can sink their teeth deep into this World War II right-vs.-wrong true story. On the night of July 17, 1944, sailors stationed at the strictly segregated Port Chicago in San Francisco Bay initially thought they were being bombed. Was this another Pearl Harbor? Instead, an ammunition ship had exploded, injuring multitudes and killing 320, the majority African-American enlistees.

When servicemen were later ordered to return to the same work, loading explosives, still without adequate safety measures, hundreds protested but 50 stood firm, leading to the largest mutiny trial in Navy history. Brilliantly researched, expertly crafted, compelling. (Ages 11 and older, Roaring Brook Press, $19.99)

‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

Starr lives in a “ghetto” but attends an affluent prep school in the suburbs. One night, she flees a rough party with her childhood friend, Khalil. They’re pulled over by the cops. Unarmed, Khalil is shot three times, killed, his body left “in the street like it’s an exhibit.”

Told in Starr’s steady and sensible voice, this gutsy and sprawling can’t-put-down debut swirls readers smack into the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement. Because she has footing in two very different communities plus a white boyfriend, Starr wrestles with the issues from various angles. A mighty accomplishment from a young Mississippi author. A film is already planned, with “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg cast as Starr. (Ages 14 and older, Balzer & Bray, $17.99)

‘Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!’ collected by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Two longtime, award-winning talents have churned out a meaty collection of familiar African-American games, poems, “on the porch or by the fire” stories and more — even “Mama Sayings” and code words used in the Underground Railroad.

When possible, McKissack provides the origins of everything from hand-clap ditties and jumping rope rhymes to songs and spirituals. In an introduction to the song “I’ll Fly Away,” we learn that 18 Ibo (also known as Igbo) Africans from southeastern Nigeria in 1803 chose death over slavery on Georgia’s St. Simons Island. “They linked themselves together, arm in arm, walked into the water, and drowned.” It is said that, right after, a flock of beautiful birds rose up and flew eastward, toward Africa.

Pinkney’s watercolor artwork dances joyfully all over the pages of this fine keepsake. (All ages, Schwartz & Wade, $24.99)

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