Category Archives: African American books

Traveling Africa in Pursuit of Research

Most authors spend many hours researching topics before they begin writing. For fiction, getting details right is important, but for nonfiction it’s essential.

I recently returned from Kenya after gathering material for a story I’m writing. Yes, I saw many different parts of the country, but my goal was getting background material for a biography on one of the leaders of the Mau-Mau rebellion, when Kenya declared its independence from Great Britain.

To do this, I traveled over back roads to meet the man’s son, who was a schoolboy at the time his father was arrested. When I say back roads, I don’t mean the usual country roads. These were roads typically traversed on foot or motorbike. While we jounced along, huge chunks of rock and piles of dirt scraped the underside of the van. At times we could only pass by driving with two wheels in the ditch at the side of the road. Sometimes the van tilted so much, it seemed as if we were riding on two wheels rather than four. This harrowing ride was made more difficult when we needed to pass an occasional vehicle by a hair’s breadth.

After more than an hour, we came to the remote village in the mountains. We took a tour of the extensive farm, then settled in for the interview, while his wife cooked beef stew over coals in a small metal fire pit in the kitchen. Chickens wandered into the screened-in porch, while a goose pecked at the screen as his story unfolded. He began with the family tree, so I would know his father’s history. He rattled off names and dates. What an incredible memory! And I left his farm with a full stomach and many memories of my own.

The next day we visited the prison where many Mau-Mau revolutionaries were held. Because the prison is still in use, we had to wait for the guards to clear all the prisoners from the areas we would be touring. And we received special permission to take a few pictures. The prisoners watched from behind barbed wire fencing while we entered the older buildings on the grounds. It was an emotional day for the independence leader’s daughter because this was the first time she had seen the cells where her father was held for seven years. Throughout the tour, the guards were very respectful of the descendant of a man who’d helped secure Kenya’s freedom.

I spent one day at the area considered the “Eden” of the Kikuyu people and heard their origin story and history, and viewed historical artifacts, granaries (pictured), and homes. The fight for independence mainly began with the Kikuyu, who wanted to stop British settlers from taking over their land. Ancient and modern history combined later when I got to hear about politics from an official in the present-day government who is Kikuyu.

Another stop was the archives in Nairobi, which has a museum on the first two floors that added to my knowledge of history. My main goal, though, was to look at official records. Although they could not pull the specific records I requested, they did bring me a file from 1954 titled “Information and Propaganda,” which contained British records of the revolts, arrests, and killings. It was jarring to read the British accounts after hearing the Kenyans laud the Mau Mau as freedom fighters. The British called them “terrorists.” Interesting to see how people with opposing points of view can describe the same events so differently.

Before I’d left for Africa, I’d read books about the period recommended by my Kenyan friend, and those accounts by Kenyan writers gave me a greater understanding of the culture and history. In addition, I had a long, handwritten account of family stories from the man’s son. Armed with that knowledge, I returned home to begin my library and online research. Having firsthand experiences and good official records will add richness and detail to the story that I would not have had otherwise. When the book is written, the manuscript will be sent to all the sources to check it for accuracy.

Reading about my travels and research might give some insight into how much background work can go into writing a children’s book. Stories come from the heart, but they need to be backed up by extensive research. Once the book is written, I hope sharing this small piece of history and one man’s commitment to Kenyan freedom will inspire children everywhere to dream big.

Kirkus book picks for Middle School readers

Have you ever Googled yourself? Be honest.

I never have, and during a spell of boredom while watching Big Ten football last weekend, I did.

I’ve been blessed to wear many hats throughout my life, including children’s book festival founder, former city councilwoman and now, children’s book author. As I scrolled through various articles from over the years, a wonderful surprise popped up on my cell phone screen.

An article from Sacramento Parent shared a list of the Top 19 book picks for Middle School readers from Kirkus. It begged me to question why not the top 20 book picks, but I’m rolling with it.

What is most amazing is that my biography, Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller is included in the list. Pinch me.

Since this list was buried in my search, I thought it might be news to you as well. As opposed to listing all of the books, I’ve opted to highlight those that received a Starred review from Kirkus.

Some are older releases, some newer. If you have not read them, make sure to add these to your must-read list!

Wonder

R.J. Palacio, Knopf Books for Young Readers

The movie comes out in November, and if have yet to read this modern classic, make sure to pick up a copy before then!

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The book that inspired the Choose Kind movement.

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

Ghost

Jason Reynolds, Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum
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A National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature.

Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel in a new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Running. That’s all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all started with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?

Quicksand Pond

Janet Taylor Lisle, Atheneum

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Newbery Honor winner Janet Taylor Lisle’s gorgeous and profound new novel about a pivotal summer in two girls’ lives explores the convictions we form, the judgments we make, and the values we hold.

The pond is called Quicksand Pond.

It’s a shadowy, hidden place, full of chirping, shrieking, croaking life. It’s where, legend has it, people disappear. It’s where scrappy Terri Carr lives with her no-good family. And it’s where twelve-year-old Jessie Kettel is reluctantly spending her summer vacation.

Jessie meets Terri right away, on a raft out in the water, and the two become fast friends. On Quicksand Pond, Jessie and Terri can be lost to the outside world—lost until they want to be found. But a tragedy that occurred many decades ago has had lingering effects on this sleepy town, and especially on Terri Carr. And the more Jessie learns, the more she begins to question her new friendship—and herself.

The Unexpected Life of Cromwell Pitts

Avi, Algonquin

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High adventure from a master storyteller about one boy’s attempt to fend for himself among cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves.

In the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, 1724, Oliver Cromwell Pitts wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. He’s alone in his ruined home with no money and no food. Oliver’s father has left behind a barely legible waterlogged note: he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in trouble. Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him, and he can’t resist the temptation to take it. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following the trail of his father and sister. The journey is full of thieves, adventurers, and treachery–and London might be the most dangerous place of all.

York: The Shadow Cipher

Laura Ruby, Walden Pond 

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From National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner Laura Ruby comes an epic alternate history series about three kids who try to solve the greatest mystery of the modern world: a puzzle and treasure hunt laid into the very streets and buildings of New York City.

It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo, and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

Joplin, Wishing

Diane Stanley, HarperCollins
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A heartfelt and magical middle grade novel in the tradition of Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia,about family, wishes, and the power of true friends to work magic.

While cleaning out her reclusive grandfather’s house, Joplin discovers pieces of a broken platter in a cookie tin. After having the platter repaired, Joplin wishes that she could both find a friend at school, and befriend the girl pictured in the platter. The next day, Joplin befriends a boy named Barrett, and also notices a girl outside her apartment. A girl who looks remarkably like the girl in the platter…

The girl introduces herself as Sofie, and she has a terrible secret. Cursed to grant wishes for the owner of the platter for all of time, she has been trapped for centuries. Joplin and Barrett vow to help her, but freeing Sofie is more complicated than they could have imagined, and the three friends end up against a sinister foe who could put them all in terrible danger.

The Quest for Z

Greg Pizzoli, Viking Books for Young Readers

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From an award-winning author comes a picture book biography that feels like Indiana Jones for kids!

British explorer Percy Fawcett believed that hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest was an ancient city, lost for the ages. Most people didn’t even believe this city existed. But if Fawcett could find it, he would be rich and famous forever. This is the true story of one man’s thrilling, dangerous journey into the jungle, and what he found on his quest for the lost city of Z.

Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller

Julie K. Rubini, Ohio University Press
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Long before she wrote The House of Dies Drear, M. C. Higgins, the Great, and many other children’s classics, Virginia Hamilton grew up among her extended family near Yellow Springs, Ohio, where her grandfather had been brought as a baby through the Underground Railroad. The family stories she heard as a child fueled her imagination, and the freedom to roam the farms and woods nearby trained her to be a great observer. In all, Hamilton wrote forty-one books, each driven by a focus on “the known, the remembered, and the imagined”—particularly within the lives of African Americans.

Over her thirty-five-year career, Hamilton received every major award for children’s literature. This new biography gives us the whole story of Virginia’s creative genius, her passion for nurturing young readers, and her clever way of crafting stories they’d love.

Indie Spotlight: Iseeme African American Children’s Bookstore, University City, MO

We’re talking today with Jeff Blair , so-owner with his wife Pamela of a unique children’s bookstore emphasizing African American heritage and culture.  Learn here how they’ve made their vision a reality.

MUF:There’s a lot of attention being paid lately to the need for children to see themselves in the books they read. You reflect that in the very title of your shop, which is dedicated to bringing positive books about African American people and culture to young readers. Tell us a bit about how you got started in this business.
Jeff: : We are parents of four lovely children; Jeff Jr., Naomi, Sarah, & Ezra. Together, we have created EyeSeeMe based on our years of experience raising four high achieving children. Our children have been tested in gifted programs; participated in leadership conferences; selected for public speaking engagements. Jeff Jr. started college at 15 years old, has a Masters Degree from Rutgers University, and is currently applying to medical School. My 3 youngest all just attend Washington University in Saint Louis. Many ask, how did we do it?
Our children were always inquisitive. After history class they would often run home and recite the many stories they learned about the great men and women of the past. But, they often seemed to have a presumption that their own heritage began at slavery. Yet, we could tell that they yearned for historical stories that included themselves as heroes, victors, founders, creators, and contributors to society. There yearning forced us to do our own research and make an effort to find books and stories about Black contributions to society.
We knew that if we could instill within our children a pride in their heritage and awareness of the great accomplishments of their forefathers that this would be the foundation that would allow them to grow into their full potential. (This has been confirmed by some recent research: Read Here)
As we began to explore our vast heritage together as a family, we could see the excitement in our children’s souls as they embraced their nearly lost legacy. This excitement for learning transferred into their studies.
As our children grew we saw them approach school with purpose and a clear understanding that they are truly “standing on the shoulders of giants” and have a responsibility to do their best in everything that they do. Others noticed their achievements and upon inquiry we shared our games and products with them as well. Over the years we have had numerous responses from parents and teachers alike, that our products have been instrumental in helping children realize their full potential by seeing themselves in history.
Two years ago my wife and I created EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore in order to help bridge the cultural divide, so that African American children can benefit from exposure to literature that respectfully mirrors themselves, their culture and their families. EyeSeeMe, is the only children’s bookstore devoted exclusively to promoting positive African American Images and African American History while advocating for Academic Excellence. We too believe that all children can learn, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, or gender. We believe that the African American achievement gap can be eliminated. More importantly we believe that competent, caring, and properly supported teachers and parents are essential to student learning. EyeseeMe is here to help provide that support.
MUF: There may not be enough books published by or about about African Americans, but there certainly are a lot of really good ones, and you seem to carry them all! What are some favorite titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, that you find yourself recommending to middle-graders these days?
Jeff: Wow, this is a tough question because we have many favorites. But a few that come to mind: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson, Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Eddie Red Undercover Series by Marcia Wells, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Ann Cameron, and The Clone Codes Series by the McKissacks.
MUF:What kinds of books would you like to see more of?
Jeff: We would like to see more books written of adventure stories of PreColonial Africa, such as the stories of Mansa Musa, the Moors, and the Israelites in Africa.
MUF: Are you hoping children (and their adults) from other groups will be drawn to your shop as a place to learn about African American life and history, too?
Jeff: Absolutely! When we first started Eyeseeme we were focused solely on ensuring that African Americans saw themselves in the books that they read. But, we soon realized that ALL Children (and their parents and teachers) need an accurate and positive portrayal of African Americans and their contributions to society and the world. Otherwise people can draw false conclusions about Black people and can fall prey to stereotyping and prejudice.

MUF: Please tell us about some of the educational materials and activities you have developed for your store. I notice on your website that your flashcards on African American heroes are sold out!
Jeff: Yes, in addition to books we also carry games, flash cards, dolls and toys that all support our mission of promoting literacy and academic excellence, positive African American Images, and African American History.
MUF: Please tell us about BooksandBros. Any more activities planned for the future that would be of special interest to ages 8-12? Something for girls?
Writing workshops to get some more African American writers started?
Jeff: Check out a video about Books N Bros from HEC-TV, Higher Education Channel: https://youtu.be/9sKuaeI4SbI Moreover, we host a Boys STEM Club called Circle of Excellence. We are in the process of launching additional afterschool/weekend reading and history classes for Middle School students.
MUF: If a family from out of town visited your store, would there be family-friendly places nearby where they could get a snack or meal after shopping? And if they could stay awhile, are there some unique sites or activities nearby that they shouldn’t miss?
Jeff: Certainly, we are located in University City, which is the central crossroads in the Saint Louis region. We specifically chose University City as the home for Eyeseeme for this reason. It is home to the Delmar Loop, an entertainment, cultural and restaurant district. Upon visiting Saint Louis I would suggest checking out the Missouri History Museum located in Forest Park; the Old Historic Court House, home of the famous Dred Scott case, and the Griot Museum of Black History.

Thanks, Jeff and Pamela, for creating this store and sharing its story with us.  Readers, have any of you visited this shop?  Not yet?