History for the Child Bibliophile

©2017 E. R. Smith All Rights Reserved


In Praise of Our Fathers and Our Mothers by Leo and Diane Dillon



Bibliophiles love books; I consider myself a book lover. Worry about how my child would perceive literature was a concern.  Many children struggle with reading and therefore hate it.  I began my child’s collection before her birth.  As she grew I read books with characters she liked, but also literature with characters she would need to know. Thankfully she is a slice of cheese just as sharp as her   mother.  Her current obsession is Manga; my only challenge now is keeping her at Y rating for youth 10+.

Learning should be fun and engaging.  Certain genre lend to the imagination therefore they are best for beginning readers.  Fables, legends, tales told by griot, have been a necessary piece for communities that felt apart from the larger society. Tales crafted to inform, protect, as well as to enrich the lives of children by affording them a legacy.  A heritage.  These five have to read” books enrich with stories as well as art.  Old and new readers will readily engage.

A Wave in Her Pocket:  Stories From Trinidad   By: Lynn Joseph

A Wave in Her Pocket by Lynn Joseph offers a treasure of myths and fables from Trinidad.  I try to read this book with the cadence of a born and bred Jamaican; to lend to the understanding that all cultures have a history of storytelling.  The clever character Tante is the family anecdotalist with a tale for every occasion.  Tantie’s tales originate in West Africa and some are were formed in Trinidad.  My favorite are the names of the mystical creatures “Soucouyant”, “Ligahoo”, “Graveyard Jumbies”, scarey tales true; but geared to teach a lesson.  Artist Brian Pinkney’s scratchboard technique gives movement to the illustrations, on page 28 the illustration is simply mystical.  A mini Glossary on page 49 defines terminology used in Trinidad.  This book can be used as a nightly reading or as a reference for a study on culture for social studies.  It’s a gem for so many reasons.


Kadir Nelson offers a wealth of history, artistry, and quotes from noted historic figures.  Nelson’s paintings ally the telling of America’s history through the eyes of the African American.  In the Author’s Note he states,

Painting historical American subjects pushes me to learn more about who I am, where I come from, and the role my ancestors played in helping form our country.

The African slave trade begins the tale in the voice of an engaging young woman. She outlines American history through to the civil rights era.  I love the timeline at the end of the book.  A supportive index is supplied also to assist young researchers in finding a topic. Heart and Soul should be purchased in hardcover, this is a book to be shared, treasured, and passed down through generations.

Painting by Kadir Nelson entitled “Slave Ship” on pages 16 and 17.

Cut From the Same Cloth:  American Women of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale by Robert San Souci.  When one thinks hero one often forgets heroine.  San Souci’s research spans America introducing ladies such as Hiiaka from Hawaii, Hekeke from San Francisco, and Annie Christmas from New Orleans.  Using the forces of lightening, intellect, and physical force these gals reinvent the idea of what girls can do.  51ge8yxpgll-_aa300_

Extensive research is listed in the Sources and also offers a detailed bibliography.  Illustrations by artist Brian Pinkney lends drama and movement to the stories.  I cannot express enough the necessity for hard covered books. Teach children to care for and even show case literature with pride; right next to their video games if they must.

The People Could Fly:  American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton.  Ms. Hamilton explains the importance of folktales in the Introduction.

Out of the contacts the plantation slaves made in their new world, combined with memories and habits from the old world of Africa, came a body of folk expression about the slaves and their experiences….The slave teller made the rabbit smart, tricky, and clever, the winner over larger and stronger animals….To the slaves, the rabbit came to be identified with themselves, which makes these tales highly unusual in animal folklore genre.


The Beautiful Girl of the Moon Tower is a favorite part of this collection.  A short bibliography at the end is great for researching further.  Kids these days Google everything, so there will be loads of information to discover.  Artists Leo and Diane Dillon make this book a keeper.

Her Stories also by Virginia Hamilton continues her wealth of knowledge in folklore. She teams up again with noted artists Leo and Diane Dillon.  Students should know the names and works of a number of artists along with the noted Van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci,  and Michelangelo.  Understanding how artists lend visuals to a story is a lasting understanding.  Graphic design is a new way artists are lending their vision.  When discussing the past to children, visuals are essential in helping to shape an awareness for a time long past.  The paintings are vibrant and should be housed in a way that keeps them lasting.

“Manuel Had a Riddle” excerpt from The People Could Fly:  American Black Folktales

Belonging to a society of illustrators the Dillons have shaped historical visuals for more than a decade.  My favorite story in this collection is Woman and Man Started Even.  It is a lovely and funny tale of a couple going directly to God to solve their arguments.  Resources are listed at the end; children can used these to make up their own new legends and continue the tradition.  When children create they learn to love and appreciate.  New bibliophiles will be formed.  Feel free to share favorites of your own in the comments.  I look forward to reading them.



A Shelter From Intolerance


Painting “Sheltered”  by E. Lester available at https://www.untilitsallgone.com/

©2017 E. R. Smith All Rights Reserved

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Children are such open souls; it’s important to expose them to great conversation builder books. Books are often a shelter, hiding one away from the world, as the mind shapes new awareness. Battling intolerance is best done with literature.  Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes is a favorite.  This tale of a little girl who is bullied in school because her name is seen as too long and unusual by her classmates, is a very useful for discussions. Talk about reasons why some kids are picked on.  Try to figure out positive ways kids can stand up for themselves.  Once  I had students chart their names on a large grid, to give them a visual, we then celebrated the scholar with the longest name.

The Name Jar By Yangsook Choi

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, brings to life a little Korean girl, new to America, on her first day of school.  Unhei pronounced (Yoon-hye)  tries to tell a group of children her name, and it doesn’t go so well.  Unhei whose name means grace then decides she needs to choose a new name.  We see Unhei discover her new American neighborhood and hear from her grandmother from Korea as she comes to a decision. Keeping ones identity even when it doesn’t conform to those around you is difficult.  Adults have trouble doing it.  Unhei’s name is also written differently, in characters, on a stamp.  Exposing children to the various alphabets and writings is a great way to extend literacy chats to social studies.  Call this lesson, “Writing Around the World”.  Get out paint brushes and write the same word in English, Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic; art and history aligned.

Bullies Never Win by Margery Cuyler is a realistic look on how and when children are bullied in school.  Jessica is being bullied to the point where she can’t sleep.  Going to school becomes a worry.  She must stand up for herself, but how?  Brainstorming on how this problem can be solved, can be fun.  Put off reading the ending until children can “solve” the problem.  Helping kids to understand just how to relate to one another is a life long lesson, that builds kindness, empathy.  It helps to eliminate fear, abuse, and low self esteem.


Worry about how nations will now relate to one another is daily news.  Discussing how we can make communicating better, hasn’t happened much.  Talks on how to talk to people, who don’t share the same culture, hasn’t happened much.  Conversation on how to defend oneself with decorum, must happen.  Focusing on fear free settings in school, must happen.  Frankly, because dealing with stupidity, misplaced rage, and violence in schools; is happening often. Tolerance must be taught.

My final choice for a study on tolerance is Wings by Christopher Myers.  Ikarus Jackson, has wings, and so becomes an outcast in school and in his community.  Role playing characters from the story can be instrumental in nurturing a collaborative environment.  Acting out parts of the tale can assist young ones in internalizing ideas.  Also, acting is fun; get a pair of wings from Party City and take turns being Ikarus.

Bullies Never Win by Margery Cuyler
Wings by Christopher Myers

On the inside cover of Wings, Christopher Myers explains:

“I wanted to create a book that tells kids never to abandon the things that make them different; to be proud of what makes them unique.  Every child has his own beauty, her own talents.  Ikarus Jackson can fly through the air, I want kids to find their own set of wings and soar with him.”

No spoilers, just know these stories all have a satisfying ending.  Let me know what the children in your lives think about them.  Most important, help me add to this list.  Let’s all find charming ways to expose our children to tolerance.


My Five Favorite Books for Explaining The Civil Rights Era to Children


©2017 E. R. Smith All Rights Reserved

Today, Monday, January 16; marks our nations recognition of the slain civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  In our home and whenever I work with children I pull out my five best books for discussing the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s role in changing America’s oppressive history.

Martin’s Big Words By Doreen Rappaport  is a reflective story showcasing the South at a time where posted signs such as White Only helped to form the words Martin used when he spoke to America.  Artist Bryan Collier’s mixed medium work draws you in.  My personal favorite is of  a working man walking past rows of parked buses.  The quote, “When the history books are written, someone will say there lived black people who had the courage to stand up for their rights.”  This is telling of the need for unity to affect change.


My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris  reminds me of growing up as the big sister, and trying to make sense of the world. I remember our parents explaining some hard truths about our community to us at a young age as well. Artist Chris Soentpiet pronounced (soon-pete) has the gift for making paintings look like snapshots, vibrant, clear, current.


Happy Birthday Martin Luther King by Jean Marzollo is a short biography of Dr. King’s life and times.  Artist Brian Pinkney’s work looks like engravings on a page that can almost move.  There is a Foreword for parents and teachers to help them to explain dying, shot, and death to young children.  I think children do better when discussing dramatic events like 9/11 with those they love and trust.


I Have A Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gives vision to this iconic speech.  Fifteen artists lend a hand to illustrate words we rarely hear, when bits of these thoughts are publicized on tv and radio.  My favorite pages are 12-13, and the words “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…”  Below is my favorite painting.

My favorite illustration from I Have A Dream.

The Day Martin Luther King, Jr., Was Shot:  A Photo History of the Civil Rights Movement by Jim Haskins is geared for older students 4th-7th grade, but I have used it with kindergartens as a picture walk.  Then yearly as a continual reflection on a past not yet fully dealt with.  This book spans the subject of slavery in colonial times and works forward to the 1960’s to give a deeper insight into the history of black people in America.  It is an important informational text to have on hand at home.


Black history month is on the horizon.  Keep the reading going.  There is so much to know about the past, that would explain where we are today.


The Day A Writer Formed A Black Child For America


Thank you Ezra Jack Keats for giving America Peter.  He wasn’t a little Rascal, or a Brady, or a Menace; just a boy.  A boy who liked to explore; generations before America met Dora.  I don’t know why there weren’t any children’s books with characters of color —but there weren’t.  Yes, African Americans have had loads of writers in America since Phyllis Wheatley stepped into colonial times.  However, Mr. Keats’ book  A Snowy Day marks America’s introduction to a new image.  A positive image of a black child, who lives in an apartment, not a big house.  I love this book because I love snow, it snows often in NYC; and I love rolling around in it before it gets all sloshy.  I have always lived in an apartment building, a lifestyle not often written about in children’s books.  This was not the suburbs, this was a city kid.  I often played on the rooftop of our building with my brother after a snow storm.  Oh gosh, my first printed kid like me, except he wasn’t a girl.  Since I mostly played with boys as a kid, Peter fit right into my world.


Peter’s parents loved and cared for him…just like my mom for me.  His mom reminded me of mine.  I agreed with Peter on loads of issues, especially being the eldest child.  Peter’s Chair  another favorite of mine, describes a child dealing with the birth of a new sibling.  Peter’s dad paints his chair pink, to prepare for a baby sister. Now that feeling has no color; an eldest child everywhere can relate to the situation.  I am the eldest of four, so enough said.  I was totally on Peter’s side.


Peter grew up in a time, when children could go outside and play unattended.  My neighborhood in the Bronx used to be like this.  There was no fear of assaults from adults only other kids.  Dealing with and outwitting bullies was key in getting from point A  my building to point B the park.  In Goggles  Peter has to deal with older children who want to get a hold of his new find.  His setting was like my demographic, laundromats, small stores for convenience, and tall buildings.


In Whistle for Willie, I am reminded of the time I wanted to crack my knuckles.  I couldn’t but wouldn’t quit trying until I could.  Literary themes of persistence, friendship, personal relationships, and minor miracles are understood by all children.  Peter wasn’t the only character who embodied this.  He was the only one that reflected my image.  This certified for me that my feelings were normal.  

People say, “Image is everything”; this phrase has a dual meaning.  It is more than what you look like and how you present yourself.  It is the importance of the images available to the people.  It is now that children in America can see and explosion of positive well rounded reflections of themselves in the media.  Lizzza on Youtube is one; and she is an interesting character.  iiSuperwomanii is another.  As a teen, I saw very little positive images of myself and my community.  The success of Dora the Explorer has led to more and more positive representations of communities formerly left out of print and television.  Images in print, that reflect the various American communities have been slow to show.  

Writers, hey, yooo hoo , we still need more stories. Child characters of Hindi, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Haitian, Nigerian, Korean, and Vietnamese communities are crying out for books.  Get busy writers, you know you have stories.  Create a new rainbow coalition  collection. Ezra kicked opened the door, so come on in.

I salute you Mr. Ezra Jack Keats, for awakening an America for all in print, now television.  A Snowy Day is now animated on Amazon. The movie gives Peters first story a holiday feel for every American.  Don’t miss it.

Visit  The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation to find out more.


© 2016 E. R. Smith All Rights Reserved