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This selection of picture books and middle-grade novels set during the Jim Crow era in America can help extend conversations on racial injustice in the past and present.
Children identify with the characters in their books: they share their experiences and emotions and watch and learn along with their fictional friends. Authors can introduce difficult subjects by using child protagonists set in relatable scenarios, creating episodes that will resonate with young audiences.
When students read about painful parts of history in textbooks, they can understand the words and look at the pictures. This type of literature creates empathy, and from empathy comes understanding.
The following picture-book biographies and fiction selections are set during periods steeped in the fear and tyranny of Jim Crow laws. Enacted first in the late nineteenth century, these laws enforced racial segregation and were in place until 1965. Some of the books here directly address that segregation and oppression head-on; others include tell-tale elements that insidiously creep into the narrative via background details and descriptions. These titles can help librarians, educators, and parents start important conversations about past injustices and create meaningful context that highlight the need for change.
Picture Books and Picture-Book Biographies
Back of the Bus. By Aaron Reynolds. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 2010. 32p. Philomel (9780399250910). Gr. 1–3.Written in free verse, this book begins with a reflection from a young Black child who’s riding in the back of a bus with his mama in the 1950s. He rolls a marble down the aisle to the front, and a smiling lady rolls it right back. More people pile on the bus, and the driver tells the lady to move. The lady, Rosa Parks, refuses, and the rest is history. The illustrations are stunning and show the child puzzling through his thoughts: “she don’t belong up front like that,” but “maybe she does, too.”
Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson. By Charles R. Smith. Illus. by Shane W. Evans. 2010. 40p. Roaring Brook (9781596434738). Gr. 1–3. 796.83092.In the early twentieth century, Jack Johnson, the son of formerly enslaved people, and a gifted professional boxer, consistently refused a shot at the heavyweight crown because of rampant racism. He repeatedly challenged white reigning champ Jim Jeffries, who chose to hang up his gloves rather than fight a Black man. This deft account makes it clear that once Johnson eventually became the first Black heavyweight champion, it wasn’t just a personal achievement. It was a momentous event that would resonate far beyond the ring.
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America. By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Jamey Christoph. 2015. 32p. Albert Whitman (9780807530177). Gr. 1–3. 770.89.As a child, Parks’ white teacher told her Black pupils, “You’ll all wind up porters or waiters.” Parks grew up supporting himself with odd jobs that, yes, included porter and waiter, but when he bought a used camera during the height of the Depression, it changed his life. Parks documented the daily lives of Black people in Washington, D.C., along with the prevailing prejudice. This handsome book will help children understand the widespread racial segregation and discrimination in early twentieth-century America.
King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin. By Stephen Costanza. Illus. by the author. 2021. 56p. Atheneum (9781534410367). Gr. 1–4. 780.92.This elegant biography of Scott Joplin effortlessly weaves in 1920s and ’30s elements of Jim Crow restrictions. Joplin’s father, Giles, was a formerly enslaved person who used to play fiddle up at the big house. When Joplin first left home in Texarkana, he had to ride back in the very last, smoky train car. When Joplin got to the Chicago’s World’s Fair, Black musicians were not allowed to play on the fairgrounds. This account effortlessly weaves in the realities of Jim Crow while celebrating the life of this world-renowned composer and king of Ragtime.
The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Elizabeth Zunon. 2017. 48p. Atheneum (9781481468251). Gr. 2–4. 782.42164092.Young readers may not know Lena Horne, but they should know about the hardships African Americans in showbiz faced in the 1930s and ’40s. During the Depression, Horne’s Vaudevillian mother pushed her onstage, and she was soon singing with the likes of Cab Calloway. No matter how successful she became, she always faced segregation, humiliation, and Hollywood roadblocks. Horne became a staunch civil rights advocate in the face of racism and blacklisting, an aspect of her life that is often overlooked.
Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. By Vivian Kirkfield. Illus. by Alleanna Harris. 2020. 40p. little bee (9781499809152). PreS–Gr. 2. 782.422.When Marilyn Monroe got her first movie singing role, she learned how to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s music. The movie was a hit, and afterwards Marilyn sought out Ella to thank her in person. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. After learning about the racial discrimination Ella faced, Marilyn used her influence to secure Ella a singing gig at Hollywood’s top nightclub. This is a little-known anecdote about two major personalities.
Saving American Beach: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch. By Heidi Tyline King. Illus. by Ekua Holmes. 2021. 40p. Putnam (9781101996294). K–Gr. 3. 333.72092.During the 1930s, in Jim Crow–era Jacksonville, Florida, beaches were for white people only. Black opera singer MaVynee Betsch’s grandfather bought some shoreline property and turned it into American Beach, a resort open to everyone. Both locals and celebrities enjoyed its sunshine, but when Betsch retired from singing in 1977, she discovered the property was being taken over by developers. Betsch was determined to save the natural setting and devoted her fortune and the rest of her life to environmental activism.
Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element. By Jeannie Mobley. 2017. 240p. Holiday (9780823437818). Gr. 4–7.In 1923, Bobby Lee boards a train in New Orleans, determined to embark on a life of crime. He befriends two African American boys, a jazz orchestra leader, a kind widow, and other dubious companions. Bobby Lee dabbles in petty theft, but finds himself straying toward kindness, justice, and compassion. Readers will see Jim Crow laws in action and gain insights into other events such as the Great Migration and Prohibition. Vivid characters and settings let the action unfold, offering surprising and satisfying plot twists along the way.
Clean Getaway. By Nic Stone. Illus. by Dawud Anyabwile. 2020. 240p. Crown (9781984892973). Gr. 5–8.Black middle-schooler Scoob is looking forward to spring break when his grandmother, an octogenarian white woman, whisks him away in a Winnebago to retrace her life story. G’ma’s history dovetails with the American civil rights movement, and Scoob learns about the injustices of Jim Crow. Scoob’s wry observations and commentaries about the Green Book, an essential travel guide that helped African Americans avoid towns that terrorized Black people, contribute levity to an exploration of America’s past and one family’s journey to understanding and generational acceptance.
Finding Langston. By Lesa Cline-Ransome. 2018. 112p. Holiday (9780823439607). Gr. 4–7.Langston wishes he were back in Alabama. Momma was barely dead before his father moved them to Chicago, where, in 1946, “a man can provide for his family without always scraping and bowing.” But to Langston, Chicago is loneliness, loss, and the never-ending threat of bullies. Then he discovers the public library, which is not just for white people like back home. The library becomes Langston’s refuge, especially once he discovers his namesake, Langston Hughes, and begins to expand his world and find himself.
The Forgotten Girl. By India Hill Brown. 2019. 256p. Scholastic (9781338317244). Gr. 3–6.African American Iris goes outside in the middle of the night to play in the first snow of the season. She makes a snow angel and realizes she’s lying on top of a grave. The headstone reveals that the grave’s occupant is a girl named Avery, who was buried in a forgotten, segregated cemetery for Black folks who came north during the Great Migration. Iris deals with ghostly Avery’s increasing demands as she learns about marginalization and seeks to right past wrongs.
Jump into the Sky. By Shelley Pearsall. 2012. 352p. Knopf (9780375836992). Gr. 5–8.Near the end of WWII, naïve African American Levi is sent from Chicago to his father at Camp Mackall in North Carolina. This is a treacherous journey for a boy in the Jim Crow South, and Levi almost loses his life to a gun-toting store owner in Fayetteville. Dad, deployed on active duty, has no idea Levi is coming. Levi and his dad need to form a new relationship while dealing with the humiliations of racial bigotry.
Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It. By Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Brian Pinkney. 2020. 224p. Little, Brown (9780316536776). Gr. 5–8.Dramatic monologues from fictional members of the Little family tell of their experiences as African Americans living in the South during the 1920s and 1960s. Loretta, a sharecropper’s daughter, watches her father being sprayed with insecticide while picking cotton. Roland recalls having his livestock poisoned, the difficulties of adhering to Jim Crow laws, and his night-long vigils protecting his land. Aggie, in the 1960s, participates in voter-registration drives. These are strong testimonials about decades of persecution and segregation.
Midnight without a Moon. By Linda Williams Jackson. 2017. 320p. Clarion (9780544785106). Gr. 5–8.It’s 1955 in Mississippi, and Black, 13-year-old Rose has a dream: to leave the cotton fields, follow her mama to Chicago, go to an integrated school, and then head to college to become a teacher or doctor. Her grandmother, a real harridan, says this will never happen. Then a young neighbor is murdered for registering to vote, and a 14-year-old boy visiting from Chicago named Emmett Till is killed. Will the deaths be meaningless, or will they bring change, both for Mississippi and for Rose?
Ophie’s Ghosts. By Justina Ireland. 2021. 336p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062915894). Gr. 4–8.The first time Ophie, a Black girl living in 1922, saw a ghost was the night her father was murdered by a lynch mob. Ophie and her mother escape Georgia to start a new life in Pittsburgh, but ghosts linger. Ophie eventually befriends Clara, a young ghost who cannot remember how she died. An elderly woman recognizes Ophie’s gift and warns her to be careful, as, prophetically, Ophie becomes entangled in a sinister mystery involving the haunting aftermath of racial trauma.
Root Magic. By Eden Royce. 2021. 352p. HarperCollins/Walden Pond (9780062899576). Gr. 4–8.It’s the summer of 1963 and it’s time for Jezebel and her twin brother, Jay, to master the family trade: working roots, a practice of healing, protecting, and conjuring magic that comes from the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina and their African ancestors. This story adds nuance to textbook lessons about Jim Crow and broadens conceptions of Blackness, allowing readers to develop a deep reverence for the practice of working roots and how it’s grounded in healing, restoration, and respect for all beings.
A Sky Full of Stars. By Linda Williams Jackson. 2018. 320p. Clarion (9780544800656). Gr. 5–7.The murder of Emmett Till provides context for this story of the segregated South in the 1950s. Thirteen-year-old Rose’s best friend, Hallelujah, the minister’s son, believes peaceful protests are the answer to violence, while her cousin Shorty calls for meeting violence with violence. Rose finds herself caught in the middle as the violence and injustice escalate. This sequel to Midnight without a Moon (2017) again dramatizes the perilous existences Black people led during the pre–civil rights, Jim Crow South.
Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry. By Susan Vaught. 2016. 352p. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman (9781481422796). Gr. 5–8.After reading a cryptic letter from her dying grandmother, Dani sets out to solve a mystery. Answers lie in 1962, when Grandma and her now-estranged friend Avadelle were young women active in the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. Dani comes to a better understanding of the history of her Oxford, Mississippi, community, when seen through the lens of its segregated, Jim Crow past; resolves her grandmother’s secret; and comes to terms with her own existence as a biracial girl living in the South.
Kathleen McBroom is the school library media practicum coordinator for the Wayne State University School of Information Sciences.
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