Willie and the All-Stars
by Floyd Cooper (Philomel Books, 2008)
Willie loves baseball and dreams of playing in the Major League at Wrigley Field. But in 1942, the dreams of an African American boy living in Chicago aren’t easily realized. Willie is crushed when Ol’ Ezra, a neighbourhood old-timer, tells him that many exceptional ball players aren’t famous and featured on radio baseball programs because they participate in the Negro League. He firmly, yet gently tells Willie, “Being a Major League ballplayer is about a lot more than how good a fella is. It’s also about the colour of his skin. And yours is the wrong colour.”
Willie is crushed by Ol’ Ezra’s revelation. But the old man lifts Willie’s spirits by giving him tickets to a game between the Negro League All-Star players and the Major League All-Stars to be played at Wrigley Field. The day of the game, Willie jubilantly watches as the Negro League players defeat their opponents. And he witnesses an incredible sign of hope for the future as two opposing players, one white and one black, walk across the field and shake hands.
Author’s notes relate historical details on which this fictional children’s picture book is based. In America in 1888, when all players of colour were banished from participating in the Major League, Negro League Baseball “was formed as an answer to the closed hand of Major League baseball.” Many contests between the two leagues followed and often the Negro Leaguers were victorious. Author Floyd Cooper wonders, “Who knows how many dreams were kindled by their determination?”
by Jerdine Nolan
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 2000)
Addy, a slave on a southern plantation, loves to spend time at the river fishing for her master’s household. One day she fails to catch any fish, but she makes a different kind of catch that brings tremendous change to the plantation. A little boy – reminiscent of the biblical Moses – floats by in a basket on the river and is trapped in the roots of a tree near where Addy is standing. After she pulls the boy ashore, he tells her his name is Jabe and offers her a luscious pear. After Addy eats the fruit, Jabe plants and waters the pear seeds. Then he calls to the fish in the river and they magically leap onto the bank, giving Addy a catch she’ll never forget.
At the plantation, Jabe and the pear tree grow at a remarkable pace, till Jabe is a giant and the tree is full grown. Jabe’s awesome strength and speed lighten the work load of the other slaves, infuriating the overseer, who takes his anger out on some slaves.
Remarkably, slaves begin to disappear without a trace. At first, only Addy understands that Jabe is taking the slaves to the pear tree and, incomprehensibly, helping them to escape.
In this emotionally moving and, at times humorous tall-tale, young readers are introduced in an age-sensitive way to the reality of slavery. But more important, they will learn the truth that good can and does overcome evil.
Night Boat to Freedom
by Margot Theis Raven.
Illustrated by E. B. Lewis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
Twelve-year-old Christmas John and Granny Judith live on a plantation in Kentucky, across the river from the free state of Ohio, where Granny Judith dyes hanks of thread and weaves them into fabric.
Granny Judith has told Christmas John about how she was lured into slavery in a faraway world. But in her daily round of slave labour, she focuses on freedom. One night, she asks Christmas John to ferry slaves in a small boat across the river to freedom. She calms his fears by telling him, “What scares the head is best done with the heart.” Before he leaves on his first trip, she asks him to tell her when he gets back what colour clothes the escaping slaves were wearing. Later, she has a vision to make a quilt from all those colours, and when only two squares are left, she will know that it is time for Christmas John and her to escape.
Based on true stories recorded in the Slave Narrative Collection, Night Boat to Freedom gives young readers a glimpse into the hopes, fears, creativity, and spiritual lives of slaves who fought injustice and risked their lives for freedom.
Nothing But Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson
by Sue Stauffacher.
Illustrated by Greg Couch (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)
In the 1930s, Althea Gibson excelled in sports played on the streets of Harlem. Wild and restless, everyone who knew her said she was nothing but trouble. But Althea didn’t care what people thought of her because she was convinced that one day she would be a somebody. As a young girl, she had no idea that she couldn’t realize her goal through pluck alone. Poverty, racism, and lack of opportunities might have defeated her if not for the help of mentors who opened doors for her that she couldn’t have opened for herself.
Buddy Walker, the play leader on the street where Althea lived, noticed her exceptional abilities. With his help, she gained access to the Harlem River Tennis Courts to play several sets against one of his friends. Slowly, but surely Althea overcame many odds and “became the first African American, man or woman, ever to compete and win the coveted Wimbledon Cup, long considered the highest honor in tennis.”
Vibrantly illustrated, Nothing But Trouble shares the true story of a courageous, feisty girl who finally realized that she would never have succeeded without the help of mentors.
Friend on Freedom River
by Gloria Whelan.
Illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen (Sleeping Bear Press, 2004)
In December 1850, when twelve-year-old Louis’ father leaves their home along the Detroit River to look for work in a logging camp, he says, “Son, you’ll be in charge of the farm. If you don’t know what to do, just do what you think I would have done.”
In the woods near his place, Louis encounters runaway slaves – a mother, her young daughter, and her son, who is Louis’ age. Immediately, Louis knows what his father would do. Though he is afraid and the river is icing over, he agrees to row the fugitives across the river to freedom in Canada.
As Louis and the slave boy work together to row the boat, the mother sings a song, a prayer for deliverance – “O Lord, O my Lord, keep me from sinkin’ down.” When the boat arrives safely on the Canadian shore, loving people shelter the fugitives and Louis returns home.
Glowing illustrations against a backdrop of threatening darkness complement this moving narrative which subtly shows people, no matter the colour of their skin, collectively seeking justice and sacrificing to realize freedom.
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