African-American Biography

All posts tagged African-American Biography

The Girl Who Spun Gold, by Virginia Hamilton

Published October 18, 2013 by Dagmar

thegirlwhospungoldRumpelstiltskin is a favorite Grimm’s fairytale.  The Girl Who Spun Gold, by Virginia Hamilton retells the story in a West Indian setting. This refreshing version captivated my fourth graders not only because of Hamilton’s writing, but particularly because of Leo and Diane Dillon absolutely captivating, colorful illustrations.  Hamilton read a version of this tale in West Indian dialect in 1899.  While she loved the retelling, she found it hard for modern audiences to understand.  So, she re-wrote it in more familiar language.  The version is long and took longer than one class time to complete, but was well worth the time.  Click here to see a lesson idea comparing two different retellings of the Rumplestiltskin story using this book.


Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet, by Andrea Cheng

Published July 1, 2013 by Dagmar

Etched in ClayThis is a very moving book, written in verse, about Dave the Potter a slave who lived in South Carolina in the 1800s.  Andrea Cheng has woven the voices of Dave’s various masters, with Dave’s own voice and the voices of his two wives, Eliza and Lydia.  The book moves quickly and is filled with beautiful woodcuts that help illustrate the story.  I read this book in one sitting and immediately handed it to my 12 year old son to read.  He also read it in one sitting.

Dave was bought on the auction block when he was 17.  Bought to dig clay in the river in South Carolina, Dave’s master, Harvey Drake, the owner of a pottery company, teaches him to throw pottery.  Drake sees that Dave is talented at creating pottery and soon, Dave no longer digs for clay.  He only creates pottery.  Drake marries Dave to a woman named Eliza, who is sold off after a few years.  Dave misses her terribly.  When Drake, at his wife’s urging, helps Dave learn to read, Dave not only reads, he starts to think in verse.  Soon, he wants to write down his words on the pots he creates.  But, slaves who could write were feared in South Carolina.  In fact, a slave caught writing would be punished by lashing.  Despite the danger, Dave bravely continues to write verse on the pots he creates, showing the world that he made those beautiful pots. Dave moves from master to master throughout his life and even works as a type setter for a time before returning to creating pottery. He is married a second time to a woman named Lydia who has two sons he loves.  Again, they are taken away from him.  Finally, after the Civil War ends, Dave is free.  Yet, he continues to work for his last master, Lewis Miles in Edgefield.

This book portrays the cruelty of slavery in a meaningful way that I think will resonate with students.  Readers really feel his hurt from the time when his master decides what to call him to the loss of his wives and stepsons and the indignity of being told it is dangerous for him to read and write.

Highly recommended for middle and high school.  A Junior Library Guild selection.

Langston’s Train Ride, by Robert Burleigh

Published May 11, 2013 by Dagmar

S640SchLangstonjkt_0.tifThis is another wonderful book for African-American History month.  Langston’s Train Ride begins with Langston Hughes walking down a sidewalk celebrating the publishing of his first book of poems.  He then flashes back to the train ride he took to Mexico to see his father when he was 18 years old.  As the train travels, he reminisces about his childhood.  When the train crosses the Mississippi River, he thinks of what it means to his people, the slaves who were sent “down the river” and Abe Lincoln’s trip on the river “where he saw a slave auction and learned to hate slavery.”  His view of the Mississippi brings words to his head.  He thinks of other ancient rivers in Africa and begins to write down the words to his first poem: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

This is a powerful book made more so by its incredible illustrations by Leonard Jenkins.  It is hard not to be moved by this book and the words of Langston Hughes’ first poem.

Story Painter, The Life of Jacob Lawrence by John Duggleby

Published May 10, 2013 by Dagmar

Story_PainterI love to read books about artists to my students.  This book is a particularly wonderful book about African-American artist, Jacob Lawrence.  I used this book for grades 1 through 6 during African-American History month.  It was wonderful to show my students Lawrence’s beautiful art depicting the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, The Great Migration, and Toussaint L’Overture’s battle to liberate Haiti.

This book is also a jumping off point to talk about important points in history.  Like many African-American artists, Lawrence lived in Harlem.  His Theater series illustrates the shows in Harlem’s famous entertainment halls, like the Cotton Club, and the Apollo. Jacob Lawrence was also a part of the Easel Project, a government art program stated in the 1930s to help artists.  Jacob Lawrence was paid to paint and was paid more than many jobs during the Great Depression.

Jacob Lawrence painted on paper and cardboard using tempura paint.  Remarkably, Jacob Lawrence would create series of paintings about a subject, sometimes as many as 40 paintings, by painting one color at a time.  He would put up all the sheets of paper for the series on his wall and then would move among the panels until he had painted all the colors.

This book is really a non-fiction book, but the color panels of his paintings are so dramatic and beautiful in this book that it makes a wonderful book to use as you would a picture book with groups of students.

This book is won the Carter G. Woodson Book Award granted by the National Council for the Social Studies, an award given to books that “encourage the writing, publishing, and dissemination of outstanding social science books for young readers that treat topics related to ethnic minorities and relations sensitively and accurately.”