I brought my daughters and one of their friends to see an art exhibit on Harlem.
We were fortunate to get a private tour by Vera Ingrid Grant, Director of the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at the Hutchins Center in Harvard Square, on her show, HARLEM: Found Ways, a collection of art reflecting Harlem today.
What really caught my eye was the unusual use way of displaying art in this exhibit.
Pieces were hung at different levels inviting the viewer to get down low to see details. Framed photographs were leaned at precarious angles as if it might fall down — it won’t, it’s actually deliberate and well secured.
This is gallery is part of Harvard University and it’s FREE and open to the public. The show ends July 15, 2017. If you are in Harvard Square, do stop by!
Harlem in Children’s Books
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Faith Ringgold was born, raised, and still lives in Harlem, and her iconic picture book, Tar Beach, reflects her experience growing up with a rooftop as her beach. This book is now 25 years old! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by
Some of the 57 musicians featured in the photograph lived in Harlem including:
Duke Ellington– composer, pianist and bandleader; lived on Riverside Drive and at 555 Edgecombe.
Fats Waller – pianist, born at 107 West 134th Street
Mary Lou Williams – pianist; lived at 63 Hamilton Terrace
Count Basie – bandleader and pianist; lived at 555 Edgecombe Avenue
It was quite a feat to pull off the Esquire American Jazz photo, just like it is a feat to pull off this free verse poetry picture book that so perfectly captures the excitement, chaos, and personalities of that momentous day. [poetry picture book, ages 8 and up]
A Great Day In Harlem: The Most Amazing Photograph In Jazz history. Photo by Esquire Magazine.
Image by Kwaku Alston/Netflix of re-creation of the iconic 1958 photo
A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by Xia Gordon
With nine free verse sections, Alice Faye Duncan pays tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. Combining Brooks’ own poems with Duncan’s own gives this picture book a glimpse into Gwendolyn’s talent. Muted illustrations are supporting actors to the poetry that showcases Gwendolyn Brook’s ability to bloom with very little sunlight. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage by Sylvia Olsen, illustrated by Joan Larson
In the forward of the book:
As both an artist and a teacher, Augusta Savage was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance; and though only a fraction of her work survive, she deserves to be better known.
Her story is poignant, reflecting the duality of her mother’s support of her talent and her father’s disapproval. Largely self-taught as a child, Augusta moved to New York City in pursuit of her art, landing a spot at Cooper Union. They offered her financial assistance so she could continue her studies there, a first for them. Augusta would go on to prominence as a sculptor and teacher, but sadly, very little of her work has survived. Still, her legacy remains as part of the Harlem Renaissance and the students that she influenced. [picture book biography, ages 6 and up]
Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her by Amy Novesky, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Billie Holiday – singer; lived with her mother at 108 West 139th Street
Billie Holiday was one the greatest jazz singers of all time. She didn’t have a huge voice, but one that was marked with sorrow and heartfelt emotion. Her childhood was difficult and her adult life, tumultuous. One positive constant in her life, though, was her dogs. This picture book focuses on Lady Day’s relationship with her dogs, particularly her favorite one, Mister, a Boxer. Mister’s devotion to Billie and her deep affection for him as well creates a loving lens in which to view Lady Day’s life. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Jazz Age Josephine: Dancer, singer–who’s that, who? Why, that’s MISS Josephine Baker, to you! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Jazz Age Josephine tells her story in rollicking rhyme from her humble beginnings to her rise to fame in Europe. Her first break was in New York City at just 15-years-old where she performed in Blackface, an insult to her race. At just 19 years old, Josephine moved to Paris where she became wildly popular for both her singing and dancing talents. She also devoted much of her life to fighting racism. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson
This is an interesting advanced picture book in chapters. It’s perfect for kids who want a more in-depth look at Josephine Baker’s life. Told in free verse with exuberant illustrations by Caldecott honored illustrator Christian Robinson, this book probably works best read in stages due to the length. [picture book in chapters, ages 8 and up]
Harlem’s Little Blackbird by Renee Watson, illustrated by Christian Robinson
The daughter of former slaves, Florence Mills grew up in a tiny house in Washington D.C. Though she won many medals for her singing and dancing abilities, her opportunities were limited because of the color of her skin. Her family moved to New York City where she and her sisters performed as the Mills Sisters trio in venues that included Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre. The Harlem Renaissance brought jazz music to the forefront, and Florence’s singing and dancing roles introduced jazz to white audiences. Eventually, Florence became an international star and she used her fame to fight for equal rights.
Perhaps it’s because no recordings or film of her performances exist that most of us have never heard of Florence Mills but this charming picture book brings her accomplishments to life. As one of the first African American women to make it on Broadway, Florence Mill’s story is a beacon of inspiration for how the performing arts can change how people think. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
These two book descriptions are from Carole Boston Weatherford’s #BlackHistoryMonth:
Lena Horne, singer, and actress; lived at 555 Edgecombe Avenue.
Lena Horne was both a legendary actress and activist, born into a well educated and high achieving family. During the Great Depression, Lena started her career at the Cotton Club as a dancer in the chorus line. Her career catapulted from there, to Broadway, headlining an all-white band, to Hollywood. During WWII, her activist side emerged in full force, which resulted in being blacklisted during McCarthy’s Red Scare. Still, Lena persisted. With a new husband, she was able to further her career to become an international star and use her fame in the fight for civil rights. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Gordon Parks’ white teacher told her all-black class, “You’ll all wind up porters and waiters.” Gordon did end up working as a porter and waiter but he also spent $7.5o on a used camera and taught himself to use it. He vows to bare racism with his lens. His most enduring subject is Ella Watson, a cleaning lady in the building where Parks works. Facing racism himself, Gordon Parks is an inspiration of how one man and a camera can take a powerful stand against racism with an unflinching eye, and the will to overcome obstacles. This is a picture book that kids of all ages will benefit from. Use it with Gordon Parks photos for a Civil Rights Movement unit using books and Civil Rights Movement art. [picture book biography, ages 4 and up]
Last year, my tribute to Black History Month was about Gordon Parks and this picture book.
A Nation’s Hope: the Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis by
Joe Louis – boxer; lived at 555 Edgecombe Avenue
“Hundreds surrounding Joe and his wife
down a Harlem sidewalk …
The streets of Harlem once gain dancing
for their hero
But all of America dancing this time”
Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, Wednesday, June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium. A black man against a German. Joe faces on one side, Jim Crow laws, and the other, Nazi hate. Joe Lewis’s fight with Max Schmeling actually happens twice, with the entire world looking on, and drawing conclusions that reach beyond just a boxing match between heavyweight champions. Joe Lewis is considered to be one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, with 26 title defenses. [picture book biography, ages 6 and up]
Harlem: a poem by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers
Harlem was a promise
Of a better life, of a place where a man didn’t
Have to know his place
Simply because he was
A beautiful ode to Harlem celebrating its rich and hope-filled history that includes literature, art, music, athletes, and everyday life. [poetry picture book, ages 9 and up]
The Magic in Changing Your Stars by Leah Henderson
Review from Ms. Yingling Reads:
“In 2010, Ailey decides to try out for his school’s production of The Wiz and feels that he would make a great Scarecrow. He can’t necessarily sing or memorize lines, but he loves to dance, and thinks that that talent, along with his sharp dressing, will be enough. His classmate Mahalia disagrees and states that SHE is the one who should get the part. When tryouts go badly, Ailey is devastated. His grandfather, whom he adores, counsels him a bit and alludes to his own dancing, which included meeting Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson in his Harlem neighborhood when he was young. There’s some mystery surrounding why his grandfather doesn’t dance anymore and instead runs a hardware store, and when Ailey is snooping through Gramps’ closet, he finds a pair of tap shoes that Robinson had given to Gramps. When he puts them on, he finds himself transported to Harlem in 1939, where he immediately stands out, thanks to his pajamas and microfiber robe! He obtains new threads and sees several boys dancing. Sure enough, one of them is Gramps, who is known as Taps. Ailey witnesses the interaction with Robinson and knows he has been sent back in time to help his grandfather out. Taps gets the shoes from Robinson but is supposed to meet the dancing legend at a theater to return them and audition, but he is chickening out in a way that Ailey understands. Ailey is taken in by Taps’ family, but a misunderstanding threatens to derail his mission to encourage his grandfather. Will Ailey be successful in his mission? Will it make a difference in his life in 2010 if he can help someone else overcome the stage fright he feels?” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
X: A Novel by
Malcolm X’s coming of age story is told by his daughter in this young adult book, with help from Kekla Magoon. He spent his formative years in Roxbury, outside of Boston, which is near me but moved to Harlem as an adult. [young adult, ages 14 and up]
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p.s. Related posts:
African American Books for Kids
This list covers picture books, chapter books, and young adult.
If you read these picture books in order, it gives an overview of the African American experience historically starting from slavery to the present day.
Meeting Ruby Bridges was a thrill for me and further reinforced how important it is for kids to learn about the Civil Rights Movement.
An advanced picture book that paints a portrait of Booker T. Washington as a determined young boy.
If you just want a snapshot of the Civil Rights Movement for young children, try these three books: two picture books and a chapter book.
These five books show different perspectives from the story of young Masaii girl who wants to touch the moon to visiting family in Tanzania and The Gambia.
Africa Access was founded in 1989 to help schools, public libraries, and parents improve the quality of their K-12 collections on Africa.
I have a section in this post about the Civil Rights Movement.
Black History Month Books for Kids and Teens
BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.