Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Picture Book Biographies: Singing for Civil Rights

With the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and work approaching, I wanted to draw your attention to two books about two lesser-known women who fought for civil rights in their own ways.  Both of these picture book biographies of black women singers in the '20s and '30s are thought-provoking and gorgeous.

Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renee Watson is written simply yet poetically. Mills's refusal to sing where black audiences were not allowed is inspiring.  The text is complemented by Christian Robinson's stunning multimedia illustrations, some of which look like you could reach out and feel them.  This is a beautiful book about a lesser-known artist and fighter for civil rights.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick tells the story of Marian Anderson, the discrimination she faced, and how she sang before an audience of 75,000 on the Washington Mall, a concert arranged with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt.  Nearly 16 years later, she finally achieved her lifelong dream of performing at the Metropolitan Opera.  With Brian Selznick's sepia illustrations, this book has a more advanced vocabulary than Harlem's Little Blackbird.

However, both are perfect to accompany a lesson on civil rights or Black History Month that goes beyond the same historical figures children hear children hear about year after year.  And although neither of these women became leaders of the civil rights movement, they both stood up for what was right and fought for justice.  Civil rights were won not just by a movement, but by individuals and these biographies both teach that important principle in an accessible format.

What are your favorite books about lesser-known figures who fought for civil rights?


  1. It's not a picture book, but I liked (and got my kids to leaf through) Philip Hoose's Twice Towards Freedom, about the first woman to challenge Montgomery's bus seating policy. She wasn't the headliner like Rosa Parks, mainly because she was a teenager who got pregnant afterward (but before she got married).

  2. So glad you posted about these books. I'm in the middle of an article about raising strong girls in which I am including a list of books. I will be sure to look into these!

  3. Stacey, make sure you also check out another Pam Munoz Ryan-Brian Selznick collaboration, Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride (they apparently had a thing for Eleanor Roosevelt) which I wrote about here: Another great book about Eleanor Roosevelt is Eleanor, Quiet No More, which I review here: Finally, Ruby's Wish, which I wrote about here, is fantastic:

  4. I'm putting together a list of books for Black History Month, so these titles will come in handy. I haven't read the second, yet, though.