Something Beautiful

By Sharon Dennis Wyeth
Do you have something beautiful?
Our young, nameless protagonist is a black girl growing up in a not-so-beautiful neighbourhood. Trash fills her courtyard, and someone has painted “die” across her door. Homeless people sleep on the streets, wrapped in plastic and cardboard. But her mother once told her that everyone has something beautiful in their life – where is hers?
Something Beautiful is a journey through this young girl’s neighbourhood, interacting with different people to find their something beautiful; that thing that makes their heart glad. For some people it’s a stone, for others the laugh of a child, or a special meal.
The strength of this story is how thought-provoking it is. What is your something beautiful? You don’t need to have grown up in a similar neighbour to our protagonist to understand her struggle. We all wish for something that is special, and that makes her that much more identifiable. All the pleasures she finds are simple ones, and maybe it will help us remember that we don’t need big things to make us happy. Hold onto the small things.
The illustrations, courtesy of Christ K Soentpiet, are beautiful. My favorite illustration is the haunting depiction of the homeless lady, who uses plastic as a blanket. You won’t soon forget that image. Each character is unique and exquisitely depicted, even if you’re only seeing them from behind. The dour images of filth and decay in her courtyard are counterbalanced by the smiles on the faces of everyone she meets. Little girl is something beautiful.
This is a simple, brilliant story for children. Something Beautiful needs nothing else beyond what it has to make itself stand out. It is haunting and uplifting all at once, and will stay with you and your child long after you finish reading it.
Suggested ages: 6-9

Smoky Night

By Eve Bunting

The story of Smoky Night is set during the Los Angeles Riot, and is from the point of view of an African-American child named Daniel. He lives with his mother and cat in an apartment building located in the heart of the riots. The main plot revolves around Daniel’s family and their apartment neighbour, an Asian woman (Mrs. Kim). This dislike is reflected in the way their two cats fight.

Smoky Night tells a story of racism without overtly touching the race button. The setting of the Los Angeles Riots provides an interesting backdrop that is easily overlooked if you are young and unaware of what the name “Rodney King” involves.

The artwork is incredible. The heavy oils on one page, and the scattered mosaic of random household objects or rubble on the other. It will be one of the things you remember most about this book.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Bunting, E. (1999). Smoky Night. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt More

The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural

By Patricia McKissack

The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, stories that scared me as a kid and still spook me today. But these are not just ghost stories; they are African-American in theme, and deal with issues of racism, classism, emancipation, and the Klu Klux Klan. One of the most terrifying is the “Tale of the Gingi”, which has remained with me since I first read these in 3rd grade.

The Dark Thirty is an incredibly well-written set of short stories, each with its own feel and voice. Recommended for around grades 4 and up, it is a great book for anytime you need a scary story. It deserves all the awards it has received, and I highly recommend this book to anyone with children who like a fright.

Suggested Ages: 7-12

McKissack, P. (1998). The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. Random House Children’s Books.

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Martin’s Big Words

By Doreen Rappaport

Martin’s Big Words is a short biography of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, from childhood to death. Meant for young children, the story is told bluntly and as simplistically as possible as it covers his life is separatism, his life in the church, cries for de-segregation, and death.

On the cover, there is no title, no author or illustrator, only MLK’s face.  The focus, simply and elegantly written, is on MLK’s message, presenting it to children in a way that they will understand. It is likely they will not truly grasp this importance – the target audience is too young – but it is likely to be one of those books that stays with them as they grow and learn.

Suggested Ages: 4-9

Rappaport, D. (2007). Martin’s Big Words. Disney Book Group.

Sukey and the Mermaid

by Robert D. San Souci

Sukey and the Mermaid is an African-American retelling of a folktale. Based in the Caribbean, it is one of the few rare African-American tales involving mermaids.

The story revolves around the eponymous main character, Sukey. Running away one day, Sukey sits on the shore and sings a song that accidentally summons a mermaid called Mama Jo to her. A strong friendship develops between the pair, with Mama Jo playing a fairy godmother role to Sukey.

This story stands out in a lot of ways. The artwork is distinctive, done entirely in dark tones (scratchboard) that reflect Sukey’s world (A neat aside: the artwork is done by Brian Pinkney, who also illustrated The Dark Thirty).

This will appeal to children with an interest in African-American folktales, mermaids, or folklore alone.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

San Souci, R. (1992). Sukey and the Mermaid. Simon & Shuster. More

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