Welcome to my February book list! Each month, I’ll be bringing you a fresh list of books all based on a different theme.
February is Black History Month in the United States, and that’s a vast subject area. Black history in the U.S. didn’t begin in 1776, and it didn’t end with Obama’s election. For this reason, I wanted to include some Black history that isn’t discussed frequently, and maybe a couple things you’ve never heard of.
I also wanted to highlight Black authors and illustrators. I can’t possibly list every author or illustrator worthy of reading, but if you’re interested in reading more multicultural literature from Black authors and artists, might I recommend…
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kwame Alexander, Ashley Bryan, Bryan Collier, R. Gregory Christie, Christopher Paul Curtis, Leo & Diane Dillon, Edwidge Danticat, Sharon Draper, Roxane Gay, Nikki Giovanni, Nikki Grimes, Virginia Hamilton, Victor LaVelle, Julius Lester, E.B. Lewis, Kekla Magoon, Patricia McKissack, Christopher Myers, Walter Dean Myers, Kadir Nelson, Nnedi Okorafor, Jerry Pinkney, Jason Reynolds, Christian Robinson, Javaka Steptoe, John Steptoe, Nic Stone, Mildred Taylor, Rita Williams-Garcia, Colson Whitehead, and Jacqueline Woodson.
Now, the usual disclaimer. I am a youth librarian, which means I’m most familiar with books written for young people. This means you’ll see a lot of YA and juvenile books on these lists. If you’re an adult looking for something good to read, don’t feel bad or embarrassed about reading youth books. Juvenile and YA books deal with themes and ideas that are applicable to all ages, even if the text isn’t as challenging as books written for adults. And there’s no age limit on good stories.
I also want to remind everyone that not every book will appeal to everyone. You may hate a book that I love, and that’s okay. Not liking a book doesn’t mean that the book is bad, it just means that you don’t like it. I’ll try to appeal to a wide range of interests, but I don’t expect for you to love or even be interested in everything on this list. There’s a reader for every book, and every book has a reader. I’d love to help readers and books find each other!
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
While the USA has come a long way in terms of liberty and justice for all, there are still miles and miles to go. The New Jim Crow discusses mass incarceration of Black Americans, typically due to policies from Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and other anti-drug crusades that target people of color, especially young Black men. Being labeled as a felon allows for legal discrimination in housing, education, careers, and even the basic right to vote. Michelle Alexander posits that this has led to the creation of an “undercaste” of Black Americans, legally disenfranchised by the justice system. Originally published in 2010, The New Jim Crow has inspired activists to work to change the American justice system, including the creation of The Marshall Project and the Art for Justice Fund. One thing that I really appreciated about this book was that Alexander acknowledges that the information is hard to read and accept, and that the book’s not for everyone. These are hard but important truths to learn, but nothing can be changed until it’s acknowledged and challenged.
One Last Word: Wisdom of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes, various illustrators.
The Harlem Renaissance produced some of the United States’ most iconic musicians, artists, actors, and writers. One Last Word is a poetry collection that celebrates the work of writers from the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and many more. Alongside the original poem, Grimes remixes the work using the golden shovel method. She creates new poems from the originals, filled with truth and hope for modern readers. Vivid illustrations from accomplished artists accentuate each page. If you’re a poetry lover of any kind, this is a must read.
The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James
The Haitian Revolution with the most successful slave rebellion in history. It was the only one that led to the creation of a country free of enslavement, and ruled by formerly enslaved people. The widespread political, economic, and cultural effects of the Haitian Revolution still echo today. Written in 1938, The Black Jacobins by Trinidad historian C.L.R. James set outs to correct the White, Euro-centric histories that marginalized or dismissed the Revolution. The Black Jacobins gives a thorough account of the Haitian Revolution. Its central figure is Toussaint Louverture. Born into slavery, Louverture became a central figure in the Revolution, as a general, politician, and unifying symbol for Haitians. This book is essential when learning about Haitian and Caribbean history.
The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters by Gary Monroe
The Highwaymen were a group of 26 Black landscape painters in Florida in the 1950s and 60s. They painted idealized images of Florida’s landscape: palm trees swaying in the breeze, white sand beaches, sunrise by the ocean. Segregation was deeply ingrained in Florida, and galleries refused to sell Black artists’ paintings. Instead, the Highwaymen (and one Highwaywoman) sold their paintings from door-to-door and out of the trunks of their cars. This enabled the artists to make independent livings with their paintings, away from the back-breaking work in the citrus groves. Monroe’s book tells the story of the Highwaymen, alongside full-color reproductions of their paintings. Published in 2001, the book doesn’t tell the Highwaymen’s more recent history. In 2004, they were recognized in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, and in 2020, they won the Florida Folk Heritage Award. Today, 18 original paintings hang in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson.
This children’s book is written in the style of a grandparent telling their grandchild the history of the United States. It starts with the fact that Black folks have been in the United States just as long as White colonists, but are rarely depicted in national history. It tells the story of the struggles and triumphs Black Americans faced, covering the Revolutionary War up to the Civil Rights Movement. An epilogue depicts the storyteller voting for Barack Obama. The text is informative and accessible, even when dealing with heavy topics. The illustrations are powerful, gorgeous full-page paintings. George Washington on a horse while an enslaved man stands beside him is one of the most poignant images that you’ll remember long after you close the book.
Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis
Feisty, chain-smoking Mare is anything but a conventional grandmother. Octavia and Tali, her teenage granddaughters, are mortified to be seen with her. Going on a cross-country trip with Mare at the wheel is the last thing they want to do during their summer. Mare makes a deal with them for the trip: she won’t smoke, and they won’t use their “earphones.” As the miles pass, Mare tells the girls her story: growing up in segregated Alabama, running away from home at age 17 to pursue a better life, and lying about her age to join the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Mare shares her experiences of life in 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion – the only battalion of Black women who served overseas in World War II. In alternating chapters of “Then” and “Now,” Octavia and Tali come to understand the experiences that shaped their grandmother, the family bond they share, and the same strengths and insecurities they share with Mare…and that it’s not so bad to be like their grandma.
The Davenports by Krystal Marquis
In 1910, the Davenports are one of Chicago’s few wealthy Black families. As such, siblings Olivia, John, and Helen, are constantly under scrutiny. They must uphold the legacy that their formerly enslaved father built. Olivia thinks her successful courtship with Jacob, England’s most eligible Black bachelor will do the trick. That is, until she meets a civil rights activist who makes her question her privileged upbringing and shows her the horrors of Jim Crow. John and Helen are more focused on fixing horseless carriages, while Helen chafes at the limited roles women have in society. Alongside the siblings, Olivia’s best friend hatches a plan to marry John, and the siblings’ childhood friend and maid dreams of starting her own business. The book examines racism, gender norms, and classism in the often overlooked Reconstruction Era. The characters are passionate, take-charge women, and there’s plenty of romantic moments (and a couple love triangles) to swoon over.
Noor by Nnedi Okorafor
AO (Anwuli Okwudili, but she prefers “Artificial Organism”) has extensive bionic augmentations as a result of severe physical disabilities. These augmentations include artificial legs, mechanical hands, and even a brain implant. AO accepts these augmentations as a necessary part of her life and who she is. However, the world does not see it this way. There are many who see her as a devil, more machine than woman. When an altercation at the market leaves two men dead, AO must flee. She meets a Fulani herdsman, DNA, who has been falsely labeled as a terrorist. Together, they travel across the desert to the Red Eye: a perpetual sandstorm where the wind can strip your bones clean, and the only place they might find safety. Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor is the master of Africanfuturism, with books like Akata Witch and the Binti trilogy. If you’re interested in sci-fi, she needs to be on your radar.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Rashad is Black, Quinn is White, and though they got to the same school, neither boy knows the other’s name. A quick stop to a corner store on the way to the party pushes their lives together in ways they never expected or wanted. Quinn witnesses a police officer brutally beating Rashad, with little or no provocation. The narration follows both boys after the event. Rashad, recovering in the hospital, wants to be left alone to focus on his art. He doesn’t want the painful attention that comes with being the latest Black victim of police brutality. Quinn is troubled as well: the police officer is a surrogate father to him, and Quinn would have never imagined that he was capable of such violence. The large-scale issues of racism, power, and injustice are integrated seamlessly into the narrative. All American Boys was one of the most frequently challenged or banned books in 2020, for reasons including being “too much of a sensitive matter right now.” Speaking for myself, any book that makes the Top 10 most challenged books is a book I want to read.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
It’s 1968, and Delphine and her younger sisters are spending a month in California with their estranged mother, Cecile. They expect a warm welcome and a visit to Disneyland, but their trip to Oakland is nothing like they imagined. Cecile, a poet and member of the Black Panthers, resents the intrusion into her life. Instead of the mothering the girls are hoping for, she sends them to a nearby summer camp run by the Black Panthers. During the summer, Delphine participates in a Black Panther rally and becomes a young activist, all the while yearning for a true connection with the mother who left her. I love this middle-grade book for its memorable characters (particularly Delphine’s strong voice), a broader and more honest depiction of Black Panthers than typically seen in media, and the unique backdrop of 1960s Oakland.