MANY SCHOOL systems across the country have finally caught on, celebrating February as Black History Month and using it as a chance to teach many aspects of African-American culture.
The benefits for black children are obvious: Their self-esteem grows in proportion to their sense of ethnic pride.
But what about white students? My old college roommate teaches at a high school in one of the poorer counties of West Virginia. There are no black students, and little effort is made to include books about blacks in the curriculum. It's no wonder many kids cling to hateful racial stereotypes. They don't know any better.
Books, particularly fiction, can do so much to break down the walls of ignorance. The best stories let you slip into another person's life. When a white reader can see the world through a black character's eyes, understanding begins and layers of prejudice can start to peel away.
Start with picture books. ''Ten, Nine, Eight'' by Molly Bang (Puffin paperback, $3.95) can be a bedtime standard. Another classic that features a black lead character is ''Corduroy,'' by Don Freeman (Puffin paperback, $3.50). ''Corduroy'' and ''A Pocket for Corduroy'' are also available in paperback book/cassette tape packages from Puffin ($6.95).
Here are some new books worth checking out:
* ''Raintalk,'' by Mary Serfozo, illustrated by Keiko Narahashi (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $12.95, ages 4-8). Combining gorgeous watercolors with lively language, this book excites all of the senses. A little girl and her dog explore the world during a summer rain: ''Listen to the PlipPlipPlipPlipPlipPlip as it speckles the smooth surface of the pond.''
* ''Storm in the Night,'' by Mary Stolz, illustrated by Pat Cummings (Harper Trophy paperback, $4.95, ages 5-8). When a thunderstorm knocks out the electricity, a young boy named Thomas gets to hear his grandfather tell another story of an adventure that happened when he was a boy. As they sit on the porch, seeing and hearing and smelling the storm all around them, Grandfather recalls how frightened he was during a horrible thunderstorm years before.
* ''Home Place,'' by Crescent Dragonwagon, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Macmillan, $14.95, ages 5-8). Pinkney won the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration with ''Half a Moon and One Whole Star,'' which was also written by Dragonwagon. His pencil-and-watercolor art stars again in this glimpse back at the black family that once lived in the home place. It's a book about imagining, and the lyrical words transport the reader to another time.
* ''Mississippi Bridge,'' by Mildred D. Taylor, pictures by Max Ginsburg (Dial Books for Young Readers, $12.95, ages 8-12). This short story shares its setting with Taylor's powerful trilogy about the Logan family. She won the 1977 Newbery Medal for the first book in the trilogy, ''Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,'' (Bantam Starfire paperback, $3.50). This book's narrator is Jeremy, the 10-year-old white neighbor who is always trying to befriend the Logan children. He hates the insults and injustices his friends face in rural Mississippi during the Depression. This is the fast-paced story of one day that ends in tragedy.
* ''Scorpions,'' by Walter Dean Myers (Harper & Row, $12.95 hardback and $2.95 paperback, ages 11 and up). Myers has earned well-deserved acclaim for his young adult fiction and his honest portrayals of inner city teen-agers. ''Scorpions,'' a 1989 Newbery Honor Book, is no exception. Jamal, 12, and his best friend, Tito, live in Harlem. They become entangled with a street gang after Jamal's older brother lands in jail for murder, and their loss of innocence is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable.
* OF LOCAL INTEREST: Jamal Koram, whose books include "When Lions Could Fly" and "Aesop," will appear at The Children's Bookstore, 737 Deepdene Road in Roland Park, Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a session of singing, folklore, storytelling and drumming.