Fueling the African-American imagination

Books for children

December 31, 1991|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Evening Sun Staff

THE STAR of ''Amazing Grace'' is a young girl who loves to dream and imagine, acting out all the exciting parts in stories she has read in books or heard from her grandmother.

Then two of her classmates tell her she can't play the role of Peter Pan in the class production because one, she's a girl, and two, she's black.

When she hears of this, Grace's grandmother, Nana, puts her arms around the girl and says, ''You can be anything you want, Grace, if you put your mind to it.''

A few days later, they take a bus and a train into town, where Grace and her grandmother go to the ballet to see a performance by Rosalie Wilkins, the granddaughter of one of Nana's girlhood friends from Trinidad. Grace is entranced and inspired, and of course she goes on to win the part of Peter Pan.

The book's simple -- some might say simplistic -- message

captures the most basic wish of every parent. Yet for African-American children, the promise that ''you can be anything you want'' too often rings hollow as they grow up in a society still divided by race. Inspirations such as Rosalie Wilkins, the black ballerina, are hard to come by.

A growing number of books, however, are helping fill the void. January and February have become months to celebrate African-American heritage, and many libraries, museums and book stores will have displays of books to browse.

One publisher in particular, Carolrhoda Books, has an excellent series of biographies of African-Americans, from ''Walking the Road to Freedom: A Story about Sojourner Truth,'' and ''What Are You Figuring Now?: A Story about Benjamin Banneker,'' to ''Space Challenger: The Story of Guion Bluford.'' All are for grades 3-6, and the hardbacks are $9.95 to $11.95. For more information, call Carolrhoda Books at (800) 328-4929.

Here's a rundown of some other new titles of interest.

* ''Amazing Grace'' by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Burch (Dial Books for Young Readers, $13.95, ages 4-8). Burch's watercolors capture the spirit, intelligence and energy of Grace, who makes you wish you were 7 again, full of dreams that could still come true.

* ''I Remember '121' '' by Francine Haskins (Children's Book Press, $13.95, ages 4-12). This is another celebration of childhood, told through the eyes of a little girl growing up in a three-story house full of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends at 121 Street in Washington, D.C.

Haskins, a storyteller and artist who still lives in Washington, remembers playing dress-up and watching Howdy Doody and getting caught smart-mouthing folks (her mother spanked her behind ''with gusto''). Haskins' fun illustrations are vibrant, and her memories should inspire any adult to record the things remembered best from childhood. That's how storytellers are born. For a free catalog from Children's Book Press, write to 1461 Ninth Ave., San Francisco, Calif. 94122.

* ''How Many Stars in the Sky'' by Lenny Hort, paintings by James E. Ransome (Tambourine Books, $13.95, ages 4 and up). A young boy's mother is away. He can't sleep, so he goes outside to try to count all the stars in the sky. His father soon joins him, and they set off on a adventure in their pickup truck, from their town into the city and then deep into the country, trying to find the best vantage point for counting stars. They wind up falling asleep in the back of the truck -- under the stars.

Nothing's better than sharing a quiet time like that with Dad, and Ransome's oil paintings evoke the simple joy of being together. His work will be familiar to fans of ''Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crab Cakes Later),'' a book by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard that is set in Baltimore.

* ''Song of the Giraffe,'' by Shannon K. Jacobs, illustrated by Pamela Johnson (Springboard Books; Little, Brown and Company, $11.95, ages 8-11). Set in Africa, this coming-of-age story tells of a young girl's journey to find a source of water for her drought-stricken village. Among its selling points: a strong female lead, a fast-paced style and plot that older elementary school kids will find engaging. Another excellent book for that age group is now out in paperback: ''Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World,'' by Mildred Pitts Walker, illustrated by Catherine Stock (Bullseye by Knopf, $3.25, ages 8-11).

* ''All Night, All Day: A Child's First Book of African-American Spirituals'' selected and illustrated by Ashley Bryan (Atheneum, $14.95, all ages). Even if you can't read music or carry a tune, this songbook is a find. Bryan's bright paintings fill 12 double-page spreads, and in between are the words and music (for piano and guitar) to 20 spirituals, from ''O When the Saints Go Marching In,'' to ''Open the Window, Noah,'' and ''There's No Hiding Place.''

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