Black History Month choice 1: Janice N. Harrington
If you are celebrating Black History Month in school and looking for an inspirational author who will engage children (and adults) of all ages, Janice N. Harrington is one to check out. It was a mild spring day when I first became acquainted with one of Harrington’s award-winning books: Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner.
We were lucky in our little town to have an amazing independent bookstore, stocking little gems from every corner of the world that, before they are award-winning, you won’t find in the high street. This book was sitting in their cosy ‘bug’ corner, where they had decorated the walls with crocheted bugs, flowers and a range of springtime themed children’s books.
My then four-year-old loved the outdoors and discovering every small creature that lives there. We had already homed pet snails, butterflies and even a stick insect. The shop owner brought me a coffee and then knelt beside my little girl as she was browsing. He took the book mentioned above off the shelf and showed it to her. “How about this one?” It was the story of Charles Henry Turner, the first Black entomologist (a scientist who studies bugs) told in a way that would engage anyone, including children. Beautifully illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, the book was an absolute joy to browse, posing questions such as can spiders learn and can bugs see colour.
Of course, we bought the book and ever since, we have loved playing entomologist when out and about. Unfortunately, the bookstore did not survive lockdown without an online presence, compelling us to use online methods of purchasing Harrington’s other books since.
Then we bought The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County as our next lockdown book, which we read as a family. We laughed out loud as a young chicken chaser tries to catch all of the chickens on her grandma’s farm. She succeeds except for one that keeps running away: the elusive Hen who Harrington describes as “fast as a mosquito buzzing and quick as a fleabite”. Inspired by her words, we played out the story a few times, and these days our kids read it to each other or their toys. As with all Harrington’s books for children, this title comes with a mini moral lesson at the end: it’s great to win, but playing is the most satisfying.
Multi-award winner Harrington grew up in Alabama and Nebraska, which provide the setting for some of her books. She worked as a public librarian but now teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois. Younger children will love her picture books and older kids will enjoy her stories showing how to stand up to bullies and find their voice in Catching a Story Fish. Her incredible poetry, published in award-winning collections and linked with her blog, will certainly move teens and adults. Enjoy the magic!
Black History Month choice 2: Jay Blades
Closer to home and, arguably, more for young adult readers is Making It, the biography of Jay Blades MBE. I came across his story while researching dyslexia in the UK and learned that Blades left his school in East London aged 15 and with no qualifications. Not until later would he find out he had severe dyslexia. I had seen him on TV, but it was the fact that he went back to study in his 30s and read for a degree in criminology and philosophy from The University of Buckingham that made me order a copy of his book.
Making It is a beautiful story that I read in one evening, even though it is almost 300 pages. The synopsis almost sets the tone for a misery memoir, telling you that Blades grew up in a challenging setting without a father and where racism was accepted in most parts of society. What captures you from the start is his positive, cheeky tone, which continues throughout the book, whether recalling happy memories or hardships.
At school, Blades got beaten up regularly for his skin colour and because he was known as the disruptive kid. Feeling useless, getting into trouble with the police, and unable to find regular work, Blades found himself homeless at age 21. Yet, even during his worst times, he triumphed over adversity and made positive life changes. Blades uses his experiences to help hundreds of disengaged and disadvantaged young people through an array of brilliant community projects and personal mentoring.
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