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For Black History Month: Three Stirring Biographies


Celebrate Black History Month with new books based on the lives of three influential African Americans: Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. Although their personal stories differed, all three women played pivotal roles in the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality for all Americans.

Reading about real people in real situations is a great way for kids to understand that history is more than just a study of what happened; it is also the study of who made it happen. If you're looking for interesting books for Black History Month -- or for any time -- take a look at this week's books about real people who played important roles in the struggle for freedom and equality.


Book Cover Image In 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl caused a sensation when its author, Harriet Jacobs, published it independently. Jacobs's autobiographical account of her harrowing childhood and young adulthood was so detailed in its depiction of the horrors she had endured that many readers thought it must be a work of fiction. Now, a new biography, I Was Born a Slave: The Story of Harriet Jacobs (Millbrook Press), written by Jennifer Fleischner and illustrated by Melanie Reim, gives students a look at slavery from the perspective of a woman who not only survived it but also went on to help and support others in the abolitionist movement.

Born into slavery in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs's early life was actually better than that of many other slaves. During her first few years, Harriet and her brother lived first with their parents; later they lived with their maternal grandmother, a former slave who had bought her freedom years earlier. During those early years, Harriet led a relatively carefree life. Then, when she was six, her mother died and, as Fleischner quotes Harriet "...for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave."

Harriet went to live with the family who owned her and took on the role of personal servant to her late mother's mistress, a woman named Margaret Horniblow. Horniblow had treated Harriet's mother well; when Harriet's mother was dying, Horniblow promised to look out for Harriet and Harriet's brother, John. During her lifetime, Horniblow kept her promise, treating Harriet well and even teaching her to read and write. In 1825, Horniblow died, and her sister and brother-in-law took possession of 12-year-old Harriet. Several years of misery, neglect, and abuse began.

As with Harriet's autobiography -- on which it is based -- I Was Born a Slave: The Story of Harriet Jacobs does not shrink from describing the abuses that Harriet endured during her years of slavery. Her new owner, identified in both books as Dr. Norcom, began making sexual advances when she was in her teens. Although she resisted him, she still suffered abuse from his jealous wife. After the birth of her two children -- by a white lawyer with whom she maintained a long-term, clandestine relationship -- she resolved to obtain her freedom. In what is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking episodes depicted by Fleishner, Harriet ran away from Dr. Norcom and spent seven years hiding in the tiny, cramped attic of her grandmother's house. There, she could catch an occasional glimpse of her children. She was too fearful of capture, however, to let them know where she was. Eventually, Harriet was able to escape to the Northern states -- and to freedom.

Although I Was Born a Slave: The Story of Harriet Jacobs contains some material that is too disturbing for younger children, Harriet Jacobs's moving story can help put a human face on the subject of slavery for middle school students. Fleischner's retelling of the story may be more accessible for schoolchildren than the original autobiography. She has added some historical facts to the narrative that would have been unnecessary for Jacobs's readers but are helpful for today's readers. An epilogue continues Harriet's story from her first attempts to write her life story until her death in 1897. A brief bibliography is included. With Melanie Reim's full-page, black-and-white woodcuts depicting episodes from the book, this story is sure to spur many classroom discussions.


Book Cover ImageMinty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman (Puffin Books), is set on the Maryland plantation where Harriet Tubman -- the heroic woman who helped hundreds of people escape slavery through the Underground Railroad -- lived as a slave. Written by Alan Schroeder and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Minty is a fictionalized account of what Tubman's childhood might have been like.

Tubman -- whose cradle name was Araminta, or Minty for short -- is an intelligent, determined child who longs to escape the life of slavery into which she was born. When Minty, a house slave, doesn't come quickly enough when called, her mean-tempered owner, Mrs. Brodas, burns the girl's rag doll and sends her to work in the fields. One day, when the overseer orders her to check some muskrat traps, Minty sets the animals free.

"The first two traps were empty, but inside the third, a fat, glossy muskrat was struggling to get free. Squatting down, Minty pulled apart the steel jaws of the trap. She glanced back to make sure Sanders was out of sight. Then, happily, she let the muskrat go, releasing it down stream. It swam away vigorously; propelling itself through the water with its long, flat tail. Minty's eyes were wide with excitement. 'Go!' she cried, splashing at the water. 'Go, swim away!'"

Minty is cruelly whipped for freeing the muskrats and begins to plan her escape. Although her family has not taken her dreams of freedom seriously before, after this incident, Minty's father begins to teach her the survival skills she will need if she runs away, such as using the stars to determine the direction in which to travel, swimming, and catching small game. By the end of the book, Minty sees an opportunity for escape but is too afraid to try. She is determined, however, that someday, she will escape and live her life in freedom.

This award-winning book, recently released in paperback, is full of the small details that make setting and characters come to life: Minty's doll with one foot and cracked buttons for eyes, her mother's soothing ministrations after the whipping.

Schroeder's narrative expertly combines action, dialogue, and characterization to create a stirring tale of a strong-willed youngster determined to improve her life. Pinkney's realistic, full-color illustrations help put a human face on the subject of slavery. Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, although not based on real incidents, does paint a realistic portrait of a youngster raised in slavery. It may be helpful in introducing the concept of slavery to very young readers and in helping them know the little girl who would become one of her country's greatest heroes.


Book Cover Image In I Am Rosa Parks (Puffin Books), written by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins and illustrated by Wil Clay, the authors simplify Rosa Parks: My Story -- their earlier young-adult autobiography -- making it appropriate for beginning readers. Given the importance of Parks's role in the civil rights movement and the sheer drama of her life, this is no easy task. However, Parks and Haskins, in only 48 pages, are able to convey the sense of injustice that Parks carried throughout her life and the power of ordinary people, like herself, to combat it.

The book, now available in paperback as part of the Puffin Easy-to-Read Series, has four chapters. The first chapter describes the events leading up to Parks's arrest and subsequent conviction for refusing to yield her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. In clear, straightforward language, Parks describes the world in which she lived.

"Many years ago black people in the South could not go to the same schools as white people. We could not even drink from the same water fountains. We had to stay apart from white people everywhere we went. This was the law in the South. If we broke the law, we could be arrested, or hurt, or even killed."

Subsequent chapters cover Parks's childhood, her marriage, the year-long bus boycott that culminated in the 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation, and the beginning of the civil rights movement.

The first-person narrative provides a personal tone that should appeal to young readers. The text has large, clear type and is heavily illustrated with Clay's full-color paintings. Adults may have to clarify some concepts and facts for youngsters, such as important dates; although a few dates are provided in the chapter on Parks's early life, there are none in the chapters covering the bus boycott and the early civil rights movement. Such minor omissions don't diminish the usefulness of I Am Rosa Parks for young readers, who will be pleased by the positive note at the end. Parks expresses her hope that "...children today will grow up without hate. I hope they will learn to respect one another, no matter what color they are."

The books highlighted this week are available in most bookstores. If you are unable to locate the book you're looking for, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly.

  • I Was Born a Slave: The Story of Harriet Jacobs, written by Jennifer Fleischner and illustrated by Melanie K. Reim, is published by The Millbrook Press, 2 Old New Milford Road, Brookfield, CT 06804.
  • Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman, written by Alan Schroeder and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, is published by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.
  • I Am Rosa Parks, written by Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins and illustrated by Wil Clay, is published by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014.

Article by Lauren Gattilia
Education World®
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