Stella by Starlight

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper is a nominee for the 2016-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Stella by Starlight takes place in the segregated South during the Great Depression, and it doesn’t shy away from the racism, hatred, and fear that was so prevalent at the time. (Anyone who is paying attention would agree that these things are still prevalent.) But this book also emphasizes the power of family, community, faith, and courage in the face of adversity.

The book begins with Stella and her brother, JoJo, witnessing something disturbing in the woods next to their home late one night. They see men and horses in white robes. They see a burning cross. This sight can only mean one thing–the Ku Klux Klan. Stella and JoJo race home to tell their parents what they’ve seen, and the people in the community immediately come together to discuss what it might mean.

With the threat of the Klan looming over everything, the people in Stella’s community wonder what they can do to combat such a seemingly powerful force. They’ve always dealt with racism, but this feels much more sinister. When several men, including Stella’s father, decide to stand up for themselves in the voting booth, the threat becomes even greater.

Through all of this turmoil, Stella examines her own feelings through writing. Stella admits she’s not the best writer, but she practices late at night in the hopes of getting better. She has so many thoughts about what’s going on around her, and she wants to get them down on paper. She writes about her family, school, and community. She writes about the prejudice she experiences and sees around her. She writes about the people, both black and white, who come together and take a stand when times are hard. She writes about her hopes for the future.

Stella by Starlight is an excellent piece of historical fiction, and I hope that many teachers and students will use it to supplement their understanding of racism, both in the segregated South and in the present day.

I also see this book being used to help students with their writing…or whatever else they may be having trouble with. Stella freely admits that she is not a great writer and needs practice. Students need to see that it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s important is to keep trying and working to get better.

Librarians, teachers, and parents who want to explore themes like bravery, integrity, empathy, tolerance, and respect with their students should definitely take a look at Stella by Starlight. It’s an extremely powerful book that will stay with all readers long after they’ve finished it.

When Grandmama Sings

When Grandmama Sings, written by Margaree King Mitchell and illustrated by James E. Ransome, is a nominee for the 14-15 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Set against the backdrop of the racially-segregated South, When Grandmama Sings is a heart-warming story about persistence and hope. When eight-year-old Belle’s grandmother, Ivory Belle Coles, gets the opportunity to do a singing tour across the South, Belle begs to go along. Her parents agree to let Belle be a helper to her grandmother.

“Grandmama couldn’t read herself. But she always had a song to sing.”

Along the way, young Belle points out that black and white people are treated differently everywhere they go. Through it all, though, her grandmother never loses her spirit, her will, or her love of music. Music has the power to bring everyone, regardless of color, together.

Belle’s grandmother taught her that going after dreams is important. It could be something as simple as learning to read or becoming a singer, but it could be something–like equality for all–with the power to change the world.

This book is great for a simple yet powerful illustration of life in the segregated South. It could be used in elementary classrooms in units on Civil Rights. It could also be part of lessons on persistence and courage in the face of adversity.

Back of the Bus

Back of the Bus, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, provides young readers with a child’s perspective of the Rosa Parks story that began the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

A young boy is sitting in the back of a bus with his mother, simply playing with a marble. Rosa Parks is sitting at the front of the bus. The boy knows she shouldn’t be there, and, when she’s asked to move, he has a bad feeling that trouble is coming. He’s right, but he also has a feeling that things are about to change in his town, maybe even his country. He’s right about that, too.

Read Back of the Bus for a new perspective on the act of peaceful protest that played such a large part in the Civil Rights Movement.

An afterword or explanation at the back of the book detailing what led to Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat and its aftermath would have been helpful. Many young readers don’t know anything about this important historical event, and a brief explanation would have been helpful and might have led them to read more about Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement.