Patty’s Picks: Black History Month

Patty’s Picks is a regular series in which our Vooks Education Director, Patty Duncan, selects five titles around a specific theme and shares why she chose them as well as associated vocabulary, discussion ideas, activities, and more. 

For centuries, Black people have added immeasurably to the American culture in many and varied areas, including science, music, art, acts of humanity, and sports—Black History Month is a time to recognize these important accomplishments.

In this month’s Patty’s Picks, our Education Director selected titles that illustrate a few of the many hardships endured, triumphs earned, and contributions made by the Black community to make the world a better place.

Beautiful Shades of Brown

Reading age: ‎7-11
Grade level: ‎3-5

From a young age Laura Wheeler Waring loved art. Growing up, she didn’t see any artists who looked like her, or even any paintings of people who looked like her. Using her family members as models, Laura painted and painted, filling the walls of her room like the walls of a gallery. Using her paints, she was fascinated by all the rich colors that combined to create the beautiful shades of brown she saw in her family members. While studying art in Paris, she was inspired by famous painters who captured the people around them. She decided she too wanted to paint who she knew best, people with beautiful brown skin that she never saw in paintings as a child. Today, Laura’s artwork hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Now everyone can admire the beautiful shades of brown she captured.

Why Patty chose this story: This title is a wonderful true story of creativity and being true to one’s self; Beautiful Shades of Brown is both inspirational and educational. Although this title may be of more interest to children in first grade and up, all children can access the profound message when read aloud, accompanied with the animated illustrations. This title also illustrates the feelings of isolation and not belonging that were experienced by many Black people.

Vocabulary word(s): precise, bribed, portraits, scholarship, clutching, luminous, dashing, palette, gilt. Color words: cerulean blue, russet, coffee-colored, chocolate, caramel, ebony brown, rosy brown, warm brown, smokey topaz, sorrel colored, burnt umber.

Independent reading level is third grade; however as a read along can be enjoyed and understood by children as young as Pre-K. The title offers the opportunity to discuss African American history in the U.S. as well as art history, music, and museums. This title can also be used as a mentor text for the rainbow found in the color brown.

Discussion starter suggestions:
  • Discuss portraits that you have seen at a museum or somewhere else. Why do you think people have portraits painted?
  • What does it mean to “break down walls?” Have you ever experienced this?
  • Discuss someone who has inspired you to do something.
  • Discuss the contribution that Laura Wheeler Waring made to the world.

Activity suggestions:
  • Provide children paint colors: green, blue, yellow, red, white, black. Ask them to mix paint in as many shades of brown as they can. Paint a picture (preferably a portrait).
  • Take a (virtual) tour of a museum. Discuss the importance of museums and how they teach us about history.

The Life of Pelé (bilingual title)

Reading age: 0-3
Grade level: ‎preschool

This bilingual picture book biography introduces Pelé, widely known as the greatest soccer player in history. Born in Brazil, Pelé was very young when his dad taught him to play soccer. They didn’t have much money—their ball was a sock stuffed with newspaper, tied up with string. Yet even as a boy, people were amazed by Pelé’s talent. By fifteen, he joined his first professional team. At sixteen, he was invited to play for Brazil’s national team.

In the years to come, Pelé would score over 1,000 goals and win three world championships for his home country. The story of Pelé teaches children that it doesn’t matter where your journey begins; with skill, hard work, and a dream—anything is possible.

Why Patty chose this title: I chose this title because of the influence that Pelé had on sports and his ambition and hard work to turn talent into skill. His recent passing (December, 2022) may have made children more aware of the contributions Pelé made.Widely regarded as one of soccer’s greatest players, Pelé spent nearly two decades as the game’s most prolific scorer with Brazilian club Santos and the Brazil national team.The Life of Pelé illustrates using talent to develop a skill and serves as an example to children about how hard work can lead to a rewarding career.

Vocabulary word(s): soccer; inventor; dazzled; talent; team

Although The Life of Pelé is appropriate for early readers, the themes suggested by the story easily can be used for older children.The Life of Pelé provides both English and Spanish text making it a very useful mentor text for English/Spanish language learners. Additionally, The Life of Pelé can be used as a mentor text introducing the literary genre of biography.

Discussion starter suggestions:
  • What does it mean to have a talent? Ask children what talents they might have and if/how they are developing them.
  • What does it mean to be part of a team?

Activity suggestions:
  • Ask the children to research more about the life of Pelé. 
  • Stuff a sock with newspaper and tie it with a string. Play “soccer”. Ask the children to discuss other innovative ways that games might be played if the “correct” equipment is not available.

Reading age: ‎6-11
Grade level: ‎K-5

Ronnie and His Grit is based on the true-life story of NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. Ronnie Lott has always been tough. As a kid, when he fell down, he felt something inside him start to rumble. That something was a voice called Grit. On the court or off the field, no matter where he went or what he played, Grit was there. When he tumbled, Grit said, “Get back up!” When he fumbled, Grit said, “Let’s try again!” When Grit helps Ronnie become a professional football player, he’ll have a shot at achieving his dreams.

Why Patty chose this title: This title illustrates just how much grit can help someone succeed. Ronnie Lott pushes his limits and answers the question: Is grit living in all of us? If so, how can we learn to hear its voice? Children will probably be able to identify with Ronnie’s inner voice, but not know truly what it is and how to take advantage of its power.

Vocabulary word(s): dedicated, commercial, effort, might, thrill, unfortunate, battered, brooded, grit, impactful, tactful, brilliant, fateful, inspiring, rhyme, resilience

Although the complex sentences in Ronnie and His Grit may be difficult for young readers to read independently, the text is easily accessible as a read aloud. Ronnie and His Gritcan be used as a mentor text to teach the power of courage, respect, self-restraint, and unflinching resolve. Many children can identify with these themes inRonnie and His Grit.Ronnie and His Grit is also a good example of literary nonfiction/biography/autobiography/ghostwriting as well as third person narrative, personification, use of quotation marks, and rhyme.

Discussion starter suggestions:
  • Who is someone you think has grit? What actions demonstrate grit in this person?
  • Do you have grit? How do you show it if you do? If you don’t, what are some ways that you can develop grit?

Activity suggestions:
  • Create a chart with three columns labeled:Things I Find Challenging, Why I Think They Are Challenging, Ways I Can Overcome the Challenge.Ask children to share thoughts for the chart. I suggest giving children this task individually before completing it as a class. 
  • Ronnie had a lot of grit to overcome the challenges he faced. He had an inner voice that encouraged him, “Don’t ever quit!” Ask the children to create “thought bubbles” of some things that their inner voice tells them when they want to overcome challenges.

Reading age: ‎2-9 
Grade level: PreK-3

Wangari’s Trees of Peace tells the story of Wangari, who grew up in Kenya, surrounded by beautiful trees. Years later, after returning home from college, she is shocked to see entire forests cut down. The land is barren and the people in the villages are suffering. She knows that if trees could return, then the land and people would flourish once again. Starting small, Wangari plants nine seedlings in her own backyard. Soon, women from her village, and beyond, are joining in! The movement grows. Despite being mocked, and even thrown in jail, Wangari’s determination and vision inspire change across Africa and even the world.

Why Patty chose this title: I chose this title because Wangari’s Trees of Peaceis a true story from Africa. It is a message of strength, determination, and responsibility for the environment around us. The empowering true story of Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is sure to inspire future generations. Through Wangari’s example, we learn that one person can truly make a difference and impact the world.Wangari’s Trees of Peace is sure to inspire children to be more aware of the environment by using the example of Wangari and her determination to make the world a better place.

Vocabulary word(s): harvest, sugarcane, maize, scholarship, barren, desert, seedlings, nursery, forester, ignore, rustling, troublemaker, convinces, home, Kenya, protect, sweet potatoes, shines, earnings, vision, passion, inspiration, determination, environmentalist, nonfiction

Using succinct prose, this title can be used a mentor text to show the characteristics and commitment Wangari uses to make the world a better place. Wangari’s Trees of Peace can also be used as a mentor text in science to introduce the importance of maintaining the environment.

Discussion starter suggestions:
  • Wangari said, “It’s the little things that citizens do. That’s what will make the difference.” What do you think she meant?
  • Why do you think Jeanette Winter wanted to write the story about Wangari? What lesson did she want us to learn?

Activity suggestions:
  • Wangari states: “The earth was naked. For me the mission was to try to cover it with green.” Ask the children: What is your mission? How do you plan to accomplish it? Encourage them to draw a picture that represents their mission and write about it.
  • Ask the children to draw or sequence the stages of a tree seedling growing.

Reading age: 6-8
Grade level: ‎K-5

Little Craig: Balloons and Caketells the story of Little Craig. He loves birthday parties, even though he doesn’t get invited very often. That is until Craig gets invited to TWO birthday parties, on the same day. Joey’s the new kid in school, and he invited Craig to his party first. But Dan is Craig’s good friend, and he invited Craig to his party second. Little Craig is torn between keeping his word to Joey, or going to his friend Dan’s party instead. Craig’s mom reminds him “You’re only as good as your word,” and leaves the choice up to him. Little Craig has a tough decision to make, but with his mom’s encouraging words, he just might learn a valuable lesson that will guide him the rest of his life.

Why Patty chose this title: I choose this title because children may have been in this situation and can identify with the feelings Little Craig has. It isn’t always easy to do the right thing. This title also can be used to discuss what a conscience is by using the mother’s voice as an example of “that voice inside your head that tells you right from wrong.”

Vocabulary word(s): invitation, zipped, raced, calendar, handwriting,  imagined, crumpled, schedule, commitment

Little Craig: Balloons and Cake can be read independently by emerging readers; however the narration and highlighting helps early readers read the book as well. This title can be used to help children identify emotions that they feel as well as think about how their actions affect the feelings of others as well, making it a great SEL mentor text. Little Craig: Balloons and Cake helps children identify decision-making processes, making independent decisions, and the consequences those decisions have.

Discussion starter suggestions:
  • What might be some reasons that Little Craig was not invited to many parties? How do you think that made him feel? Describe a time when you felt left out.
  • In what ways does Little Craig’s mom help guide Little Craig to make a good decision? Who helps guide you in making good decisions? How do they help you?
  • What would you do if you were Little Craig? Discuss why.

Activity suggestions:
  • Write some challenges on pieces of paper and put them into different balloons before inflating them. Have the children bop the balloon in the air as music plays. Continue to bop for as long as the music is playing. When the music stops, the child who was the last to touch the balloon has to pop it and perform the challenge within it. Get creative with your challenges.
  • Have a discussion with your class, family, or friends and come up with some problems that you might need to solve. Pick one of the problems and write it at the top of the page. Then, discuss or write possible solutions and consequences of each problem.