Benedict, Marie, and Christopher Murray, Victoria. The Personal Librarian. Berkeley Books, 2021. 978-0-593-10153-7. 341 p. $27.00. Grades 11-12+.
The broad genre of historical fiction needs to specify all the long, lost stories of yore that focus on little known historical figures. The fictionalized retelling of J. P. Morgan’s personal collection of books, artwork, and other materials that eventually became the Pierpont Morgan Library through the curation of his personal librarian, Belle de Costa Greene was sensational. Belle worked as a librarian at Princetown before returning to New York City to live with her family and work for Morgan as a curator of his magnificent collection. Her position took her to foreign cities, elite parties, and other exclusive events that Black women often were not at liberty to experience during that time. Some scenes include romantic descriptions. Belle also has an abortion without her consent, which can be triggering for some readers.
THOUGHTS: Some of the character building took longer than typical YA books might. But for the student who has a love of history, arts, women’s rights, and Black rights, this is the perfect story to get lost in before doing their own research on the Pierpont Morgan Library and who Belle de Costa Greene was and how her work at the turn of the 20th century still has ripple effects today.
Rodgers, Sugar. They Better Call Me Sugar: My Journey from the Hood to the Hardwood. Black Sheep, 2021. 978-1-617-75929-1. 176 p. $14.95. Grades 7-10.
Sugar Rodgers’ journey to the WNBA was not an easy road, to say the least. Rodgers starts her tale with a desire to motivate others and share her story of the struggle to succeed by discussing her childhood in Virginia. Growing up in an over-policed neighborhood, Rodgers’ mother supported her involvement in golf and eventually basketball. The loss of her mother, brother, and father, not to mention siblings in jail, and a lot of moving from home to home, didn’t cultivate an environment for Rodgers to thrive, but through support and determination and a lot of natural skill, she found her way to the court. Although the writing style is not cohesive, it is easy to read, and many readers will find the vernacular relatable. Despite some confusing timelines, Rodgers’ story doesn’t start with a basketball in her hand at age two or a family member who helped her break into the sport, and it ends with advice that provides hope to readers who might not see a clear path to their dream. Her childhood and conflicts are ones many readers will be able to identify with and find hope in her motivation. Sugar Rodgers’ motivation model is based on being able to take constructive criticism, “someone thinks you are good enough to correct.”
THOUGHTS: This book does contain some swearing, including derogatory terms, and potentially triggering life events such as death, jail, and physical abuse. Although this book would best suit middle school readers, some caution should be taken for sensitive readers.
Williams-Garcia, Rita. She Persisted: Florence Griffith Joyner. Philomel. 978-0-593-11596-1. 59 p. $5.99. Grades 2-4.
This chapter book biography shares the life story of Florence Griffith Joyner who is considered one of the fastest women of all time. In 1988, Flo Jo set two world records that still stand today. Her journey to becoming a five-time Olympic medalist was not an easy one, though. This biography chronicles her childhood growing up as one of eleven children in the low-income neighborhood of Watts, California, racing at UCLA, and training hard in pursuit of her Olympic goals. It also includes details about her unique personal style on and off the track, including nontraditional racing suits and long, colorful fingernails. Through short, fast-paced chapters, readers will get a sense of Flo Jo’s dedication, competitive spirit, and commitment to self-expression. Backmatter includes references as well as a section titled “How You Can Persist” which lists ideas such as making healthy choices, engaging in physical activity, expressing your thoughts through journaling or drawing, setting goals, and trying new things. This series was inspired by “She Persisted,” written by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger. More than a dozen additional chapter book biographies in this series include the stories of women like Harriet Tubman, Claudette Colvin, Maria Tallchief, Oprah Winfrey, Nellie Bly, and others.
THOUGHTS: This biography will hook young readers and inspire them to work hard in pursuit of their own dreams. The narrative nonfiction writing style also makes this a good choice for classroom read-alouds. Share this title with fans of the “Who Was?” biography series.
Elliott, Zetta. Say Her Name. Little, 2020. 978-1-368-04524-7. 96 p. $18.99. Grades 8+.
A beautiful collection of poetry that celebrates the voices of Black women and girls throughout the ages. The colorful pages call the reader to reflect and act in the world in which we live. Four poems are tributes to and inspired by strong Black women’s voices of the past including Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, and Phillis Wheatley. The collection is clearly meant for Black women and girls, but can be enjoyed by all readers, regardless of their identity. Each page is empowering and can be a solid springboard for discussion.
THOUGHTS: Although stunning, this remarkable collection is recommended for high school libraries who need to revitalize their print poetry material or who have readers interested in reflection, self-care, and individual insight.
Moss, Caroline. Become a Leader Like Michelle Obama (Work It, Girl). Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2020. $15.99. 978-0-711-24518-1. 56 p. Grades 3-6.
A beautiful, appealing biography on Michelle Obama. The text details Michelle Obama’s life from her early years living with extended family in a tiny Chicago house to her role as First Lady and beyond. Moss’s narrative writing is easy to read and really brings Michelle to life but does, of course, take some liberties as readers follow Michelle through her days that include imagined thoughts and conversations. Interesting back matter includes a section called “Become a leader like Michelle! 10 Key Lessons from Michelle Obama’s Life” that highlight points like, “Not everyone needs to believe in you if you believe in yourself,” and “New friends can help you grow!” along with examples of these points from Michelle’s life. There are also questions to check for understanding and resources for further reading. Sinem Erkas’s illustrations, done in paper, add color and fun to the book.
THOUGHTS: Young readers will enjoy the narrative writing style and enjoy learning about Michelle Obama.
Henderson, Leah. Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball’s Negro Leagues. Capstone Editions, 2020. $18.95. Unpaged. Grades 3-6.
“‘I was a ballplayer. This is what I was and this is the way I want to be known, a ballplayer,’ Mamie “Peanut” Johnson.” Mamie Johnson grew up playing baseball with her uncle Leo, who was close to her age, starting at the age of 6 on the family’s farm in South Carolina. She moved several times over the years, but love for the game remained a constant in Mamie’s life as she earned spots on several boys’ and mens’ teams over the years. After graduating high school, Mamie attempted to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but was denied a try-out because she was black. Instead, Mamie went to play professional ball for the Negro Leagues Indianapolis Clowns team and spent three seasons traveling through Canada and the US (including the heavily segregated South) playing baseball. In 1955 she retired to return to her husband and young child, but her love for the game continued. Author Leah Henderson’s Afterword tells readers that Mamie was honored by Presidents Clinton and Obama and helped clear the plate for other female baseball players.
THOUGHTS: Leah Henderson captures Mamie’s spunk and spirit well in this beautiful picture book biography.
Dionne, Evette. Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box. Viking, 2020. 9780451481542. 176 p. $19.99. Grades 5 and up.
Evette Dionne’s Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box is a historical account of the struggle for the right to vote. Covering the lesser-learned about but powerful figures in history, the book provides a comprehensive look at the path it took to get where we are today. Activists Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams, and Alice Paul (among many others) played key roles in the fight to vote but are frequently left out from the history books. Their arduous battle to earn the right to vote was fraught with struggles and setbacks from still on-going voter suppression to lynchings and voter intimidation. While suffragettes succeeded and the nineteenth amendment was ultimately ratified, voting rights are still jeopardized by unfair practices making this an extremely timely and relevant look at the way our country has and continues to function.
THOUGHTS: A succinct yet complete account, Lifting As We Climb highlights many lesser known figures in the fight for voting equality making this a key piece for any collection.
323.34 Women’s HistorySamantha Helwig, Dover Area SD
Khan-Cullors, Patrisse & Asha Bandele. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Story of Black Lives Matter and the Power to Change the World. Wednesday Books, 2020. 978-1-250-19498-5. 272 p. $18.99. Grades 9-12.
Part memoir, part call to action, Khan-Cullors craftily tells her story of growing up during the drug war in LA, her personal experiences with police, untreated mental illness, and cold-hearted racism in the country she calls home. This puts the reader in such a position to question who else possibly could have created a movement as powerful as Black Lives Matter. Broken into two parts, Khan-Cullors’ family story and the reality of her childhood culminate into the first seven chapters, while a focus on the civil rights movement starting with her brother’s experience with the law and lack of access to mental health treatment resources follow during the last seven chapters. Complete with quotes from well known authors, activists, and politicians, photos, and reader questions in each chapter, this is more than the story of how Black Lives Matter came to be the movement of the century and more than Khan-Cullors own journey–this is a call to action and creates space for difficult thoughts and conversations to begin.
THOUGHTS: Buy it now and thank yourself later. This book should be on the shelves of all high school libraries for students to learn more about BLM’s beginnings and the pilgrimage of one individual discovering who she truly is. The reader questions and recommended reading and viewing alone could serve as guideposts for teachers, students, parents, and more to start the work.