For a look at the realities of life in a racially divided country, these middle-grade and teen books offer remarkable Black History Month experiences, based both in fact and fiction.
Dorothy Carter's fictional look at black children in Florida during the Great Depression offers a clear yet non-frightening view of the problems during that era. Ideal for 10-year-olds, "Grandma's General Store: The Ark" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16) tells the story of the obstacles - including a ramshackle segregated school and a brief brush with the Ku Klux Klan - that frustrated but never defeated two indomitable kids.
Their lives are filled with hope for a better existence in the North, and at the book's end, they realize their dream: For the first time they're able to ride wherever they want on a train. Readers will share their outrage at the numerous battles with segregation and rejoice when the entire family finds relative prosperity in Philadelphia.
Throughout, a rich family life and help from resourceful friends keeps their time from turning sour as they wait for the chance to escape. This is, above all, a reassuring book for all children.
Escaping to the North also is a central theme in David L. Dudley's "The Bicycle Man" (Clarion Books, $16). Suitable for 10- to 13-year-olds, the story is set in 1927 in rural Georgia, a bleak place and time for heroine Carissa. Plagued by recurring job losses when white employers unfairly accuse her of dishonesty, Carissa's mother fights bitterness with the help of her daughter and Bailey, an elderly man who takes up residence in their shed.
Bailey, who rides his shiny bicycle everywhere, gives them both monetary and spiritual aid. Faced with a serious problem of his own, he is nevertheless able to solve their difficulties, providing a happy resolution for all their woes. The example of generosity and spirit he sets provides the book's feeling of hope
Truth stranger than fiction
A combination of historical fiction and sci fi, Walter Mosley's "47" (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, $16.99) is a hard-hitting novel for teenagers. Sometimes graphic in describing the violence visited upon plantation slaves, "47" is emotionally compelling and compassion-evoking.
The main character, a nameless field slave known only by the number 47, encounters a being from another universe who guides him to escape and changes the slave's way of life permanently.
Intense and imaginative, "47" is deeply involving and will shock readers with its painful portrayal of slave punishment. However, the sorrows that take place are balanced by the insights gained not only by 47, but by all his fellow captives. The ending is positive, but not unrealistically rosy.
Truth is even more shocking than fiction in "The Forbidden Schoolhouse," by Suzanne Jurmain (Houghton Mifflin Co., $18). It retells the history of a private school for black girls created by a courageous white woman, Prudence Crandall, during the tumultuous racial period of the 1830s in Connecticut.
Aimed at 10-year-olds and up, the book tells of Crandall's horrifying experiences. Eventually, a group of town residents attacked and destroyed the school. Violence was an everyday occurrence. But Crandall's efforts and her prolonged battle are described in victorious terms .
The book is historically accessible and dramatic. Crandall's school, even though it had to be shut down, was a huge step for abolitionists of that time. Children who read her story will have a strong understanding of injustice and the determination it took to fight it.
Seldom is the story of slavery's demise told as powerfully as in "United No More: Stories of the Civil War" (HarperCollins, $15.99). Written by Doreen Rappaport and Joan Verniero, with black-and-white illustrations by Rick Reeves, this extremely readable history for middle-graders presents both sides of the battle and helps readers understand the thinking of key figures in the war.
There is substantial discussion of the part that black regiments played in the Union's victory. Kansas was among the first states to muster black regiments.
What makes "United No More" so impressive is the way the story is humanized. Particularly moving is the episode of how Julia Ward Howe wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." And a complete reproduction of Lincoln's second inaugural address in the book's final pages is reason enough to buy and pore over this volume.
For sheer, glorious storytelling, few young adult books top "Black Storm Comin'," by Diane Lee Wilson (Margaret K. McElderry Books, $16.95). A biracial boy, Colton Wescott, rides for the Pony Express as the nation heads toward civil war, and his identity struggle factors into his extraordinarily difficult journey over the perilous Sierra Nevadas.
"Black Storm Comin'" deals with a firestorm of events and presents a cast of memorable characters, including Badger, the black horse who carries Colton and eventually saves his life.
And it's no accident that Badger is black. He is the ultimate symbol of just how powerful a part the color played in the settlement of the West and the saving of a divided country.