Making Room for Joy in Black History Month
February 10, 2022 § 4 Comments
During Black History Month, I typically highlight a recent picture book that introduces young readers to an essential part of African American history in a particularly compelling and inventive way. (Last year’s post was on the picture book biography of basketball legend, Elgin Baylor, which apart from being a fascinating story about one Black man also doubles as a mini primer on the Civil Rights Movement.) But since I so recently sung the praises of Born on the Water, one of the most comprehensive and gorgeous picture books to take on the subject of Black history, I thought I’d use today’s post to remind us that, as parents and educators, we must see to it that our children are reading just as many—if not more—stories about Black joy and achievement, as they are about Black pain and oppression.
This means reading When Langston Dances, a joyous new celebration of dance, starring a Black boy who aspires to take ballet. It means reading The Old Truck, a deceptively simple multi-generational story about a family of Black farmers. Or Milo Imagines the World, where a Black boy makes sense of the world in a sketchbook. Or the ebullient picture book biography of writer Zora Neale Hurston, titled Jump at the Sun. Are these books on our shelves alongside those about slavery and segregation? Have we deemed them important in our children’s eyes by giving them a seat at our (literary) table?
It also means reading about the people making Black history as I’m writing this post. The superstars of today. The people pointing us forward.
You’ll rarely see a book by a politician or celebrity plugged here. For one, these books come by publicity naturally; two, they’re usually mediocre at best. They can be dry or heavy-handed, come off like they’re trying too hard, or feel self-aggrandizing. So, while I find Stacey Abrams all kinds of dynamic and inspirational and vital in real life—and though our signed copies at the bookshop have been flying off the shelves—I put off reading her debut picture book. I figured it would be “meh.”
I stand corrected. I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Stacey’s Extraordinary Words (Ages 4-8), written by Abrams and illustrated by Kitt Thomas, is wonderful. In this story drawn from a childhood memory about a spelling bee competition, young Stacey emerges as inquisitive, bright, determined, and sensitive; and the effusively colored illustrations will endear young readers to her. But what would have appealed to me most as a young bookworm is that this is a story about a girl falling in love with the richness of language. A girl learning to wield the power of language to give voice to herself, to secure her seat at the table.
As a young girl, Stacey loves words. Especially long, uncommon, or quirky words. She likes their roots, their definitions, and the stories behind them. She records as many as she can in her Notebook of Extraordinary Words. And she likes the way different words elicit specific feelings or physical responses. “Words like duckling made her grin. Persnickety tickled her tongue.”
It turns out Stacey takes after my own heart. “Sometimes Stacey thought that words understood her better than people did.” How many times in my adult life do I still wonder this, lost in the delicious language of a good book? Life on the outside is messy. In Stacey’s case, that sometimes means feeling awkward or shy; not getting her message out quite right; or worrying by her teacher’s face that she has done something wrong. With words, Stacey can master the rules of their spellings. She can line them up to make sense of an idea. She can read them, consider them, and feel secure, understood.
One of the strengths of this story is how many fun, unusual words Abrams has incorporated. I love that young readers will learn the definition of onomatopoeia, stupendous, blunder. Even I had to think hard about the definition of dither. And I had absolutely no idea what sesquipedalian meant, which proves that today’s kids are going to be smarter than us. (Never fear, fellow parents, there’s an index in the back with definitions.)
Stacey’s performance on her spelling tests in class draws the attention of her teacher, who nominates Stacey and a classmate named Jake for a spelling bee competition. (“‘A really smart insect?’ Stacey joked.”) Stacey isn’t worried about working hard to master new words, but she is worried about Jake, who rarely has a kind word for anyone. Jake has a track record of making kids cry, including Stacey’s friend, Suki. And Stacey wishes, each time it happens, that she were brave enough to “use her clever words” to shut him down.
As the spelling bee approaches, time moves torturously slow for Stacey. As she studies and practices, she “wished for the week to whisk the days away.”
The spelling bee arrives, and the next several pages are gratifyingly dramatic, with spotlights, big stage, loud buzzer, and the tension of wondering who will move on to the next round and who will be asked to leave the stage (“No do-overs.”). Stacey’s first word is D-I-T-H-E-R and she spells it correctly.
As the rounds pass and various contestants drop off, Stacey and Jake are left alone to square off against one another. Back and forth they go, with squeezed, clambering, disengage, geometry…until Stacey misspells instantaneous and that loathsome bell announces her defeat.
Our hearts ache for earnest Stacey, who accepts her loss gracefully, despite having to remain on stage for the award ceremony, tears in her eyes. She even compliments the winner. Jake, however, tosses an insult her way.
This time, though, Stacey isn’t going to take it in silence. At some point while standing in front of an audience, daring to spell the trickiest of words, Stacey found her voice. “Well, I misspelled my word, but I do know how to be courteous. You should try it.” Oh, snap!
Stacey leaves the stage with her head held high, but the second-place finish sits uneasily with her. As her mom presses a yellow butterscotch into Stacey’s ribbon—in her heartfelt Author’s Note, Abrams says she never forgot how her mother remembered that “I, her second of six children, loved that color the most”—she re-frames her daughter’s failure as an opportunity to keep going.
And, as Stacey Abrams goes on to take that first-place trophy years later, we know why perseverance is one of her favorite words.
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Book published by Simon & Schuster. All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!
Tagged: biographies for children, black American characters in children's books, Black History Month, Black joy in children's books, determination, girl main character, Kitt Thomas, language as celebrated in children's books, picture book, Stacey Abrams