African American

Zero Fade

Jacket• Grade Range: 7th-adult
• Humor/Coming of age
• Author: Chris L. Terry
• Title: Zero Fade
• Publisher: Curbside Splendor Publishing
• 2013
• 295 pages.
• ISBN: 9780988480438
• Awards: In the Margins top 25, Best of 2013 lists-Kirkus &
• Author’s website:


It is the mid 90’s in inner city Richmond and Kevin is in 7th grade. For nine days in April so are we. It’s Saturday morning and Kevin is getting a haircut in the basement from his Mama when what he really wants is a sick fade and a chance to spend Saturday with someone fine, like orange-haired Aisha. While his dad is no longer around, Kevin has a tight family, a mom going to school and holding a job, an older sister Laura and an admired uncle Paul: his mom’s baby brother. While Kevin narrates most chapters, Paul gets a turn too. He’s gay and he knows it’s time to tell his nephew; problem is his nephew: pining to be cool, desperate to get with a girl and a fan of Eddie Murphy’s gay bashing humor, doesn’t seem ready to hear what he has to say. Add into the mix Kevin’s inability to control his smart mouth, getting grounded, a classic bully, the nastiness of his mother getting a date before he does and an ill-advised adventure with his sister, and Kevin has a full week.

There are a ton of fabulous 2014 books I plan to add to this blog, but as I peruse the best of 2014 lists I can’t forget some of my favorites from last year. Every once in awhile I come across a book I just adore that doesn’t seem to get traction in the press. In many ways those are the books I most want to feature here-genuinely fantastic books you might miss and which deserve to be widely read

In Zero Fade Terry has written a hilariously funny, honest, warm and believable YA novel that easily crosses over with adults. It is a rare book that manages to make the In the Margins award list of “the best books for teens living in poverty, on the streets, in custody – or a cycle of all three” and win over a diverse range of folk on Goodreads: from self identified ‘old ladies’ to those who don’t even like YA. The novel comes across as genuine, surprising and very recognizable, which is fabulous for kids who share Kevin’s ethnicity and or background, but equally fabulous for those who don’t.  Consider this apt perspective from 13 year-old Kevin: “crying in school is like peeing yourself. It feels good to get it out, but you wind up with a bigger problem.”

Thank heavens Kevin is a winningly imperfect teen, with virtually nothing figured out. He fantasizes about being a stand up comic and wonders “[w]hat about my life would be funny later? Not getting any? No cable?” The book is packed with vernacular language, fresh observation and a complete lack of didacticism. When his uncle Paul gives him some good advice: “I mean, just keep doing your thing. There’s always gonna be someone wanna say something, so just do you.” Kevin rightly thinks “[b]ut I’ve been doing me and it ain’t working.” What teen hasn’t had this response to a well meaning adult advising them to “be yourself.”

What I love about Zero Fade is it’s strong sense of ethnicity and place. It deals with substantive issues. It is frank. It is also very, very funny, very human and very relatable. If I can get a single seventh grader to read it I am convinced I’ll get half the class. Likely this won’t be without controversy as there is occasional talk of titties and masturbation and lots of language inappropriate to school. I wonder if this is why this first novel by Terry didn’t win the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe award for new talent. Never the less I am convinced this exactly the kind of multicultural literature we need for kids, both for those who see Kevin in their reflection and for those who see Kevin in themselves on reflection.


The Dark Game: True Spy Stories

Jacket-2• Grade Range: 5-8
• Adventure related title
• Paul B Janeczko
• The Dark Game
• Publisher: Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press
• 2010
• 248 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-763-62915-1
• Awards: YALSA-ALA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist
• Author’s website:

Six self-contained chapters tell intriguing stories of spies and their craft, from the American Revolution through the Cold War. Janeczko makes the point that often, marginalized groups: women, African Americans, Native Americans and even one handicapped individual, made excellent spies, as bias prevented them from being perceived as either a threat or a resource.

While the chronological chapters are self-contained there are some overarching themes. Taken together the chapters tell a rough history of spying as it affected the United States from the Revolutionary War into the end of the 20th century. Janeczko traces the increasing professionalization of espionage as America moved from all amateur spies: including Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin and the amazing WWII double agent: Juan Pujol, to a trained force, schooled in combat, cyber-espionage, sabotage, survival skills, and codes and ciphers. While the professional training has lots of 007 appeal, it is the stories of the amateurs that capture the imagination, in part because they are a far more diverse group: Harriet Tubman and her 300 strong unit of African-American riverboat pilots and soldiers who rescued 800 slaves, an intrepid WWII agent Virginia Hall, who named her wooden leg Cuthbert, Choctaw code talkers, Rebel Rose the Confederate socialite spy and her opposite Van Lew the spinster who helped organize the daring behind-enemy-lines escape of 109 Union soldiers from Libby Prison.

The book is focused on spies associated with the United States; this includes double agents, Allies in both world wars and foreign saboteurs on U.S. soil. Of particular interest is the little known story of the extensive and effective sabotage carried out in the U.S. by German agents during World War I.

The organization of the book allows readers to dip in an out, reading about time periods or incidents of special interest. The text is enhanced by primary source photos and pictures of ciphers, which are a particular interest of Mr. Janeczko, (Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, Candlewick 2004, Loads of Codes and Secret Ciphers, Simon & Schuster 1984). While most readers will be drawn to the book for the fun of it, the material is well researched enough to be useful in reports. The author’s enthusiasm and fascination with the topic comes through clearly.

The writing is plain and rather inelegant, but doesn’t detract from the compelling stories. Of course some information is missing or is debatable. After a fascinating account of the story behind the Zimmerman telegram: which precipitated U.S. entry into WWI, Janeczko repeats the assertion that “never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message”. The idea that U.S. troops were what turned the tide in WWI is a discredited theory. I could also wish there was more about the appalling Allen Dulles and the fact that, on his watch, undiscovered Russian moles sent thousands of CIA agents to their death and undercut U.S. espionage effectiveness for decades. But these are minor quibbles; overall The Dark Game is a fascinating, eye-opening and very appealing read for middle school kids.

Front matter: The Contents helpfully subdivides the six chapters into four named topics per chapter, giving readers a sense of what the chapters cover and allowing them to focus on topics or individuals of particular interest. An introduction explains the author’s historic interest in, and enthusiasm for, the subject. Back Matter: Source notes are broken down by chapter and quotes are attributed. An extensive bibliography is included. Photography credits are also broken down by chapter, making it easy to learn where an image came from.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Jacket-5• Grade Range: 3rd-Adult
• Diversity related title
• Author and Illustrator Kadir Nelson
• We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
• Publisher: New York, Jump at the Sun
• 88 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-7868-0832-8
• Awards: 2009 Coretta Scott King Author Award~ 2009Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor~2009 Sibert Winner~ 2008 Casey Award.
• Author’s website:

From 1887 until 1945 an unofficial ‘gentleman’s agreement’ closed major league baseball to African American players. They responded with their own storied Negro League filled with fantastic athletes and fascinating characters. In a conversational style, Kadir Nelson tells the story of this legendary group, illustrating the tales with gorgeous and heroic full-page paintings.

This is one of those books that tells an important story but is so fun and infectious that it draws readers in regardless of their interest in history, civil rights or baseball. The illustrations have so much style, strength and power the reader instantly believes in the greatness of what’s pictured and wants to know more.

Nelson narrates in the first-person persona of an old-timer who was there; the reader feels lucky to be able to draw up a chair and hear the tale. We quickly learn that the kind of baseball the Negro-leaguers played had plenty of flash and drama. After some white umpires called a game, they apologize for their mistakes; they had never seen that style of play. Recognizing the crowd-pleasing appeal they said “if they played like we did in the majors, they’d have to make the parks bigger to seat all the fans.”

Readers learn that it wasn’t just innovative play that the Negro League bequeathed to baseball, it was safety equipment too. The Negro Leagues style of play was so edgy and rough players resorted to wearing a mining helmet when at bat and placing barrel staves in their socks to avoid being slashed by spikes. Night baseball was another Negro League innovation.

Nelson also recounts the impact Jim Crow attitudes had on the players as they traveled through unfriendly areas: unable to find food, lodging or even a place to go to the bathroom. Often they would play multiple games in one day. The stories and statistics leave little doubt that Negro-League baseball and its players were the best show in town; readers feel what a shame it was that more of the world didn’t get to see them play. But eventually the Major League recognized they needed the talent and draw of the best Negro League players.The ninth chapter, or inning, recounts Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League baseball in 1945. And the chapter Extra Innings tells of the withering demise of the Negro Leagues as their best players and their fans went to the majors.

We Are the Ship is exquisitely designed. The copyright and dedication pages have quotations from Negro league greats in various sized pale font so that the reader feels they are overhearing snippets from a great party in the next room. A two-page spread of a ticket to the first Colored World Series folds out into a four-page spread of the two teams in front of a crowd. More than every other page is filled with stunning art that has as much muscular power, and more gravitas, than a Thomas Hart Benton.

Front matter includes three pages of quotes from negro league greats, the eponymous quote by Rube Foster and a foreword by Hank Aaron. Back matter includes ‘Extra Innings,’ which recounts the demise of Negro League ball, which struggled on after integration until 1960. Hall-of-Fame Negro Leaguers and those who have made the Hall of Fame are listed. A thoughtful Author’s Note, acknowledgements, a bibliography, filmography, endnotes, and an index conclude the book.

Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley

Jacket-3• Grade Range: 6th-10th
• Science related title
• Author: Sally M. Walker
• Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley
• Publisher: Minneapolis, MN. Carolrhoda
• 2005
• 112 pages.
• ISBN: 978-1-57505-830-6
• Awards: Book Links Lasting Connections of 2008~Robert F. Sibert Medal 2006~ALA Notable Book 2006~BCCB 2006 Blue Ribbon Book~2006 Orbis Pictus Recommended Book~Bank Street College Best Childrens Books of the Year~Booklist Top 10 Sci-Tech Books 2005~Master List 2007 Rebecca Caudill Award~VOYA Nonfiction Honor list, 2006~2006 New York Public Library Books for the Teenage~Winner 2006 Children’s Nonfiction Award, Society of Midland Authors~Benjamin Franklin Award Finalist 2006
• Author’s website:

The fate of the Civil War submarine: the H.L. Hunley, remained a mystery for 131 years. The ship and her crew were lost, after sinking the U.S.S. Housatonic, until 1995, when underwater archaeologists discovered and raised her. Walker traces the history of the ship and reports on the cutting edge science and forensic anthropology that allowed archeologists to find the ship and unravel her story.

Chronological chapters outline the construction and design of the submarine, which was spurred by wartime necessity. Confederates desperately needed to break the crippling blockade of Charleston’s harbor and the Hunley offered a way. Walker discusses the submarine’s potential importance to the Confederate War effort but goes no further into Civil War history. The only discussion of race is the fact that it was an African American Union sailor on the Housatonic: Robert Flemming, who spotted the Hunley and gave warning. Pictures, maps, photographs and primary sources help convey the physics, drama, excitement and danger connected to the Hunley. Before her first official mission two crews gruesomely died in training exercises. These historic chapters take us up to the moments just after the Hunley earns her place in history: as the first submarine to sink and enemy ship in war, and leaves us with the questions: what happened to the ship and crew; what caused them to perish?

The second half of the book seeks to answer these questions as Walker traces attempts to locate, excavate and study the ships remains. Walker does a good job including the various elements leading to the ships successful recovery: tracing the efforts of a passionate amateur: Clive Cusssler and a team of underwater archeologists, through the legal tangle associated with finding a famous shipwreck, to the scientific and research breakthroughs necessary to piece together the puzzle of exactly what happened to the ship and her crew. Drawings and photographs help personalize and elucidate the science, which includes stratigraphy: the study of sediment, forensic anthropology: which reveals astonishing personal details from human remains and high-tech artifact conservation.

The range of topics covered by Walker makes the book appealing to kids intrigued by the Civil War, as well as those attracted to the submarine’s dangerous history and the adventure of treasure hunting. It is also a natural for kids interested in forensic anthropology. The team does full facial reconstruction for all eight of the crew. While an astonishing amount is learned from studying the ship and crew’s remains, many questions are left unanswered. Walker makes clear the story isn’t over and the preserved artifacts may yet tell a more complete tale.

A prologue sets the stage and creates a dramatic frame for both the historical and the scientific stories. We are introduced to the mystery surrounding the Hunley’s disappearance, the engineering marvel she was and the compelling science behind her recovery. Contents include not only the chapter titles but also list all the back matter including the glossary. At the end an author’s note describes Walker’s research methods and motivations and thanks various experts. A page of source notes attributes quotes and background information. Photographs are credited. A nine volume selected bibliography is included, but gives no guidance as to which works are most likely to be accessible to children. Two websites are included. Clive Cussler’s site links to reports on hundreds of shipwrecks he has investigated and the Friends of the Hunley site has lots of up to date information. A brief glossary gives definitions for twenty or so terms likely to be unfamiliar. An index concludes the book.

Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty

Jacket• History related title
• Age Range: Grades 6th-adult
• Author: Tonya Bolden
• Title: Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty
• Publisher: New York : Abrams
• 2013
• 120 pages.
• ISBN: 978- 1-4197-0390-4
• Awards: 2013 Orbis Pictus recommended book ~ Starred reviews: Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
• Author’s website:

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a pivotal moment in history. Bolden unpacks the moment: revealing the complex interplay of events and personalities that shaped Lincoln’s thinking and strategy leading up to the proclamation that changed America forever.

This is a gorgeous book: lovingly and effectively designed. It is filled with well-reproduced large format historic prints, photographs and documents that draw the reader in. The abundance of period images, which include some remarkable political cartoons, help hold interest and allow readers to interact directly with primary sources: drawing their own conclusions and enriching the reading experience.

Bolden has done a remarkable job: reintroducing complexity and tension both to a moment in time that seems preordained and to a president we have made too saintly. The problem with simply accepting the Emancipation Proclamation is that we miss an opportunity to understand how hard won and how difficult and dangerous a decision it was. We make it dull by accepting it too easily. In assuming ‘of course Lincoln freed the slaves’ we miss both an opportunity to appreciate Lincoln’s human nature and to see how his thinking evolved and what he himself believed to be his highest duty. We rob ourselves of any real historical understanding and thus are ill equipped to understand the history being made in our own lifetimes.

Bolden provides context to understand the forces affecting the emancipation decision. We learn that in 1861 most escaped slaves were returned by Union forces to their Confederate owners. Primary sources, images and Bolden’s text, help us see how the Union moved from enforcing the 1850 Fugitive Slave law to, by 1862, passing the Confiscation Act that freed escaped and captured slaves and the Militia Act that allowed blacks to serve in the U.S. Army.

Readers are shown that the decision of states to secede or remain loyal wasn’t a binary choice. Crucial pro-union states like Maryland, which surrounds the Capital, and Kentucky and Missouri, which allow access to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, were divided in their support of the Union. Marylanders rioted and killed Union troops passing through their state. Understanding the great range of opinion and what fears and hopes drove those beliefs affords readers a far more nuanced understanding and is much more interesting. We learn that, as feared by many political leaders, the Republicans were punished at the polls in the mid-term elections following the Emancipation Proclamation. Knowing how divided opinion was both in the North and South sets readers up to understand why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t the end of the struggle for civil rights. As Frederick Douglas so presciently noted in 1862, “the slave having ceased to be the abject slave of a single master, his enemies will endeavor to make him the slave of society at large.”

Along the way Bolden introduces us to remarkable characters, some like Frederick Douglass are well known but others, nearly as fascinating, have been overlooked by history. Seeing the range of opinion and concern, being introduced to multiple voices from the time, helps to take the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln and Civil War History out of the box we have put it in.

The only questionable element in Emancipation Proclamation is Bolden’s decision to tell parts 1 and 3 in the third person plural. She uses the personal ‘we’: speaking from the perspective of African Americans and abolitionists. While this approach does make the narrative more immediate and personal it occasionally confuses, as the reader puzzles who is actually included in the ‘we’.

In her epilogue Bolden asks big and challenging questions, which before reading her text might have seemed simple to answer. Addressing the reader in first person she briefly outlines her perspective on the Emancipation Proclamation and introduces the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery. A seven-page timeline from 1860-1865 highlights key events associated with the emancipation of slaves. A glossary defines key terms. Notes provide sources for quotes. There is a page and a half of selected sources. Unfortunately Bolden does not share her criteria for selection or annotate any of her sources. Her acknowledgements include thanks to two experts who she consulted. Helpfully image credits provide the provenance of the many remarkable images included in the text. An extensive and specific index helps readers find exactly the topic they seek.

Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels

• Diversity related title
• Age Range: Grades 6th-Adult
• Author: Tanya Lee Stone
• Title: Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels
• Publisher: Somerville, Mass. : Candlewick Press
• 2013
• 148 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-7636-5117-6
• Awards: YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist~NAACP Image Award Nominee in Literature~Orbis Pictus Honor Book~Publishers Weekly Best Books 2013~Kirkus Best Books of 2013~Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Choices 2014~2014 Texas Tayshas Reading List~TOP TEN ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2014~ALSC 2014 Notables Children’s Book AND ALSC 2014 Notables Children’s Recording~YALSA Amazing Audio Pick~Washington Post’s Best New Reads of 2013~Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books 2013 Blue Ribbon List~BuzzFeed’s 20 Best Children’s Books of 2013~NYPL’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing~Booklist Editor’s Choice & Booklist’s 2013 “Lasting Connections”~Best Multicultural Books of 2013 (Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature)~A Parents’ Choice Award Recommended Title
• Author’s website:

During World War II America fought the world’s worst racist with a racially segregated army. Stone tells the fascinating and little known story of the first black paratrooper unit: the Triple Nickels, and their efforts to win a measure of acceptance and an opportunity to fight for their nation, even if it wasn’t ready to fight for them.

Stone crafts a handsome, moving and important account of a wrongly overlooked piece of American history. Using myriad primary sources and many historic photographs she brings to life the racism and segregation prevalent in the military and society at large, and shows how black service men survived the slights and violence, overcoming oppression and proving they merited a full measure of equality. As paratrooper Clarence Beaver said, “We wanted to be a full partner within the war. We did not want to go through the war saying ‘I washed the dishes.”

Trying to keep up the morale of his troops First Sergeant Walter Morris sought to “wipe out the idea that black men weren’t good enough or smart enough to jump out of airplanes. He wanted his soldiers to know that they were as up to the task as anyone else.” His efforts to train his soldiers, even before there was any place in the army for black paratroopers, placed him and his men in the right place at the right time. When the Triple Nickels were formed they were the first in line and Morris was served as first sergeant.

Not only does Stone reveal heroic deeds and fascinating characters, she brings to light one of the best kept secrets of World War II: Japanese balloon bombs that targeted the Pacific coast. This is a thorough, well-documented history full of unforgettable anecdotes, perfect for anyone interested in World War II, civil rights, American history or stories of courage and perseverance.
“Morris experienced the sting of seeing German and Italian prisoners of war buying cigarettes and candy at the post exchange. ‘Those men,’ he later recalled, ‘prisoners who killed American soldiers…[could] buy cigarettes or whatever they wanted to, but we…couldn’t go into the post exchange.’ …We’re in uniform, but we’re not good enough to sit at the table with the prisoners of war!’”

In extensive back matter Stone describes the story behind the story, describing her motivations, research techniques and philosophy. An appendix lists the test platoon and first six officers followed by a timeline of desegregation and the Triple Nickels. Detailed source notes, an extensive and varied bibliography and photography credits leave no doubt as to where information was obtained. An extensive index and acknowledgements conclude this handsomely produced and scrupulously researched addition to American history.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights


  • Diversity related title
  • Age Range: Grades 7-adult
  • Author: Steve Sheinkin
  • Title: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights.
  • Publisher: New York, Roaring Brook
  • 2014
  • 200 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-1-59643-796-8
  • Awards: Just published January 2014…they are sure to come.
  • Author’s website:

A deadly munitions explosion at a segregated Naval-base near San Francisco during World War II leads to a mutiny trial of 50 African-American Navy men. Sheinkin dramatically relates events surrounding the trial and argues their fight for justice precipitated civil-rights gains in the military and society at large.

Once again Sheinkin brings strong writing and cinematic flair to a thoroughly researched and engrossing topic. Quotes based on interviews and primary sources combined with historic and contemporary photographs bring to life the riveting and chilling story of the systematic racism and segregation that precipitated the largest loss of life on U.S. soil during World War II as well as the largest mutiny trial in U.S. history. The evidence is compelling that their sacrifice and courage effected military and societal integration.

Front-matter includes a list of the Port Chicago 50, and contents. Back-matter includes extensive source notes, a list of works cited, acknowledgements, picture credits, and an index.


The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students


  • Diversity related title
  • Age Range: Grades 7-high school
  • Author: Suzanne Jurmain
  • Title: The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students.
  • Publisher: Boston :, Houghton Mifflin
  • 2005
  • 150 pages.
  • ISBN: 978-0618-47302-1
  • Awards: An Orbis Pictus Honor Book~ALA Notable Children’s Book~ALA Best Book for Young Adults~Booklist Editor’s Choice~ Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book for 2005~Booklist Top 10 Black History Book for Youth~James Madison Book Award Honor Book~SCBWI Golden Kite Honor Award Winner~Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts~ Once Upon a World Honor Book.
  • Author’s website:

In 1833, when respectable women were expected to be demure and unassuming, Prudence Crandall caused a firestorm of protest and outrage. Her efforts to open a school for African-American girls sent shock-waves through her Connecticut town and the nation.

Jurmain tells an important story that helps fill in the vast gaps between slavery and the civil rights movement. An effective use of historical bullet points early on immerses the reader in the tenor of the times. While extensive research allows a clear picture of the conflict to emerge and there are plenty of direct quotes, the account is padded with supposition about what people likely thought or said.

Front matter includes contents, an acknowledgment and a note to the reader about the use of historic race words. Back matter includes an epilogue that briefly describes African American education from the Civil War to the present, an extensive appendix of facts about Crandall’s students, friends & enemies, notes on sources, an extensive bibliography, photo credits and an index.