I had the honor of reading these two books for an African American Read-In Day. Both are illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, and both taught me things I did not know.
In "The Book Itch" a young boy enjoys the active social center which is his father's bookstore in Harlem in the 1960s. The historical significance of this store was new to me. Beyond this, the picture book is strong on a number of fronts. It doesn't shy away from the police presence at rallies, and there is real heart in the boy's love and admiration for his father. The book talks in detail about Malcolm X, which I also think is important. We focus so heavily on Martin Luther King, Jr., but forget that there were other leaders in the Black Rights movement. I have become concerned about a PC philosophy which sometimes ignores the more vocal parts of our civil rights struggles. Yes, MLK preached the lessons of Gandhi, but much of the struggle had violence and darkness. We should, when looking at our history, see it all.
"Freedom in Congo Square" is an extremely short picture book, told in rhymed couplets, about slave life in New Orleans. Again, I did not know that slaves of the area were given time to congregate on their own one day of the week -- on Sundays, in a place called Congo Square. This spot became the beginning of the New Orleans music culture and helped build up Jazz from the myriad of musical styles that blended there. One student, while I was reading the book, was surprised the slaves didn't use this opportunity to run away. While some did (the book acknowledges) I said that many may have been too afraid. Capture would mean death in many cases, so slavery, while horrific, may have felt like their only option. Again, the book doesn't shy away from the more difficult parts of our history, with a couplet talking about "using the lash" (also depicted).
Mr. Christie's artwork adds substantially to both books. In "Freedom in Congo Square" the work is primitive, with the slaves symbolically depersonalized into stick figures. One of the most powerful images is the page showing cabins with figures stacked on figures, representing the packed slave quarters. Also striking are the final pages, with dancers leaping and twisting to music, their bodies filling the space, legs and arms stretching up towards the sky with a powerful sense of celebration and release. In "The Book Itch" Mr. Christie's work becomes more impressionistic, watercolors bringing subtle variety to the people and events. A kind of block typeface is used for the father's quotes, and pamphlets/quotes are interspersed throughout which help to set tone, place and message.
Both books were great reads for upper elementary, and there is enough complexity in them to feed into a good class discussion or two. Most of the information in "Freedom in Congo Square" was in the foreword and afterword. I chose to show videos of African Music and Jazz to help set context, but in a full lesson, more scaffolding would be helpful. Great to move from the expected to the thoughtful for this annual celebration of Black History.