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Revealing stories of slavery, prejudice

Twenty-six years ago, when I was a librarian in a school on 122nd Street between Seventh and Lenox Avenues in New York City, I faced the challenge of identifying books that had African-American characters. It was difficult. Later in the decade, the civil rights movement made an impact on children's book publishing, and for 15 years we reaped the benefits of talented individuals such as Julius Lester, Virginia Hamilton, John Steptoe, Lucille Clifton, Eloise Greenfield, Nikki Giovanni, Tom Feelings, Mildred Taylor, Jerry Pinkney, Patricia McKissack, Donald Crews and Leo Dillon.

Politics and economics have cost us some fine books during the past 10 years, and fewer children's books with African-American characters are being published currently. Treasures are still available, and I recommend the titles described below to everyone.

To Be a Slave, by Julius Lester, illustrated by Tom Feelings; Dial, $13.95 hardcover; Scholastic, $2.50 paperback.

Of all the books published during the late '60s and early '70s, the hands-down champion is this insightful and poignant portrait of what it meant "To be owned by another person, as a car, house or table is owned. To live as a piece of property that could be sold .

.

. To be considered not human but a "thing' .

.

."

Lester delved into the Federal Writers' Project archives at the Library of Congress, which contains interviews with slaves and the earlier retellings of slave narratives gathered by the American Anti-Slavery Society. He placed the selected quotes within their historical context and developed explanatory background information.

Beginning with the slave trade and moving through the practices associated with slavery _ the auction block, life on the plantations, the ways slavery was resisted and the feelings at the time of emancipation _ Lester pieces together an extraordinary panorama that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Feelings' expressive drawings reinforce the mood painted by the words. To Be a Slave was awarded a Newbery honor and remains in print _ a not inconsiderable achievement these days. Ten-year-olds and up of all backgrounds need to know this masterly book.

Lester has gone on to write other books for young people. His retellings of the Br'er Rabbit stories in dialect have been published in two volumes, and he has gathered other tales in his Knee-High Man collection. His newest collection, How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? and Other Tales (Scholastic, $13.95), contains 12 folk tales drawn from African and Jewish folklore. Lester's fine ear for oral language, first felt in To Be a Slave, stands all his collections of stories in good stead.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, frontispiece by Jerry Pinkney; Dial, $14.95 hardcover; Bantam, $3.50 paperback.

Awarded the Newbery Medal, this powerful novel of the Logan family's trials and tribulations during the Great Depression in rural Mississippi is hallmarked by vivid language and stellar characterization. This is the middle volume in Taylor's trilogy, which includes Song of the Trees and Let the Circle Be Unbroken.

In each well-crafted story, 11-year-old Cassie is the predominant character. The latter two stories are substantial in their length and should be read aloud to 10-year-olds and up who would otherwise be intimidated by their length. Readers feel the immediacy of events and times as Taylor effectively conveys the constant injustices of prejudice.

Stevie, by John Steptoe; Harper, $12.95 hardcover, $3.95 paperback.

The late John Steptoe's brilliant talent as an author/illustrator burst onto the scene with the touching story of young Robert's feeling about Stevie, a little boy who lives with Robert's family during the week. The artwork, Roualt-like in its style and stained-glass jewel-toned in its coloration, is breathtaking.

Annoyed when he feels Stevie is being a pest, Robert expresses familiar sibling resentments, only to discover, as most real siblings come to know, that there is a strong bond between them. Ideal for 4- to 7-year-olds, Stevie began a unique, if somewhat erratic, career.

Steptoe received his last Caldecott Honor for Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $13.95). The good sister/bad sister folkloric story dealing with humanity and kindness vs. pride and vanity, which appeals to 6- to 9-year-olds, found him returning to the brilliant palette of his youth. Stylistically, the art was very different _ very detailed, very panoramic _ and showed just how wonderfully Steptoe had developed as an artist. When he died last fall, all children lost.

Lois Winkel reviews children's books for the St. Petersburg Times. She is the editor of The Elementary School Library Collection, a selection and development guide for libraries serving children. She lives in Greensboro, N.C.

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