Making history

by Ildiko Sumegi

February is celebrated across Canada as Black History Month and across the United States as African-American History Month.

While history is often thought of as a series of grand events happening in days long past, it is in the present everyday lives of ordinary people that the movements of history find their energy. Here are a few children’s books featuring individuals who are sure to inspire young readers in their day-to-day lives. All of these books can be found at the Ottawa Public Library.

Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, a Young Artist in Harlem (The Museum of Modern Art, 2015) by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and illustrated by Christopher Myers

For ages 5–8When young Jacob Lawrence moves to Harlem, he is inspired by the colours, shapes and people that greet him each day. After school he goes to Utopia Children’s House where he is encouraged to make things with his hands. He draws and paints, sculpts and builds. In a box, he builds a world – he builds Harlem the way he sees it every day.

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts uses bright and rhythmic prose to convey the world through the eyes of a sensitive and observant young boy. Red and pink paper flowers, a blue rug, a preacher in a hat – nothing goes unnoticed. Award-winning author and illustrator Christopher Myers recreates Harlem with bold shape and brilliant colour. This is a touching portrait of a young boy who would go on to become one of America’s most important artists, painting the lives, stories and histories of Black Americans.

Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged! (Groundwood Books, 2010) by Jody Nyasha Warner and illustrated by Richard Rudnicki

For ages 6–9

It is Nova Scotia, 1946, a time when segregation was widely practised in schools, unions, sports teams and public spaces such as movie theatres. Viola Desmond, a young business owner and entrepreneur, finds herself in New Glasgow waiting for a few hours while her car is being fixed by a local mechanic. She decides to take in a movie. Having purchased a ticket, she takes a seat up front where she can see.

When an usher comes to tell her that she must remove herself to sit upstairs and to the back of the theatre, Viola makes a decision that will ignite a community and help to fuel the civil rights movement in Canada. Jody Nyasha Warner writes Viola Desmond’s story with a warmth that invites young readers in, while Richard Rudnicki’s illustrations portray Viola as a no-nonsense kind of woman, courageous and defiant.

This is a picture book that will provoke questions about racism, justice, courage and activism – a Canadian must-read!

Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014) by Jacqueline Woodson

For ages 10 and up

Award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson has written a memoir of her childhood and family in free verse. Each poem is a memory and together they paint a picture of what it was like for one little brown girl growing up in South Carolina and later in Brooklyn, New York in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is a book filled with the kinds of memories we all have of our families – their quirks, their strengths, their tragedies and triumphs. Through it all, Jacqueline searches for her place in the puzzle. And eventually, she finds it in words. She finds herself in a book at the library about a little brown boy named Stevie. For the first time, she realizes that a brown person like her can actually have a story. At school, she finds herself in Oscar Wilde’s story “The Selfish Giant,” which causes her to cry all afternoon. She finds herself in the stories and poems she dreams up and one day at school her teacher looks down at the poem she has just begun and says, “You’re a writer.”

Woodson has bravely offered up a very personal account of childhood. It is a memoir, but it is also a social history told from the perspective of a child. Racism, segregation and the civil rights movement – the revolution – are all intimately intertwined with who this little girl is and who she will become. As Woodson so aptly puts it,

… the revolution is like a merry-go-round, history always being made somewhere. And maybe for a short time, we’re part of that history. And then the ride stops and our turn is over.

Ildiko Sumegi is a Glebe resident, mother of two boys, and a reviewer for Canadian Children’s Book News magazine.



Non-fiction books to fall in love with…

by Caitlin Giffin

Turtle_IslandOne of my favourite trends in children’s literature is the growing variety of creative and interesting non-fiction titles. Just because a book is about history or science doesn’t mean it’s a snooze! Many of the best non-fiction titles being published today incorporate beautiful visuals and engaging and creative text to pull readers in and get them thinking. Here are a few of my favourite titles from our children’s collection that were published in the last year.

Brighten up your life with Pocket Full of Colors by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville! The authors tell the charming and inspiring story of 20th century Disney and children’s book illustrator Mary Blair, an artist who never surrendered her colourful style even when it meant she didn’t fit in. Uni the Unicorn illustrator Brigette Barrager does a beautiful job bringing this book to life with pretty, vibrant pictures. The big illustrations and minimal text make this a great choice for a family to read aloud, and a way to introduce budding artists to new colours like azure, magenta, taupe and teal.

Calling all young scientists! Acclaimed children’s author Molly Bangs (you may remember her from When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry) teams up with MIT professor Penny Chisolm to bring us Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth in the latest installment of the Sunlight Series. This story is told from the first-person point of view of the sun and details the workings of Earth’s water cycle in an interesting and accessible way. Bangs and Chisolm do a wonderful job bringing science to life with big, bold illustrations and poetic text.

Technically this next title was published in 2016, but it’s such a great book I couldn’t help but mention it. The Secret Subway is set in 19th century New York and tells the story of Alfred Ely Beach and his attempt to establish a pneumatic subway system in the city. After gaining permission to build two small underground mail tubes, Beach begins a secret mission to construct a fully functioning subway stop under Broadway! Red Nose Studio provides visual interest with stunning 3D animation. If you like the pictures as much as I do, head over to their website at and you can take a closer look at their puppets and other animation projects. The combination of a compelling and relatively unknown history and captivating 3D animation makes this book a winner.

Older history and technology buffs will enjoy From Here to There: The Story of How We Transport Ourselves and Everything Else. This is the second in Smithsonian’s Innovation and Impact series and it takes readers on a journey through the history of planes, trains and automobiles (not to mention boats, bicycles and hot air balloons). As a history fan myself, I was especially drawn to the photographs, blueprints, paintings and other archival material throughout the book. Author HP Newquist provides a handy list of the online archives he consulted, so you can go check out these resources yourself after you’ve read the book.

Turtle Island: The Story of North America’s First People is a wonderful resource for young people interested in pre-European contact Indigenous history. Co-author Eldon Yellowhorn is an archeology professor at Simon Fraser University and he incorporates his expertise throughout the book by explaining how archeologists and their work have shaped current knowledge of North American history. Turtle Island gives a thoughtful introduction to North American history from how First Peoples adapted to their various natural environments and developed rich cultures to how ideas and technology spread throughout the continent. The book engages readers by encouraging them to use their imagination and ask questions. It’s a good pick for school-age children and a great resource for projects.

You can find these titles and many other wonderful non-fiction books at your public library.

Caitlin Giffin is a librarian in the Children’s Services section of the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library.

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