Linking Picture Books and Poetry: A Celebration of Black History Month

Book Links January 2007 (vol. 16, no. 3)

by Sylvia M. Vardell

Preschool through elementary school

The picture books gathered here showcase epic milestones of African American history, including Harriet Tubman’s brave legacy, the courageous protest by Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s history-making speech. They offer personal stories of fighting for civil rights or sharing neighborhood pride. They capture the vital role of music in the African American community and the importance of literacy, schooling, and libraries to equality and opportunity. And in each case, each picture book below is paired with a well-known poem, connected by related themes or topics, incorporating many of the best-loved poems by African American poets.

Combining Picture Books and Poetry

Why combine picture books and poetry? There are several reasons. First, after reading aloud a picture book there is often a natural lull. Sometimes children jump in with responses or questions, or sometimes there’s a call to “read it again.” Following up the reading with a carefully chosen poem is one way to extend the story experience. Pairing a poem with a picture book can deepen children’s understanding of the story’s theme or extend their knowledge of the topic. Conversely, the story can provide context for the poem. It can even lead to a “compare and contrast” discussion, as children ponder what they glean from each text. Practically speaking, it doesn’t take long to read a poem, but the impact can be very strong. Often, children will “pocket” a rousing refrain or rhythmic phrase from the poem to enjoy on their own. That’s the beauty of poetry—it appeals to both the ear and the heart. When combined with a beautifully illustrated and powerfully written picture book, the eye and mind are engaged, too.

Selecting and Sharing Poems

How does one select a poem to follow up a story? It helps to read widely from the many wonderful poetry books that are published each year. Then, as new picture books are encountered, a ­parallel poem may well come to mind. Educators could invite children to join in this exercise, poring over poetry anthologies and looking for poems that remind them of favorite books they have read.

Take the plunge. Read a book and then share a connected poem. Or open with a poem to set the stage for a story. Use the poetry connection to share picture books with older readers who may enjoy this new spin. Share the poem out loud—like the story—and invite your listeners to participate in multiple choral readings. You will be joining in an ancient tradition of oral literature steeped in African roots of singing, chanting, testifying, and storytelling.


Battle-Lavert, Gwendolyn.
Papa’s Mark. Illus. by Colin Bootman. 2003. 32p. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823416509).

Gr. 1–4. In this story set after the Civil War, an African American boy helps his father learn to read and write his name in order to be able to vote for the first time. Although there are still hurdles and prejudices to overcome, Papa gains the confidence to lead his people to the polls.

Related Poem:
“I Love the Look of Words” by Maya Angelou. From
Soul Looks Back in Wonder, selected by Tom Feelings. 1993. 32p. Dial, $17.99 (9780803710016); Puffin, paper, $7.99 (9780140565010).

Papa’s Mark with Angelou’s poem, which compares learning to read with popcorn popping, noting that “ideas from the words stay stuck / in my mind.” The sights, sounds, taste, and smell of popcorn parallel the “leaping” and “snapping” of words, ideas, and thoughts, a comparison that begs for discussion—and eating popcorn!

Bryan, Ashley.
Beautiful Blackbird. 2003. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16.95 (978068984738).

Preschool–Gr. 4. This Coretta Scott King Award–winning Zambian folktale features exuberant paper-cut images of birds of all colors—except black. The lone black bird is envied by all and agrees to share some of his blackness with each bird to make each more beautiful. This powerful message comes across in story language that begs to be read aloud.

Related Poem:
“Listen Children” by Lucille Clifton. From
My Black Me: A Beginning Book of Black Poetry, edited by Arnold Adoff. 1974; reissued 1995. 96p. Puffin, paper, $6.99 (9780140374438).

Follow up
Beautiful Blackbird with Clifton’s classic poem, in which she proclaims that “we have never hated black” and invites children to love themselves and “pass it on.”

Collier, Bryan.
Uptown. 2000. 32p. Holt, $17.95 (9780805057218); paper, $6.95 (9780805073997).

Gr. 1–5. Collier’s distinctive collages invite the reader to take a tour of Harlem, noting both the personal and historic markers that make it a special place. The text for each scene in this Coretta Scott King Award book begins with “Uptown is . . .,” with details reflecting one child’s point of view.

Related Poem:
“One Mighty Voice.” From
Perfect Harmony: A Musical Journey with the Boys Choir of Harlem by Charles R. Smith Jr. 2002. 32p. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, $15.99 (9780786807581).

Uptown with Smith’s “One Mighty Voice.” Here “It all begins / with the power / of one,” but as combined voices (and talents and experiences), the voices of Harlem “roar!”

Giovanni, Nikki.
Rosa. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2005. 40p. Holt, $16.95 (9780805071061).

Gr. 2–6. Herself a poet, Giovanni has created a moving narrative tribute to Rosa Parks, as an individual and as a force for change in America. Collier’s watercolor-and-collage illustrations depict Parks as an inspiring force that radiates golden light.

Related Poem:
“Incident” by Countee Cullen. From
I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry, selected by Catherine Clinton. Illus. by Stephen Alcorn. 1998. 128p. Houghton, $22 (9780395895993).

Connect Caldecott Honor Book
Rosa with this classic poem, a vivid picture of racism that begins, “Once riding in old Baltimore.” Here, sadly, an eight-year-old child experiences bigotry firsthand.

Howard, Elizabeth Fitzgerald.
Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys. Illus. by E. B. Lewis. 2000. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $16.95 (9780689800764); Aladdin, paper, $6.99 (9780689877933).

Gr. 1–3. In the U.S. after the Civil War, it was still a challenge for African Americans to receive an education. In this story, the children in one family journey to a faraway Quaker school on foot and stay for the week in order to have that opportunity. The youngest family member, Virgie, wants to go, too.

Related Poem:
“I Can” by Mari ­Evans. From
Pass It On: African American Poetry for Children, ­selected by Wade Hudson. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 1993. 32p. Scholastic, $15.95 (9780590457705).

Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys to this assertive poem, which begins, “I can / be anything / I can / do anything,” perfectly capturing the spunky determination of characters like Virgie.

King, Martin Luther, Jr.
I Have a Dream. Illus. by Kathleen A. Wilson and others. 1997. 40p. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780590205160).

Gr. 1–6. This oversize picture book contains the full text of Dr. King’s historic speech delivered in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. His moving words are accompanied by illustrations created by 15 Coretta Scott King Award and Honor artists.

Related Poem:
“Martin’s Letter.” From
Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People by Carole Boston Weatherford. 2002. 56p. Philomel, $17.99 (9780399237263).

A perfect complement to Dr. King’s important oration, this very personal poem imagines that the great leader might have been motivated by his daughter’s tears at encountering “Colored Only” signs and other frequent examples of injustice.

Lester, Julius.
Let’s Talk about Race. Illus. by Karen Barbour. 2005. 32p. HarperCollins, $15.99 (9780060285968).

K–Gr. 4. Lester describes race in terms young children will understand, looking at similarities and differences between groups and individuals as part of our “stories.” Taking a rather unorthodox approach, he invites readers to imagine themselves and others without skin, reinforcing the idea that people are fundamentally all the same.

Related Poem:
“In Both Families” by Arnold Adoff. From
Families: Poems Celebrating the African American Experience, selected by Dorothy S. Strickland and Michael R. Strickland. Illus. by John Ward. 1994. 32p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $16.95 (9781563972881); paper, $9.95 (9781563975608).

Let’s Talk about Race with Adoff’s free-verse poem. Here he considers the variations of color found in the two sides of one person’s family and concludes, “Here is every shade of every color / skin. / We fit in.”

McKissack, Patricia C.
Goin’ Someplace Special. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. 2001. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Anne Schwartz, $16 (9780689818851).

K–Gr. 5. Experiencing the segregation of the 1950s in Nashville, a young African American girl finds the library is a welcome haven, one of the few integrated places in the community.

Related Poem:
“At the Library.” From
It’s Raining Laughter by Nikki Grimes. Photos by Myles C. Pinkney. 2004. 32p. Boyds Mills, paper, $10.95 (9781590780770).

Extend the Coretta Scott King Award–winning
Goin’ Someplace Special by sharing Grimes’ poem, which depicts another “brownskin girl” who finds adventure and escape in the pages of library books.

Ryan, Pam Muñoz.
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson. Illus. by Brian Selznick. 2002. 40p. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780439269674). Also available in an audio edition from Live Oak Media.

Gr. 1–6. In this beautifully ­illustrated Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, readers learn about Marian Anderson, who loved to sing from childhood and gained recognition for her amazing voice everywhere except in her home country. Then came her historic concert at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

Related Poem:
“Gertrude.” From
Bronzeville Boys and Girls by Gwendolyn Brooks. Illus. by Faith Ringgold. 1956; reissued 2007. 48p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (9780060295059).

Team up
When Marian Sang with “Gertrude,” published in 1956, shortly after Anderson joined the Metropolitan Opera Company. In the poem, a girl describes the incredible experience of hearing Marian Anderson sing, of becoming a “stuffless” thing: “Fingers tingle. I am cold / And warm and young and very old.”

Schroeder, Alan.
Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. 1996. 40p. Dial, $16.99 (9780803718883); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (9780140561968).

Gr. 1–5. This Coretta Scott King Award book is a dramatic telling of an episode in Harriet Tubman’s childhood. The injustices of slavery are clearly depicted, and the roots of Minty’s determination to be free are clear.

Related Poem:
“Harriet Tubman.” From
Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems by Eloise Greenfield. Illus. by Diane and Leo Dillon. 1978. 48p. HarperCollins, $14.99 (9780690013344); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (9780064430975).

Minty with Greenfield’s rousing poem, which proclaims, “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff / Wasn’t scared of nothing neither,” and goes on to celebrate her 19 trips on the Underground Railroad.

Weatherford, Carole Boston.
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins. Illus. by Jerome LaGarrigue. 2004. 32p. Dial, $16.99 (9780803728608).

Gr. 2–6. A young African American girl shares her perspective on the efforts of her family and her community to protest segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. When the dime-store sit-ins are eventually successful, the little girl enjoys a banana split at her favorite downtown lunch counter—­previously forbidden.

Related Poem:
“I, Too.” From
The Dream Keeper and Other Poems by Langston Hughes. Illus. by Brian Pinkney. 1994. 96p. Knopf, paper, $8.99 (9780679883470).

Hughes captures the struggle against segregation with his classic poem, which promises, “Tomorrow, / I’ll sit at the table,” and reminds readers how long some have waited to be acknowledged as “I, too, am America.”

Woodson, Jacqueline.
Show Way. Illus. by Hudson Talbott. 2005. 48p. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399237492).

K–Gr. 5. Woodson offers a lyrical story about several generations of African American women who patchwork stories and quilts that show the way for those who follow.

Related Poem:
“Women” by Alice Walker. From
Words with Wings: A Treasury of African American Poetry and Art, selected by Belinda Rochelle. 2001. 48p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (9780688164157).

Show Way with Walker’s beautiful poem, which celebrates the legacy of “my mama’s generation” and wonders “How they knew what we / must know / Without knowing a page / Of it / Themselves.”

Sylvia M. Vardell is a professor of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University. She is the author of
Poetry Aloud Here! Sharing Poetry with Children in the Library (ALA Editions, 2006).