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Books That Outlive Black History Month

January 29, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Kevin Baxter reviews books for children and young adults every four weeks. Next week: book reviews by Times readers

February is Black History Month, when we're encouraged to reflect upon and honor the contributions of African Americans to our country's history. But why confine these reflections to a single month--and the shortest month of the year at that? Why not honor the legacy of African Americans all year long?

Several recent children's books suggest that the inspiring stories of many African Americans are so universal, they resonate for all times and all cultures. Among the best are two in Enslow Publishers' series of African American biographies: "Jesse Owens: Track and Field Legend," by Judith Pinkerton Josephson, and "Jackie Robinson: Baseball's Civil Rights Legend," by Karen Mueller Coombs (both 128 pages, both $18.95).

The books, which are aimed at middle-grade students, cover well-worn territory in recounting the personal triumphs of Owens and Robinson on and off the field. But these are heroic stories that demand to be shared with each new generation. Both books are well written, and each includes a chronology, a detailed index and a bibliography pointing readers to other materials on the man profiled.

"Princess of the Press: The Story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett" (Lodestar Books, 58 pages, $14.99) is an updated version of another well-known story, and author Angela Shelf Medearis packs a wealth of information into her tiny book. Wells-Barnett overcame both racism and sexism to become a crusading journalist and publisher. In retelling the story, Medearis avoids the temptation to preach, allowing the injustices that Wells-Barnett encountered to speak for themselves.

The book, part of Lodestar's Rainbow Biographies series (which includes Medearis' profiles of Coretta Scott King and Louis Armstrong), concludes with a two-page chronology, a short bibliography and a thorough index.

"African Americans Who Were First," by Joan Potter and Constance Claytor (Cobblehill Books, 16 pages, $15.99), takes a more distinctive approach, mixing (painfully) condensed one-page biographies of such famous figures as Wilt Chamberlain, Oprah Winfrey and Thurgood Marshall with brief stories about lesser-known trailblazers such as Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut; Toni Morrison, the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for literature; and William Grant Still, who in 1935 took the baton before the Los Angeles Philharmonic, becoming the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra.

What the book lacks in depth--it's awfully hard to say anything meaningful in five paragraphs--it makes up for in breadth, highlighting the vital contributions of many unsung African Americans in fields as varied as medicine, aviation, politics and the arts.

Julius Lester and Rod Brown take a different tack in "From Slave Ship to Freedom Road" (Dial Books, 39 pages, $17.99), a book that has the power to both challenge and frighten its readers. The book combines 20 powerful, provocative paintings by Brown with the impassioned reflections of Lester, an award-winning writer.

The opening spread features a slave ship making the middle passage from Africa to the New World; the final pages show a group of former slaves exulting in their freedom. In between are richly detailed renderings of lynchings, whippings and other degradations that may be too graphic for young children to handle. But the lessons they tell are too important for older children to ignore.

Among the best-known fights against slavery was waged by the crew of the slave ship Amistad; that story is retold in the current movie by Steven Spielberg. A more detailed account of the slaves' rebellion and their ultimate triumph before the U.S. Supreme Court can be found in "Amistad: A Long Road to Freedom" (Dutton Children's Books, 96 pages, $16.99).

Using historic photos and newspaper accounts as his sources, author Walter Dean Myers brings the 160-year-old story of Sengbe Pieh (also known as Joseph Cinque) and his mates to life with gripping prose. Perhaps too complex for the youngest readers, "Amistad" is a compelling read for middle-grade students.

Heroes, of course, come in all colors, ages, sizes and genders, which is among the intended lessons of Black History Month. February also brings with it the Winter Olympics, which is sure to inspire countless stories on teenage figure skaters Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan. For those kids who want to be first on their blocks with the inside scoop on America's two ice maidens, there's Wendy Daly's "Tara and Michelle: The Road to Gold" (Random House, 114 pages, $3.99).

Behind the scenes, women's figure skating can be among the most ruthless and political of sports, but you won't find any insight on that in Daly's prose. Written in the breathless, exclamation-point-driven style of a fanzine, "Tara and Michelle" doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is: a fawning piece on two superbly talented young women. But then everyone loves a winner, and should one of the girls strike gold in Japan next month, this just might be the kind of story you'll be reading everywhere.

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