Biographies: Black Men in Picture books

img_4019Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks and Colin Bootman (Lee and Low; 2016)
Tiny Stitches is as much a history of modern medicine as it is a children’s biography of Vivien Thomas. The book revisits a time when someone could become a respected practitioner of medicine based upon their skills and abilities rather than their education. Vivien Thomas was a self taught African American surgeon who developed open heart surgery for children in 1969 but was not recognized for this work because of the color of his skin until 1971. Hooks’ writing captures the grace and poise with which Thomas must have conducted his life.
“Vivian remained standing behind Dr. Blalock, coaching him through more than one hundred and fifty operations.”


Jimi Sounds Like A Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio and Javaka img_4018Steptoe; Clarion Books 2010
Gary Golio creates a collage with textual snippets of Jimi Hendrix’ life in a cohesive fashion much the same way that Javaka Steptoe pastes together images in the book. Hendrix heard color and innovated sound. He seemed to have such a passion for art that it underscored his belief in himself.
“Don’t let nobody turn you off from your own thoughts and dreams.”


Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary Schmidt and David img_4016-1Diaz; Clarion Books, 2012
David Diaz’s jewel toned artwork give a richness to this story of Martin de Porres, a young man who was an outcast in Peru because of his parentage, poverty and mixed raced heritage. This is a story of Martin recognizing and nurturing his spiritual gifts and how he humbly shared them with others. This literally led to society accepting him. This is a story for readers who believe in the goodness in us all.
“After thirteen years, every soul in Lima knew who Martin was: Not a mongrel. Not the son of a slave. ‘He is a rose in the desert,’ they said.’’

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell img_4014Bowman and Daniel Minter; Lee & Low Books, 2016
William “Doc” Key is one of the few black men in these biographies I hadn’t heard of before. His story reminds us that what we leave behind isn’t about how famous we become, but about the model we set for others.
‘“Doc” was born into slavery but was owned by people who taught him how to read. “Doc” eventually taught his horse, Jim Key, how to read. Together, they traveled the country entertaining people and often delivering messages about equality. The author provides a wealth of material to document this story.
“‘The whip makes horses stubborn and they obey through fear,’ Doc explained. ‘Kindness, kindness, and more kindness, that’s the way.’

Henry Aaron’s Dream by Matt Tavares; Candlewick Press 2010
It can be easy to read about Jackie Robinson, hear about the records he set after breaking img_4013the color barrier in professional baseball and think segregation, particularly in baseball ended. But, it hadn’t. The Negro League continued, athletes of color were still called out of their name (as were people of color in general) and facilities particularly in southern towns remained segregated. Young black boys living in this oppressive society watched Robinson closely, particularly a young boy name Henry Aaron who dreamt of being a professional baseball player like Robinson. Biographies often remind us of the importance of having a good support network, but they seldom remind readers of the importance of having a hero. Sometimes, we need to see people who look like us who are successfully doing the thing we most want to do. Henry Aaron, who became one of the greatest baseball players of all time, dreamt about being like his hero, Jackie Robinson.
“On April 15, 1947 when Henry was thirteen,
Jackie Robinson played his first game
for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Finally, there was a black ballplayer
in the big leagues.
Henry’s whole life changed.”

3 thoughts on “Biographies: Black Men in Picture books

  1. Hi Edi,

    Hope this finds you well. Our cherry trees are blooming.

    I love the story of Dr. William Key. The original research (not sure the author of the picture book cited or credited her….ergh….) was done by Mim Eichler Rivas who wrote the book Beautiful Jim Key. It is honestly one of my favorite books, a top ten.

    She is a white Jewish woman who has written and ghost written a lot of books such as Chris Gardener’s, Antwoine Fisher, and other’s biographies.

    In any case, I do highly recommend Beautiful Jim Key.

    I believe it is going to be made into a film.



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