February is Black History month, and it's never too soon to get prepared. There are many fabulous middle grade books, both fiction and nonfiction, that will help your family or classroom get in the groove.
One of my all-time favorite authors is Christopher Paul Curtis. His personal story reads like a novel. His bio states that he grew up in Flint, Michigan. After high school he began working on the assembly line at the Fisher Body Plant No. 1 while attending the Flint branch of the University of Michigan, where he began writing essays and fiction.
My favorite of his books is "The Watsons Go To Birmingham." It's about a family from Michigan who travel to visit their relatives in the South. Life in the South is very different from life in Michigan, as they find out. And while they are there, a church in Birmingham is bombed -- while the protagonists's sister is there. An interesting aside that I learned when talking to Curtis at a convention is that the book was originally going to be about the family visiting Orlando. When his older son came home one day with the poem, "Ballad of Birmingham" by Dudley Randall, he decided to change the destination and include the bombing as part of the story. It's a powerful book, filled with humor and typical family strife as well as illuminating the social problems of that time. Fourth, fifth and sixth graders love it. There's a bit of magic in it (the evil "Wool Pooh") and lots and lots of laughs but also some important historical events. Classroom teachers take note: Reading the poem after the book will REALLY provoke some emotion and thoughtful discussion from your students. There's also a reading guide for it.
Another of Curtis' books that is destined to be a classic is "Bud, not Buddy," about a young boy leaving an abusive foster care home during the Depression to try to find his father. He has a few clues given to him by his mother, and he has the book he has written called "Bud Caldwell's Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself." It's a story full of adventure and humor, along with emotion and history. It's a perfect fifth grade book for the whole class to read. Another story arose from "Bud, Not Buddy." That book is "The Mighty Miss Malone" and and it also takes place during the Great Depression but with a young girl protagonist.
"What Was the Underground Railroad?" is one of the "What Was..." series published by Grosset & Dunlap. Like the other books in the series, it's a well-written nonfiction book with many interesting facts and stories. There are photographs, maps and black and white illustrations, and they add value to the information contained in the book. There are also many nonfiction text features such as "Contents" and a timeline and bibliography at the back. The reading level and interest level cover a wide range. Advanced third graders will enjoy this book as will middle school students who need slightly easier reading material.
"Who Was Michelle Obama?" is another of the "Who Is..." books by Grosset & Dunlap. Many students know that Michelle Obama is the First Lady and wife of the President of the United States, but many may not know that she came from a family of modest means. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and her family lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a small house. The book shares information about her childhood, her education, and how she met and married Barack Obama. Interspersed between chapters are pages with information about other noteworthy First Ladies. While this book will probably appeal more to girls than boys, it's a great nonfiction book which will appeal to a wide range of students.
Another series that is not specifically for Black History Month but that features an African American protagonist (rare for middle grade books) is "EllRay Jakes." "EllRay Jakes and the Beanstalk" is the latest in the series which includes titles such as "EllRay Jakes the Dragon Slayer," "EllRay Jakes is Not a Chicken," and "EllRay Jakes is Magic" by Sally Warner. The series is for grades 1 - 3, so it's really an early chapter book but it also would appeal to middle grade readers who perhaps need a slightly easy read. The books in the series have received awards and nominations including Junior Library Guild selection, Scholastic Book Club selection, Texas Bluebonnet Award 2012-13, 2013 California Collections selection, BPL's 2012 Summer Reading List,
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