February is Black History Month, so most U.S. students have probably covered many of the great black contributors to American life and culture by way of biographies and book reports—and perhaps classic films and television.
For a slightly different, less formal biographical perspective, I would like to suggest two books, both recommended for ages 12 and older. These books will entertain while encouraging thoughtful examination of current issues pertinent to the meaning of who were are as Americans—and human beings—regardless of race.
“Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans” by Don Brown is an award-winning non-fiction graphic novel published on the 10th anniversary of the infamous natural disaster. It covers the events before, during and after the storm, using dark and awesome sketches and eyewitness, quote-filled word bubbles to communicate the relentless, overwhelming horror of Katrina with a sense of you-are-there immediacy.
This well-researched, very accessible book is important because it creates an empathetic understanding of a tragedy and it documents how poor communities of color were marginalized and neglected by the governmental entities charged with their aid.
“All American Boys” co-written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (each a well-known young adult novelist in his own right), is a fictional but exceedingly real and intimate account of a black teenager’s encounter—and its aftermath—with a white police officer.
It’s Friday. Party night. Rashad, a black teenager, exchanges his ROTC uniform for his everyday one—jeans, T-shirt, hoodie—and heads to the mini-mart for a snack. But his slapstick convergence with a bag of chips, a white lady, a beer and his duffel bag quickly becomes anything but funny when a neighborhood cop sees assault, attempted robbery and shoplifting instead of accidental comedy. Rashad is dragged outside and beaten unconscious. A white classmate, Quinn, witnesses the brutal beating and realizes the officer is his best friend’s brother who is like a big brother and mentor to Quinn, too.
As Rashad recovers in the hospital and struggles with his injuries and the shock of what was done to him, Quinn tries to rationalize what he saw while his high school and the surrounding community become increasingly polarized and angry.
Reynolds, who is black, and Kiely, who is white, write the story in alternating chapters. They skillfully capture the nuances of high school culture as well as the wrenching doubt, anger and confusion experienced by young people forced by circumstance to grapple with issues of character and conscience that can even confound adults.
Listen to an interview with the authors on npr.org.