Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. 2012. Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. New York: Disney, Jump at the Sun Books. 231 pp. (excluding appended materials)

Genres: Biographical anthology, historic narrative, informational writing 

Ages: Intermediate and middle school

Features: Poetic introductions to each person profiled; striking watercolor portraits (and additional illustrations) by artist Brian Pinkney; exceptionally thorough Index; Source List for further research; Time Line (1731-2009) detailing milestones in black history and the Civil Rights Movement; and a moving and revealing Preface by the author.   


With his recent post on Steve Sheinkin’s book Bomb, Jeff made this important point: Everything is made up, ultimately, of stories. Certainly this is true of history—and Andrea Pinkney’s masterful Hand in Hand shows just how explosively powerful writing can be when fact and story combine.

Hand in Hand recounts the individual biographies of ten men whose vision and courage changed American history—and the lives of all of us who live here—forever. What makes the book particularly exceptional are the connections from story to story, person to person, that give the book its dramatic momentum. As Pinkney puts it in her Preface (p. 3), “. . . when woven together like a chain, the individual accomplishments of these men link up to tell one story—a story of triumph.”

The ten include Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack H. Obama II. This means that Pinkney’s historic timeline stretches from the early 1700s through the present day—quite a span. Admittedly, the author had a difficult time choosing which men to profile, and an equally challenging time keeping the number to ten. As she explains in the Preface, her collection “could have contained hundreds of stories!” (p. 3) In preliminary discussions with members of a literacy group at the University of Illinois, however, Pinkney noticed that some names kept coming up repeatedly as inspirational, as symbols of racial pride. In listening to the wisdom of others, Pinkney gradually managed to narrow her list. She wanted to keep that list small so that she could “delve into the early lives, influences, and motivations” of each historic figure. There’s an important lesson here for students: Shrink the breadth of the topic and you can go deeper.

Hand in Hand is beautifully organized. The individual biographies are short, averaging about twenty pages, and presented in the order in which the ten men were born. Each opens with a stirring poem, capturing the essence of who a particular figure was and how he influenced others. The author begins with each man’s early years, revealing intriguing information many readers won’t have known previously—e.g., who knew that Thurgood Marshall, our nation’s first African American Supreme Court justice, was originally named “Thoroughgood,” that he was a legendary class cut-up, constantly pulling pranks and making people laugh, or that he was the great grandson of a slave so rebellious he was finally freed because he could not be sold to fearful slave owners.

The book is beautifully illustrated, too. Full-page watercolor portraits by Brian Pinkney are startlingly vibrant, reflecting not just the physical features, but the underlying personality of each figure.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book provides an extraordinary beginning point for a study of the Civil Rights Movement and the living forces that drove it. But Hand in Hand offers so much more than that. From her impressive body of research, Pinkney has gleaned for us what is most interesting, most important, or least well known about ten men who made a difference. The resulting book is an homage to people whose lives mattered—and to the very courage required to live such a life. It’s destined to be a classic, and will prove an invaluable resource to anyone who teaches informational writing, history, Civil Rights, or research.   

In the Classroom

1. Previewing the book for yourself. As you preview the book, think about how you want to share it. You might read selected chapters aloud, or choose passages from every chapter, piquing students’ interest to read more on their own. If you plan to ask students to do additional research on some figures, read-alouds can make an excellent springboard for that. Notice that the poems contain a great deal of important information—and tend to be highly personal. Think about how you want to present them. You may wish to read a chapter first, then share the accompanying poem aloud when students can more readily appreciate its full impact. As an alternative, consider sharing hard copies of poems for students to read, reflect upon, discuss with partners, or read aloud to the class.

2. Background. Some figures profiled in Hand in Hand are probably well known to virtually all your students. Others may not be, however. You might begin by sharing the list within the Table of Contents to see which names and achievements are familiar, and to get a sense of how much of their history students know already. Consider posting a list or chart of the ten figures with room for adding details under each one as students discover something new or surprising.

3. The art of detail. The Common Core places great emphasis on the inclusion of detail, whether it’s descriptive detail in a narrative, authentic information in a researched piece (such as this one), or evidence to support an argument. Great details are vivid and noteworthy, interesting—and often surprising. Particularly in informational writing, carefully chosen details teach readers something new.  As you share chapters or passages from Davis Pinkney’s book, ask students, What did you find most interesting? Did anything surprise you? What did you learn that you had never gained from previous reading, discussions, television, or films? Their answers, which you may wish to record in some way (See #2 above), form a great basis for discussing how an author decides which details to share.

 4. Digging deeper. Detail takes many forms: visual description, facts, explanations, observations, quotations, and so on. So it’s helpful to share multiple examples with students, and talk about the various ways details work in writing. Consider the following two passages from the book. What kind of detail do you find in each? (Tip: After discussing these two, ask your students to look for other examples of details used well—drawing from this book or any piece of writing—and talk about the many forms details can take.)

From the chapter titled Thurgood Marshall

In 1951, Thurgood [Marshall] took on a case known as Oliver Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka. The case began when Topeka, Kansas resident Oliver Brown, the daddy of eight-year-old Linda Brown, tried to enroll his daughter at Sumner Elementary, a white school close to their home. (p. 121) Question: What kind of detail is this?

From the chapter titled Barack H. Obama II

Young Barrack had heard so many stories about this larger-than-life man, but just by looking, Barack could see that he was no Superman. His skinny neck poked out from his shirt collar like a protruding pencil. He wore thick glasses. His complexion was black as the skin on a raisin. (p. 208) Question: What kind of detail is this?

5. Common themes. The lives of the ten men portrayed in this book are connected in many ways. One recurring theme is education. What did education mean to various men in this book—and what sacrifices did they have to make to pursue it? Do we tend to value education today as much as these ten men clearly did? Expository Writing: What does it mean to be a literate person in 21st Century America? Have students write about this from a personal perspective—or take the writing a step further and invite them to interview people who have pursued education in various ways (e.g., through formal education, reading, experience, travel). Is education all about what we learn in school, or do we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves? Other themes: As you continue your reading, ask students to identify other commonalities, other threads that link the lives of these ten men. As you discuss this, be SURE to share the opening poem (p. 1) that introduces the book.

6. Organization. One aspect of organization is limiting the focus of your topic—even when you have a whole book to fill. Another, of course, is deciding in what order to present information to your readers. Ask students to imagine themselves as the author of this or a similar book. With so many stories to tell about civil rights and the achievements of black Americans, how would they decide which stories to include—and in what order to present them? In other words, how does a writer turn a mountain of research into something manageable enough to squeeze between two covers? Once you’ve had a chance to discuss this, share Andrea Davis Pinkney’s own perspective on organizing information (middle of page 3 through middle of page 4) from the Preface. What lessons does Pinkney have to teach us about organizing information efficiently?

7. Voice. How would your students characterize the voice of this book? Is it lively? Pedantic? Authoritative? Curious? Formal or informal? Conversational? Inviting? Serious or humorous? Expository writing: Ask students to write about the nature of voice in Hand in Hand, quoting three or more passages from the book to support their position.

8. Genre. How would your students characterize this book? Is this narrative—or informational writing? Or does it bridge both worlds? Can students cite other writing examples that span more than one genre? Ask them to imagine how it would be to read Pinkney’s book if each chapter contained a list of facts about the person being profiled—and nothing more. No stories, no anecdotes, no descriptive passages. How might this change a reader’s response? Are stories important to our ability to assimilate and recall information? Why?

9. Character—and choices. As the Common Core Standards for Narrative writing remind us, character is defined through choices. On page 66, for example, we learn that W.E.B. DuBois made a choice at an early age to be a reader, spending full days at a local bookstore (while his friends followed other pursuits) and reading books cover to cover—some of which the store’s owner allowed him to take home: “Those history volumes were like a good friend to W.E.B. He read them in the morning. He read them when the afternoon sun stretched its pointy fingers through the branches of Great Barrington’s pine trees . . . He even read them long after his mother told him to snuff his late-night lantern and go to sleep.” How much do we learn about the character of W.E.B. DuBois just from these few lines? Literary Writing: Ask students to choose one character from the book and identify one or more choices that help define who that person is. Ask them to quote from the book in making their case.

10. Literacy—and The “Preamble.” In the Preface, Andrea Davis Pinkney tells us her book was inspired by a group calling themselves “Brother Authors,” whose purpose was to foster literacy among African American boys ages 13 to 18 (page 2). Read aloud the Preamble that the Brother Authors shared with Pinkney when she first visited them at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago). What would drive people to make such a pledge? How would your students characterize the group’s purpose or mission—and how did they hope to achieve it through writing? Expository Writing: After discussing this, ask students to write a short expository/reflective piece about their own writing. What do they hope to achieve through their own words and their own voice? What impact do they want to have on readers, now or in the future?

11. “Important truths” vs. stereotypes. Read and discuss the thirteen “important truths that affirm the power of black manhood” (pp. 4-5, Preface). How is each of these manifested in the book? Clearly, the lives of the people Andrea Davis Pinkney portrays in Hand in Hand have been a living, breathing argument against stereotypical thinking. But how often must stereotypes be shattered before we let go of them completely? Are stereotypes (of any kind—whether relating to race, ethnicity, age, religion, or other factors) still affecting our thinking and behavior? What damage do stereotypes do? How do they originate, and how do we combat them? Argument Writing: After discussing the nature and impact of stereotypical thinking, ask students to write argument paragraphs in response to one of the following questions (or any question the student poses for him-/herself):

  • Which is ultimately stronger—a stereotype or the truth?
  • If a person is taught as a child to think in stereotypes, can he/she still overcome this?
  • Can one individual effectively combat stereotypical thinking on a personal or social level?
  • Is the power of stereotypical thinking declining in America—or in any culture?
  • Is stereotypical thinking more damaging to those victimized by it—or to those who practice it?

12. Argument: Room for one more? As noted earlier, Andrea Pinkney discusses (in the Preface) the challenge she faced in narrowing her topic to include just ten biographies. With many names to choose from, it could not have been easy to limit her selection. Was anyone omitted from the book that your students feel strongly should have been included? Argument Writing: Ask them to write a brief argument, making a case for including anyone they feel should definitely not have been left out. Note: Remember the Common Core emphasis on evidence. Opinions are important—but they’re not enough. Students must support their choices with reasons and evidence reflecting a candidate’s character, achievements, or influence.

13. Pushing the boundaries with informational research. What if Andrea Pinkney were to write another book, this time focusing on women who have changed American history. Which African American women would your students wish to see included in such a book? Can you list five—or even ten? You might begin by brainstorming, then do some research to identify names that might not occur to your students initially (e.g., Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Waris Dirie, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Bessie Coleman, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Wilma Rudolph, Barbara Jordan, Virginia Hamilton, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni—to name a few). Informational Writing: Have students choose one person to research in depth; then create your own book about African American women (or women of any culture) who have changed America. Don’t feel limited to ten! Tip: This research provides a good opportunity to create one or more wikis, multi-person, online research papers to which several students contribute as they do ongoing research. Wikis can be shared throughout a school or larger community.

14. Design. Talk about the book’s overall design. You might use a document projector to share specific features, such as chapter titles, title pages, Brian Pinkney’s watercolor portraits (as well as other illustrations), and the layout for the book’s recurring poetry. How would you describe the style of the paintings? Are such illustrations a good choice versus, say, photographs? Why? How would photos have influenced the overall tone or feel of the book? Do paintings have a kind of voice—just as writing itself has voice? Ask students to comment on other features they notice, even little things such as the type and size of the fonts chosen, or the use of color. How do these small but important editorial choices affect readers? What about the inclusion of such features as a Source List, Index, or Time Line for major events in black history? How are such features of help to readers? Do your students typically refer to such features in a book they read? Why or why not?

15. A philosophical question. This is a book about people who dramatically changed the course of our nation’s history. What does it take to change history? Is it something within a person—or does opportunity play a role? Talk and/or write about this.

16. A different kind of beginning. As we learn from the Common Core Standards, a good beginning in informational writing sets up the discussion that follows. Does the Preface serve that introductory purpose in this book? Have your students ever considered including a Preface or formal Introduction (Foreword) in any of their own writing? When are such features most appropriate?

17. Language. How would your students describe the language in Hand in Hand? Consider this passage from the chapter on Jackie Robinson:

Every time they called him a degrading name, he grew more determined. When the curse words flew, he smacked the pitcher’s ball with his baseball bat harder than hard—knocked the jelly out of that doughnut—and rounded the bases to home, where he quietly took in the victory of another run. Jackie ate words of prejudice like they were mounds of spinach. The insults were bitter, but they made him stronger! (p. 135)

Is this language more formal—or informal? Which words or expressions lean more toward the informal? Tip: Try revising this passage so that the language is very formal throughout. Then read both versions aloud. Is anything lost in the revision? If so, what? Is there value to conversational language even in informational writing? How many of your students prefer it?

18. Tracing connections through personal narrative. Rachel Robinson, widow of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, was interviewed recently on the television show Sunday Morning (CBS, April 7, 2013). When asked whether we could trace a connection, a thread, from Jackie Robinson to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Barack Obama, she said, “We can’t say that what Jack did put Obama in office, no. But these things are connected. These lives are connected.” Discuss this with your students. How are the lives of people like Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama “connected”? How does each person’s contribution to the world build on the contributions of those who have gone before? Narrative Writing: Ask students to write personal narratives that trace the thread of their own lives, connecting who they are now to the people who have influenced them and shaped their character or beliefs. Those people might include family members, friends, teachers, or famous figures. Tip: Like Andrea Davis Pinkney, dig deep! Encourage students to look back in time—as far as possible. An important lesson this book teaches is that the lives and words of previous generations continue to inspire us.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff will be reviewing a fascinating picture book, The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman. This is a most unusual book, one Jeff is previewing with students this week. You won’t want to miss his write-up and classroom suggestions. Thanks for visiting. Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.