Tag Archive: black history

Strange Fruit, a review by Vicki Spandel

strange-fruit-by-gary-golioStrange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio. 2017. Illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press.

Genre: Biographic picture book, social commentary, history

Levels: Grade 8 and up

Features: Passionate artwork that beautifully complements the subject; helpful background information on the Café Society, the origin of “Strange Fruit,” and the brutal practice of lynching; fascinating short bio of jazz icon Billie Holiday; excellent source list.



A song about lynching? The very concept is nearly as shocking today, even in our violence-inured society, as it must have been when Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The story of how that performance came about makes for a bold, brave book that handles a difficult subject with extraordinary grace, neither flinching nor dramatizing, but simply allowing history to speak for itself. And oh my, does it ever.

Throughout the book, author Gary Golio maintains a strong, direct voice that propels us through the text. He lets us know, on every page, that Billie Holiday was no ordinary woman. Without doubt, she was a singer of rare talent, but that was only the beginning. A fire burned in Billie, making her a force for justice: “Billie wasn’t going to scrub floors like her mother. She had a plan to be somebody.”

As her story reveals, Billie’s life was a gauntlet of misfortunes and challenges. She faced desertion by her father, a traumatic assault, even time spent in jail at the impossibly young age of 14. Perhaps life’s experiences helped her gain the courage and grit needed to succeed in an entertainment world still dominated by white performers. Gifted and determined, Billie grew to be one of the greatest singers of all time, revered by musicians of every background. And she retains that status today.

Billie Holiday’s soulful voice and interpretive genius made her the perfect choice to perform “Strange Fruit.” And Golio makes it clear that Billie was singled out for this role. The song was written by a Jewish high school teacher and song writer, Abel Meeropol, who personally performed it for Holiday. While the song may have been a gift to Billie, it was a gift that came with strings. She sang it for audiences who understandably cringed at its unapologetic lyrics. Most fell silent. Some walked out. That first performance took a raw courage few singers could have summoned. Yet through sheer will and talent, Billie drove this unlikely song to fame. It was a triumph for her, and for the black community.

Golio’s book is tight and concise—like a spring-loaded poem. Every word carries weight. I read it several times (It’s not the kind of book you can read once), and each time the emotional impact was profound. The events triggering the writing of this song are stark, provocative, and immeasurably sad. But the book’s overall message is one of inspiration. Who would think one song, or one singer, could make such a difference in the American landscape? Yet the reverberations are felt to this day.

In the end, Strange Fruit is not only a rich biographical slice of Billie Holiday’s life, but also an homage to courage. The courage of entrepreneur Barney Josephson, who created a space for black entertainers to perform—and people of all ethnicities to hear them. The courage of Abel Meeropol who wrote a song to wake complacent Americans up. And above all, the courage of a legendary singer who risked everything—her career, her freedom, her very life—to make people face the truth. Golio’s beautiful and haunting book, like the song it’s named for, is a bravura performance.


In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Strange Fruit is a daring  book on a controversial topic. Listeners and readers must be prepared to discuss highly sensitive topics with empathy and openness. With that in mind, read the book on your own first, more than once. Then decide if you feel it is most appropriate for a small-group discussion or for sharing with the whole class. Clearly, this is a book that cries out for discussion and response. Encourage students to write and talk about the important and timely issues the book raises, making sure to give them the background needed to do so with understanding and perspective.

Background. In two parts . . .

Part 1: Billie Holiday . . . Just who was Billie Holiday? The bio at the end of the book, accented by a striking photo of “Lady Day” wearing her signature gardenias, is a good place to begin. Before sharing it, though, ask how many of your students have heard of Billie Holiday or heard her sing? Her fan base is so expansive even now that many parents or grandparents may have recordings they would be willing to share with your class. You can also find numerous online recordings of Billie’s most popular songs, including “It Had to Be You,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “God Bless the Child,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Porgy,” “Body and Soul,” and dozens more. Listen to a few selections together, and ask students what words they would use to describe Holiday’s voice and style. Even the most successful musicians, including people like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald, viewed Billie Holiday as unique in her talent. Why do your students think that might be?

Part 2: Civil rights . . . The story of “Strange Fruit” will take on new meaning for students acquainted with black history, the origins of jazz, and race relations during Billie Holiday’s lifetime. To set the stage (and prior to sharing the book), you might ask individual students, or teams of two, to do some preliminary research on any one of the following topics (or others you consider significant), and to share their findings with the class:

  • Race relations in America during the 1920s and 1930s
  • Protest songs in American history
  • Jim Crow laws and their impact on black Americans
  • The Great Migration
  • The Ku Klux Klan
  • The Harlem Renaissance
  • The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
  • The origin of Black History Month
  • The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture American jazz
  • Abel Meeropol
  • Lynching*

*The practice of lynching has been outlawed in the U.S., but as author Gary Golio notes in “What Happened Next,” it took an unbelievable amount of time for this to happen—until 2005.

The online history of lynching is both horrifying and graphic, so you must decide how deeply you want to engage students in this topic. Author Gary Golio’s short epilogue, “What Happened Next” (in the book’s back matter) provides an excellent and concise summary of lynching’s dark history and the impact of “Strange Fruit” on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. For many classrooms, this summary will be sufficient. For mature readers who wish to go further, it may be enlightening to look up the image that inspired “Strange Fruit.” It’s a photograph of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, taken by Lawrence Beitler in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930, immediately following their violent execution. It was this photo that purportedly pushed writer/teacher Abel Meeropol to take such a strong and public stand against the inhumane practice of lynching.

The poetry behind the song. “Strange Fruit” was originally written as a poem, and before listening to Holiday sing it (and this is a must), it can be helpful to discuss it as poetry. As you’ll see, the lyrics are printed in a large font toward the end of the book. Read it aloud while showing it on a document projector, and then give students a chance to discuss it with partners or in small groups before opening a general discussion. Here are a few questions for them to think about—and please add your own to this list:

  • What is your initial response to these lyrics?
  • What is the overall mood of this poem?
  • What does the word “pastoral” mean?
  • Why does the writer use the word “gallant” in the expression “gallant South”?
  • How does the writer want us to feel?
  • What is the significance of the word “fruit” in this context?

After discussing the lyrics, listen to Billie Holiday’s rendition. Author Gary Golio talks about Billie’s “expressive” face when she sang this song for the first time. He says she looked “tortured” and her voice sounded like “a cry of pain.” Though we cannot, unfortunately, witness that initial performance, do you and your students hear and see some of this stress in the online version? After listening to her performance, Share Abel Meeropol’s quotation about Billie Holiday that appears with her photo at the end of the book. Did he choose the right singer to share his message? Why?

Illustrations that speak to us. Strange Fruit is brilliantly illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, who uses sweeping strokes, erratic lines, and blended colors to capture the flavor of jazz itself. Notice her attention to facial expressions. Even when other details are lost in the stir of color, we can almost read the minds of the characters on these pages. Notice too how the colors change—from bright and splashy in some scenes to dark and somber in others. How does this shift enhance the message?

The painting of Billie in a yellow dress at the opening of the book shows her virtually blending into the scene, becoming one with the music. What is the artist’s intent here—and how does it fit with the theme of the book?

Mixed responses to “Strange Fruit.” Singer Tony Bennett called the song “magnificent” (David Margolick, nytimes.com, Running Press). The New York Times dubbed it the “song of the century,” and the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry. Other artists have recorded it—including Nina Simone and Annie Lennox. It has inspired novels and films, and is still widely used in college and public school classrooms.

Yet, response to the song has not been universally positive. Look carefully at the faces in the illustration of Holiday’s first tentative performance at a Harlem gathering. What moods or emotional responses does artist Charlotte Riley-Webb capture here?

“Strange Fruit” reached 16th place on the music charts following its release in 1939, yet many radio stations refused to play it. Why do you think this was—and what message did their refusal send? Discuss this with your students.

What’s the book’s core message? Obviously, Billie Holiday shared a song that set America on edge. In recounting that story, how is author Gary Golio hoping we’ll respond as readers? Ask your students if they can sum up the message of the book in a single line. Record their responses and discuss them. Though their responses may vary, together they will create a larger truth.

Organization: Beginning right smack in the middle. Bio pieces typically open with the subject’s date and place of birth—but that cliché simply wouldn’t do for this book. Instead, Golio previews his lead with a quotation from Holiday herself: “Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.” These words set the stage for the actual opening line: “This time, Billie’d had enough.” And bang: We find ourselves in the midst of a volatile argument. What’s the argument about? Who’s going to win? Questions like these keep readers reading. Opening in the middle of things is a good strategy to share with students. Why? Because the most important part of any story rarely begins with a hero’s birth. Openings need to give readers something exciting to chew on. Background almost never does that. Action and controversy nearly always do.

Voice Collage. For years, this has been one of my favorite activities for teaching the concept of voice. It’s simple in concept, but the results are remarkable, and students of all ages are surprised by the drama it generates. Strange Fruit, with its vibrant characters, is a perfect book to initiate this exercise.

After reading Strange Fruit, invite students individually to choose a role they would like to assume for a short piece of original writing. Be sure every key role you identify is assumed by at least one student. Possibilities for this book might include—

  • Billie Holiday
  • Abel Meeropol
  • Billie’s mother
  • Barney Josephson
  • Any player in the band
  • Any member of the audience
  • Any other role you feel is significant: _________________

Have students/writers focus on one moment from the book. I might choose Billie’s first performance of “Strange Fruit” at Café Society. Ask students to write about this moment as if they were reflecting on it at the end of the day, and recording their heartfelt thoughts and feelings in a personal journal. They should write in an open, honest style—but in the voice of the role they have chosen. Each writer must imagine him- or herself as that person. Allow about ten minutes for this writing. (Students typically ask for more time, but you don’t want the pieces to grow too long.)

When they finish, have them divide their writing into two parts—at whatever point feels right. There is no “correct” way to do this. The purpose is simply to create two parts that will be read separately—and they do not need to be identical in length. Have writers indicate the division with a slash mark: /

Then ask volunteers, one person for each role, to perform their pieces aloud, read-around style: all the Part 1’s first, then (without pause) all the Part 2’s. Readers should NOT announce which role they are portraying. That should be obvious from the writing itself, and it dampens the theatrical effect if people make announcements. Imagine an actor turning to the audience and saying, “I’m Macbeth, by the way.”

Prepare to hear some very strong voice in the writing, and talk about that. You’ll notice another benefit, too. Voice collage takes writers to a deeper understanding of the characters involved in this or any book—their motives, reactions, joys and fears. Role playing through writing is a powerful way of interpreting text from multiple perspectives.

“The power of a protest song.” The subtitle of this book is significant. After all, “Strange Fruit” was originally a poem. Then Abel Meeropol set it to music. How do your students see the impact of this transformation? In other words, could a poem be just as powerful as a song? Or do songs have a power all their own?

Have any of your students ever sung a protest song? What is a protest song anyway? Look up “protest songs” online to assemble a list. Some titles may be songs your students would not even have recognized as “protest” songs. Choose one to perform as a class, and talk about how the very act of singing makes us feel. Why does music have such a strong influence on us?

Do you have musicians or poets in your class? If any of your students have written protest songs or poems, this would be a good time to perform them!

Speaking through the arts. Art is a compelling vehicle for nonviolent protest. Singer Billie Holiday—along with Abel Meeropol—used music to take a strong and important stand, and generations later, Billie’s voice still speaks to us. In what other ways can artists speak out against prejudice of any kind? Take time to research this with your students, seeing how many songs, paintings, sculptures, plays, films, speeches, or other forms of protest you can uncover. Make a list, book, or display of the results.

Some of us are singers, too. Or artists, dancers, actors, writers, or poets. Create a class collection of poems, essays, paintings, picture books, videos, podcasts, skits, or recordings that speak out against prejudice. That collection celebrates your students’ own courage and creativity.


About the Author . . .gary-golio

Gary Golio is the author of four nonfiction books about American musical legends, among them Bird and Diz an ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow (reviewed here on Gurus), which was a New York Times bestseller and won the Coretta Scott King Honor for illustrator Javaka Steptoe. Gary also wrote Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, a Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Book of the Year in four categories, and When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan—also a multi-award winner.

Currently, Gary lives in the Hudson Valley, with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich. When he’s not writing or painting, Gary visits schools and is happy to share not only thoughts on art and writing—but music too! He plays guitar, both electric and acoustic. “I’m a pretty good musician and an engaging speaker,” he says. “I loved to make kids laugh, and use humor to teach and entertain.” To arrange a school visit with Gary, or gather more information about his books, please contact him at www.garygolio.com

Coming Up on Gurus . . . insects

A big thank you to all the writers who have sent (or will be sending) books to review here on Gurus. I appreciate the trust you have placed in me, as well as the opportunity to take a deeper look at your extraordinary work—and share it with our teacher audience. Please keep those books coming! And please invite friends to visit Gurus also—where shortly I’ll be reviewing Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever (and it truly is) by celebrated nonfiction writer Sneed B. Collard. In the meantime . . .


A Book Recommendation for Your Classroom

One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes. 2017. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

This space is normally reserved for books I recommend to adult readers, but this time I had to makeone-last-word2 space for an exceptional new release. As a long-time fan of Nikki Grimes, I was delighted to discover her brilliant new book One Last Word, a compilation of poems from Harlem Renaissance poets—who were at their peak just when singer Billie Holiday was reaching hers. This gorgeous and thought provoking book is an ideal complement to Strange Fruit.

Grimes’ collection showcases the work of Jean Toomer, Clara Ann Thompson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Langston Hughes, and others. Poems like “Calling Dreams,” “We Wear the Mask” and “Mother to Son” speak of the strength and determination through which black Americans have overcome the most extreme hardships. The poems would be inspirational enough in their own right—but it gets better. This stirring anthology is enhanced by the illustrations of such artists as Frank Morrison, Brian Pinkney, Javaka Steptoe, Ebony Glenn, and Nikki Grimes herself.

What makes One Last Word such a masterpiece, though, is Grimes’ inclusion of something called Golden Shovel poetry. In her introductory “Poetry Form,” Grimes explains this approach in her own words: “The idea of a Golden Shovel poem is to take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from that poem (called a striking line), and create a new poem, using the words from the original.” Grimes uses the following illustration to show how to place the chosen words





Then, the challenge is to write a new poem, each line of which ends with one of the identified  words. Sound easy enough, right? It’s not! I urge you to try it—and of course, have your students try it, too. That way, you’ll be even more appreciative of Nikki Grimes’ genius. She creates a Golden Shovel poem for every Renaissance poem in this book. What’s more, her poems expand the themes of the originals. Now that’s a feat—from someone who is a poet at heart. Combine this book with Golio’s Strange Fruit for an incredible unit on black history and civil rights.


Thank you for stopping by. Come often, and tell friends about our posts. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.






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.