During my later elementary years, I really enjoyed reading the historical book series of The American Girls Collection, produced by Pleasant Company. As an adult, there are some I like more than others now, but Addy is still my favorite. These series give girls (and boys too!) the opportunity to learn about history through characters close to their own age. The original series all follow the same six-book formula, and though the main characters are all growing up in different time periods, they all display courage and hope in various ways.
Each book contains many realistic illustrations, and a "Looking Back" section after the story that includes photographs and drawings, to give some more historical context to the setting and events described.
In the first Addy book, we are introduced to Addy, a nine-year-old girl who is a slave on a plantation near the end of the Civil War. But in the very first chapter, Addy lies awake at night and listens to her parents talk about freedom -- they plan to run away. But before they get the chance, Addy's father and brother are sold. Addy's mother makes the difficult decision to run away anyway, and leave her one-year-old baby behind with Addy's Aunt and Uncle, hoping that the family will all make it to Philadelphia someday.
Reading this as an adult/parent has a whole different dimension to it. While this series obviously does not even begin to touch on all the horrors of slavery, reading about the punishments and family separations still had an effect on me as a child, and this story made it seem much more real than a history textbook could have.
Looking Back: This section gives a brief history of slavery in the US, as well as the underground railroad and Harriet Tubman, and the beginnings of the Civil War.
Addy Learns a Lesson:
This story is about Addy's introduction to school, and we get to see her navigate the difficulties of getting an education, and of friendship. Addy and her mother arrive safely in Philadelphia, but have almost nothing. They find help and hospitality at a church, and are soon able to earn a living, though making ends meet is difficult. But Addy is determined to learn how to read, and her determination begins to pay off. In addition to learning to read, she learns about what is most important in her friends.
Looking Back: This covers the difficulties that African Americans had in obtaining an education during this time (and previously), and the formation of some of the earlier schools.
Addy and her mother are working very hard, but they are still having a hard time affording basic necessities. Still, as Christmas arrives, they both want to find ways to surprise each other. Even in the midst of their difficulties, Addy is faced with the realization that there are still so many others that are worse off than her and her mother, and both she and her mother do their best to help with what little they have. At the end, Addy recieves a wonderful Christmas surprise as one of her family members reunites with her and her mother again.
Looking Back: Holidays were much simpler in this era anyway, but during the Civil War, most families could not afford "extras." Still, many found ways to make their Christmas celebrations meaningful and festive. This section also touches on the celebration of Juneteenth, as well as the later introduction of Kwanzaa.
Happy Birthday, Addy!:
In this story, Addy meets an elderly woman named M'dear, who is blind. Despite the fact that she can't see, M'dear is able to perceive more than she appears to. Since Addy was born into slavery, she doesn't know what day she was born on -- only that she was born in the spring. M'dear encourages her to "claim" a birth date -- when she finds a day that feels right to her.
Addy continues to learn and hope and obtain an education, but the streets of Philadelphia sometimes teach her some ugly things -- that she and others like her can be freely discriminated against just because of the color of their skin. Still, the story ends on a positive note, with hope that someday things will get better.
Looking Back: This section covers certain lifestyle issues of the time period: birth, children's games, education, jobs, and the way the Civil War affected families.
Addy Saves the Day:
Addy and her family are working hard to earn extra money, still holding out hope that their remaining family members will be found soon. Meanwhile, their church puts on a fair to raise money to help wounded soldiers, widows, and separated families. Addy and her friends choose to make spool puppets and put on a puppet show. But not all of her friends are easy to work with. The fair goes well, but when something goes wrong, Addy chooses to take action. At the end, she gets a wonderful surprise.
Looking Back: This section talks about city parks and other public recreation during this era, and about things families did during their leisure time.
Changes for Addy:
The Walker family has been steadfastly searching for the rest of their remaining family members. Addy has been writing letters and not hearing anything back, which can get discouraging. But she never gives up hope. Then one day, she receives an answer, and is sure that very soon, their family will be whole again. She is mostly right, but also has to suffer the pain of loss, as so many other families do.
Addy's experience is also contrasted with her friend Sarah's, which was unfortunately common. While Addy makes good progress with her education and hopes to be a teacher someday, she is saddened when her friend Sarah has to drop out of school in order to earn enough money for her family to pay their rent. In the midst of the hope and determination, it is important to see this side of things too, that some people, as Sarah's mother puts it, "got to eat today and pay for this here room tomorrow. We can't be dreaming about someday."
The story ends with Addy reading the Emancipation Proclamation at her church.
Looking Back: After the Civil War, Reconstruction brought many advancements for African Americans, but not all of it lasted -- the South soon instituted "black codes," and made segregation worse. This section concludes with an overview of the Civil Rights movement, up through the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
As much as I like this series, it is still worth pointing out to children that Addy is fortunate in many ways: she is able to stay in school and obtain an education, and she is able to at least discover the fate of all of her missing family members, which was not the case for many children who were in a similar situation.
The Story of Ruby Bridges is a children's book which tells the story of the desegregation of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. The story focuses primarily on Ruby's bravery, her faith, and her desire to find forgiveness for the mobs of angry people who wanted to stop her from attending the school.
Speaking of the mobs, author Robert Coles does an excellent job of describing the troubles that Ruby faced, at an age-appropriate level for a children's book. He speaks of angry mobs, and shouting, and protest signs, and of people wanting to hurt Ruby, but avoids discussing any of the specifics of the threats she faced. I liked this choice on the author's part, as it gives parents the freedom to discuss the more vicious aspects of the story when they feel it is most appropriate for their own children.
Robert Coles was probably best suited of anyone to write this book, as he was the child psychiatrist who met weekly with Ruby during her first year at Frantz Elementary. His work with Ruby led him, eventually, to write a book titled Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear, which he eventually developed into a series of books that won for him the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
Of course, any children's book is dependent not just on the author, but also on the illustrator; an illustrator can make or break a book. In this case, George Ford is an integral part of making this book a success. The illustrations are beautiful, with great use of light, shadow and coloration to draw attention to the focus of the book - Ruby herself. Whether she is sitting alone in a classroom, with her family at church, or dwarfed by an angry mob and the marshals protecting her, it is always Ruby that captures your eye.
If you want to gain a better understanding of the migration of blacks from the south to the north and west during the twentieth century, while reading personal stories of those involved in the migration, I highly recommend Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.
The book can look a bit daunting for people who, when they see the words "non-fiction" expect something dry, pretentiously academic, and tedious. But this book is anything but dry; its narrative will keep your attention from start to finish. Considering the book is 538 pages long (not including acknowledgements, notes, and indices), you'll want to set aside a good block of time for it.
The book follows the lives of three migrants (and their families) from the south: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Each of these people left the south for different reasons, during different decades, and for different areas of the country (Chicago, New York, and California).
Even though the stories of these three people are separated by many years, their stories are told concurrently. Thus, we read about each of the migrants' living situations in the south, then about their reasons for leaving, then their actual exodus, etc. At first glance, I thought I would have a hard time keeping the stories and people straight, because of the way the book jumps from one story to another (and because Ida Mae's husband was named George, giving us two main characters named George!), but actually there was very little confusion; the events of each subject's life were so distinctly different from the others that I had no trouble keeping track of the people involved.
In the spaces between the stories of these three migrants, Wilkerson occasionally elaborates on general conditions in the north, the south, and the west; the advancement of the Civil Rights movement, and other related subjects. She also inserts related stories from other people she interviewed, as they help support the information she provides about the broader social and political picture.
For the most part, Wilkerson is not heavy-handed in her analysis of the events; she lets the characters' stories speak for themselves. The writing style is engaging, and the events are interesting, making this a quick read (for a 500+ page history).
I have read some complaints from other reviewers that by the time she gets through the first part of the book, she begins repeating herself, and the book should have been better edited. It is true that she does occasionally repeat herself, and the sudden repetition of something you've already read can be a bit disconcerting. However, it's good to remember that when she does this, it's typically because she's referring to a "minor character" that she previously mentioned a hundred pages earlier, and she wants to make sure that we remember this person she's talking about. Perhaps there are better ways to refresh our memories than to spend a paragraph recapping what she's told us before about this person, but I considered it to be a minor flaw in the writing.
I'd like to share one of my favorite paragraphs from the book - a paragraph about Ida Mae Brandon Gladney:
"Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people like Ida Mae. In the debates to come over welfare and pathology, America would overlook people like her in its fixation with the underclass, just as a teacher can get distracted by the two or three problem children at the expense of the quiet obedient ones. Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn't end up on welfare, stayed married because that's what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed to not get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men."
This paragraph resonated strongly with me, because it reminds me that still today, we struggle with the same sorts of broad-sweeping generalizations; we see the very worst of a group of people, and then associate that "worst" with every member of the group, without stopping to look clearly and carefully: people who are not Christian like to look at groups like Westboro Baptist and lump all Christians with them; people who are not Muslim like to look at the worst terrorists and assume all Muslims are just like that; irresponsible, right-leaning "news" sites like to look at the worst atrocities perpetrated in the name of "black lives matter" and arbitrarily and illogically call the entire movement a "terrorist organization" or a "hate group."
It seems that nothing has changed.
And now I'll step down from my soap box and say: I highly recommend reading this book, and if you have teen children who are voracious readers, and are prepared for a handful of stories of graphic violence, this book is a great educational tool. You will learn how the "Great Migration" affected the south, the north, and how it affected the lives of individual people and families along the way.
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