FOR the youngest readers, children's librarian Annie Lee Carrol and her colleagues from Boston to Berkeley, Calif. praise John Steptoe's brilliant picture book Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1987). This African folktale in the classic Cinderella tradition is graced by Steptoe's lush artwork - which garnered him a Caldecott honor, the 1987 Boston Globe-Horn Book award for best picture book, and the 1988 Coretta Scott King award for best picture book. Another Caldecott honor book that makes most of the lists is Patricia McKissack's Mirandy and Brother Wind (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), a joyous story about the cakewalk, a dance with African roots introduced to the US by slaves, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
Children who have graduated to chapter books (``and boys especially,'' says Carroll), will enjoy Mildred Pitts Walter's Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1986), a 1987 Coretta Scott King award-winner about a young boy who's feeling resentful about being asked to pitch in around the house. A visit to the family homestead, a Missouri ranch where his grandfather lives alone and fends for himself, soon cures that. Walters has included intriguing background on black cowboys, as well as the black migration West after emancipation.
Another novel by Walter, Have a Happy ... (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1989), weaves information about Kwanzaa, an African holiday that is more and more being observed by African-Americans, into a compelling story of the struggles of an urban black family.
An excellent biography for this age group is Eloise Greenfield's Rosa Parks, (New York: Harper & Row Junior, 1973) a lucid, moving account of the Montgomery seamstress who, by refusing to give up her seat on the bus, became the ``mother of the civil rights movement.''
And if there's one book that everyone recommends, it's Newbery medalist Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). Illustrated by husband-and-wife Caldecott medalists Leo and Diane Dillon, this well-researched and superbly written collection of American black folktales wins kudos all around. Elizabeth Taylor at the Chicago Public Library calls it a book that ``nobody can overlook, ever,'' and Candy Dawson Boyd, an associate professor of education at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., says it's ``one of the finest additions to children's literature that we've had, period.'' (Available on cassette, with James Earl Jones narrating.)
For young adults, Mildred Taylor's Newbery award-winning novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (New York: Dial, 1976) is also highly recommended. Set in the deep South, the story unfolds through the eyes of Cassie, a spirited nine-year-old, who along with her family, confronts the bitter injustice of racism.
Julius Lester's powerful To Be a Slave (New York: Dial, 1968) presents reminiscences and diary excerpts from former slaves which, with brief explanatory passages, create a moving firsthand account of life in slavery. And for a fictional account of slavery, librarians recommend Joyce Hansen's outstanding Which Way Freedom (New York: Walker, 1986), a novel based on historical accounts of black participation in the Civil War.
Among the dozens of biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. in print, Bridget Bennett, children's librarian at Memorial Hall Library in Andover, Mass., steers older readers to James Haskins' The Life and Death of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1977), a stirring account of the triumphant and tragic life of the civil-rights leader.
Virginia Hamilton's Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) won the 1988 Boston Globe-Horn Book award for fiction. Billed as a ``historical reconstruction,'' it's a sophisticated tale that deftly blends fact and fiction in the story of a young black slave's escape to freedom, later recapture in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act, and sensational trial.
Walter Dean Myers's Fallen Angels (New York: Scholastic, 1988) won the 1989 Coretta Scott King award for fiction, and deservedly so. A searing tale of a young black man's tour of duty in Vietnam, it gives a more realistic picture of wartime than any number of glitzy Hollywood movies currently making the rounds. While not sparing readers any gritty details, Myers writes with sensitivity, and his story gives voice to a generation caught up in the tragedy of war.
A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter (New York: Walker & Co., 1989), by husband-and-wife team Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, won this year's Coretta Scott King award for nonfiction. The book chronicles the bitter struggle of these hard-working men from railway's infancy, when George Pullman first decided to hire ex-slaves, on through the formation of the first black-controlled union. Filled with historical photographs, it's an attractively produced book on a slice of history previously not available for children.
Patricia McKissack is also the author of Jesse Jackson (New York: Scholastic, 1989), a new biography of the first black man to run for president. McKissack presents a well-rounded portrait of Jackson. While focusing mainly on his remarkable accomplishments, she doesn't shy away from mentioning some of the controversy that has shadowed his career - such as his ties to Louis Farrakhan.
Another new release is Glennette Tilley Turner's Take a Walk in Their Shoes (New York: Cobblehill Books, 1989), with illustrations by Elton C. Fax. Geared for elementary-age children, the book spotlights 14 celebrated African-Americans - from Martin Luther King Jr. to Ida B. Wells and LeRoy ``Satchel'' Paige - in brief but comprehensive biographies. Each chapter is followed by a short skit that children can act out. The book provides a perfect vehicle for teachers looking to incorporate civil-rights history into their classrooms at any time of the year, not only during Black History Month.