THE legacy of individual contributions made by African-Americans who surpassed expectations and cheated failure is increasingly reflected in today's children's books.
The real-life stories of those who rode the underground railroad, carried water and saved lives during every war fought in the United States, and with their bodies, hearts, and minds integrated schools during the 1960s are important to remember.
Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories, by Ellen Levine (Putnam, $16.95, ages 10 and up) is one such recollection. Divided into chapters that detail experiences of segregation - from integration in the schools to Freedom Summer and Bloody Sunday - this book provides a teen's-eye view of the chaos and camaraderie that were the hallmarks of the '60s.
One particularly striking account of classroom integration in Arkansas is offered by a student who became known as part of the Little Rock Nine. The black group faced down angry mobs while they completed their school assignments in a previously all-white high school. President Eisenhower had sent a US Army unit to protect them.
"One thing that I think is very important is this: While the nine of us may have been preselected, there really are nine, ten, thirty, forty, fifty kids in every community that could have done that," one participant recalls. "It wasn't that nine people fell out of the sky in Little Rock. We were all ordinary kids. You really do have the ability to do a lot more than either you've been told or you've been led to believe by your surroundings. If given the opportunity, you'd be surprised at how much you can
do, how much you can achieve."
Several new biographies provide readers with portraits - from infancy to adulthood - of key people whose singular choices changed the course of their personal histories as well as that of their nation.
Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman?, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick McKissack (Scholastic, $13.95, ages 10 and up), is the account of Isabel Van Wagener's decision to sue for the return of her son, who was illegally sold as a slave. This was among the first cases in which a slave won judgment against a master. Known for her indomitable spirit and untutored oratory, Sojourner Truth, as she later renamed herself, had a gift for bringing her visions to life. The name Sojourner Truth became synonymous w ith the earliest struggles for freedom and women's rights.
The Real McCoy: The Life of an African-American Inventor, by Wendy Towle (Scholastic, $14.95, ages 5 to 9), is a picture book that gives a well-rounded portrait of how one man's self-mastery led to inventions that improved the quality of life for an entire country. Elijah McCoy, son of escaped slaves, created an oil-lubricating cup, which oiled locomotives while they were in motion. It set the standard in the industry. As one legend has it, no copy of his invention was considered acceptable to those fami liar with "the real McCoy." The writing is accompanied by the subtle tones and gentle strokes of artist Wil Clay.
For more than a generation after black Americans won the right to patent inventions in their own names, the legacy of slavery and the Civil War clung to daily life in the new South. Yet settlements of freed slaves began to emerge. At one such settlement in Eatonville, Fla., folklorist, anthropologist, playwright, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston came into her own. Her spirited tale is vividly told in Jump at de Sun: The story of Zora Neale Hurston, by A. P. Porter (Carolrhoda Books, $17.50 cloth, $6.95 pa per, ages 9 to 12). Filled with photographs, the biography is an honest and lovingly told appraisal of an often misunderstood woman. It is a vibrant introduction to a writer whose career obstacles and contentious flair for living did not diminish her ability to produce works like "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and "Dust Tracks on a Road."
Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic, $13.95, ages 10 and up), presents a compelling and well-researched profile of a man whose personal development and self-discovery propelled him from relative anonymity as a petty criminal to renown as an international figure. He recently was the subject of a film by Spike Lee. Black-and-white photographs illuminate this engaging account. The author includes a useful chronology of pivotal events in the nation's history that parallel the history of Malcolm X - his mutations and message.
A month to the day after the Feb. 21, 1965, assassination of Malcolm X, the march on Washington, led by Martin Luther King Jr., began. In a show of unity and purpose unparalleled in American history, people from all walks of life came together to make their intentions known to the government. The March on Washington, by James Haskins (HarperTrophy, $15, ages 10 and up), includes an introduction by James Farmer, former national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Haskins describes the expe riences of marchers, organizers, and witnesses.
The struggle to overcome barriers touched every aspect of African-American life. Baseball, perhaps America's greatest pastime, was no exception. Though Jackie Robinson became the symbol of integration in sports, he was by no means a solitary star. Playing America's Game: The Story of Negro League Baseball, by Michael L. Cooper (Lodestar, $15.99, ages 9 to 12), is an ably written account of the black players' life on the road. From separate or nonexistent hotel accommodations to winter games in Cuba and Latin America, the author presents a rich tapestry of the lives, loves, and losses of African-Americans who played America's game.
Virginia Hamilton, author of last year's award-winning "The People Could Fly," has now written Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom (Alfred A. Knopf, $16, ages 9 to 14). Beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, this volume of individual profiles traces the African-American experience in North America from the earliest slave days to emancipation. What is most compelling about both Hamilton's narratives and the Dillons' rich black-and-white drawings is the dignity and diver sity with which those experiences are portrayed.