Book Reviews: ‘The Undefeated’ and ‘A Place To Land’

Karen Juanita Carrillo | 2/27/2020, 1:29 p.m.
Children’s books that can both promote literacy and history have to walk a very fine line.
"The Undefeated"

Children’s books that can both promote literacy and history have to walk a very fine line.

Over the years, we’ve all come across books that make an attempt to do this, but it’s obvious that not every children’s book author has been able to confront the depths of history while making it entertaining for kids—without detracting from the subject’s seriousness.

It is often difficult to inspire and keep the minds of children––who are so often distracted––amused.

Two new books have been very successful in this attempt. “The Undefeated” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Versify, 2019) is a beautiful picture book with illustrations drawn by Kadir Nelson and an ode-poem by Kwame Alexander. Nelson’s art work features famous Black figures—people like Gwendolyn Brooks, Jack Johnson, Maya Angelou, Jesse Owens, Romare Bearden, and W.E.B. DuBois—and it deftly pivots around Alexanders’ elegy to the effort and endurance it has taken for people of African descent to succeed in the United States:

“This is for the unforgettable/The swift and sweet ones/who hurdled history/and opened a world/of possible,” the poem states: “The righteous marching ones/who sang we shall not be moved/because Black lives matter.” The text of the poem weaves you through African American history, with well-known phrases that evoke people who have made a continuing impact on Black and United States culture.

Reading this book to my two elementary school-aged children, it was fascinating to see how those phrases (i.e., “Weary Blues” “by any means necessary,” “shine [their] light for the world to see,” “don’t stop til the break of dawn,” “we shall not be moved,” “Black lives matter” and more) that are so much a part of Black culture are new to them. They viewed the illustrations of how Africans were packed onto European slave ships, of marchers during the Civil Rights Movement, and of athletes and authors and painters with both pride and wonder. “I liked that it was all famous people that were in the book,” my daughter Sanaa commented. “I liked that they played games like sports even when the white people didn’t want them to, but they still did it because they were being brave.”

“All of the people in the book were famous people,” said my son, Mateo. “People didn’t believe that Black people could do anything, but now they believe Black people can do everything white people can do.”

The other book we read was “A Place To Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation” by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Holiday House/Neal Porter Books, 2019). Both of my children have heard stories and taken part in annual celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr., so they know a lot about who he is. “A Place To Land” caught their interest because it looks into how King wrote his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The illustrations and text take you inside the Willard Hotel (now known as the Willard Intercontinental), where King famously sat in the hotel lobby with his closest advisors and made the final edits to his famous speech just hours before delivering it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.