This is an important, necessary picture book, perfect for the classroom. Teachers and librarians should add THIS American Story to their shelves and read it aloud with their students. To be a true American, we need to acknowledge the America of the past and strive to be what we may become in the future — better humans.
The book names a teacher who is sharing history with her students, starting in Africa before slavery. Over time, Americans stole these humans and made them slaves. “For Free” is one repeating line, and other multiple-meaning words add to the feeling and the depth (and the horror) of the times. Kwame Alexander’s poetic language shows the dark past, but also reveals that African Americans refused to stop telling stories and loving each other, and fought for their freedom.
In the middle of the story, the teacher cannot go on. She doesn’t know how to teach the students THIS history. Her students say, “But, don’t you tell us to always speak the truth, Ms. Simmons, even when it’s hard?” Kwame Alexander wants us to know the truth and share it. We cannot escape the past or pretend like history didn’t happen. “You can’t change the past, but you can do better in the future.” Mr. Alexander allows us to hope and dream and act to change the world. The book has two specific purposes: to educate the reader and provide a way to share uncomfortable facts in order to move to a more hopeful, inclusive future.
Dare Coulter’s fabulous, rich colors provide life and meaning to Alexander’s words. (Pay attention to the colors that alternate the POV throughout the story.) She uses mixed-media techniques that invite readers in and command attention throughout the book, from the cover to the end pages. Her art captivates the reader and brings one closer to the historical account being told in a way that cannot be done with only the words. The pages are all gorgeous, riveting, sad, and hopeful. This book is truly a meaningful collaboration between Alexander and Coulter that should not be missed, and I’m going to follow the news about this book into next awards season, too.
An American Story is a text that needs to be read and shared widely. Adults, please read with your young ones. Recommended for ages 8 and up.