Celebrate Black History Month by reading this year's Coretta Scott King Book Award winners.
Established in 1970, the Coretta Scott King Book Award honors the late widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by spotlighting the best children's books by black authors and illustrators.
Here's a closer look at this year's recipients:
Coretta Scott King Author Award:
Christopher Paul Curtis, author of the Newbery Medal-winning "Bud, Not Buddy," is a master of mixing humor and drama in his books for children. He's done it again in "Elijah of Buxton" (Scholastic, $16.99), this year's winner of the 2008 King Author Award.
Set in the Canadian community founded by escaped slaves in the 19th century, "Elijah of Buxton" begins slowly before building to an emotional, unforgettable conclusion. Some readers may complain that the story starts too slowly, as Curtis details the boyhood adventures of Elijah, a likable, thoughtful boy whose parents leaven their strict discipline with lots of love. But these early chapters also help increase readers' understanding of Elijah and his world.
Living in Buxton, Elijah has heard stories of slavery, and he witnesses the wounds -- both physical and emotional -- borne by former slaves when they first arrive in Buxton. But Elijah's life is relatively carefree until he embarks on a difficult journey to the United States in search of a thief and winds up facing the terrors of slavery firsthand. It's a gut-wrenching scene and one that resonates particularly deeply because of Elijah's innocence about such evil.
Curtis' book, which also won a 2008 Newbery Honor, isn't always easy to read. But it's an unforgettable, unique look at the abomination of slavery. (Ages 10-14.)
King Author Honor Books:
• In "November Blues" (Atheneum, $16.99), author Sharon Draper focuses on the challenges of teen pregnancy as a teen named November Nelson deals with the aftermath of a night of passion with her boyfriend just before he dies in a hazing accident. (Ages 12 up.)
• In "Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali" (Candlewick, $19.99), author Charles R. Smith Jr. uses rap to tell the story of the boxing champ. This book, great for reluctant readers as well as sports and poetry fans, is wonderfully illustrated by Bryan Collier. (Ages 10-17.)
Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award:
All you have to do is look at the joyously colored illustrations by Ashley Bryan in "Let It Shine" (Atheneum, $16.99), and you'll feel uplifted. And that's even before you read the text, which consists of the words to three favorite spirituals.
The winner of the 2008 King Illustrator Award, "Let It Shine" is a tour de force of illustration, as Bryan demonstrates just what you can do with a mound of colored construction paper and a lot of talent. His collage illustrations seem to leap off the page as Bryan offers illustrations expressing his emotional reaction to the words of "This Little Light of Mine," "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
While the Christian aspect of this book might limit its audience, anyone who loves beautiful art will find something to enjoy in "Let It Shine." Bryan concludes his large-sized picture book with a note explaining the origins of the spirituals in American slavery. (Ages 4 up.)
King Illustrator Honor Books:
• "The Secret Olivia Told Me" (Just Us Books, $16.95) tells what happens when a child just can't keep a secret. Author N. Joy's jauntily rhyming text works perfectly with the eye-catching silhouette illustrations by Nancy Devard. (Ages 4-7.)
• Two-time Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon create another winner in "Jazz on a Saturday Night" (Scholastic, $16.99). Seven jazz greats, from Ella Fitzgerald to Thelonius Monk, gather for an imaginary concert, which the Dillons portray with colorful panache. Brief biographies of the jazz personalities are included. (Ages 4-8.)
Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Author Award:
This award is designed to shine a spotlight on a book by a first-time author or illustrator. This year's winner, "Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything In It" (Delacorte, $14.99), written by Sundee T. Frazier, tackles the subject of racial bigotry by looking at it through the eyes of a biracial child.
Brendan Buckley always has lots of questions, and, as a scientist, he believes he can find answers to all of them. But when he discovers that his white grandfather disowned his mother for marrying a black man, Brendan's not sure there's an answer to the question of why people are racially prejudiced.
Frazier's book is a thoughtful look at a difficult topic. (Ages 9-12.)
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.firstname.lastname@example.org .