First Books

Southern Settings

by Kathie Johnson

Last summer, I had yet another reading game in my library. Children were invited to read books set in five southern states: North Carolina (NC), South Carolina (SC), Georgia (GA), Alabama (AL), and Mississippi (MI). I had two concerns going into the summer: Would I have enough books from those states to provide an abundant selection? And would it be too hard to deal with subjects like slavery and civil rights?

I need not have worried. I discovered I had many books that were either specifically set in those states or which typified that part of the country. The children found the books engaging and the characters winning. Even the books that dealt with difficult issues were generally infused with a sense of hope and redemption.

Biographies & Nature

There are quite a few biographies of people from this part of the country. Children can read about Martin Luther King, Jr. (GA), Rosa Parks (AL), Helen Keller (AL), the Wright Brothers (who get claimed by North Carolina because their historic "first flight" was there), Billy Graham (NC), and George Washington Carver (AL), among others. There are also sports figures like Jesse Owens (AL), Satchel Paige (AL), Ty Cobb (GA), and Henry (Hank) Aaron (AL).

Two art books come to mind as well: Mattie Lou O'Kelley's From the Hills of Georgia, which consists of the author's own paintings of her life in rural Georgia; and Going Back Home, in which Michele Wood paints her experience of returning to the South.

Children's biographies are especially plentiful for Keller, King, and the Wrights. David A. Adler, has done a nice series on these notables for younger children, each volume titled A Picture Book of . . . . I have his books on King, Owens, Parks, and Keller. They are colorful, with more pictures than print, and include author's notes at the end, along with a time line. Barbara Mitchell has done a nice book on Carver called A Pocketful of Goobers, especially good for third-to-fifth-graders. One especially good book about the Wright brothers is the classic Landmark biography by Quentin Reynolds for older children. A more recent book for younger readers, by Jane Yolen, is My Brothers' Flying Machine, told from their sister's point of view.

Children can also read about the Cherokees, who lived in several of the states mentioned. A good place to start would be with Peter and Connie Roop's book If You Lived with the Cherokee (about second-to-fourth-grade level). Among other things, this book tells about Sequoyah, the Cherokee who developed an alphabet and written language for his people, and about the Trail of Tears (when the Cherokees' land was taken away and many of them were sent to Oklahoma).

There are also some nice nature books about the South. An Island Scrapbook, by Virginia Wright-Frierson, has wonderful information and pictures of the plant and animal life on a barrier island off North Carolina.

Stories & Picture Books

The Brer Rabbit stories come from this part of the country and became a favorite of readers in the summer game. There are many versions. A nice one is the oversized book, The Classic Tales of Brer Rabbit, retold by David Borgenicht with lovely, large illustrations by Don Daily. There are other rich tales from this part of the country, a number of them by Robert D. San Souci, including The Talking Eggs.

Going on to picture books, a favorite series in the summer was the Little Cliff books by Clifton L. Taulbert. At our end-of-summer parties, I read parts of Little Cliff and the Porch People, because I felt it typified Southern culture. The book tells of a little African-American boy in Mississippi who is staying with his grandparents. He has been looking forward to going to town with his grandpa, but his grandpa is called away to sit and pray with someone who is ailing. His grandma sends him to a neighbor several doors down to buy some special butter for her famous candied sweet potatoes. On the way, the boy is stopped by every neighbor in between to talk a bit, and each one gives him something for his grandma. He eventually gets the butter (fresh-churned) and goes home with everything, which his grandma puts to good use. As they all sit down to dinner, the three "in-between" neighbors show up to help eat the delicious dish. In this book, you see caring and prayer for those who need it, extended family living nearby, warmth and a sense of connection in the community, sharing, and hospitality, among other fine traits.

Other picture books include Molasses Man by Kathy May, about the excitement of making molasses from sorghum cane; Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, by Deborah Hopkinson, in which a quilt becomes a map to freedom; Lucy's Cave, by Karen Winnick, about a cave where the people of Vicksburg take shelter during the Civil War battle, told from the viewpoint of a young girl; and Back Home, by Gloria Jean Pinkney, in which an eight-year-old girl who lives in the north goes to visit relatives in North Carolina.

Dave the Potter, by Laban Carrick Hill, tells in a poetic way of a real man who was an artist, poet, and slave, in a book with lovely, full-page illustrations. Georgia Music, by Helen V. Griffith, is a sad, sweet story of an elderly man who lives quietly in his garden. His granddaughter comes to stay with him for a summer and learns to love the garden and the birdsong. The next summer, the grandfather is not able to take care of himself and so is taken to his daughter's home in Baltimore, where he languishes until his granddaughter begins to play the harmonica and remind him of Georgia once again. In Carolina Shout, Alan Schroeder tells of his travels around Charleston recording the calls and songs and "shouts" of the various areas.

For Older Children

For grades three to five, the best series I can think of are the Mandie books by Gladys Leppard, which are mostly set in North Carolina. Mandie overcomes a number of personal tragedies to find friends and have amazing adventures.

For the upper-grade (or middle school) child, there is a wonderful series of books set in Mississippi by Mildred Taylor. Her most well-known book is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a touching, challenging story of a close-knit African-American family trying to improve their lives in a hostile environment. Taylor has written a number of other books about the same area and family.

Robert Burch has also written a number of books for this grade level, all set in Georgia. In his Hut School and the Wartime Home-Front Heroes, a sixth-grade girl and her schoolmates are moved to a small cabin for school during World War II and learn what it means for their country to be at war. Burch also wrote the Ida Early series, set in Georgia during the Depression.

Christopher Paul Curtis has written a number of fine books, too. Among them is The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963, in which an African-American family from Michigan goes south to visit grandma and arrives during a time of great unrest.

There are many more books that I could name, but these should help you get started learning more about this part of the country. •

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

more on childrens books from the online archives

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