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Enlightening reads for all ages to celebrate Black History Month

"The willingness to turn the dark history of the past into literature takes not just talent but courage." That phrase -- "turn the dark history of the past into literature" -- from a Publishers Weekly review of Patricia C. McKissack's powerful 2011 picture book "Never Forgotten" -- is an apt characterization of the achievement of the growing body of work, from familiar names and new talents, shedding new light on the African-American experience. In honor of Black History Month this month, here are some of the best titles, for small children through teens, both fiction and nonfiction, from the past year:

>Picture Books:

*Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack (artwork by Leo and Diane Dillon; Schwartz & Wade, $18.99). A beloved only son is kidnapped by slavers in Africa, leaving his blacksmith father grieving until the winds bring news of his fate back to Africa. This gorgeous book, told through poetry and dramatic stylized illustrations, is a powerful blend of African legend and historical truth.

*The Snowy Day: 50th Anniversary Edition (Viking $19.99). The charming Ezra Jack Keats picture book changed children's literature with its groundbreaking portrayal of an African-American boy simply playing in the snow.

*We March, the latest from acclaimed author-illustrator (and onetime Buffalonian) Shane W. Evans (Roaring Brook Press, $16.99), offers a simple, but powerful tale, for very young children, using illustrations of sunlight and dawn as metaphor of a family preparing for the 1963 March on Washington.

*Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud (illustrated by John Holyfield, Candlewick Press, $15.99). This colorful tale, based on true events in Gee's Bend, Ala., is framed as the story of an elderly woman's recollection of an unusual figure in the civil rights struggle -- the mule who helped pull wagons carrying blacks to vote for the first time and later pulled the wagon carrying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s casket.

*Lesa-Cline Ransome collaborated with her artist husband James E. Ransome on Words Set Me Free (Simon & Schuster, $19.99, ages 5 to 9), a stunning picture book biography of the early years of Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave, remembered being fed from a trough -- and whose white mistress taught him to read at age 8.

*Twice as Good by Richard Michelson (illustrated by Eric Velasquez, Sleeping Bear Press, $16.95) whose "Busing Brewster" was a New York Times Notable Children's Book of 2010, tells the story of William Powell, a World War II Army veteran who fought the racial bias that barred him from playing on American golf courses by designing and building his own course, the Clearview Golf Course in Ohio.

*Freedom Song by Sally M. Walker (Harper, $17.99) with marvelous paintings by Sean Qualls, imagines the role of song and music in the life of Henry "Box" Brown, the slave who shipped himself in a box from Richmond, Va., to freedom in Philadelphia, spending 20 miles of the journey upside down.

*Coretta Scott (Amistad/Katherine Tegen Books/Harper-Collins, $6.99 paperback). Poet Ntozake Shange and painter Kadir Nelson combine their considerable talents in this brief, lyrical tribute to Scott, who had to walk five miles to school as a child, took full part in the civil rights movement and valiantly carried on her husband's work.

*Just as Good: How Larry Doby Changed America's Game by Chris Crowe (illustrated by Mike Benny; Candlewick Press, $16.99) uses the perspective of a little boy in Cleveland, denied a place on a Little League baseball team because of race, to recapture the excitement over the first black player in the American League.

>Ages 8 to 12:

*Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson; Balzer&Bray/HarperCollins, 99 pages, $19.99). The celebrated artist of dramatic paintings defining the African-American experience uses the sing-song, wise voice of a descendant of slaves -- and stories from his family's own past -- to tell the stirring story of African-Americans' pivotal role in building America. "Heart and Soul" won the Coretta Scott King Book Award for best African-American story. Nelson's powerful paintings include striking portraits of slaves, Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a dramatic double-page depiction of the courageous, doomed assault on Fort Wagner, S.C., by black Union soldiers under the command of Capt. Robert Shaw.

*Freedom's a-Callin Me by Ntozake Shange (dramatic paintings by Rod Brown; Amistad, $16.99) The celebrated poet and author of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," reimagines the journey on the Underground Railroad, with all its danger and discomfort, through a chorus of voices of fugitives, in the vivid sing-song of the spoken word.

*Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney (illustrations by Sean Qualls; Little Brown, 258 pages, $16.99). Elmira during the Great Depression -- and the hopes surrounding boxer Joe Louis -- are the backdrop for this lovely tale of loss, healing and hope, told from the perspective of a preacher's daughter, a boy orphaned in a traffic accident and a young boxer whose career was cut short by abuse at the hands of his own father.

*Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods; (Nancy Paulsen Books, $16.99) offers a vivid portrait of life in New Orleans and personalizes the Hurricane Katrina disaster, as a boy with dreams of studying clarinet at Juilliard finds himself in the middle of the flooding trying to save his dog and an elderly neighbor.

*Christopher Paul Curtis is a leading light in middle-grade novels from African-American history and he outdoes himself in The Mighty Miss Malone (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.99), taking a minor character from Newbery Medal-winning "Bud, Not Buddy" to produce an unforgettable portrait of an irrepressible 12-year-old struggling against terrible odds during the Great Depression.

*Crow by Barbara Wright (Random House, 298 pages, $16.99). A North Carolina native brings to vivid life the racially divided Wilmington, N.C., of the 1890s through the eyes of the 12-year-old son of a reporter at Wilmington's black newspaper, in this searing depiction of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, a terrible chapter of North Carolina history.

>Teens:

*To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement by Charlayne Hunter-Gault (Roaring Brook Press, $22.99). Hunter-Gault looks back on her experience, at 19, as one of two black students to break the racial barrier at an all-white college in the South when the two enrolled, at much personal risk, at the University of Georgia.

*A Houston court case -- and the rampant prejudice and turbulent emotions of the 1960s -- is the subject of the powerful graphic novel The Silence of Our Friends (First Second, $16.99, by Nate Powell), written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos, based on Long's experience as the son of a white television reporter covering civil rights protests in Houston. An African-American student accused of killing a police officer during a disturbance at Texas Southern University was freed after it was discovered that the fatal shot was accidentally fired by a fellow officer.

*Miles to Go to Freedom by Linda Barrett Osborne (Abrams, with Library of Congress, 107 pages, $27.95), a follow-up to Osborne's "Traveling the Freedom Road," uses archival photos and interviews with African-Americans who were children or teens before the civil rights era in this fascinating, devastating exploration of the systematic reversal of the outcome of the Civil War and Reconstruction across the South, framed by U.S. Supreme Court decisions of 1896 and 1954.

Jean Westmoore is The News' children's book reviewer.