- Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson
- Reading level: Ages 9-12
- Hardcover: 108 pages
- Publisher: Balzer + Bray; 1 edition (September 27, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-0061730740
Back-of-the-book blurb: The story of America and African Americans is a story of hope and inspiration and unwavering courage. But it is also the story of injustice; of a country divided by law, education, and wealth; of a people whose struggles and achievements helped define their country. This is the story of the men, women, and children who toiled in the hot sun picking cotton for their masters; it’s about the America ripped in two by Jim Crow laws; it’s about the brothers and sisters of all colors who rallied against those who would dare bar a child from an education. It’s a story of discrimination and broken promises, determination and triumphs.
Kadir Nelson, one of this generation’s most accomplished, award-winning artists, has created an epic yet intimate introduction to the history of America and African Americans, from colonial days through the civil rights movement. Written in the voice of an “Everywoman,” an unnamed narrator whose forebears came to this country on slave ships and who lived to cast her vote for the first African American president, heart and soul touches on some of the great transformative events and small victories of that history. This inspiring book demonstrates that in gaining their freedom and equal rights, African Americans helped our country achieve its promise of liberty and justice—the true heart and soul of our nation.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: Heart and Soul is an illustrated history book targeted for middle grade readers – but it goes beyond that mission, in many ways. Set to read like a letter from a grandmother to the younger generations, it opens with this poignant statement (Prologue):
Most folks my age and complexion don’t speak much about the past. Sometimes it’s just too hard to talk about … [but] You have to know where you came from so you can move forward.
The book continues with short chapters discussing the role of African Americans throughout of nation’s history – yes, roles that will make the reader angry at the injustice, and proud of the accomplishments. Nelson (in the voice of the elderly grandmother) takes the reader from the “birth” of nation in 1776 through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That’s 200 years of history in 100 beautifully illustrated pages; each chapter is about eight pages long, split evenly between full-page text and full-page illustration. I read the book aloud in several sittings to our younger (7 and 9 years) children; our 13-year-old read it on his own. The short chapters break up the dense text, and make a natural stopping point for discussion.
Nelson make the story personal to the fictional narrator. At the author’s breakfast during the recent NEIBA Fall Conference, Nelson explained that he was inspired to write the history after reading an interview with a 100-year-old African American woman who voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 elections. He began to speak to his own family members and dug deeper to hear of slaves in his lineage, descendants of native Americans, and people who migrated north to escape Jim Crow and to look for work. The emotion of Nelson’s personal connection comes through in the words of the narrator – this isn’t simply history, this is a family (and a nation’s) story.
The Epilogue continues the letter from the grandmother, telling the children:
Our centuries-long struggle for freedom and equal rights had helped make the American promise of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness a reality for all Americans. We have come a mighty long way, honey, and we still have a good ways to go, but that promise and the right to fight for it is worth every ounce of its weight in gold. It is our nation’s heart and soul.
Kadir Nelson dedicates this beautiful book:
For my family … and for every American family whose invaluable contributions and stories have helped stitch the grand quilt of these United States.
Illustrations (painted) are vivid and expressive; Nelson fills the page - these are not simply accents to the written word, they are an integral part of the story. Some of the illustrations are made to look like family photographs from an old album or scrapbook, rather than depicting historical events; this furthers the connection of Heart and Soul as a family story, with Americans being one very large family.
Kadir Nelson received Caldecott Honors for two previous works: Henry’s Freedom Box (Ellen Levine) and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Carole Boston Weatherford).
Heart and Soul has most of the tools you’d expect from a reference book: illustrations are captioned, there’s a timeline (1565 – 2009), an extensive bibliography, and a complete index. The only piece I didn’t find is a table of contents – perhaps starting the book as a story/letter makes it more inviting to young readers.
Highly recommended for the home, school, and public library.