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Heart and Soul

The Story of America and African Americans

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


Cover for Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson Coretta Scott King Award Winner

Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson is a remarkable book for children. While many books in picture book format tell the story of a single person or aspect of African-American history, in a little more than 100 pages, Nelson provides an overview of U.S. history and the lives of African Americans from the Revolutionary War era to the present. Adding to its impact, Heart and Soul features Nelson's dramatic paintings on every double-page spread. Many are striking portraits of African Americans, both well-known and unknown. This is a excellent book for the entire family to share.

The Significance of "Voice" in Heart and Soul

Kadir Nelson's choice of "voice" makes the book more accessible and more interesting. It's not dry facts but the story of real families. In an Author's Note at the end of the book, Nelson explains, "I knew I could not convey the whole story in a hundred pages, so I felt the most natural and concise way to tell the tale would be through the recollection of a narrator whose family history was very closely tied to the American story." Nelson goes on to relate how he interviewed family members, listened to their stories and looked at family photographs as part of his research in preparation for writing the book. He continues, "I wanted to share these stories in the way I heard and saw them, through the words and family photos of an elder African American, a grandmother-like figure who would allow me to focus on major historical milestones that affected both her family and the rest of the country." The Prologue sets the tone of the story with the very first sentence, "Most folks my age and complexion don't speak much about the past."

More About the Illustrations and Format

At first glance, Heart and Soul looks like a traditional picture book, but it's not. The book is 108 pages long. In addition to the illustrated history of America and African Americans, the book includes a prologue, epilogue, author's note, timeline, bibliography and index. This history book is designed in picture book format in that every page of text faces a full-page illustration and there are also several large illustrations that cover a full double-page spread. From the framed sepia-toned portrait of the narrator as a young girl that faces the first page of the Prologue to the full color portraits and scenes of well-known and little known African Americans, Kadir Nelson's dramatic paintings serve as an invitation to readers to look carefully, to think about what they see and read, and to read on to learn more.

Heart and Soul: The Time Period Covered

How did Kadir Nelson decide where to start his book? His Author's Note provides some insight. "Although our beginnings were not free of blemish, the work of navigating through the marvelous words of Declaration of Independence and the contradictory inhumane and discriminatory practices of the new country would help define the nation's character over the span of hundreds of years. It is a story of the country's continuing challenges of coming-of-age."

The book's chapters reflect the book's emphasis: Chapter 1. Declaration of Independence, 2. Slavery, 3. Abolition, 4. Lincoln's War, 5. Reconstruction, 6. Cowboys and Indians: Native American and Westward Negroes, 7. Turn of the Century and the Great Migration, 8. Harlem and the Vote for Women, 9. Hard Times and World War II, 10. Black Innovation, 11. Jim Crow's A-Dying, 12. Revolution. The final chapter ends with the signing of the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, following by a large double page spread painting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his "I Have a Dream" speech. In the Epilogue, the narrator covers the subsequent years up to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. An accompanying full-page painting shows the hands of an African American holding a red, white and blue "I voted" button.

The Author and Illustrator: Kadir Nelson

While Kadir Nelson is most well-known as an artist and children's book illustrator, in recent years he has also become both a children's book author and illustrator. Kadir Nelson wrote and illustrated We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, which is on my Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2008 list. Nelson received the 2009 Coretta Scott King Author Award for We Are the Ship, which was also honored as a 2009 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. He received the same awards for Heart and Soul in the 2012 Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

Among the books Nelson has illustrated are A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis by Matt De la Pena, Ellington Was Not A Street by Ntozake Shange, Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, MOSES: When Harriet Tubman Led her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Change Has Come: An Artist Celebrates Our American Spirit, with Nelson's drawings and the words of Barack Obama.

In a CNN interview that focused on Heart and Soul, Nelson said, "African-American history is full of drama and really interesting stories and paradoxes that I’m really drawn to. And being African-American myself, having grown up learning this history, I really enjoy telling it in my own way." (Source: January 24th, 2012, CNN Q&A)

Heart and Soul: My Recommendation

I recommend Heart and Soul for middle grade readers and for families to share together as a read aloud to enjoy and discuss together. The book provides a valuable overview of American and African-American history from the Revolutionary War era to the present. Because it provides a broad overview, reading it will provide context for young readers when they read other books about specific aspects of Africa American history and the history of America, such as the Jim Crow era.

More Children's Books About African-American History

Portraits of African American Heroes by Tonya Boldon, with illustrations by Ansel Pitcairn, Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters by Andrea Davis Pinkney, with illustrations by Stephen Alcorn, and Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigueare, are three children's books about African-Americans and African-American history that I recommend. Two other children's books that I particularly like are My People, a picture book edition of the poem by Langston Hughes, illustrated with stunning sepia-toned photographs by Charles R. Smith, Jr. and Ruth and the Green Book, a picture book set in the Jim Crow era, by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, with illustrations by Floyd Cooper.

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