HEART AND SOUL (reviewed on July 15, 2011)

In an undertaking even more ambitious than the multiple-award-winningWe Are the Ship (2008), Nelson tells the story of African-Americans and their often central place in American history.
Directly after the prologue, the narrative begins with the U.S. Capitol, built by slaves and freeman before Nelson steps back and shows the intricate ways American and African-American history were intertwined from the earliest days of the country’s founding. Using an unnamed female narrator, Nelson fashions a unique mode of storytelling that is both historical and personal. The narrator guides readers through major events in American history through the perspective of, first, enslaved people, then those legally free but hindered by discrimination and, finally, citizens able to fully participate in American life following the Civil Rights Movement. As with any work by this talented artist, the accompanying illustrations are bold and arresting. The dramatic oil paintings heighten the dignity of this story, whether they are of well-known historical figures, common folk or landscape. With such a long time period to cover, the careful choices Nelson makes of which stories to tell make this a successful effort. While there is little room for historical nuance, Nelson does include the way events such as World War I and the fight for woman suffrage affected the Black community. 

This intimate narrative makes the stories accessible to young readers and powerfully conveys how personal this history feels for many African-Americans. (Nonfiction. 10 & up)


Nelson, the creator of We Are the Ship (2008), recipient of both a Coretta Scott King Author Award and a Robert F. Siebert Medal, adds to his notable titles with this powerful view of African American history. Illustrated with 44 full-page paintings, including both portraits and panoramic spreads, this handsome volume is told in the fictionalized, informal voice of an African American senior looking back on her life and remembering what her elders told her. The tone is intimate, even cozy, as the speaker addresses a contemporary “honey chile” and shares historical accounts that sometimes take a wry view of inequality: about a journey north, for example, she observes that “Jim Crow has made the trip right along with us.” Grim struggle is always present in her telling, though, and the passages include the horror of race riots, illustrated with a terrifying painting of a burning cross. With such a broad time frame, there is a lot to fit into a100 or so pages, but Nelson effectively captures the roles of ordinary people in landmark events (“We called ourselves the Freedom Riders”) while presenting famous leaders who changed the world, from Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks to Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and, finally, President Barack Obama. A detailed time line and a bibliography of books and DVDs closes this powerful, accessible history which will find wide circulation in both schools and public libraries.— Hazel Rochman

School Library Journal

starred review

Expanding his focus from the close-up view of history applied in previous books, Nelson uses his formidable skills for the larger landscape: the black experience in America from slavery to the presidency. Like most surveys, the book is organized by struggles and wars; unlike traditional overviews, the facts are filtered through the eyes of a black woman with attitude to spare. This invented narrator, whose “Pap” was kidnapped as a child in Africa and whose brothers fought in World War II, does not suffer fools. Her colloquial commentary, addressed to “honey” or “chile,” introduces and interprets the events. Occasionally her voice drops out, and a more textbooklike tone prevails, but mostly her presence provides the heart and soul of the story; readers will care about this information because they care about her. Nelson’s oil portraits and tableaux consistently display technical virtuosity, drama, and dignity. From single-page compositions of historical personalities (Frederick Douglass, Joe Louis, Rosa Parks) and representative characters (a Revolutionary War soldier, students at Woolworth’s) to full-spread, murallike scenes of a slave ship, a battle, a big band, Nelson varies the viewpoint and contrasts light and darkness to tell a riveting tale. The purpose is presented in the prologue and recast in the epilogue and author’s note: “You have to know where you came from so you can move forward.” Provocative and powerful, this book offers a much-needed perspective for individuals of all ages seeking to understand America’s past and present.–Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library

Publishers Weekly

starred review

As in We Are the Ship, Nelson knits together the nation's proudest moments with its most shameful, taking on the whole of African-American history, from Revolutionary-era slavery up to the election of President Obama. He handles this vast subject with easy grace, aided by the voice of a grandmotherly figure who's an amalgam of voices from Nelson's own family. She does not gloss over the sadness and outrage of her family's history, but her patient, sometimes weary tone ("The law didn't do a thing to stop it," she says about the Ku Klux Klan. "Shoot, some of the men wearing the sheets were lawmen") makes listeners feel the quiet power that survival requires. In jaw-dropping portraits that radiate determination and strength, Nelson paints heroes like Frederick Douglass and Joe Louis, conferring equal dignity on the slaves, workers, soldiers, and students who made up the backbone of the African-American community. The images convey strength and integrity as he recounts their contributions, including "the most important idea ever introduced to America by an African American"--Dr. King's nonviolent protest. A tremendous achievement. Ages 9–up. (Aug.)

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