Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson

Cindy: “Most folks my age and complexion don’t speak much about the past. Sometimes it’s just too hard to talk about…So it’s important that you pay attention, honey, because I’m only going to tell you this story but once.”

Fortunately for us, the story has been captured in a gorgeous book so we can read it again and again. I was skeptical that Kadir Nelson, talented as he is, could pull off a solid history of a country and a people, within 100 pages but I needn’t have worried. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (Harper/Balzer & Bray 2011) is a masterpiece. Written as a  storytelling from an elder, Nelson includes major events and historical figures but weaves in the viewpoint and history based on his own family.

From slaves helping build the colonies starting in the mid 1500s to the election of the first African American president, Nelson has a lot of material to cover.  The expected portraits are here: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Joe Lewis, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, a Tuskegee pilot, a jazz musician, Little Rock school children, etc. The famous intertwine with the everyman and everywoman and everychild who struggled and fought for progress and for the betterment of their country.

The history of our country is full of painful times, shameful behavior, and horrific indelible images. It also includes compassion and heroism in everyday acts…the text reflects that positive part of the history as well as the painful. Need I mention that the illustrations are stunning? Full page paintings and double page spreads illustrate the journey. What a great read aloud this would make for classrooms at all levels. The text is engaging and the illustrations will show beautifully to a large group or work as easily for a lap read. This is a holiday gift book for sure, but teachers would be wise not to miss this one. I would be even more heartened if this book motivated children to listen to the stories of their elders…to understand our country’s major events in the context of their own family history.

Lynn: Cindy has done a wonderful job of the real work of reviewing this stellar book and I couldn’t agree with her more.  There is so much that I admire in this book but rather than do an extensive “me too” to Cindy’s thoughts, I want to focus on two of the elements.  First, the paintings in this book moved me beyond words.  The use of light to focus the eye, the powerful depiction of faces full of determination and pain looking forward – each one impacted both my heart and my head.  Astonishing and powerful, the paintings stand alone to tell a story all by themselves.

There is also a story in words and that story moved me just as much.  I salute Nelson’s choice in making this a personal story in the tradition of oral history storytelling.  “Pay attention, honey,” and we do because this need for story is in our blood and bones.  As humans we NEED story like we need food and water.  I saw it daily in our students, a need they didn’t even know they had.   I watched them sit, raptly, for booktalks because booktalking is really just storytelling.  They drink in story, crave it and are starved for it in our modern world with its pace and technology.  Heart and Soul is storytelling – the story of family – “Pay attention, honey” and we do.  Like Cindy, I hope this book encourages us all to remember, share and treasure all our stories.  Thank you, Kadir Nelson for sharing this one.

Please visit A Curious Thing for other Nonfiction Monday reviews.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees.

4 Comments on "Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson"

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  1. I’ve been salivating about this book ever since I’ve heard of it – I ordered my heart to be still when I saw that you have a review of this book. I am literally dying of envy. I am hoping our libraries here in Singapore would have this by early next year. :)

  2. harlana@stpatsdc.org' Anne H. says:

    The pictures ARE gorgeous, and the text is very engaging. But doesn’t anyone else think the book is a little whitewashed? It looks to me as if the publisher said, “No politics and no religion.” Where is W.E.B. DuBois? There is nothing about the power of African American churches. James Baldwin? Malcom X appears in the index as “Malcolm Shabazz” under “M”!?

    • I can’t speak for the author, Anne, but I can give you my take on it. It is presented as a family story, a tale of what was important to the narrator and her family not as an exhaustive history. In order to be true to that and to make the size of the book manageable, choices were made and events, people and topics got left out. I too noticed “absences” but I personally was not bothered by that. Each of us would make different choices if we were telling our own grandchildren, a story of our family throughout history. I didn’t feel that it avoided a particular topic. Instead I thought it was a story that included the reality of oppression and suffering but was also one that celebrated strength, determination and accomplishment. I don’t think you are alone, though, in commenting on things that were omitted but I, at least, am not bothered by omissions. – Lynn

      As to the index issue, I have not done an extensive review of the index but that is certainly an error. Thanks for pointing that out.

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