WESTFIELD-Westfield Athenaeum staffers are gearing up for Black History Month with challenges, virtual displays, and a host of recommended reads by African American authors.
Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month, according to the History Channel. The annual celebration marks the achievements of African Americans and recognizes their central role in this country’s history.
The Westfield News asked several librarians at the Westfield Athenaeum to share their ideas on books to read – and the selections are varied from personal experience to fictional tales of fantasy.
Kat Good-Schiff, reference and local history librarian, said her choice is “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.
“Similar in scope to Alex Haley’s ‘Roots,’ Homegoing traces the lives and descendants of two sisters over 300 years, one who grows up in west Africa and one who is kidnapped and enslaved in the United States,” said Good-Schiff. “It is a powerful history lesson that’s also touching and beautifully written.”
Gretchen Hohmeyer, digital services librarian, recommends reading “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“I listened to ‘Between the World and Me’ on audio, and it was an incredibly moving experience,” said Hohmeyer. “Coates wrote this book ostensibly for his son, and the experience he will have growing up as an African American male in this country. It is at once reflective, sad, and inspiring. While there is no wrong way to read this book, listening to Coates himself speak the moving words he has written for his child makes the book even more powerful.”
Hohmeyer added the book is a “quick and yet necessary read.”
Olivia Eberli, head of youth services and young adult librarian, has two recommendations for young adult books – “Children of Blood and Bone” by Toni Adeyemi and “Concrete Rose” by Angie Thomas.
“The first in a trilogy, ‘Children of Blood and Bone’ has already been picked up for a movie series,” said Eberli. “Toni Adeyemi builds a beautiful fantasy world inspired by African culture. The constant action, budding romances, and political intrigue will keep you on the edge of your seat.”
Eberli notes that “Children of Blood and Bone” is 531 pages, while “Concrete Rose” is 320 pages.
“In this prequel to ‘The Hate U Give,’ Angie Thomas revisits Garden Heights to examine Black boyhood and the transition to manhood,” said Eberli. “The book is highly recommended for fans of ‘The Hate U Give.’”
Chapter books made the list of recommended books by Theresa Boulrice, assistant head of youth services. Boulrice suggests “Ghost,” by Jason Reynolds, “Akata Witch,” by Nnedi Okorafor, and “New Kid,” by Jerry Craft.
“Jason Reynolds is a master storyteller,” said Boulrice, adding, “all of his books are amazing. For middle grade readers though, I have to recommend ‘Ghost’ for its quick pacing and its amazing and very human main character.”
Boulrice added that Okorafor is at the forefront of “giving us fantasy steeped in African culture.”
Boulrice said “Akata Witch” is a “refreshing break” from European culture based fantasy.
“I highly recommend it for all fantasy fans,” Boulrice added.
Boulrice said that “New Kid” is an “amazing graphic novel” that captures the struggles of an African American boy as he tries to live in two worlds – his neighborhood and the well-to-do school he attends.
“It really brings home the African American experience,” said Boulrice.
Boulrice also shared her thoughts on two picture books, “Hair Love” by Matthew Cherry and “I Got the Rhythm” by Connie Schofield-Morrison.
“This is a beautiful ode to the relationship between a father and daughter,” said Boulrice of “Hair Love.”
In “I Got the Rhythm,” Boulrice said “I love the character in this fun picture book as she dances to the rhythm of her neighborhood.”
Anne Brossard, circulation librarian, recommends “This is Your Time” by Ruby Bridges since it reminds her of iconic moments in history that have personal costs.
“In this book, Ruby Bridges recounts her experiences of being 6-years-old and the first black girl to attend an all-white school in New Orleans,” said Brossard. “Her words and memories along with the remarkable photographs bring to light so many realities that most of us have never considered about her experience. This book is an amazing, very personal view into the civil rights movement.”
In previous years, several displays throughout the Athenaeum each month would highlight books like the ones mentioned, as well as a multitude of others. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the book displays have been “virtual displays” now for months.
“I have been doing virtual displays every Sunday on our social media while we’ve been shut down,” said Hohmeyer. “We select a group of books, record them, and post them to our Facebook page. Each Saturday in February will feature a different set of books by African American authors to aid all readers in selection for the reading challenge or their own interests.”
Hohmeyer added that the monthly reading challenge runs on the program Beanstack with a different theme each month.
“Readers can get virtual badges for each challenge completed and have the opportunity to attend a Reader’s Chat each month to discuss their book choice(s) with other participants,” said Hohmeyer. “The Reader’s Chats take place on the fourth Tuesday at 6:30 on Zoom and registration is on our website.”
For February, challenge participants are to read a book written by an African American author of any genre.
For more information on any of the programs or services of the Athenaeum, visit www.westath.org or call (413) 568-7833.