Friday, April 22, 2016

Heart and Soul (by Kadir Nelson)

AuthorKadir Nelson

Illustrator:  Kadir Nelson

Ages:  7 and up

Subjects:  American history, discrimination, civil rights, equality

Summary from the Publisher
The story of America and African Americans is a story of hope and inspiration and unwavering courage. 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.

My introduction to Heart and Soul was listening to the audio book.  This experience added to the authentic voice of the narrative.  Her intonations and cadence made me feel I was listening to a grand storyteller.  The narrator begins by telling the story of her ancestors, but the last nearly 100 years is seen through her first hand experience. 

The text effortlessly weaves between the personal voice of narrator and historical fact.  It is highly engaging to read or to listen to.  Nelson uses poetic language to heighten this non-fiction text.  For instance, he personifies the Jim Crow laws. Rather than coming across as some abstract, archaic part of history, the reader feels the enormous weight and influence of them.  Though I knew I was getting a history lesson, the language, point of view, and imagery reads like a well-written literary story. 

I, also, checked the book out from the library when I learned there are illustrations.  I am so glad I did!  Even though the book is broken into chapters based on chronological historical eras, it is also a picture book.  Each page of text is accompanied by a full-page picture.  Periodically, there are sweeping 2-page illustrations.  Kadir Nelson’s portraits of African Americans at various times in history are BETTER than actual photographs.  His colors are rich, and his paintings cover the emotion and tone of the narrative so aptly.  I just want to keep looking through the book over and over.  I could not help re-reading many sections as I was browsing through the illustrations.  (This book is one that I could re-read multiple times.)

When I first began listening to the audio, the perspective shook me a bit.  While I do expose myself and work to understand different cultural and historical perspectives, I never read the history of American through the eyes of a narrator like the one Nelson creates. It jostles the idealistic sentiments of the founding of America a bit in the beginning. The narrative makes the statement that the founding fathers could have extended freedom to everyone, which I feel simplifies the issue. Sure, it would have been nice—for women too.  However, I also realize that society was not there yet. I am thankful they laid the foundation of ideas that has progressively allowed every American to be free.  Nelson highlights the obstacles--physical, mental, and social--that people on all sides (but especially for African Americans) had to overcome. Overall, it was enlightening to see our history from this diverse perspective. 

For African American students, Heart and Soul instills a pride in their cultural and historic contributions. The specific accomplishments of many people are noted.  Some I was familiar with while many others were new to me.  There are many opportunities for projects and research to learn more. 

I highly recommend Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (click to see a video introduction).  It is a book that children, middle graders, teens, and adults can all appreciate and enjoy. 

Ideas for Extension Activities and Lesson Plans 
Teachers and parents can use this book to supplement and to extend history lessons.  A timeline, bibliography, and index are included in the book for easy reference. Here are some sites that provide more resources.  
Visit Susanna Hill's blog for Perfect Picturebook Friday.


  1. You also have a picture book with heart and soul! This sounds amazing! You make a good also--I'm sure it is very different perspective from our usual view of our country. Definitely worth seeking out. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Lindsey. It is definitely a different perspective. I hope you get a chance to read it.


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