Books help young African-Americans learn their heritage, celebrate Kwanzaa

The African-American holiday of Kwanzaa, which begins Monday and lasts for seven days, provides an antidote to the commercialization and consumer excesses of Christmas.

Lavish gifts aren't the focus of Kwanzaa. Created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at Cal State-Long Beach, Kwanzaa is based upon different African customs.


It celebrates the Nguzo Saba, which is Swahili for seven principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

In keeping with the spirit of Kuumba, children often create zawadi (handmade) gifts for friends and relatives. And if gifts are bought, they are usually books about African-American culture or history. Here are a few suggestions:


* An excellent primer for families unfamiliar with Kwanzaa is "The Seven Days of Kwanzaa: How To Celebrate Them," by Angela Shelf Medearis (Scholastic, $2.95, 112 pages, all ages).

Ms. Medearis provides plenty of information about the origin of the holiday. She gives a suggested menu for a karamu feast -- a dinner with family and friends held on Dec. 31 -- and includes easy-to-follow recipes for all the courses: North African orange salad, Ashanti peanut soup, Gambian fish caldou, okra with corn, Ugandan spinach and sesame seeds, black-eyed peas and rice (Hoppin' John), basked sweet potatoes with spiced butter, Liberian rice bread, Caribbean fruit punch and Sengalese cookies.

The author also spells out directions for seven gifts to make. And Ms. Medearis closes with seven biographies families can read aloud, one for each night of Kwanzaa. First is the story of Sheyann Webb, who was 8 when she took part in the first Selma-to-Montgomery march with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965.

The other brief profiles are of Wilma Rudolph, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, Marcus Garvey, James Van DerZee and Fannie Lou Hamer. This book is a worthwhile resource.

* "Crafts for Kwanzaa" by Kathy Ross, illustrated by Sharon Lane Holm (Millbrook Press, $6.95, 48 pages, all ages), gives directions for 20 projects that kids can make.

They include a simple mkeka mat woven with black, red and green construction paper; party favors that look like Kwanzaa candles (they're made from toilet-paper rolls and tissue paper); a trivet shaped like a pumpkin; and beads made from a dough of sand and white glue.

The directions and illustrations are so clear, even a klutz can use this book to get creative.

* "Families: Poems Celebrating the African American Experience," selected by Dorothy S. Strickland and Michael R. Strickland, illustrations by John Ward (Wordsong, Boyds Mills Press, $14.95, 32 pages, all ages), is a collection guaranteed to warm the coldest December day.


Among the poets included in the anthology are Langston Hughes, Eloise Greenfield, Arnold Adoff, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lindamichellebaron and Nikki Giovanni, who has three contributions, including "The Drum":

daddy says the world is

a drum tight and hard

and i told him

i'm gonna beat

out my own rhythm


* Floyd Cooper is one of today's most talented children's book illustrators. His twilight colors and earth tones illuminate "Grandpa's Face," "Chita's Christmas Tree," "From Miss Ida's Porch," "The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars" and "Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea."

Now comes the first book he has written and illustrated, "Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes" (Philomel, $15.95, 32 pages, ages 4-10).

TC It is an inspirational story, capturing the loneliness of Mr. Hughes' childhood. His parents left him to live alone with his grandmother on a farm in Lawrence, Kan. Before she grew too old to speak, his grandma told him stories of her work on the Underground Railroad, of his two uncles who were Buffalo soldiers and of another uncle, John Mercer Langston, an Oklahoma congressman who was the first black American to hold public office.

Langston Hughes the dreamer was shaped by those tales, and he wrote poems and stories to share his dreams with others. "Coming Home" was clearly a labor of love for Mr. Cooper, and we're fortunate that he decided to share it.

* Another poet with an inspiring life story is Maya Angelou. Children too young for her autobiographical series, which begins with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," can learn about her in "Meet Maya Angelou," by Valerie Spain (A Bullseye Biography, Random House, $3.50, 94 pages, ages 7-12).

Ms. Spain recounts Ms. Angelou's often harsh childhood. When she was 7, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. Ms. Spain writes about it in veiled terms, never using the word rape and leaving readers confused. For the most part, though, the profile is well-written and thoughtful.


It's too bad there's no bibliography, and it's also a shame that the editors, lacking photos from Ms. Angelou's childhood, decided to use stills from the TV movie "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."