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Charting the sea change in diversity of children’s books, from the 1950s to now

Back in the 1950s, I walked around the block to my local library in Castro Valley — a first taste of independence at the age of 8. I loved the blond Swedish triplets Flicka, Ricka and Dicka. I loved reading about the Founding Fathers plus some Betsy Ross. Then there were the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Lovelace and some Beverly Cleary.

By current standards, the library shelves (and my favorites) were devoid of diversity and real-life angst. But much has changed, as can be seen in four new books that give visibility to the once unseen and recognition to subjects once taboo. I can’t help but compare what was available back in my day to what is available today.

“The Undefeated” (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 40 pages; $17.99; ages 4-7) by Kwame Alexander. Photo: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I first learned about slavery from singing Stephen Foster in fourth grade and reading about “docile” servants in 180-page biographies.  Shocking, in retrospect. Now we do better. Example: A short but sweeping journey through African American experience fills “The Undefeated” by Kwame Alexander; illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 40 pages; $17.99; ages 4-7). The prefix “-un” unifies a pantheon of powerful words to recall a proud but often painful past. “Unforgettable” for those like Jesse Owens; “unflappable” for painters and poets; “unafraid” for audacious black soldiers fighting for an imperfect Union; “unspeakable” for the Middle Passage slave trade and later murdered youth in Birmingham, Ala., and Ferguson, Mo.; “unlimited” for Martin Luther King  and a legion of athletes; and “unbelievable” for the musicians. Dramatic oil paintings expand on a deeply personal poem to showcase “dreamers and doers,” united in solemn testimony: Black history matters.

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