[review] the abcs of black history by rio cortez and lauren semmer

#59 in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the alphabet

A is for anthem, a banner of song
that wraps us in hope, lets us know we belong.
We lift up our voices, lift them and sing.
From stages and street corner, let freedom ring.

Surely there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to describe all the goodness contained in The ABCs of Black History by Rio Cortez and Lauren Semmer (Workman, 2020). From its rallying Anthem to its triumphant Zenith, this abecedarian is, I dare say, letter perfect.

Now, if I absolutely had to choose one letter to capture the book’s essence, perhaps it would be “R,” as it’s rich, radiant, rousing, readable, and resourceful. But that would only begin to describe it, because in addition to being an inventive alphabet book celebrating Black history and culture, it’s also a story of strength, persistence, and resilience, a timely call to action, and a loving praise song of hope, creativity, and pride.

Written in lively rhyming couplets, the engaging, conversational text draws the reader in right away by addressing him/her directly with the letter “B.”

B is for beautiful — I’m talking to you!
Your voice, your height, your hair, your hue.

B is for brave, for bright, and for bold.
For those who STOOD UP — even when they were told
to step back, stand down, remember their place.

B is for brotherhood, for believing in grace.

Now that the reader feels seen and validated, the enthusiastic narrator continues by using the collective “we” as she shares the seminal events, iconic figures and big ideas, values, and beliefs that define and characterize the African American experience.

Cortez features visionaries from a wide variety of disciplines — heroes, heroines, innovators, explorers, leaders and role models such as the often lauded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Benjamin Banneker, Barack and Michelle Obama, Shirley Chisholm, and Malcolm X, along with lesser known names like organizers Fred Hampton and Diane Nash, and Dr. Patricia Bath, the first African American ophthalmologist.

A vibrant letter “R” double page spread is devoted to sports figures Gabby Douglas, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Shani Davis, Althea Gibson, and Maame Biney, providing ample motivation for young readers to push harder, run faster, jump higher:

R is for rise, to reach for the top,
relentlessly striving, refusing to stop.
Like ballplayers, boxers, and gymnasts who fly,
sprinters and skaters who zoomed right on by
old records, old thinking — a sight to behold!
They went for the win and grabbed for the gold.

I especially love seeing those who excelled in the arts: musicians Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, and James Brown, as well as literary greats Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Needless to say, the letter “W” is one of my favorites, since it stands for “writers, whose wisdom and words bring to life worlds where our voices are heard.”

Though the overriding tone is celebratory and uplifting, with a pronounced sense of pride in so many notable accomplishments, we also learn about hardship, injustice, and the fierce struggle for freedom and equality.

The history of Blacks in America has been a history of protests, marches, sit-ins, and boycotts. For the letter “M,” Cortez’s deftly crafted verse and Semmer’s spirited illustration reference the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements, climate change, and gun violence, giving young readers an instructive glimpse of historic milestones as well as current, ongoing challenges.

Progress has been made, but there is more work to do; the strong “M” words make it clear that awareness, advocacy and participation are critical.

M is for march, for lifting our feet,
taking the movement, the cause to the street.

Black lives matter. Every breath, every dream —
Every thought, each idea, each impossible scheme.

The might of our message is easy to hear:
The drumbeat of hope is louder than fear.

Perhaps the most poignant and powerful letter of all is “U,” as it describes the most painful and horrific aspect of Black history:

U is for United States — this story is tough.
The birth of a nation was deadly for us.

We the people? In the land of the free?
No one who was enslaved would agree.

U is for unbroken, unshaken, unbound,
like Harriet Tubman, who went underground,
took back her freedom and freed hundreds more,
then was a spy in the great
Civil War.

But when the states
were united again,
the fight for our freedom
and lives didn’t end.
So U is for unfinished, this American tale.
With courage and strength, we will prevail!

From the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance, on to Juneteenth, Kwanzaa and the Black Panthers — so many fascinating things to learn about!

Feminists will be happy with the letter “Q,” which stands for Queens. We see an awesome roundtable of fierce females, ancient and modern, who have definitely made a name for themselves, among them, Nefertiti, Queen Amina, Queen Nandi, Angela Davis, and Leontyne Price.

Indeed, we should all “Behold and bow down!”

Famous achievers aside, we also get a good sense of how important family, faith, and fellowship are to the Black community. These are the ties that bind; they are a means of survival, the roots of unwavering strength.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the letter, “F”:

F is for food, grown and farmed with our hands,
worked and tilled and pulled from the land.

For fried fish, ham hocks, warm buttermilk bread,
or maybe the sharp taste of mustards instead.

F is for folklore by the light of the moon,
for family, for freedom, for jumping the broom.

Oh, yes!

Lauren Semmer’s vivid, detailed folk art-like illustrations sing with light and joy. Love the beautiful array of skin tones, patterns, colors, the energy and busy-ness of young and old, famous and ordinary folk in various settings, and the wonderful printed signs that speak volumes. She has truly created an appealing kaleidoscope showcasing action, accomplishment, and possibility.

This empowering, life affirming kid friendly book is actually suitable for all ages. It’s amazing just how much information Cortez was able to pack into 64 pages. Even the youngest readers can enjoy the alphabetic introduction to Black history via the poetic text and fascinating pictures, while older kids will find this an excellent springboard for further research (list of resources for further study in the front + end notes featuring more info about the people, places and events mentioned in the poem + some that are not).

Finally, what matters most? About midway through, we have the letter “L”:

L is for love. L is for love.
L is always for love.

This book is wrapped in love: Rio’s and Lauren’s love for creating it, our love of holding it in our hands and absorbing each and every bit, as we marvel, admire, learn, remember, open our minds and continue to work for positive change.

The book opens with this James Baldwin quote:

History is not the past.
It is the present.
We carry our history with us.
We are our history.

The stellar achievements of African Americans despite a history of oppression, heartbreak, pain and inequality are a testament to the indomitable human spirit. There is much to be said about taking pride in one’s heritage and living in a way that honors it. Books like these will inspire kids of all colors to move forward with hope and respect.

Enjoy this video of Rio Cortez reading the book.


written by Rio Cortez
illustrated by Lauren Semmer
published by Workman Publishing, December 2020
Picture Book for ages 5+, 64 pp.
*Includes Resources for Further Study + End Notes on Terms and Figures
**Starred Review** from Kirkus
***A New York Times Bestseller


The lovely and talented Michelle Kogan is hosting the Roundup this week. Be sure to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere, and have a happy holiday weekend!


♥️ More Alphabetica here.

Certified authentic alphabetica, made by hand with love and lots of hope for a better future for all.

*Interior spreads from The ABCs of Black History, text copyright © 2020 Rio Cortez, illustrations © 2020 Lauren Semmer, published by Workman. All rights reserved.

*This post contains both Amazon and Bookshop affiliate links. When you purchase an item through either of them, Jama’s Alphabet Soup will receive a small referral fee at no cost to you. Choose Bookshop to support independent bookstores.

**Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

20 thoughts on “[review] the abcs of black history by rio cortez and lauren semmer

  1. Oh my, Jama, I have been sad not to have read this book (on my list), there are so many holds for it at my library, a good thing, but not for me! I love every bit & the video, too! I hope every classroom could have a copy! Each page is a gem, but I love seeing that Harlem page and all those extraordinary people celebrated there. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jama, thank you for sharing this amazing book and the link to the video. I especially liked the letter U
    and its thought, “So U is for unfinished, this American tale.” The illustrations from the book cover to each page of the alphabet book. Your analysis of the book beginning with the letter R is accurate: “R,” as it’s rich, radiant, rousing, readable, and resourceful

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such a powerful and rich book, and wonderful review from you Jama! Thanks for highlighting the “F” words family, freedom, and food with its ability to bring folks together. And ”L” and all its love. I’ll be looking or ordering this richly art filled book from my Library—that I finally returned to this week!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy you were able to return to your library!! Ours will be going back to full services starting June 5 (though they’ve been on a modified schedule all through the pandemic and we were never really without library access).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jama, what a gorgeous book and a rich review. I loved watching Rio Cortez read the book too. Super thorough post, as I’m learning you are known for! Thank you! I’ve added it to my list to buy as soon as I get back to the U.S.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fun post, and oooh, look at the artwork!! And the “lyrics” are so snappy – because of your first image, I can’t shake the idea that this is a song. I think the Queens page is my favorite. We’d all include different folks, of course, but can’t fault the group there! I think I would add Shirley Chisholm but she was probably really busy that day…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Looks like such a lovely book! Thank you for introducing us to it! Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jama, I’m delighted to see this book! I “heard” that ABC books were “out.” But, I love them. I think it’s a great way to organize a PB and it’s nice to see an updated and fresh book on this topic! I would love to have this in my MS library as we get so few precious moments of captivated attention that a page or two of a book like this goes a long way in teaching these days. And, my library hosts a contest in which students create books…this is a superb mentor text! Thanks so much for introducing me to this title!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, this is definitely a good one for your library! Lots of info covered in just one book. And I didn’t hear that ABC books were “out.” Say it isn’t so!


  8. Wow, what a powerhouse of a book. I love the video of Rio Cortez reading it (and I’d say she has indeed mastered the art of reading/sharing the pictures on a par with my favorite librarians.) 🙂

    Love this! Another “must buy,” especially for my elementary-school-teacher daughter.


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