Juneteenth reading list: Black authors on science, conservation and the environment

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June 19th — Juneteenth — commemorates the day the last enslaved people were emancipated in the United States in 1865, although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed January 1, 1863. At MDLT, we celebrate the fiction and nonfiction writings by black authors that continue to shape our culture, contribute to conservation awareness, celebrate exploration, and acknowledge the ongoing work towards equality still necessary over 150 years later.

Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner
By Janice N. Harrington

Charles Henry Turner (1867–1923) was an animal behaviorist who pioneered the science of entomology, specializing in the study of social insects. Born just after the end of the Civil War, he also became a well-known early civil rights activist. Buzzing with Questions is a non-fiction picture book about all the questions Charles Henry Turner had about the natural world and the racism he faced in trying to pursue the sciences in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Author Janice Harrington and artist Theodore Taylor III capture the life of this inspiring scientist and educator in an enthusiastic, meaningful, and beautifully written way. This book is geared toward children 6–10 years old, but together as a family you can learn more about him, his pioneering work, and his fight to end racism. I know that reading this book piqued my curiosity to learn more about his inspiring life story.

— Mary Cook-Rhyne, MDLT Education Coordinator

Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers
By John C. Robinson

John C. Robinson says anyone can become a birder and he makes Birding for Everyone a fun, engaging read that inspires you to go outdoors and look at the world from an explorer’s lens.

He encourages birders and the birding industry to unite in supporting global efforts to ensure our natural resources remain available for generations to come. This book can help readers of all ages learn to appreciate the need for conservation while celebrating bird watching and our natural, diverse world.

Bird watching is a favorite hobby for millions of people and perfect activity for the whole family. This book is not about the endangerment of a particular species or habitat, but about the endangerment of conservation itself. It includes outreach programs that invite more people of diverse cultures and backgrounds to enjoy nature through birds.

— Michael Mora, MDLT Director of Outreach and Public Engagement

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature
By J. Drew Lanham

Dr. J. Drew Lanham is an ornithologist and professor at Clemson University and so much more, but you’ll have to read the book to find out. Dr. Lanham’s own story of growing up in South Carolina is richly detailed as he discusses how he became enamored with the natural world, especially as the only black man in a predominantly white field.

You should read his book because it is hopeful, poetic, and full of meaning. The way he weaves his life’s story with imagery and science is exquisitely expressed. Dr. Lanham has been awarded and nominated for many awards, including for his book of poetry Sparrow Love. Adults and older youth will love this book; you can also enjoy watching Dr. Lanham through his YouTube videos on how to get into birding and the work that he does to get young minority students outdoors. I have never really liked poetry, but I’ve found that Dr. Lanham’s poems weave in science and that’s made me want to read more.

— Mary Cook-Rhyne, MDLT Education Coordinator

Life is beautiful!
By Keb’ Mo’

Do you want to read a heartfelt, lyrically-written picture book while helping support the planting of trees? Look no further than Life is Beautiful by GRAMMY® Award-winning artist Keb’ Mo’. The story and prose are touching and perfect for a family to read together. Marco Furlotti’s illustrations are whimsical and gorgeously drawn. This book was written by Keb’ for his grandson, but it really reminds all family members that life is truly beautiful and wonderous if we share it together. Be prepared to tear up reading through — I know I did. This book is easy enough for children around 5–8 years old to read to themselves but can be used as a read aloud by parents to kids of any age, which is what I recommend. Keb’ Mo’ is an advocate for education, preservation of the blues, and is involved in a variety of charity work. His music is melodic and filled with meaningful stories to tell. In partnership with Trees for the Future (TREES), each book sold plants a tree.

— Mary Cook-Rhyne, MDLT Education Coordinator

The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just
By Mélina Mangal

Black Biologist Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941) studied and published many scientific papers on fertilization of the microscopic cells of invertebrate marine animals. Because of the racism and discrimination he faced, he eventually moved to France since it was more welcoming than the United States. There he studied and published one of the most important books on the origin of life through its early development. Author Mélina Mangal writes about this continually curious and observant scientist who noticed things others didn’t, and never gave up learning or studying.

The book follows Dr. Just’s early life through him becoming a professor at Howard University. It is a wonderfully illustrated non-fiction picture book that is perfect for youth aged 6–11 years old. Dr. Just is a perfect example of perseverance and tenacity. If families want to read more about his life story, you’ll find that he was the first person to receive the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for outstanding young scientist. He also was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1940 and was freed with the help of his in-laws. He never gave up the pursuit of learning more and furthering science. We can all learn from Dr. Ernest Everett Just — keep asking questions.

— Mary Cook-Rhyne, MDLT Education Coordinator

Note to the reader: I thoroughly enjoyed reading and learning about new authors and historic figures. It was immensely fun doing extra research on each person. Juneteenth is about emancipation and freedom, but we need to make sure we celebrate and acknowledge the black experience in America all the time, not just today. Dr. Turner argued that only through education can the behavior of racism be changed. I believe this starts with literature and reading from a young age. Let’s all learn and grow together. — Mary Cook-Rhyne

We always advocate supporting your favorite independently-owned local bookshop, but that might not be an option for some titles. If you do shop with Amazon, might we suggest using smile.amazon.com and selecting Mojave Desert Land Trust as your charity of choice — Amazon will then donate .5% of your purchase back to us!

The ultimate desert reading list