Heroes and stories help bring history alive

History can be difficult for children to understand, but you can engage them with a hero they admire, a story that grips them and an appealing first-person voice. This winter, in the flurry of fiction and nonfiction releases, there are strong narrative voices that bring identification and insight to today's children.

Kelly Starling Lyons brings to life the Million Man March with a witnessing voice in "One Million Men and Me" (Just Us Books, $16.95, ages 6-9). Based on her own experience, the author invents a series of glorious descriptions and a young girl who feels like a princess as she walks with men "like a quilt of moving pieces," seeing faces "wrinkled and smooth ... rainbow of chocolate, graham cracker brown, and cream" who come to "pray and take responsibility" on "the Day a million Black men stood shoulder to shoulder, the day history was made with one million men and me." Starling Lyons, a former News & Observer writer, has a gift for taking an event almost too big for young children to imagine and creating images they can comprehend, encouraging them to discover more about this historic event.

Fiction based on truth creates story strength in Elisa Carbone's "Night Running: How James Escaped with the Help of His Faithful Dog" (Knopf, $16.99, ages 7-10). E.B. Lewis' poignant watercolors accompany Carbone's lyrical telling by James, a young boy who tries to flee West Virginia's slavery without Zeus, the old farm dog who loves him, because he fears the hound's bad barking habits. Slowly the boy learns that Zeus is an asset rather than a liability. Zeus' baying alerts him to the presence of slave-catchers and their dogs, and Zeus even saves him from drowning. When James finally reaches freedom at the home of protective Quakers, he won't enter "if my dog is not welcome at your house." A final illustration shows boy and dog curled up cozily together in the "sweet-smelling hay in the barn."

Poet Carole Boston Weatherford dons the persona of a famous adventurer in "I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer" (Walker, $16.95, ages 8 and up). In adolescence, Henson climbs in ranks of ship personnel, fighting stereotyping because his "dreams had sails." Those dreams speed the young man on his path until he becomes Admiral Peary's "right-hand man," exploring the Arctic in the early 20th century. He's pitted against frostbite, frozen seas, sudden storms, hunger, poverty and worst of all, discrimination. Henson's challenges are voiced in a string of negatives beginning with "I did not start as a cabin boy" ending with "I had not stuck by Peary for two decades." These negatives create a narrative driving force that sets up contrasts with Henson's string of successes achieved by hard work, intelligence and steely determination.

Illustrator-writer and jazz musician Robert Parker's first-person present-tense writing lends immediacy to his "Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum" (Random, $16.99, ages 7-10) Tatum's parents love music and their son. They see that the rhythms and feel of the piano make up for Art's failing sight. Parker focuses most of the book on Tatum's early life with a wealth of sensory details that put us firmly in the body of the boy and later the man who thrives with the help of community and music. Both Parker's watercolors and the text accent Art's dreamy nature and give a strong sense of how this helped him create songs that "weave in and out and through" others.

Caldecott-honor winner Kadir Nelson unifies words and paintings in "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball" (Hyperion, 18.99, ages 10 and up). Nelson became fascinated with the Negro League in college and worked eight years to complete this remarkable book. Stunning art is generously sprinkled through text with double spreads, fold-outs and full page paintings. There's league initiator Rube Foster keeping accounts as respectful players look on. Their downcast faces show strong emotions, their beautiful brown skin standing out against the barn red color of the train behind them. Are they recovering from the trip? Wondering what discrimination faces them in this new town? Nelson, an illustrator, shows innovation in his first written book as he gives collective voice to all the players, the "we" of the league. As they write of the years between the 1920s and 1947, we meet organizers, players, supporters and detractors. We watch them face prejudice and live the joy of playing ball as if we have box seats behind home plate!

A white protagonist is the hero of Evelyn Coleman's short novel "Freedom Train" (McElderry Books, $15.99, ages 9-11). In the 1940s poverty of Atlanta, Clyde Thomason has something to be proud of. His older brother is traveling with the Freedom Train, which carries important documents like the Declaration of Independence and will stop in cities with integrated crowds only. Clyde's world is far from integrated. Though his parents are loving and kind, finances and a bullying boss dominate their decisions. Clyde's relationship with William, the African-American son of a doctor, shows him that kindness crosses race lines and helps him stand up for right action against the hatred of whites.

Christopher Paul Curtis won the Coretta Scott King Novel award and a Newbery Honor with "Elijah of Buxton" (Scholastic, $16.99, ages 9 and up). Elijah, the first freeborn black child in a Canadian settlement, feels he doesn't measure up. Maybe it started when he threw up all over Frederick Douglass. When will people see him as an adult? He proves himself when he enters the United States to rescue the family of a hardworking man from his settlement. The book is peppered with funny dialogue, startling perspectives, powerful emotions and a winning main character.

Other great new books you don't want to miss:

"Jazz on a Saturday Night" by Leo and Diane Dillon (Blue Sky Press, $16.99, ages 5-adult).

"Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells" by Philip Dray (Peachtree, $18.95, ages 8 and up).

"Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali" by Charles Smith Jr. (Candlewick, $19.99, ages 9 and up).