cover image The Undefeated

The Undefeated

Kwame Alexander, illus. by Kadir Nelson. Versify, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-328-78096-6

Performed first on the ESPN show of the same name, this magnificent anthem to the courage and genius of black Americans has been turned into a picture book with stunning portraits by Nelson (Blue Sky, White Stars). “This is for the unforgettable,” Alexander (Out of Wonder) opens, “The swift and sweet ones/ who hurdled history/ and opened a world/ of possible.” Jesse Owens flies across the page, every limb outstretched, every muscle taut. Alexander’s praise is not just for well-known figures, though; he also writes about nameless heroes (“the ones who survived/ America/ by any means necessary”) and unsung martyrs (“the ones who didn’t”). And he acknowledges the deepest wounds, repeating the phrase “This is for the unspeakable” over successive portraits of infamous atrocities committed against Americans of African descent. He writes of artistry, “the We Real Cool ones,” above the smiling, lit-up faces of vocal and instrumental artists who make up a celestial chorus: Monk and Fitzgerald, Vaughan and Davis. Nelson paints historical figures and contemporary heroes with equal ease and grace; in a final spread, the faces of young black girls and boys look ahead, beaming and determined: “This is for us.” Throughout, incantatory usage of “un” words (“unbelievable... unbending... underdogs... uncertain...”) rings with force. Alexander remembers peaceful Civil Rights activists, “the righteous marching ones who sang we shall not be moved because black lives matter,” communicating clearly that when black lives matter, America is stronger. Historical notes for each figure conclude this powerful work. Ages 4–7. Author’s agent: Arielle Eckstut, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. Illustrator’s agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. (Apr.)