Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated (2019)

Written by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, The Undefeated, is a visual and textual ode to the strength and determination of Black Americans. Word and image stand in perfect balance, working together to create a beautiful picture book that celebrates Black cultural and political leaders, reflects on Black history, and demands readers witness the violence inflicted on Black lives in the past and present.

This is a smart picture book, heavy with the weight of racism. It demands contemplation and study. Because of this, it’s a book you will read again and again. For instance, in one heart-wrenching two page spread, Nelson depicts the bodies of naked dark brown men in neat rows against a stark white background. This is, of course, reminiscent of the tight patterns Africans were forced into on slave ships. One line of text anchors the image: “This is for the unspeakable.” The deliberate use of language, its rhythm and minimalism, inspire critical reflection.

I love this book and will add it to my personal collection, but I’ll wait a little while to share it with my five-year-old. The Undefeated is an important book to share with children over eight-years-old who can appreciate the content, work through the often quite subtle textual references, and discuss the ways racism continues to haunt the present. It’s also an important reminder that picture books aren’t just for children.

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