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What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball legend and the NBA's alltime leading scorer, champions a lineup
of little-known African-American inventors in this lively, kid-friendly book.


Did you know that James West invented the microphone in your cell phone? That Fred Jones invented the refrigerated truck that makes supermarkets possible? Or that Dr. Percy Julian synthesized cortisone from soy, easing untold people's pain? These are just some of the black inventors and innovators scoring big points in this dynamic look at several unsung heroes who shared a desire to improve people's lives. Offering profiles with fast facts on flaps and framed by a funny contemporary story featuring two feisty twins, here is a nod to the minds behind the gamma electric cell and the ice-cream scoop, improvements to traffic lights, open-heart surgery, and more - inventors whose ingenuity and perseverance against great odds made our world safer, better, and brighter.

44 pages, Hardcover

First published January 3, 2012

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About the author

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

47 books580 followers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr. on April 16, 1947 in New York City, New York, United States) is an American former professional basketball player and current assistant coach. Typically referred to as Lew Alcindor in his younger days, he changed his name when he converted to Islam.

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5 stars
161 (42%)
4 stars
150 (40%)
3 stars
50 (13%)
2 stars
11 (2%)
1 star
3 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 89 reviews
Profile Image for Mariah Roze.
1,015 reviews920 followers
February 15, 2017
This was a great book that taught you about African American Inventors. However, throughout the book there was a realistic fiction story going on so younger kids could read this book and be interested. The problem with that though is this book is way too hard to read and comprehend when they talk about the inventors. This book wouldn't appeal to many people, because the story inside it is for a 2nd or 3rd grader but the information written about the inventors is for a 5th grader or higher.
40 reviews
June 12, 2012
This is a book that I just acquired for my school library and I wasn’t sure how to catalog it. Was it fiction or biography? So I read it and decided that even though it technically is a fictional story, I think it would be best used in the history section.
It is the story of Ella and Herbie, a brother/sister twin set that has just moved to an older house that needs a little work. There they met Mr. Mital who was hired to be the handy man to fix up the house. Mr. Mital shares with Ella and Herbie all the wonderful contributions that various African-American men and women have made to science, medicine, technology and other areas of life.
The format of this book is unique. The main story is written in a picture book format but the various biographies are featured in fold-over flaps that you lift to read for further information. In these flaps you meet Dr. Henry T. Sampson (invented the gamma electric cell which converts radiation directly into electricity), Lloyd A. Hall (who made great strides in food preservation) and Daniel Hale Williams (one of the first doctors to perform successful open-heart surgery). But not all had inventors had such important contributions. We also learn that Lonnie Johnson invented the super soaker, Alfred Cralle invented the ice-cream scoop and George Crum invented the potato chip.
It was a fun book to read, giving great information in a very non-threatening, fun format. I can see this being a great springboard for further research on any of these people.
Profile Image for Alyson (Kid Lit Frenzy).
2,545 reviews705 followers
January 1, 2015
I have mixed feelings on this one. The positive - It provides a ton of great facts and information - which is good. But it almost seems that the publisher/editor/author doesn't know what direction or what audience they are trying to reach. The format is a large-size picture book with flaps (would be younger audience in my opinion). Text for facts about inventors is for older students. The story almost has a voice for younger readers but the reading level and amount of text would not be appropriate for that age audience. Would love to read some reviews from other teachers.
838 reviews25 followers
July 25, 2013
This book can't decide what it wants to be, and it suffers from the indecision. Is it fiction or nonfiction? How readers answer that question will determine their satisfaction with Jabbar's latest. I found the information fascinating. We know far too little about the contribution black scientists and innovators (I really liked the authors' use of that term to point out that most inventions were not invented by any one person but developed as a series of innovations and improvements upon the works of others) and other minorities have contributed to our world. If this were simply a collective biography written for elementary students, I would laud it highly. But the fictional narrative was an annoying addition. It was contrived and hokey, plus the fantasy twist at the end was too deus ex machina to suit me. Instead of providing a plausible explanation for why a black adult would know so much about the achievements of his race the authors just throw in a little supernatural twist so no logical explanation is necessary. Oh, please. This book addresses an important subject, but it could have been so much better if the authors had written a true information book and included a Table of Contents, index, and the other elements that make nonfiction books so much easier to use. As a result it's half a great book, and the other half is just so-so.
Profile Image for Julie.
13 reviews
March 31, 2016
"There's more to our history than slavery, jazz, sports, and civil rights marches." Kudo's to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for co-authoring this journey through time, "magically" educating the reader of inventions by African-Americans. Although the supporting story of two children stumbling upon the history of African-American inventors with the help of a handyman lacks richness, the valuable content of the book, as well as the intriguing ending, is enough to earn this book's rightful place on a child's bookshelf or classroom reading list. The layout, which includes mini fold-out inventor summaries and fast facts, makes this a gem of a non-fiction picture book for older readers. The illustrations are vibrant and detailed, inviting the reader into the story. Winner of the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. Grades 3-7.
Profile Image for Sharon.
1,561 reviews14 followers
August 3, 2012
I really appreciate this collection of biographies about African American inventors and scientists. The layout of the book differs from the norm in that the clues about the contributions of these scientists are tucked into a fictional story with the actual biographical information available on sidebars that usually fold out. Sources are listed in the back. In an age when athletes seem to be every child's benchmark of success, this book is also notable because it is coauthored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who holds the record for scoring the most points during his career in the NBA--38, 387! On his website < http://kareemabduljabbar.com/> he explains his goal which is to encourage children to look for careers and success in science and technology, not just athletics.
1 review
April 24, 2012
Another perpetuation of myths manufactured for an agenda. Kareem should be ashamed for putting his name on this.
I suggest you google "Black Invention Myths - Brinkster"
for a scholarly and detailed look at some of these claims which have been made many times before.
Ignore the somewhat bitter tone of the web page intro-- the facts are solid.

Many claims in this book are not new. They have been published and shown to be wrong a number of times. And the authors of this book seem to me to be capitalizing on race as a way to make money, by targeting children and creating pride in something false --a cynical thing indeed.
Profile Image for Allison.
14 reviews2 followers
June 23, 2016
Content Area Crossover:
This book would be an excellent tool in a content crossover to social studies. I had never heard of these amazing African American inventors in all my years of schooling. I grew increasingly upset with that fact as I read this book. It is important for all kids to learn about successful people who aren’t just white males. From my observations and experience, there is a glaring exclusion of this information from textbooks that I can only interpret as racial bias. This book would be a valuable supplement to the textbook and would allow African American students to be represented in the curriculum in a way that they often are not, but should be, and guide non-African American students to view people who don’t look just like them as valuable, intelligent, important, and worthy of respect, dignity and equal opportunity.


Bloom's Taxonomy Leveled Questions:
1. List three African American inventors written about in this book that you found most interesting and describe their inventions.
2. Compare and contrast what Ella was like at the beginning of the book to what she was like at the end of the book. Attend to consistencies or inconsistencies in her behavior, attitude and knowledge. (possible answers should include her shift from sassy and unwilling to help or learn to helpfulness, less biting attitude, and real interest in the historical information that Mr. Latimer is telling her and her brother about)
3. James E. West, (bio on pages 14-15) faced and overcame many hardships in his journey to success as an inventor. He almost electrocuted himself to death as a child fixing a radio, but he continued to work on and invent electronic devices throughout his life. He had dyslexia, but he MEMORIZED his textbooks so others didn’t find out, and went on to earn top grades in school. His parents tried to talk him out of pursuing his doctorate because many people would not hire a black man to work in science, regardless of his education, but James got his doctorate anyway! Does everyone react in the way that he did when facing extreme obstacles? Explain your answer with scenarios from your life or the lives of others.
4. Explain some ways in which Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, (bio on pages 26-27), showed perseverance. (I would discuss the word “perseverance” with my students beforehand.) If he had given up after experiencing any one of these adversities, what do you think the ending to his story might have been?
5. On page 23 Mr. Mital describes how French Doctor Ernest Duchesne’s (valid) research was rejected by scholars at the time because he was too young to be taken seriously, in their opinion. Ella then says, “They rejected him because he was too young? Thousands of lives could have been saved!” Mr. Mital responds, “Happens all the time. You’re too young, you’re too foreign, youre too black, you’re too female. And we all pay for it.” What do you think about this statement of Mr. Mital’s? What are some consequences of our society telling people they are too young, foreign, black, or female to be taken seriously?
6. On pages 31-33 we learned about Garrett Morgan and his invention of the firefighter safety hood and the traffic signal. Specifically, page 31 gives a graphic novel style explanation of the night Morgan used his invention of the firefighter safety hood to save the lives of 29 men trapped in a poisonous gas filled tunnel under Lake Erie. When he arrived on the scene with his hoods, only two people believed in him and his invention enough to put the hoods on and go into the tunnel with him. As they brought the first group of survivors out, proving the efficiency of the hoods, others put them on and began to assist. Though everyone was referring to him as a hero that night, when the newspaper articles covering the event came out the next day, nobody mentioned Morgan or his invention at all. Our book notes that Morgan was “disappointed but not surprised. He’d faced this kind of racism his entire life.” Now, let’s imagine Garrett Morgan was a journaler. Writing from his point of view, create a possible journal entry he could have made the night after the newspaper articles came out that did not credit his bravery, genius invention, or heroism.
Profile Image for Arretta Johnson.
10 reviews1 follower
July 26, 2016
"Can anyone tell me who invented the "super soaker", the "illusion transmitter", the "color graphics adapter", a bread making machine, and who patented a method that is still used today of preserving meats?" After no one will likely tell me the correct answers: "Did you know that these five inventors are all African-Americans?" "There are many interesting and very useful inventions that happened to be created by African Americans and we just don't hear about them on the news or in our textbooks!" This terrific book titled, that I'm going to begin reading to you today was co-written by a very famous, retired NBA star! Anyone care to take a guess who one of the authors is?" I then tell them that it is none other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar! Raymond Obstfeld is the other author and Ben Boos & A. G. Ford are the illustrators.

My first opening move for this book was to ask about little known inventions that we take for granted to see if anyone knows who invented them. I would, of course, explain what the "illusion transmitter" (creates three-dimensional projections) and the "color graphics adapter" (gave color to PC displays) are to the class. I then chose to use the opening move of asking the class what famous, but retired NBA player might have written a book about Black inventors. This was to spark their interest in the author and what he has to share with them.

This book is written in chapter form so I am including it in my text set of biographies for BHM as my intermediate book. Besides listing brief biographies of Black inventors, this book includes a story which includes a lot of banter between two siblings and a handyman named Mr. Mital. As Mr. Mital goes through the home of the two siblings making needed repairs in each room, he discusses the inventions that make our lives so much easier today. I gave this book four stars because I would have enjoyed it better if the sister didn't have such a negative attitude and if she didn't speak rudely to her brother and Mr. Mital.

(2011, December 14) Kirkus Review. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-re...
Profile Image for Tanya Patrice.
673 reviews63 followers
January 17, 2012
Excellent, excellent, excellent! I get 99% of my books from the library, but this I went out and bought after reading it. It is an illustrated book and will appeal to both kids and adults - it's not too long so kids will get bored, yet it's still informative.

The story starts out with a family moving to a house which is quite old and in need of repair. A handyman that the parents met at church shows up to help, and the kids have to pitch in too - but they aren't too thrilled with their new house. He says - if you look closely at the house, you'll see history - the history of African Americans. The information is not presented in a dry, acerbic way. Instead instead, it's an organic conversation between him and the kids while they are doing various chores and such. Eg. He takes the kids cell phones, and says he sees the work of James West, Dr. Mark Dean and Dr. Valerie Thomas.

The sides of the pages have facts on the African Inventors - nicely illustrated an in bold colors.

I'm sure I'm not conveying how good this book is - so all I can say is - it's so worth it to buy this book. It could be a coffee table book as the illustrations are excellent, and it's unique, and well done.
14 reviews
June 21, 2012
Abdul-Jabbar, K., & Obstfeld, R. (2012). What color is my world?: The lost history of African American inventors. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Reviewed by: Melanie Wyatt
Category: Biography
ISBN: 0763645648
Price: $10.79

Description: The book explores inventions from several lesser-known African-American inventors. Information is provided about the author and illustrators.
Content/scope: The purpose of the book, content and scope are geared towards upper elementary and middle school students. Fast fact flaps are included in the book about most of the inventors mentioned. Students and teachers would definitely benefit from the inclusion of this book in the library media center.
Accuracy/Authority: This book includes up to date information and was published within the last five years. This book has been reviewed in Booklist, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus.
Arrangement/Presentation: The format for this book is print. A list of additional texts, videos, and websites are also provided.
Diversity: School Library Journal focuses on the author’s ability to inform readers on several African-American inventors including the individuals that invented the ice-cream scoop, Super Soaker, and the light bulb.
Profile Image for Christina Getrost.
2,137 reviews66 followers
September 22, 2013
A nice look at African-American inventors, using a fictional framework-- 13 year old twin brother and sister are having to help clean up their new house, and as they work with a handyman he tells them about various pioneering African-American scientists whose inventions impact their everyday lives. The narrative weaves together inventions such as the gamma electric cell, induction telegraph, light bulbs, microphones and bread machines and even the super soaker water gun. A nicely designed book, with colorful backgrounds on each page, realistic and also cartoon-style illustrations, and nifty foldout pages that contain the kids' reports for school on some of the various inventors, with funny captions and asides--the siblings have a friendly rivalry that's depicted well. Some of the writing seems a little preachy, because it's a tall order making one story out of all of these disparate inventors, but overall it's a great effect. I liked that the kids already knew some of the things the handyman was going to tell them, so they are already pretty well educated in African American history.
Profile Image for Susan.
Author 2 books5 followers
August 3, 2016
The reads-like-a-story format is annoying since there are so many overlooked or not well known inventors that will be super useful for reports not to mention personal reading and inspiration. Kudos to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the idea, shame shame on his publishers Candlewick Press for not including a table of contents, alphabetical list (or any order list) of the inventors included, and other pertinent information. Sigh. Librarian heavily sighing. Am on the fence about ordering this since it may just sit on the shelf because these books tend to go out when kids are assigned biography reports. On the other hand, there is a need for more than just George Washington Carver represented (and the usual handful of others). On the other hand, the story in the middle is long and overwritten and will not be helpful for children stressing about reports.
Hmmmm.
Profile Image for Samantha.
4,985 reviews58 followers
February 8, 2014
This story is built around the mission of introducing lesser-known African American inventors and how their contributions are put to use in our daily lives. The information is excellent. Snapshots about several black inventors is included and gives readers a solid understanding of the period in which they were born and raised, the hurdles in their lifetime and how they died as well as the legacy they left behind.

What isn't as strong is the story constructed around the information about the inventors. I'd rather that the author just focused on writing a solid juvenile nonfiction title than a weaker fiction title. Still, that being said, this book is one that I'd recommend on this subject being that it does incite interest in its topic and present information that children aren't learning in school.

Recommended for grades 1-6.
Profile Image for Chris.
8 reviews
June 25, 2014
This book will serve as a source of inspiration for one of the cultural groups represented in my classrooms, African-Americans. Even my primary students will understand how important these African-American scientists were because my students depend on things they helped develop--nuclear power, light bulbs, personal computers, 3-D movies, food preservatives, potato chips, and the Super-Soaker. The biographies are woven into a fictional story about a family who moves into a new house. The children are recruited to help a handyman fix some of the problem areas, and the handyman tells them stories about these important African-American scientists based on jobs or items they come across. The fiction story will engage them, and perhaps one biography per day could be covered and discussed. The reading level is far above my student's level, but doing this as a "close read" would be perfect.
334 reviews29 followers
February 7, 2015
I don't know why I forgot to mark this as read! I actually created a library program inspired by this book last year, and it was pretty neat, if I do say so myself.

The book itself is kind of an odd duck--the fictional framing story about 2 modern children who learn about the history of black inventors from their family's mysterious handyman means that the book is shelved as fiction, but the actual information about the inventors is factual.

Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld's text is fine, but for me the star is Ben Boos's illustrations, which are rich and full of vibrant color. It's a book that could work as a read-aloud for younger children, and an independent read for older kids as well.

It's of necessity a bit didactic, but it doesn't _hide_ it's didacticness, and the information presented is genuinely quite interesting.
Profile Image for Kathy.
91 reviews5 followers
March 22, 2013
Saw this in a book store one day and bought it on the spot. I love this book! It has a fiction story with nonfiction biographies intertwined. It's engaging because often nonfiction books are dry and children can lose interest in them. The presentation of the black inventors in the nonfiction story helps children see the real life connection of the said invention, like the potato chips from lunch and George Crum or the cell phone and James West's invention of a microphone piece that goes into phones and head sets. The back of the book also has a list of recommended books, videos and websites for further research and information on the inventors mentioned in the book and black inventors in general. I highly recommend teachers to add this book to their classroom library.
Profile Image for Valerie Barnhart.
72 reviews6 followers
March 16, 2015
What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African -American Inventors by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld copyright 2013. Twin Text for Celebration of Achievement Nonfiction Text set.

This fiction story relates the celebration of a family as they move into a family home. A handyman helps the children realize the great history of the African Americans. It focuses on the concept that all inventions great and small help in the development of mankind. For a strategy to apply for this text, I would engage students in using a comparison of the Venn Diagram or KWL to help students see a connection between the inventors. With this text, there is a question and answer structure.
Profile Image for Mary.
384 reviews
May 4, 2012
This book is about black inventors who have made significant contributions to our everyday lives. The book is a story told through two young black children who are helping an carpenter fix up their new-to-them, old house. He tells them all about inventors that contributed to things they see as they make their way around the house.

The children are bright, imaginative and fun. The carpenter is slightly mysterious, which makes him very interesting. The ending was surprising. An excellent book to use for Black History Month. But also good enough to recommend to any young reader interested in history or inventions. I am planning on using it for the J Book Club (Grades 2-5).
57 reviews
June 14, 2014
What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors is a nonfiction book about African American Inventors. This book incorporates several different inventions that are well known as well as some that are not as well known. This book hopes to open people's eyes to African American inventors which for so long have been "hidden" because of their race. What Color Is My World? can be paired with other books about inventors, inventions, African Americans, science experiments, and civil rights. It can also be incorporated into a unit about inventors, inventions, African Americans, science experiments, and civil rights.
Profile Image for Penny Peck.
500 reviews18 followers
March 3, 2012
Normally I don't like nonfiction books that have a fictional element, but in this case, the story works well in conveying a personal importance to these inventors. A brother and sister learn about various inventions contributed by African-Americans, and how those inventions impact the average household. The color illustrations of the fictional story are pleasing, and the nonfiction material, often set on flaps and gatefold pages, are printed to look like a child's binder paper and writing. Sure to interest both casual browsers, and those doing reports.
Profile Image for B.
2,072 reviews
May 15, 2012
Although our library put this in children's fiction for the little bit of story there is, I mostly enjoyed the nonfiction aspect which is packed with the life stories and contributions of African American inventors, some I'm familiar with and others not. It brings out more forcefully than I've seen anywhere else, how our country for centuries has deliberatly pushed down, ignored, and lied about what our African American citizens have brought to the table. Where would we be as a country if we had encouraged young people of all races to succeed all along?
Profile Image for Sandy Brehl.
Author 7 books130 followers
June 19, 2012
The fictional component is based on a mom and two kids (African Americans) who are preparing to move into a dilapidated home. Handyman Mr. Mital, also African American, works with the kids while telling them the history of many African American inventors. Those "lessons" are woven into the story, but fold out flaps and biographical inserts contain detailed information, illustrations, and elaborations. The extra large format, appealing illustrations, and story format make extensive factual information more digestible and intriguing.
Back matter provides documentation and further resources.
July 18, 2014
What Color is My World is an exciting yet non-fictional quick read for secondary students. It provides an in-depth history lesson on lesser known African-American inventors. Ella and Herbie’s family have moved into a new home that they are less than pleased with. With the help of a new and interesting friend Mr. Mital, the family is introduced to a “museum for all of its history.” Through this exciting history lesson the reader is invited to learn and laugh while traveling through time focusing on science and innovation.
28 reviews1 follower
Read
December 6, 2014
What Color is My World? The Lost History of African American Inventors is a lexile level 880 which translates to a level V. The target reading level for 5th grade is T, U and V at the end of 5th grade. This book is above reading level for most of the kids in my class. For this reason we could read it as a whole class. As an extension activity we could assign inventions to students and have them conduct further research on this invention. What Color is My World is nonfiction.
NYS CC Standard: Students Will Describe how reasons support specific points the author makes in a text.
2,067 reviews
February 4, 2016
Too many kids are growing up unaware of some of science's important contributors and innovators. This book seeks to remedy that in part with mini-bios of black inventors and the significant impacts they've made (blood bank, heart surgery, the personal computer, 3-D, potato chips, even the Super Soaker toy). The narrative about the kids and Mr. Mital that string the biographies together is a bit awkward, but overall it's an attractive package that will appeal to kids interested in science, black history, and interesting facts.
Profile Image for Zandra.
161 reviews1 follower
March 7, 2012
A refreshing take on African-American history for kids. I wasn't thrilled about the illustrations, but the text itself was interesting and presented in a creative way to get kids interested in learning history. I learned about African American inventors that I never knew abut and was actually inspired to even look up a few. I would definitely recommend this one to students and would encourage them to read it anytime - not only for Black History Month reports.
Profile Image for Brianna.
101 reviews1 follower
April 23, 2013
Grade Levels: 1-3
This lively, kid-friendly book that gives young readers a look into the history of several “unsung” African-American inventors and innovators, such as James West (invented the microphone in cellular devices) and Fred Jones (invented the refrigerated truck). This book may used for a STEM lesson since it features technology (microphones, cellular devices) and engineering. It also encourages and promotes cultural awareness and diversity in the classroom.
Profile Image for Margie.
1,005 reviews2 followers
February 14, 2014
Set within a fictional story this collective biography looks at 16 lesser known African-American inventors/innovators who all had an impact on the lives we live today. As the primary character in the fiction story shares with a set of female/male twins, there are other people who are heroes and to be emulated among African-Americans besides athletes and entertainers. Very useful for children in elementary grades 3-6.
Profile Image for Susan.
111 reviews1 follower
November 9, 2015
After recently hearing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on NPR: 'If It's Time To Speak Up, You Have To Speak Up', I researched what books he had written. I started with this children’s book.

This book educated me, I also found it inspiring. This book is beautifully illustrated and in my opinion should be in every elementary library. The book contains short snippets of bios on people of color- men and women who made inventive contributions and sometimes against all odds.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 89 reviews

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