Zetta Elliott’s City Kids series, which debuted in 2014 with The Phoenix on Barkley Street, features African-American characters who experience magic in their daily lives. After the phoenix helps Carlos and Tariq to restore their urban garden in Brooklyn and protect it from older gang members seeking to use it as their clubhouse, their friend Dayshaun goes on an exciting time travel adventure in Dayshaun’s Gift. It begins when his mother drags him to the Weeksville Heritage Center (where the author was a writer-in-residence in spring 2015) on a Saturday to help her with a community garden that features heirloom fruits and vegetables, ones grown from seeds handed down from generation to generation. Dayshaun doesn’t want to leave his apartment and video games on this hot summer day, and to make matters worse, his mother makes him wear his grandfather’s ragged old hat. The hat, though, is a portal to the Weeksville neighborhood in 1862, when Brooklyn was a collection of rural towns and Weeksville was a close-knit Black community. The Civil War draft has led to riots by poor Irish Americans in Manhattan and the arrival of wounded and displaced Black refugees to Weeksville, where Dayshaun finds himself in the middle of aid efforts, along with a boy his age and the boy’s older sister, an aspiring doctor. In return for making a crutch for an elderly man with an injured foot, Dayshaun receives a handful of heirloom tomato seeds and a new perspective on the history he has only studied in passing in school.
Young readers will be drawn into this story through its likable protagonist and his authentic nine-year-old’s way of seeing the world. Dayshaun is a curious and optimistic youngster, and while he witnesses the pain of Black escapees from the riots, he finds that he, along with the children and teens from nineteenth-century Weeksville, can make a difference. He returns with his ideals intact and with a greater understanding of his, his family, and his community’s past. The story is fast paced, with humor that balances the serious situations. Alex Portal’s light-hearted cartoon-style illustrations, one per chapter, help readers to contrast the present-day clothing and cityscape with the typical clothing and rural landscape of Brooklyn 150 years ago. Questions for discussion following the story make this novel a great choice for elementary school teachers seeking connections across the curriculum.