After Valentine’s Day passed and I had space on our front-facing bookshelf (where we usually feature our themed or seasonal books), I dedicated that shelf to outstanding Black men and women who have contributed in amazing ways to our society. You may wonder why I’m posting about Black History Month now, since it’s February 25 and the month is almost over. Take this list anyway and continue to use it, year-round, to educate and influence the next generation! While it’s important to remember that we do have a special month to focus on the amazing people who paved more smooth roads for future generations and their hopes and dreams, it’s also important to recognize these accomplishments and achievements throughout the rest of the year, too.
Below, you’ll find a list of amazing picture books of Black leaders. You’ll see some familiar faces pictured on our front-facing shelf, but I hope you find new faces, new leaders, new inspiration.
(The books we’re currently reading are listed below loosely according to age range, as recommended by the publisher. Always remember that your children will vary!)
*** Most links below are Amazon Affiliate links. When you use these links to purchase books, your price stays the same, but I get a tiny commission… Which I usually turn right around and use on books!
The Little People, Big Dreams series (Ages 3-7) — great titles for Black history include Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald, Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali, Josephine Baker, and Maya Angelou. They’re releasing a Wilma Rudolph on June 4, which I’m very excited about! Our library system has a really sad collection of this series, so I’m slowly trying to buy some for us, because I do feel that for younger audiences, this is a wonderfully accessible biography series! ***Rosa, Josephine, Ella, Maya, and Harriet are also available in an even younger board book format.**
The Ordinary People Change the World series by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos (Ages 5-8) — great titles for Black history include Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. We were able to get Jackie, Rosa, and Martin in an amazing 10-pack set from Scholastic Book Clubs for only $30, so definitely look for that if your school participates in Scholastic book orders. Both of my girls are loving these biographies!
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison (Ages 6-12) — Though the age range here is older, this anthology contains spreads of about 40 incredible women, each absolutely short enough on its own to sustain the attention of younger audiences. Harrison includes women you’ve likely heard of (such as Harriet Tubman and Oprah Winfrey), but also many that may be new to you (I didn’t know Gwen Ifill or Rebecca Lee Crumpler…).
The American Girl Biography series (Ages 6-9) — This was another Scholastic Book Clubs deal that we found. Our set included A Girl Named Misty and A Girl Named Rosa. Looks like American Girl also makes a Real Stories from My Time series that includes one on The March on Washington!
Trombone Shorty by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Ages 4-8) — You’re going to see Bryan Collier on here a few times, and rightly so– his illustrations are amazing! We love this autobiography about a musician overcoming odds to follow his dreams.
Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (Ages 4-8) — You’ve likely heard of Misty Copeland, but Janet Collins is worth knowing too. Written in flowing lyrical form and illustrated simply but beautifully, definitely check this out (especially if you have ballet-loving kiddos in your house!).
Before She was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome (Ages 4-8) — There are two Harriet Tubman books that I love, but my girls prefer this one. Cline-Ransome and Ransome make this story short and accessible for young attention spans. I personally also learned a lot about a woman whose story I thought I knew– did you know she was a Union spy?
We March by Shane W. Evans (Ages 4-8) — Evans does a beautiful job (both with words and illustrations) of teaching even the youngest audiences about the effectiveness and importance of peaceful protests. We March tells the story of the 1963 March on Washington in just 57 words!
Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper by Ann Malaspina, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Ages 4-8) — Alice Coachman is worth learning about, in my opinion! The way she forged paths when roadblocks were in her way is amazing. And, she was the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal… And she won in the first post-WWII Olympics!
The Girl With a Mind for Math: The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca, illustrated by Daniel Rieley (Ages 4-8) — Montague was new to me until this book was published last fall, but I am so glad I know of her now! Young audiences will enjoy the illustrations and rhyme in this one, while teachers and parents may appreciate the informational pages at the end (including tidbits from an interview with Raye!). ***If you liked this one, you might also check out The Doctor With an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath (by the same author and illustrator).
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Ages 4-8) — I first read this one during a mock Caldecott unit with my 3rd graders, and Hill and Collier put together an amazing book. Be sure to take some time with the “Dave: A Life” pages immediately following the story, as the details of his work are fascinating.
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmen, illustrated by Stasia Burrington (Ages 4-8) — Though just a brief introduction to Mae Jemison, Ahmen’s story is relatable and inspirational. Set over the course of a small time in Mae’s childhood, we watch Mae state her dream, have her dream shattered, and find encouragement to continue on with her dream. The repeated refrain “If I can dream it, if I can believe in it, and if I work hard for it, anything is possible” could be a wonderful mantra for any young child!
Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens by Nina Nolan, illustrated by John Holyfield (Ages 4-8) — The illustrations in this one are enough to make you want to jump up and sing right with Mahalia! Full of emotion and color, the style is perfect for a story about a gospel singer. Check this one out if your kiddos love singing (or “hollering”), or if you just need someone new to admire (after all, she did sing at the March on Washington… just got overshadowed by a famous speech…)!
Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Ages 4-8) — This is one of my all-time favorite books to use to introduce the concept of segregation to young or elementary-aged children. Based on McKissack’s own childhood experiences in Nashville, we follow ‘Tricia Ann on her first journey through town all by herself. The emotional journey she takes ends on a high note, and readers rejoice in her achievement.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Ages 4-8) — Collier appears on this list once again, but this time because of his incredible collages, made not only with just paper but also with pieces of fabric (a nod to Rosa’s days as a seamstress). This story starts with Rosa leaving work the day of her arrest and tells many of the following events from Montgomery, culminating with the 1956 Supreme Court ruling against bus segregation. Parents should note that the text mentions a boy being “viciously lynched.”
Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Ages 4-8) — New to me this year, we’ll revisit this one frequently! Weatherford and Christie celebrate a rare freedom that slaves in New Orleans had, a freedom to come together, communicate, sing and dance, worship, and connect to their roots.
Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters by Barack Obama, illustrated by Loren Long (Ages 4 and up) — Written before he took office, Obama wrote this letter to his daughters, addressing amazing qualities he loved in them and then explaining those qualities through short stories of famous Americans. At the end, he writes, “Have I told you that American is made up of people of every kind? People of all races, religions, and beliefs…” He also includes a short biographical blurb about every American featured.
The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Ages 5-8) — Less a true biography and more a fictionalized story set around a homecoming parade for Wilma Rudolph (first American woman to win 3 gold medals in a single Olympic games, 1960). It is sweet and inspiring though, and an author’s note gives more info about Wilma’s athletic and civil rights achievements. Another more biographical option about Rudolph is Wilma, Unlimited.
This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome (Ages 5-8) — Though I think this one could be slightly confusing to some children, as significant time passes as a story of multiple generations is told, Woodson and Ransome bring to life an important part of Black history in America — the migration of African Americans from the South to large cities in the north.
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph (Ages 5-8) — Another influential African American that was new to me, Parks used his gifts as a photographer to educate Americans about racism and segregation. He was also the first African American to write and direct a feature film. Who knew???
Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helene Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk (Ages 5-8) — I absolutely love that children’s books are being published about the mathematicians that many adults first learned about through the movie Hidden Figures. If you can’t get your hands on this one, then check out Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.
Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Ages 5-9) — This triple-award-winning book is beautiful. Beautiful words, beautiful illustrations, beautiful message. To be fair, it does talk about jails, bombs, and murders, and it tells the reader that he was shot in the story itself, not just in the author’s note or timline. But, if you and your children are ready, Martin’s Big Words paints a wonderful picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the nonviolent resistance he led.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story or Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton (Ages 5-10) — Do you know much about the Children’s March of 1963? Or have you ever heard of Audrey Faye Hendricks? If your answers were no, then you may need this book! Once again, be warned– (spoiler alert…) Audrey Faye Hendricks (age 9) is sent to jail, and a large portion of the book focuses on her time in jail. In my opinion, this important part of her life is handled as delicately as can be, but it’s important for anyone reading this to small children to know.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Ages 5 and up) — Nelson’s illustrations are always amazing (be sure to check out Henry’s Freedom Box, below), and Moses is no exception. The text here, however, is much more complex than most on my list. Weatherford beautifully marries a narrated story about Tubman (in standard print), Tubman’s thoughts and words (all italicized), and messages Tubman may have clung to from God (sometimes literally waving their way across the page). In fact, this changing speaker without any textual clues about who’s words they are made this a bit much for my girls, but I leave it on my list because of Nelson’s illustrations. I’d personally set this range for 8 and up.
Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Ages 5 and up) — The first on my list of books by this duo, Duke Ellington tells the story of Ellington’s life from birth till when he and his Orchestra played at Carnegie Hall. Though the Harlem Renaissance isn’t specifically mentioned, Ellington was a major player in the movement, and his influence is obvious in this book.
Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Ages 5 and up) — This is another book I first read during a Caldecott unit, and just like with Moses, Nelson’s illustrations are striking. Henry’s Freedom Box recounts the true tale of a slave who mailed himself to freedom! Yes, you read that right… He mailed himself to freedom. Read this one and you won’t be disappointed!
The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (Ages 6-9) — For slightly older audiences, or audiences with an understanding of fights for equal rights, this will be a fascinating book! People generally think of segregation as an issue in the South, and of civil rights as something from the mid-1900s. But Goodman and Lewis tell the story of Sarah Roberts of Boston, whose family fought for integrated schooling in 1847, eventually leading the way to integration in Boston schools in 1855 (and even more eventually to Brown v. Board of Education victory of 1954, almost 100 years later!
Teammates by Peter Golenbock, illustrated by Paul Bacon (Ages 6-9) — While this story greatly simplifies Jackie Robinson’s life, the risks he took, and all he achieved, I think that simplicity, in some ways, is what draws me to it. Golenbock peels back the layers to allow young children to understand the magnitude of one of Robinson’s many accomplishments, as well as some of the supporting characters that made the integration of baseball possible. Bacon deftly uses both simple pencil-and-watercolor sketches and historical photographs to help readers focus their eyes on important details of this tiny bit of Robinson’s life.
When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick (Ages 6-10) — This one is long, but Marian Anderson’s story is one to share. From battling racism in America to singing for crowds overseas to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it’s an incredible journey. Break this one into smaller segments for younger audiences, as the content should be appropriate for them, too.
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Ages 6 and up) — “Sitting still for what was right… Practicing peace while others showed hatred was tougher than any school test.” The Pinkneys’ story about the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina (which then spread across the south) is both accessible and appropriate for young audiences. I love how they integrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s messages about nonviolence throughout the book, showing how people were indeed able to effect great change in a peaceful way.