As you likely know, February is Black History Month in the United States. Though this started as a week to raise awareness (Negro History Week) in 1925 and expanded to a full-month’s celebration in 1976, I urge you to take this Black History booklist 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. You’ll see the big-name anti-slavery and Civil Rights leaders on this list, but you’ll also see lesser-known authors and artists, athletes and advocates, and more, as well as informational stories about experiences and movements in Black history. My hope is that we can all use this to continue to deepen our awareness of the contribution of Black Americans to our society!
So, whether you’re looking for specific resources to expand your students’ awareness of Black history during the month of February, or you’re hoping to help your children learn more about Black history throughout the year, I hope you’ll find the list below helpful! Bookmark it now and check in from time to time, as I’ll continue to update it as new titles appear (and, based on 2019 and 2020 so far, we’re on a terrific trend for stories about lesser-known people and events from Black history!).
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 Wilma Rudolph, Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald, Harriet Tubman, Muhammad Ali, Josephine Baker, and Maya Angelou. 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 — in fact, our younger daughter dug deep into her closet to pull them out about a month ago, and we’ve been reading them nonstop ever since!
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!
All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color by Katie Kissinger, photographs by Chris Bohnhoff (Ages 3 and up) — Okay, so I’m starting this list with a book that’s not exactly about Black history, but I think it’s extremely important for children from a young age to learn the scientific facts behind different skin tones and colors. Kissinger does a terrific job of fighting prejudice by accurately introducing the youngest audiences to skin differences based on melanin, geography, and climate. She also includes 3 pages of back matter for parents and caregivers.
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.
My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King, III, illustrated by A. G. Ford (Ages 4-8) — We all know a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr., the public figure, but his family life remains less well-known. Here, his son, Martin III, gives touching insight into the man that King, Jr. was as a father.
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. An Author’s Note gives readers insight into McKissack’s true life experience of segregation and the freedom she found in libraries.
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by Raúl Colón (Ages 4-8) — Other fascinating reads about Katherine Johnson and her colleagues include Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures and Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race. I chose this one for the list because it’s perfectly written for its target audience and told through own voices, but any story about Katherine Johnson and her peers would be inspirational to its audience!
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.”
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford (Ages 4-8) — Though I also love Ruby Bridges’s autobiographical Through My Eyes, this one is a much more accessible introduction to Bridges’s story for younger audiences. The illustrations make you feel as if you’re right next to Ruby, and her goodness shines through the story.
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.
The Bell Rang by James E. Ransome (Ages 4-8) — I mean, just look at this cover illustration! And, be sure to take time with the endpages before diving into this story. Now, for the story itself… It took immense courage for someone to escape slavery, but what about the friends and family left behind? The courage they must have had to continue without their loved one, mixing with the hope they have for their escaped person, is unimaginable to many of us today. That’s the story Ransome tells here, the story of those left behind.
Fearless Mary: Mary Fields, American Stagecoach Driver by Tami Charles, illustrated by Claire Almon (Ages 4-8) — Oh man, imagine being a female stagecoach driver in 1895. Then, imagine being an African American female stagecoach driver in 1895, moving goods over dangerous, mountainous terrain… Are you with me? That’s Mary Fields! Be sure to read the Author’s Note here.
Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome (Ages 4-8) — There are many wonderful picture books about the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape slavery to the free states in the North, but this book, Overground Railroad, teaches us about the Great Migration of Black southernors who escaped Jim Crow laws, sharecropping systems, and other forms of oppression for better lives in the North. The text is simple and the illustrations colorful, making this perfect for younger audiences, and Cline-Ransome neatly weaves Frederick Douglass’s escape story into this fictionalized journey.
So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom by Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Ages 4-8) — It’s one thing to be physically tall, but it’s a completely different thing to be “tall within.” And Sojourner Truth was both. While I knew that Truth advocated not only for abolition, but also women’s rights and temperance, I had no idea how much she actually walked in doing her hard work and spreading her beliefs. She’s really amazing. I’d skew towards the older end of this age range, and push beyond it, as it’s a longer story with some details about slavery that may be much for preschoolers.
Sisters and Champions: The True Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Howard Bryant, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Ages 4-8) — My girls love stories about Venus and Serena, so I had to find a great one for this list! Though most of the story is about their childhood, their training, and their work ethic, the information Bryant includes about their relationship and their professional careers is inspiring to all.
Barack by Jonah Winter, illustrated by A. G. Ford (Ages 4-8) — Accompanied by beautiful painted illustrations, Barack is an informative picture book biography focusing on how Barack Obama found his place and his way, despite having roots in so many different places and experiences. The Author’s Note focuses more on his election for readers who want a little more political insight into his candidacy.
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.
Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Keith Mallett (Ages 5-8) — First written as a poem and then set to music by two brothers more than 120 years ago, to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s life, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” continues to inspire people still today. This fictionalized story highlights a young girl who was a members of the first choir to perform the song publically, and how that song was passed down through her family at times of both joy and hardship. The lyrics are included in the endpages.
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???
That is My Dream! by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Daniel Miyares (Ages 5-8) — One of my favorite Langston Hughes poems, “Dream Variation,” has been beautifully illustrated by Daniel Miyares, and the result is bound to touch anyone’s heart. Both the poem and the illustrations speak to not only inequality, but also hope, giving everyone a deeper understanding and empathy to those who have fought or are still fighting to overcome injustice.
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.
Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Ages 5-9) — Though all American men were granted the freedom to vote in 1870, and women in 1920, many communities still had Jim Crow laws that prevented African Americans from voting because of their poverty and education levels. This is the story of Lillian’s walk to vote for the very first time (in 1965), a during which she reflects on and remembers the long history of trials and tribulations on her road to placing a vote that counts. Though this Lillian is fictional, she is based on Lillian Allen, granddaughter of a slave who campaigned door to door for Barack Obama in 2009 (at the ripe young age of 100!).
Alvin Ailey by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Ages 5-9) — As a teacher, I used this book every year as my mentor text during our biography unit in Reading Workshop, and it never fails to disappoint. Lyrically told and beautifully illustrated, Ailey’s childhood and professional life will amaze you! This is broken into chapters, so you can easily segment it out for younger readers with shorter attention spans.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of 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!
I Have a Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Ages 5 and up) — Not only is this the text of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, illustrated beautifully by Nelson, but the book also includes a cd of King’s speech itself. While the words are powerful in print, hearing King’s resonating voice say them is another experience altogether. Check this out next time you’re going to play the audio of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and take time sharing the illustrations with your children.
Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Ages 6-9) — In the spring of 1963, Black community members in Birmingham, Alabama, gathered with Martin Luther King, Jr. to make a plan for peaceful protest of Jim Crow laws. The problem, however, was not the march, but finding people who could march, as many adults feared the repurcussions for their families if they marched and subsequently lost their jobs. So, the children in the community find creativity and courage to come to a solution. Note: this does show children being arrested and thrown into jail, which may be frightening to some readers.
A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Ages 6-9) –Y’all, this one is a must-read. I got chills reading this first-person story of a young girl who was the first Black child to ride the carousel at a newly desegregated amusement park in Maryland… On the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. This one’s long, but you’ll have chills by the end! Be sure to check out the four pages of backmatter here.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Ages 6-9) — You know a book is extraordinary when the Caldecott, Newbery, and Coretta Scott King award committees all see it worthy of recognition in a given year. I have to admit, this one strikes me as one of those picture books that adults appreciate much more than children love, but it’s worth reading through every now and then with your kids. Take time, take in the illustrations, and think through the questions your children ask. They’re bound to ask questions with this one, and even if the only question they ask is “Why did he forget to draw an illustration on that page?” then you’ve got a great door open for deep conversation!
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!
Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dee Romito, illustrated by Laura Freeman (Ages 6-9) — You can read my full review here. You probably know Rosa Parks and other stories from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Georgia Gilmore (unless you read this book). Have you ever wondered how people got around Montgomery without the buses? Or who supported civil rights leaders behind the scenes? If so, check this one out!
Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James (Ages 6-10) — Do you have children who love cowboys? Then this one’s for you! George Fletcher was an incredible bull rider, but unfortunately, had the wrong color skin to participate in many competitions. He was allowed to compete in the Saddle Bronc Championship in 1911, however, but the outcome might (okay, will) bring tears to your eyes. Nelson includes 6 full pages of backmatter, including a glossary of “rodeo and western words” and biographical information about Fletcher.
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 (as a result of being blocked from performing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin), 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. Another wonderfully done book about the Greensboro Sit-Ins is Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue.
A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Ages 7-10) — We know today that many important public figures have speechwriters, people who can hone their ideas and words into powerful verbal messages for ears to hear. A Place to Land is an absolutely fascinating insight into the night before King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, highlighting not only friends and mentors who helped craft his ideas, but also the intense amount of time that it took King, Jr. to write the finished product. You’ll never guess which part of his speech was actually created at the podium rather than being written into the speech ahead of time!
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Ages 7-10) — For your older readers who need some new material and people to learn about during Black History Month, try these next 3 books! Narrated from the perspective of the son of the owner of the National Memorial African Bookstore, this is likely to be an insight into a segment of Black history that you might not know about! As a bonus, Nelson includes lots of little soundbites about the importance of reading as a way to gain knowledge and understand truth! Be sure to check out the endpages, biographical note, and Author’s Note.
Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate (Ages 7-10) — Do you need a little lighter reading material for Black History Month? Look no farther than Lonnie Johnson, who invented many children’s favorite summertime toy– the Super Soaker squirt gun! An Author’s Note provides more information about both Super Soakers and Lonnie Johnson himself.
Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Gwemn Strauss, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Ages 7-10) — A fictionalized story of a girl and her family traveling by car through the south, Ruth and the Green Book serves to open readers’ eyes to the obstacles that Jim Crow laws presented to African American trying to travel from one place to another. Though this story is fiction, The Green Book was indeed very real and very helpful, and shows the kindness of strangers at a time when many feared those they didn’t know.