From civil rights activists to well-known African-Americans, there’s no better way to show children what can be accomplished by reading about actual people. However, many biographies are geared toward independent readers and older. I’ve pulled together some wonderful picture books about African Americans you can read with your children and share in the spirit of African Americans throughout the centuries.
You can find these non-fiction children books about African Americans at your local library or purchase through the links provided for your convenience.
28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World: Each day features a different influential figure in African-American history, from Crispus Attucks, the first man shot in the Boston Massacre, sparking the Revolutionary War, to Madame C. J. Walker, who after years of adversity became the wealthiest black woman in the country, as well as one of the wealthiest black Americans, to Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American president. With powerful illustrations by Shane Evans, this is a completely unique look at the importance and influence of African Americans on the history of this country.
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down (Jane Addams Honor Book (Awards): This picture book is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the momentous Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, when four college students staged a peaceful protest that became a defining moment in the struggle for racial equality and the growing civil rights movement. Andrea Davis Pinkney uses poetic, powerful prose to tell the story of these four young men, who followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words of peaceful protest and dared to sit at the “whites only” Woolworth’s lunch counter. Brian Pinkney embraces a new artistic style, creating expressive paintings filled with emotion that mirror the hope, strength, and determination that fueled the dreams of not only these four young men, but also countless others.
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman: Before Wilma Rudolph was five years old, polio had paralyzed her left leg. Everyone said she would never walk again. But Wilma refused to believe it. Not only would she walk again, she vowed, she’d run. And she did run–all the way to the Olympics, where she became the first American woman to earn three gold medals in a single Olympiad. This dramatic and inspiring true story is illustrated in bold watercolor and acrylic paintings by Caldecott Medal-winning artist David Diaz.
The Story Of Ruby Bridges: Special Anniversary Edition: Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first African American child to integrate a New Orleans school with this paperback reissue! The year is 1960, and six-year-old Ruby Bridges and her family have recently moved from Mississippi to New Orleans in search of a better life. When a judge orders Ruby to attend first grade at William Frantz Elementary, an all-white school, Ruby must face angry mobs of parents who refuse to send their children to school with her. Told with Robert Coles’ powerful narrative and dramatically illustrated by George Ford, Ruby’s story of courage, faith, and hope is now available in this special 50th anniversary edition with an updated afterword!
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and sparked a boycott that changed America. Harriet Tubman helped more than three hundred slaves escape the South on the Underground Railroad. Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The lives these women led are part of an incredible story about courage in the face of oppression; about the challenges and triumphs of the battle for civil rights; and about speaking out for what you believe in–even when it feels like no one is listening. Andrea Davis Pinkney’s moving text and Stephen Alcorn’s glorious portraits celebrate the lives of ten bold women who lit the path to freedom for generations. Includes biographies of Sojournor Truth, Biddy Mason, Harriet Tubman, Ida B.Wells-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Josephine Baker, Dorothy Irene Height, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Shirley Chisholm.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage: For most children these days it would come as a great shock to know that before 1967, they could not marry a person of a race different from their own. That was the year that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Loving v. Virginia. This is the story of one brave family: Mildred Loving, Richard Perry Loving, and their three children. It is the story of how Mildred and Richard fell in love, and got married in Washington, D.C. But when they moved back to their hometown in Virginia, they were arrested (in dramatic fashion) for violating that state’s laws against interracial marriage. The Lovings refused to allow their children to get the message that their parents’ love was wrong and so they fought the unfair law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court – and won!
Rosa: Fifty years after her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus, Mrs. Rosa Parks is still one of the most important figures in the American civil rights movement. This picture- book tribute to Mrs. Parks is a celebration of her courageous action and the events that followed. Award-winning poet, writer, and activist Nikki Giovanni’s evocative text combines with Bryan Collier’s striking cut-paper images to retell the story of this historic event from a wholly unique and original perspective. Rosa is a 2006 Caldecott Honor Book and the winner of the 2006 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.
Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story: In 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges walked through an angry crowd and into a school where she changed history. This is the true story of an extraordinary little girl who helped shape our country when she became the first African-American to attend an all-white school in New Orleans. With simple text and historical photographs, this easy reader explores an amazing moment in history and the courage of a young girl who stayed strong in the face of racism.
Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence: The paintings of Jacob Lawrence tell stories. Stories of enslavement and freedom, of human migration and renaissance, of struggle and of triumph. A collection of these stunning paintings provides the backdrop for this exceptional biography which tells the story of one of our finest living painters-from his family’s experience in the great migration North, to his growing up in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, to his rise as one of the most renowned painters of African American life. With over twenty-five full-color reproductions and an insightful glossary, not only is this an easy-to-read, engaging biography, it’s also an excellent starting point for discussions about American history.
Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood: Take a walk through Harlem’s Sugar Hill and meet all the amazing people who made this neighborhood legendary. With upbeat rhyming and read-aloud text, Sugar Hill celebrates the Harlem neighborhood that successful African Americans first called home during the 1920s. Children raised in Sugar Hill not only looked up to these achievers but also experienced art and culture at home, at church, and in the community. Books, music lessons, and art classes expanded their horizons beyond the narrow limits of segregation. Includes brief biographies of jazz greats Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis; artists Aaron Douglas and Faith Ringgold; entertainers Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers; writer Zora Neale Hurston; civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois; and lawyer Thurgood Marshall.
Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream: The mere mention of the name conjures up visions of basketball played at its absolute best. But as a child, Michael almost gave up on his hoop dreams, all because he feared he’d never grow tall enough to play the game that would one day make him famous. That’s when his mother and father stepped in and shared the invaluable lesson of what really goes into the making of a champion — patience, determination, and hard work. Deloris Jordan, mother of the basketball phenomenon, teams up with his sister Roslyn to tell this heartwarming and inspirational story that only the members of the Jordan family could tell. It’s a tale about faith and hope and how any family working together can help a child make his or her dreams come true.
Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged: In 1946, Viola Desmond bought a movie ticket at the Roseland Theatre in Nova Scotia. After settling into a main floor seat, an usher came by and told her to move, because her ticket was only good for the balcony. She offered to pay the difference in price but was refused: “You people have to sit in the upstairs section.” Viola refused to move. She was hauled off to jail, but her actions gave strength and inspiration to Canada’s black community. Vibrant illustrations and oral-style prose tell Viola’s story with sympathy and historical accuracy.
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: This picture-book biography is an excellent and accessible introduction for young readers to learn about one of the world’s most influential leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Doreen Rappaport weaves the immortal words of Dr. King into a captivating narrative to tell the story of his life. With stunning art by acclaimed illustrator Bryan Collier, Martin’s Big Words is an unforgettable portrait of a man whose dream changed America-and the world-forever.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book): This poetic book is a resounding tribute to Tubman’s strength, humility, and devotion. With proper reverence, Weatherford and Nelson do justice to the woman who, long ago, earned over and over the name Moses.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald: When Ella Fitzgerald danced the Lindy Hop on the streets of 1930s Yonkers, passersby said good-bye to their loose change. But for a girl who was orphaned and hungry, with raggedy clothes and often no place to spend the night, small change was not enough. One amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ella made a discovery: the dancing beat in her feet could travel up and out of her mouth in a powerful song —and the feeling of being listened to was like a salve to her heart. With lively prose, Roxane Orgill follows the gutsy Ella from school-girl days to a featured spot with Chick Webb’s band and all the way to her number-one radio hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Jazzy mixed-media art by illustrator Sean Qualls brings the singer’s indomitable spirit to life.
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal: Sitting tall in the saddle, with a wide-brimmed black hat and twin Colt pistols on his belt, Bass Reeves seemed bigger than life. Outlaws feared him. Law-abiding citizens respected him. Born into slavery in 1838, Bass had a hard and violent life, but he also had a strong sense of right and wrong that others admired. For three decades, Bass was the most feared and respected lawman in the territories. The story of Bass Reeves is the story of a remarkable African American and a remarkable hero of the Old West.
Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane: Young John Coltrane was all ears. And there was a lot to hear growing up in the South in the 1930s: preachers praying, music on the radio, the bustling of the household. These vivid noises shaped John’s own sound as a musician. Carole Boston Weatherford and Sean Qualls have composed an amazingly rich hymn to the childhood of jazz legend John Coltrane. Before John Was a Jazz Giant is a 2009 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book and a 2009 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year.
Wind Flyers: Three-time Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Angela Johnson and New York Times bestselling illustrator Loren Long invite readers to ponder a band of undercelebrated World War II heroes — the Tuskegee Airmen. With fleeting prose and transcendent imagery, this book by the masterful author/artist duo reveals how a boy’s love of flight takes him on a journey from the dusty dirt roads of Alabama to the war-torn skies of Europe and into the hearts of those who are only now beginning to understand the part these brave souls played in the history of America.
Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King Jr.: This book is beautifully-rendered study of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, told in simple, straightforward language for even the youngest of readers to understand. Pinkney’s scratchboard and oil pastel illustrations convey both the strength and gentleness of King’s character. Both text and art carry his central message of peace and brotherhood among all people.
A Picture Book of Sojourner Truth: She became an abolitionist and crusader for African-American rights.An introduction to the life of the woman born into slavery who became a well-known abolitionist and crusader for the rights of African Americans in the United States.
I am Rosa Parks (Ordinary People Change World): Rosa Parks dared to stand up for herself and other African Americans by staying seated, and as a result she helped end public bus segregation and launch the country’s Civil Rights Movement. This engaging series is the perfect way to bring American history to life for young children, providing them with the right role models, supplementing Common Core learning in the classroom, and best of all, inspiring them to strive and dream.
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad: A stirring, dramatic story of a slave who mails himself to freedom by a Jane Addams Peace Award-winning author and a Coretta Scott King Award-winning artist. Henry Brown doesn’t know how old he is. Nobody keeps records of slaves’ birthdays. All the time he dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom.
Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles – Think of That! (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Books): With bold paintings and a simple, rhyming text, Caldecott Medalists Leo & Diane Dillon bring young readers a rap a tap tap celebration of dance that will have readers clapping and tapping along.This simple book for young children has the added bonus of describing the life of a ground-breaking African-American tap dancer. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was one of the most popular entertainers of the 1920s-30s. People said he “talked with his feet,” and in the Dillons’ graceful paintings of old New York, he dances from page to page to the tune of a toe-tapping rhyme. Rap a tap tap–think of that!
Barack Obama: Out of Many, One: A Step 3 Step into Reading Biography Reader about our forty-fourth president, Barack Obama—revised to include an account of his reelection and new photographs! With clear and accessible language, independent readers can learn how the lessons and love from Obama’s mother and grandparents shaped him; how the places he lived influenced him; and how he turned his childhood feeling of being an outsider into a positive driving force that propelled him into the history books!
I write so often about books, I’ve put them in one central location and created a collection of all of my book lists on The Jenny Evolution! Find more great reading book lists here.
Don’t forget to see how other parents are sharing Black History Month with their kids.