Black History Month is almost over but there’s never a bad time to introduce your child to books about black heroes and their contributions to American history.
It’s no secret that kids’ history classes tend to gloss over black history and usually introduce well-known figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks without delving deeper into the rich history of the African-American experience. We reached out to popular publishers such as Simon & Schuster for their recommendations and came up with this collection of seven books (both fiction and non-fiction), to help fill this gap.
“From the story of Ethel Payne, the groundbreaking journalist known as the First Lady of the Black Press, to an inspiring story in the tradition of American Black folktales,” says a representative from Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, “these picture books are important conversation starters for young readers, and should be celebrated and discussed during Black History Month and all year long.”
Written and illustrated by Mechal Renee Roe, Ages 3 -7
Cool Cuts aims to help black boys feel empowered, no matter how they choose to wear their natural hair. From a high top to mini twists, each page is filled with a different hairstyle, motivational phrase, and the affirmation “I was born to be awesome.” The author fills the pages with colorful illustrations, each boy looking happy and confident with his chosen hairstyle. There’s also a companion book for girls, Happy Hair.
Both books were originally self-published and “born out of a love of natural hair and embracing your own unique beauty,” according to the Penguin Random House website.
by Lesa Cline-Ransome, Illustrated by John Parra, Ages 4 – 8
Journalist Ethel L. Payne comes to life in The Power of Her Pen, in a story made richer with illustrations that illuminate the groundbreaking milestones Payne reached in her own life and history. Author Cline-Ransome highlights moments in Payne’s life that led her to be dubbed the “First Lady of the Black Press.” Payne persevered against racism and became one of three black journalists granted a White House press pass during the Eisenhower administration, courageously asking the president tough questions about issues that affected black people. She continued this line of questioning with presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.
Long before she was questioning presidents from the press pool, Payne was already breaking barriers. She reported on WWII in Japan and highlighted the stories of black soldiers who fought in the then still- segregated military. The granddaughter of slaves, Payne had a lot stacked against her but she persisted and paved the way for this generation to continue her work.
by Jerdine Nolen, Illustrated by James E. Ransome, Ages 5 – 9
Freedom Bird takes place during slavery on a fictional plantation in North Carolina. Two siblings, Millicent and John Wheeler, labor in the fields together day in and day out. As they suffer through backbreaking work and the heartbreak of their parents’ being sold away, they are both inspired by their parents’ dreams of freedom. One day, the siblings cross paths with a bird who could hold the key to their escape. Complete with beautiful illustrations and inspired by African-American folktales, Freedom Bird encourages young readers to hope, even when it seems impossible.
by Nic Stone, Ages 8 – 12
After getting in trouble at school, 11-year-old William “Scoob” Lamar is desperate to get away. When his grandma asks him to go on a road trip, Scoob is game. But he gets more than he bargained for: The trip turns into a series of revelations about his grandma’s past, lessons about what it was like to travel as a black person in the late 1960s, and visits to several historical sites made famous during the Civil Rights Movement. Cool Cuts aims to spark readers’ curiosity about the people and events of the Civil Rights Movement and make the realities of growing up black in America hit home.
By Cheryl Willis Hudson, Illustrated by Erin K. Robinson, Ages 8 – 12
Readers will be swept away and inspired by the more than 50 black women profiled in Brave. Black. First: 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World. Legends such as Ida B. Wells, Ruby Bridges, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, and Ibtihaj Muhammad grace the book’s pages. The book details the struggles each woman went through and the barriers she pushed past to become the icon the world knows today. Illustrations of the women are beautifully drawn, often depicting the hero doing the thing that made her famous. Each page highlights black women who rose to the top in almost any field imaginable — from politics to the arts to science to sports to haircare.
There is, however, a dearth of black trans women in the book. Why not spotlight people like Marsha P. Johnson, an artist and leader during the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, Sylvia Rivera, who cofounded the Street Transvestite Activist Revolutionaries to provide support and resources to trans and non-binary youth, or Laverne Cox, the first trans woman of color with a leading role on a scripted TV show?
By Blair Imani, Illustrated by Rachelle Baker, Ages 12 and up
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors provides the foreword for this book. She recounts her grandmother’s life growing up in the South during the Ku Klux Klan’s heyday, and her escape from that virulently racist world to a more tolerant Los Angeles. Cullors and her entire family would benefit from the move. Throughout the book, author Blair Imani traces the effects of the Great Migration. Like Cullors’ grandmother, more than 6 million black Americans fled the South to escape racial terror. (Hip hop, Imani says, came to be largely because of this colossal migration event.)
Imani, who is Muslim and bisexual, takes care to include pivotal LGBTQ black figures such as Bayard Rustin and Pauli Murray, and also nods to trans rights activists Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Parents should know there are descriptions of violence in the book, and it is up front that rape and castrations were a regular part of lynchings. Though written at a middle-school reading level, adults can learn as much from this book as kids and the approachable writing style and illustrations help the history come alive.
By Mildred D. Taylor, Ages 15 and up
This novel continues the saga of a rural black family introduced to readers in Newbery award winner Mildred D. Taylor’s 1975 novella Song of the Trees. While we first follow the Logans’ journey during the Great Depression, Taylor focuses her lens on the Great Migration in All the Days Past, All the Days to Come.
The protagonist, Cassie, has grown up and she and her family escape to the North from Mississippi in this final book about the Logan clan. Historical events, such as the murders of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and the Freedom Riders’ courageous bus rides in protest of segregation, are made more personal through Cassie’s eyes.