Throughout the year, and especially during Black History month, my children and I read books about African-American history and extraordinary Black Americans. The books we’ve read have spanned the struggles of enslavement and segregation, the triumph of Black artists, celebrations, and achievements, and—history aside—stories of Black kids just being kids. When possible, I try to share with them books whose author and/or illustrator are Black, so we can support and learn from authors and illustrators telling the story of their own heritage.
The following list features historical titles in honor of Black History Month here in the United States. Here are five of my favorite children’s books celebrating men and women who can inspire our families this February and throughout the year:
Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson
Poignant storytelling and stunning illustrations abound in this overview of African-American history, including enslavement, reconstruction, segregation, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Movement. Nelson’s storytelling captures both the hardship endured by and the resiliency of Black Americans throughout our country’s history. If you’re looking for a big-picture yet personal perspective of African-American history, this is the book. Nelson tells the story of African Americans through the narration of a Black grandmother telling her family history.
Though it mentions heavy topics, the writing is approachable for children. Even as an adult who already knows quite a bit about U.S. history, I learned so much and was moved by this book. Caldecott award-winning Kadir Nelson’s illustrations never disappoint: you may also want to check out his other books, including The Undefeated, I Have a Dream, and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.
Some Places More than Others by Renée Watson
This middle-grade chapter book was my favorite read of 2020. It’s the fictional account of a modern-day girl who travels from Portland across the country with her dad to visit her grandfather in Harlem. Through the course of her week-long trip, she grows closer to her family and comes to appreciate their legacy in a new way.
The book builds a sense of heritage and gently introduces great historical figures and places (you might also enjoy the picture book about one of those figures: Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford).
Duke Ellington by Andrea Davis Pinkney
This Caldecott Honor award-winning picture book tells the tale of how a young boy who quit piano lessons out of boredom eventually became one of jazz’s greatest musicians. It’s especially fun that streaming music services make it possible to not only read about Duke Ellington, but listen to actual music mentioned in the book and performed by the musician at the same time!
Husband-wife author-illustrator duo Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney are prolific children’s book author/illustrators with dozens of children’s book titles, many about Black heroes. My family is currently reading another book by the Pinkneys, Dear Benjamin Banneker, about a self-taught mathematician and astronomer from the Revolutionary War period.
This Is Your Time by Ruby Bridges
When she was six years old in 1960, Ruby Bridges was the first Black child to integrate her all-white school in the city of New Orleans. Every day, she walked into school with four U.S. Marshals who protected Ruby from those who hurled insults, threats, and objects at her. She sat in a classroom, alone with her teacher, because the parents of her white classmates had withdrawn their own children.
In This Is Your Time, published in late 2020, Ruby Bridges uses past and present photographs to share her own story and connect it to current events, like the Black Lives Matter movement and the summer 2020 protests against police brutality following George Floyd’s death. My own six-year-old and I had some great conversations after reading this book together.
If you’re looking for a book for younger children about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, We March by Shane Evans is another great choice.
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
You may already be familiar with the novel Hidden Figures or the movie it inspired. This picture book adaptation tells the story of these inspirational mathematicians who helped in the space race. My family enjoyed the illustrations, especially the ladies in their fashionable dresses, and seeing the technological advancements from back then—when a “computer” was a person, not a machine—through today!
Illustrator Laura Freeman also worked on Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which is a new favorite with my own children (we made Georgia Gilmore’s pound cake recipe—found within the book—last weekend!).
Reading children’s books about heroic African-American men and women—whether with your own children or by yourself—is a wonderful activity for Black History Month and all year long.