AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

The history of the African-American people should be taught to all children since it is our shared history, regardless of our skin tone. Children who study history are better able to comprehend the present and want to improve the world. Although I have put a lot of effort into compiling a sizable collection of books about African-American history to read with your kids, no book list will be all-inclusive. Below, books are categorized into the following groups: 

  • Picture books – history and culture
  • Upper elementary grade books – history
  • Picture book biographies

AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE BOOKS

I’ve divided this category into subcategories based on the book’s format. Picture books must be shared with all ages. I arranged the books in uneven historical order.

PICTURE BOOKS ABOUT AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY

You will get more books on the following lists:

  • Read the African-American folktales on this list: American Tall Tales
  • Civil Rights Picture Books

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson. This epic account of African-American history is delivered by a 100-year-old lady who sounds as if she recalls the stories her ancestors taught her. It’s good to have a lovely book suitable for elementary school students and covers various historical subjects. You would be wise to study more specialized works to complement this historical summary. As always, Nelson’s artwork is beautiful.

Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Michele Wood, the lyrics and melody of 13 slave spirituals are included in this stunning book. Each song is accompanied by a historical analysis of its significance and Biblical allusions, and wood creates the most exquisite pictures.

Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr., illustrated by Floyd Cooper, is a picture book that will get your kids thinking about the White House in an entirely new light. This is an interesting book for adults as well, and we would all do well to keep in mind that a significant portion of the labor force who moved the bricks and built one of our country’s most recognizable emblems of freedom was made up of enslaved people.

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Sunday gatherings at Congo Square in 19th-century Louisiana were permitted for enslaved people, allowing them to maintain some of their cultural traditions. Up until Sunday, the story follows an enslaved person’s week. It is a powerful work that explores the problematic meaning of the term “freedom” and a little-known historical occurrence. A conversation starter.

Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Ron Husband. Legislation passed in 1847 forbade black people, whether free or enslaved, from attending school. However, Reverend John Meachum circumvented the ban by giving classes aboard a riverboat in the Mississippi River—federal, not state—land.

Wind Flyers by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Loren Long. A little kid from Alabama who wants to fly becomes one of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen. A 5-year-old kid narrating the narrative of his great-uncle tells the tale from the child’s perspective.

We March by Shane W. Evans. This is a fantastic book for kids as young as three because of the concise writing and excellent images. The tale of a family preparing to participate in the historic event is told in a brief, first-person narrative.

A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Eric Velazquez. A little girl narrates her experience as she and her sister sneak out of their home to join a liberation march while holding her red-ribboned teddy bear. The sensory experience is the main point of emphasis. Another excellent book emphasizing the role played by kids in the struggle for independence is this one.

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. This is the account of the 1960 lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro. The analogies using food were very good. “At first, they were handled invisibly, like the hole in a doughnut.” “The children also had a recipe. A new brew called integration.” I like Pinkney’s brilliantly expressive drawings with their wavy lines and vibrant colors.

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. This book chronicles how the African-American community in Montgomery, Alabama chose to walk for 382 days rather than use the segregated buses. The lively pictures and rhythmic language, which themselves seem to move wonderfully, convey the spirit of the remarkable people who changed their neighborhood and the country.

Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Gwen Strauss, illustrated by Floyd Cooper The “Green Book,” a road map for African-Americans, published from 1936 until 1964, featured a list of gas stations that would accommodate them. Ruth is traveling with her family from Chicago to Alabama to see her grandmother. With the aid of The Green Book, Ruth becomes aware of Jim Crow laws for the first time and undertakes the task of assisting others.

Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans. Lillian, who is old, ascends a hill to cast her first ballot. As she ascends, she reflects on the history of her family and African Americans in her nation, as well as the struggles they endured to reach this position.

The Teachers March!: How Selma’s Teachers Changed History by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace, illustrated by Charly Palmer. This is an intriguing examination of a little-known Civil Rights-era incident. The writers recount the life of Reverend F.D. Reese, who mobilized his fellow educators to march for voting rights in 1965, using significant research. A very necessary book.

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. This book chronicles the real-life struggle of one couple to get the legal right to wed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Why wouldn’t Virginia acknowledge their marriage? He was white, and she was black.

Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs, and Stories from an African American Childhood by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. This is a wonderful collection of spirituals, children’s songs, rhymes, games, and folktales like the Anansi Tales. It is a wonderful method for children of all backgrounds to discover the connections between their cultural history and those of others.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY BOOKS FOR UPPER GRADES

Find more about Black History books that include novels based on historic events on the following list:

  • Chapter Books for Black History Month
  • Historical Fiction Novels for kids

Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington’s Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away (Young Readers Edition) by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve. A very interesting history by Dunbar and Van Cleve describes what Ona Judge’s life could have been like, how the Washingtons felt about slavery, how they treated their hard worker, and most importantly, how they hunted Judge down when she fled. This book is enlightening for kids whose perceptions of Washington were shaped by the cherry tree myth. Did you know that to apprehend Judge Washington tried to violate his fugitive law? Not exactly a model of a reasonable and fair leader. However, even though the author’s sympathies are clearly with Judge, the novel does not paint the president negatively. Ona Judge is the subject of an outstanding picture book titled Runaway, written by Ray Anthony Shepard and drawn by Keith Mallett.

Answering the Cry for Freedom: Stories of African Americans and the American Revolution by Gretchen Woelfle, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Woelfle profiles show thirteen African-Americans who lived during the American Revolution. Most identities will first be obscure, but readers will never forget their experiences. This collection could benefit the target group more as a read-aloud than as independent reading, in my opinion. Parents and instructors may continue the discussion, each telling their tale separately. 9 and older.

Freedom Over Me: Eleven enslaved people, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan. Bryan creates a compelling book about the hopes of actual people using a historical estate document that lists the enslaved people it had and their values. She assigns names, ages, and passionate hopes and aspirations to each unidentified enslaved person. This is a compilation of poetry and drawings that are quite powerful.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin. is about a little-known event in 1944 in which war and civil rights collided. A directive that 244 African-American troops feared would put them in undue danger was rejected. They faced mutiny charges as a result of their stance. The incident, what led to the rebellion, and how the military handled its white and black troops differently are covered in Sheinkin’s book. Fascinating.

You Can Fly The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford. A moving historical verse book about the Tuskegee Airmen who, despite the pervasive prejudice they experienced, became some of the most accomplished WWII pilots.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. This book is a fascinating account of the history of the Negro League, its exceptional players, the conflict experienced by the club owners, and the significant contribution the League made to the development of American sport. As usual, Kadir’s drawings will astound you and immerse you in the emotional lives of this historical era, while his prose is interesting.

Brown v. Board of Education: A Fight for Simple Justice by Susan Goldman Rubin. A thoroughly investigated and compellingly written account of the individuals responsible for bringing Brown v. Board of Education to trial. It facilitates the translation of legal jargon into plain-English text and helps to personalize the stories for today’s kids.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes. Fannie Lou Hamer’s life is chronicled through poems, from her sharecropper upbringing to her activism. The collage visuals are gorgeous, and the writing is moving and doesn’t minimize Fannie’s struggles.

March by John Lewis and Andrew Ayden, illustrated by Nate Powell. A civil rights activist’s graphic novel trilogy about his experiences during that turbulent period.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley, illustrated by PJ Loughran. The youngest person to march from Selma to Montgomery wrote this engaging first-person memoir in the guise of a casual conversation. In a manner that communicates directly to youngsters and teaches them that they have a voice and can shape history, too, Lowery relates her experience of being battered on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, and of being imprisoned nine times (all before the age of 15).

28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World by Charles R. Smith, Jr., illustrated by Shane W. Evans. The book exposes readers to a different influential African-American for each day of February. In addition, a constitutional amendment and three Supreme Court rulings are included. Although the book’s style does not allow for in-depth bios, it is jam-packed with useful information.

Becoming Mohammad Ali by Kwame Alexander  and James Patterson, illustrated by
Dawud Anyabwile
. Because it is written in rhyme, even hesitant readers will find this biography of Ali quite readable. Considering how little I knew about Ali’s life, I thought this fictionalized history to be intriguing. The dynamism and tenacity of Ali are well captured in Alexander’s poetry. It serves as motivation for all of us.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY BOOKS: BIOGRAPHIES

I have been encouraged by the increasing library of picture book biographies of Black Americans. If you are ever concerned about the age range of any African-American history books, I recommend you preview the book. Please also see the following list:

  • Picture Book Biographies of Amazing African-American Women
  • Picture Book Biographies of Lesser-Known Black Heroes

William Still and His Freedom Stories: the Father of the Underground Railroad by Don Tate. William Still undoubtedly isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think of the Underground Railroad. This is an intriguing history of a guy who was instrumental in helping to keep alive the accounts of Black Americans who managed to flee to freedom during the 19th century. Tate starts his book by describing the lives of Still’s parents and their escape from slavery. I like his honesty about the realities of slavery rather than his tendency to sugarcoat it. My 12-year-old and I both learned a lot by reading this aloud to one another.

Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls by Tonya Bolden. Intriguing short biographies of historical figures I don’t remember you studying about in history class.

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, enslaved person by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier. One of my all-time favorite books on this list is this Caldecott Honor book. Few enslaved people had the opportunity to master a skilled profession, but Dave’s narrative has survived because of his beautiful pottery and the poetry inscriptions he left on it. Only his initial name, a few sporadic allusions in historical writings, and the pottery he produced are all known about Dave in history. However, his tale reveals a great deal about the history of black Americans and slavery in our nation.

Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter, and Poet by Andrea Cheng. Read this verse-based biography of Dave the Potter for middle and high school students after finishing the picture book biography mentioned above. To encourage students to learn more about Dave’s life and the period, Lee and Low have created an excellent teacher’s guide for the book.

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate is a remarkable and fascinating historical biography of America’s first working African-American poet. Horton was an enslaved person in North Carolina who, in violation of the law, taught himself how to read. He made some money by selling fruit at the market, and when he began delivering his poetry, college students started paying him to write love poems so they could woo their sweethearts.

Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. A compelling story of a lady who stood up for what she believed. To be heard, Sojourner visited the countryside, sharing her anti-slavery message.

Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington by Jabari Asim, illustrated by Bryan CollierAsim tells Washington’s narrative is lovely free poetry. After being freed, Washington traveled 500 miles to obtain a college degree. Despite being born into slavery, Washington was eager to pursue an education.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. This biography strongly emphasizes Tubman’s spiritual development as she concludes that God has called her to aid in enslaved people’s release. This inspirational lady is brought to life by Weatherford’s poetic words and Kadir’s expressive drawings.

Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. In addition to being an abolitionist, Frederick Douglass was active in the women’s rights movement. In this picture book, his bond with Susan B. Anthony is explored.

Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist by Philip Dray, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. Wells was an anti-lynching crusader in post-Civil War America and one of the few notable Black Americans to win a court case. Even when her life was in danger, she persisted in writing vehemently against Jim Crow.

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter.  After the Civil War, William “Doc” Key, a man born into slavery in the 19th century, rose to prominence as a merchant. Doc trained one of his horses to read, write, and do math by being gentle to it. While touring the nation, Doc and Jim displayed Jim’s talents. Along the way, Doc confronted prejudice and other people’s doubts, demonstrating that Jim was motivated to learn by compassion.

Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Do your kids like movies set in the Wild West? Tell them about Bass Reeves, an enslaved person by birth who ran away from his owner and into Indian Territory. Bass rose to fame as a US Marshal’s deputy after the Civil War against the bigotry and distrust of white people. 8 and older.

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Tell your kids about this underrated yet significant musician. Traylor, a self-taught artist, was born into slavery and lived and worked as a sharecropper after the Civil War. He left the farm at age 81 and settled in Montgomery, Alabama, where he began to paint.

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Before reading this picture book, I had never heard of the self-taught painter Horace Pippin. He was wounded in the arm during World War I, yet he persevered in his efforts to regain the ability to use his arm to produce art.

The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath by Julia Finley Mosca. This is a fantastic account of a doctor who, while you’ve probably never heard of her, has achieved important medical advancements, including the development of a cure for blindness. The story flows well, and the images are interesting despite being written in rhyme. This biography is made even more remarkable by the end materials, which include a letter from Dr. Bath, pictures, a timeline, and further information on Dr. Bath’s life and career.

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman. We are all better off as a result of these little-known ladies being made public by a movie of the same name. This is the tale of four outstanding mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, & Christine Darden, who made significant calculations that helped NASA succeed. But to succeed, they had to surmount significant racial and gender obstacles, which wasn’t simple.

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, illustrated by Stasia Burrington. This fascinating biography of Mae Jemison, the first African-American in space, is less text-heavy than many picture book biographies. It will motivate young children. The story centers on young Mae and her aspirations to view the earth from space. She studies as much as she can about the stars and what it takes to be an astronaut when she discovers that she must be an astronaut to go into space. Her parents support her in having big dreams, despite the doubts of others.

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison. An endearing tale of the little-known trombonist Melba Doretta Liston, who at the age of only 7 learned herself the instrument! This jazz picture book about a musician will make you wish you had known about him much, much earlier. It is incredibly nicely written.

The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend  by Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald, illustrated by Giselle Potter, focuses on the childhood of wonderful pianist Mary Lou Williams and her penurious background in Pittsburg where she charmed the neighbors with her magical playing.

Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Because she couldn’t afford medical school, Vivien Thomas worked as a surgeon’s research assistant at the mostly white Vanderbilt University. Dr. Blalock employed a surgical method that Thomas created during the first open heart pediatric surgery. Thomas had a difficult time getting the attention and recognition he deserved due to widespread systemic prejudice, but his impact on the medical community is enduring.

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier. This is a helpful introduction to MLK. Although not extremely lengthy, it is nonetheless an excellent picture book biography. It provides a thorough overview of MLK’s life and legacy and is beautifully drawn.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton. An account of the youngest person ever arrested for defending civil rights. When Audrey was detained during the 1963 civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama, she was nine years old.

The Story Of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford. This book honors Ruby, a six-year-old who in 1960 became the first kid to attend an all-white school in New Orleans after a court-ordered integration amidst violent mobs and empty classrooms. The author Coles does a fantastic job of humanizing a historical event and demonstrating how a little kid may triumph over adversity.

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. This picture book biography chronicles a lady who resisted taking on Hollywood’s stereotypical nanny and maid roles. Children will love the little mention of her debut on Sesame Street as the story follows the highs and lows of her career and family life!

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick, because Americans were hesitant to accept a black woman on stage, contralto Marian Anderson, like her jazz counterpart Josephine Baker, first found true acceptance in Europe. Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the DAR rejected her request to appear at Constitution Hall.

She Was the First!: The Trailblazing Life of Shirley Chisholm by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Eric Velasquez. The fascinating biography of Chisholm by Russell-Brown traces her development from a young kid with a gift for leadership through her career in politics. She will explain to readers how her upbringing in Barbados and New York shaped her ambition to effect change and advocate for others. This book is crucial for kids to understand the long history of the battle for fairness and representation in light of the increasing diversity in top political positions.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph. Gordon Parks refused to believe his grade school teacher’s claim that people of color could only find employment in the service industry. Instead, he decided to take up a camera and learn photography on his own. He initially worked as a government photographer before moving into the fashion industry.

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate. The history of their beloved Super-Soaker toy will fascinate kids! The fact that it was invented by a guy who worked for NASA may also surprise them.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Javaka Steptoe. A really beautiful book on a Brooklyn-born artist whose use of collage in the late 20th century made him famous worldwide.

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