powerful picture books…read Black History!

Remember last year
in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death
when we all sat up and listened more urgently to Black voices
and recognized how much we had to learn,
to grow,
to unlearn,
to understand?
Time runs along.
If these priorities have been shuffled to the side,
now is a good time to commit to reading Black history
and Black perspectives.
I’ve got a whole lot of gems for you today aimed at ages 10 and down,
as well as a link to my Black History page
with nearly 200 excellent, uplifting, thought-provoking titles for all ages.
Dig in!

First up, several eloquent books on Black identity, a critical component of racial equity.

All Because You Matter
written by Tami Charles, illustrated by Bryan Collier
published in 2020 by Orchard Books

Black history is being made every day, every moment, and one of the positive current pieces of that history is the strengthening of voices telling Black children that they matter, that they are precious. Black lives matter. Black children’s lives matter.

Tami Charles and Bryan Collier make a stunning contribution to that growing choir with this rich piece of affirmation, directed to a nameless Black child, depicted here as a Black boy. Harking back to the roots of Black culture, to the dreams and wishes “carried on the backs of your ancestors as they created empires, pyramids, legacies,” the narrator assures this child over and over that he matters, has always mattered, that despite struggles, despite the anguish that comes as “another name is called: Trayvon, Tamir, Philando,” despite feeling some days that he never will matter, the truth is otherwise. You matter.

Bryan Collier’s artwork is as hefty and deep and sophisticated as ever, coursing with strength, radiating warmth, elevating the Black face and body. His Illustrator’s Note details more of the meaning packed into these pictures. It’s a superb gift to parents of Black children, but White parents — don’t skip this. Reading books centering the Black experience is a prime way to move yourselves and your kids further toward an anti-racist understanding. Ages 5 and up.

I Am Every Good Thing
written by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
published in 2020 by Nancy Paulsen Books

From the creators of the superb Crown: Ode to the Fresh Cut, here’s another robust positioning of the Black child as a force of good. Racism has taken a horrendous toll on the self-regard of Black persons as everything from their skin tone to hair styles to speech patterns are declared inappropriate, suspicious, less-than.

This book barrels into that space declaring just the opposite to be true. “I am a nonstop ball of energy. Powerful and full of light. I am a go-getter. A difference maker. A leader.” Page after lyrical page, image after vigorous image, reveling in the goodness, the glory, the possibilities, the joy of their personhood.

The closing words affirm that this child is worthy to be loved, bringing the whole piece to a deeply comforting conclusion. A brilliant gift to share with Black children and an excellent opportunity for White children to take a back seat and grow in understanding the unique burden their Black peers carry. Ages 4 and up.

Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration, written by Samara Cole Doyon, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
published in 2020 by Tilbury House

And here comes a delightful celebration of Brown girls everywhere, whose mahogany and amber, caramel and cocoa shades are lavishly, gloriously blessed in these pages.

A variety of vibrant little girls introduce themselves, each one describing herself with jubilant, lyrical positivity. Whether  Brown thunders or glows, laughs or comforts, it’s all, all good. Affirmation fairly explodes from every delicious line.

I particularly love the joy and inclusiveness of the illustration work as well. Here are hijabs and hairstyles galore, as well as a child in a wheelchair alongside her therapy dog, and a child with vitiglio.  The author is multiracial and notes that she specifically wants to communicate a sense of belonging to children with a complex heritage.
It’s pretty much impossible to read this book and not come away smiling. Winner of a 2021 Coretta Scott King Illustration Honor. Share it with ages 4 and up.

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Next, books covering the gamut of Black history.

The ABCs of Black History
written by Rio Cortez, illustrated by Lauren Semmer
published in 2020 by Workman Publishing Company

Rhyming verses lead us through an alphabet celebrating Black culture and history in this upbeat catalog.

Quite a number of Black leaders are name-dropped along the way and the text does not pause to flesh out details about them. This gives a high-energy cadence to the account, simply unfurling before us the richness of Black history, while a lengthy annotated listing in the final pages of the book provides a great deal more information and explanation. Besides these influential people, the book includes words like anthem, church, diaspora, movement, all of which elevate important aspects of Black identity.

It’s a broad-sweeping, cram-jam guide for ages 5 through much-older.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks
written by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
published in 2020 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

This title fully embraces the word “exquisite” in its lyrical text and stunning artwork. From the front cover onward, every page, every line, every brushstroke shimmers like cut diamonds.

Slade tells the story of Brooks’ life from her warm, poetry-filled childhood, through her financial struggles as a Black woman seeking to raise a family and succeed as a writer, culminating with jubilant victory — becoming the first Black person to win a Pulitzer when she was awarded the Poetry prize in 1950.

Cabrera’s paintings are simply some of the most gorgeous illustration work you’ll see and she won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award this year for them.  In a luscious, painterly style, she employs radiant pinks, glowing grass greens, hazy sea blues, and rich chocolate browns, bringing beauty and warmth to every scene. Her palette is muted during the most difficult seasons of Brooks’ life, yet always includes a reference to the determination and talent Brooks carried with her. A phenomenal book for ages 5 thru adult.

Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston
written by Alicia D. Williams, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara
published in 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

A folksy, storytellin’ narration exemplifying the Southern rural tales that set Zora’s heart to beating, and illustrations fizzing with effervescent imagination and electrifying color welcome us to the world of another wondrous writer, Zora Neale Hurston.

From the get-go, Zora was a gal who gobbled up the storytelling around her and fashioned elaborate tales of her own with as much zoom, zip, and sparkle as a gallon of sarsaparilla.  Encouraged to “jump at de sun” by her mama, then sadly cast out in her teens by a stepmother, it took all Zora’s pluck to keep a spring in her step until she was able to do what she loved the best — collect folk tales before they perished along with the old storytellers, and craft her own stories.

This is an absolutely superb portrait of a multi-talented woman that has inspired me to read more of Hurston’s work. Last year I read her fascinating book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” — an account of her interviews in 1927 with the last survivor of the last known slave ship to deliver “cargo” to the United States. I highly recommend it. Grab this gem for ages 5 and up-up-up!

Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre
written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
published in 2021 by Carolrhoda Books

In the early 1900s, Tulsa, Oklahoma, became an oil boomtown, and the segregated African American population shared in the economic uptick. In fact, the main commercial district for Black residents, a one-mile stretch along Greenwood Avenue, became such a thriving center with businesses, libraries, newspapers, hotels and movie theaters, quality hospitals and schools, that Booker T. Washington dubbed it “The Negro Wall Street of America.”

As has been the case repeatedly in American history, this success and advance of Black citizens caused anger and resentment in the  White population. All it took was one accusation by a young white woman to animate mob violence against their Black neighbors. In a horrific attack, hundreds were killed, thousands lost their homes to arson, and Greenwood Avenue was reduced to ash and rubble.

This appalling episode in American history was kept from history books and general awareness for 75 years before a formal investigation was finally launched to confront the ugly truth.

Weatherford’s portrait of this flourishing community and its violent end glows with pride, mourns in shaken grief, then briefly turns to hope via the Tulsa Reconciliation Park. Cooper’s artwork bathes the scenes of Black success in statuesque elegance, heavily outweighing the scenes of chaos and destruction. Author and artist are careful to adequately convey the tragedy while keeping the book available to young children. Important Author and Illustrator Notes add to understanding for older children and adults. Brilliant read for ages 5 thru adult.

Hush Harbor: Praying in Secret, written by Freddi Williams Evans, illustrated by Erin Bennett Banks
published in 2008 by Carolrhoda Books

Step about 60 years back from the Tulsa Massacre — not a very long time — and we land in the midst of slavery in America. This unusual book recounts the dangerous, secretive measures enslaved Africans took in order to worship and pray together.

These enslaved people had converted to Christianity and were often taken to their white masters’ church services where they were seated separately, made to behave submissively, and taught that God wanted them to be slaves. However, their rich understanding of the Bible’s teachings on justice and freedom for the oppressed led them to long for more authentic times of worship. Thus they organized Hush Harbors, and this book tells the story of one such worship service via a young male narrator acting as a scout for signs of white “paterollers” or slave-catchers.

There are few children’s books detailing the critical role of the Black Church. One other excellent title I’ve reviewed earlier is Rock of Ages. This story and it’s Author’s Note fill in more details about one of the pillars of Black culture for ages 5 and up.

Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom
written by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Simone Agoussoye
published in 2019 by Capstone

Ona Judge grew up enslaved at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia plantation. As a child, Ona learned from her mother, a seamstress on the estate, and in time became such a fine spinner, weaver, and sewer that she was chosen by Martha Washington to accompany them to their presidential homes in New York City and Philadelphia. There, besides acting as Martha’s personal attendant, Ona was exposed to a bustling urban world she had never known of and to the existence of Free Blacks.

When Ona heard she was about to be given away as a wedding present to Martha’s harsh granddaughter, with great courage and the assistance of a secretive network she plotted her escape. Even after she successfully arrived to freedom in New Hampshire, Ona was pursued by the Washingtons for many years. Yet she doggedly lived ever after as a free woman.

Ona’s story has been told at length in an award-winning adult nonfiction account, “Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge“, and a young readers edition, “Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge: George and Martha Washington’s Courageous Slave Who Dared to Run Away.” (Phew those are long titles!) This picture book makes her riveting story accessible to ages 5 and up.

The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just
written by Mélina Mangal, illustrated by Luisa Uribe
published in 2018 by Millbrook Press

Born into a world of hardship, facing tremendous obstacles of both racial injustice and global crises, biologist Ernest Everett Just is heroic not only for his breakthrough biological discoveries, but his dogged determination to press on. This detailed account is packed with inspiration and information about this curious, hardworking, brilliant scientist.

Just is known for his groundbreaking work on marine organisms, cell biology and embryology. These difficult subjects are presented in sophisticated yet highly accessible explanations. Mangal balances these scientific studies with the more personal ups and downs of Just’s life, growing up in South Carolina with a fascination for sea creatures, facing Jim Crow discrimination, finding respite in Europe where his race did not impede his career.

In addition to the intriguing main account, there are extensive Author’s Notes filling in much more detail on Just and his science, as well as an illustrator’s note that is richly illuminating about the process she undertook to bring us such accurate, engaging artwork. Ages 6 and up.

I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez
published in 2008 by Walker & Company

If you read any of my frozen-adventure titles from my January post, here’s a great addition to that list. It’s the story of the first party to reach the North Pole which included African American Matthew Henson and four Inuit men besides the man whose name we were all taught, Admiral Robert Peary.

In fact, the roles of Henson and the Inuit guides were foundational to the success of the expedition, yet they were largely uncredited for decades. This account tingles with the fortitude, purposefulness, strength, courage, and wisdom of Henson as he worked his way up through the ranks of expeditionary teams, earned Peary’s trust, dove into the Inuit language and culture in order to utilize their crucial knowledge, and then endured monumental challenges in the Arctic to achieve his goal. Velasquez’s artwork makes every page soar with brawn. His Arctic scenes capture the immensity and frigidity of the landscape.

Another title about Henson and Peary’s trek, Keep On: The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole, by Deborah Hopkinson and Stephen Alcorn, devotes even more space to the roles of the Inuit. Both make fine reading for ages 4 and up.

Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon
written by Kelly Starling Jones, illustrated by Laura Freeman
published in 2020 by Lee & Low Books

From his childhood, Philip Freelon was immersed in a world of art. His grandfather, an acclaimed painter of the Harlem Renaissance, taught him to see the world with the eye of an artist. Philip himself sketched and carved, painted and wrote poetry. As he grew older he became enamored with architecture, a perfect blend of his strengths as an artist and mathematician.

Eventually, Freelon’s architecture skills landed him the plum assignment of designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a museum that I dream of seeing one day! This is such an inspiring story about a groundbreaking architect who sadly died last year of ALS. An Afterword by Freelon provides a unique personal note and an Author’s Note gives more details about Freelon’s life and work. Ages 8 and up.

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow
written by James Sturm, illustrated by Rich Tommaso
published in 2007 by Hyperion

This short graphic novel introduces Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, and uses his life to illuminate the depths of suffering in the Jim Crow South.

Narrated by a fictional sharecropper named Emmet Wilson, we make a brief acquaintance with the mighty Paige before exploring Emmet’s, demeaning, dangerous, downtrodden world, one in which White men “lorded over” Black men, in which if Emmet doesn’t “humble down” to their cruelty and capriciousness, he knows he may end up lynched. One day, Emmet and his son go to watch a barnstorming game with Satchel Paige and his Negro League teammates taking on the local, White, Tuckwilla All-Stars. That game sees Paige deliver righteous comeuppance to Emmet’s onerous landlords, a victory that, like those of Muhammad Ali, helps Emmet “remember the type of man I am.”

It’s a powerful story, packed with sports drama, for ages 10 and up. Short “panel discussions” at the book’s end further our understanding of many aspects of the era referenced in the book.

Nelson Mandela, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
published in 2013 by Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins

Black History encompasses far more than only American figures and events, though there are still not many children’s books unfolding other, global Black heroes and histories. Of course one of the most well-known, influential Black leaders in the world was Nelson Mandela, and here Kadir Nelson gives us a gorgeous, slim account of his life.

Kadir is one of America’s finest artists and his art steals the show in this book which you can see right from the get-go with that dazzling, wordless cover image. His ravishing, handsome, magnetic portraits fill the pages of this account. The text is fairly minimal, and because it covers Mandela’s entire life from his boyhood in rural South Africa through his varied education, activism, imprisonment, and election, readers without any other acquaintance with Mandela may experience a bit of biographical whiplash.

If that’s the case, I’d suggest reading the more extended two-page biography at the end of the book so you’re able to explain a bit for your kids as you go along. An important piece of world history for ages 5 and up.

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Lest we relegate Black History to long-ago icons,
here are several books chronicling more recent pieces of Black culture and history.

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
written by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
published in 2013 by Roaring Brook Press

Hip Hop is more than a music style, it’s a cultural phenomenon that came to life in the streets of the Bronx in the 70s. This hip biography focuses on the guy whose innovative DJing and MCing ushered in some of the most prominent aspects of hip hop.

DJ Kool Herc was born in Jamaica, transplanted into the Bronx, and nicknamed by his pals. His love of dance music and fascination with DJing began in his childhood. When he finally got his chance to man the turntables, Herc put his years of observation to work, giving dancers what they wanted by cleverly extending the interludes between lyric sections when the music took over and the dancing ratcheted up a notch. Before long, the physicality and skill of that “break dancing” took on a life of its own.

Fascinating, relevant history, cool illustration work, and a helpful Author’s Note and timeline make this a great choice for kids and their parents who love to feel that beat. Ages 5 or 6 and up.

The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison
published in 2019 by Little Bee Books

After you’ve absorbed the story of DJ Kool Herc, it makes sense to take in this vigorous ode to rap music which lifts up in chronological order key players, breakthroughs, and elements of hip-hop culture in a fast-paced, staccato, 16-line poem.

Beginning by paying tribute to Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes and Paul Dunbar, Weatherford name-drops a number of key figures including James Brown, DJ Kool Herc, the Sugarhill Gang, Tupac, and Queen Latifah. She also introduces the “four pillars of hip-hop” which are Deejaying, MCing, graffiti painting, and breakdancing. Although this structure appears in her title, she does not particularly call attention to these elements as she moves along nor explain them in her Author’s Note, but if you are aware of them, you can see them hop on the scene as her poem b-bops along.

Morrison’s masterful artwork surges with Black power. Positivity, energy, tenacity, boldness reverberate from every page. It’s a one-of-a-kind offering about an incredibly significant movement in American culture. Ages 7 and up.

The President Sang Amazing Grace: A Book About Finding Grace After Unspeakable Tragedy
words by Zoe Mulford, artwork by Jeff Scher
published in 2019 by Cameron Kids

Finally, a book touching on the 2015 mass shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, an exceedingly painful, recent moment in Black history.

In his eulogy for the church’s senior pastor, the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinkney, President Barack Obama reflected on the pastor’s theme of grace in his sermons, then began to sing the hymn Amazing Grace. It was a profound, powerful moment and expression in the face of evil and grief.

Inspired by that, singer-songwriter Mulford wrote the lyrics which comprise this book. It was performed by Joan Baez in a music video animated by the paintings seen here. This violence by a white supremacist marked both a dreadful moment and grievous continuation of moments for Black Americans. The beauty and grace of these parishioners, as well as the consolation offered by President Obama, comforted us then, and comforts us still. It’s a remarkable juxtaposition for ages 6 and up.

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You can find almost 200 rich Black History reads at the link here.
Keep in mind that older children and adults can learn an immense amount from picture books!

I’m working on putting all of those Black History titles into a chronological listing which I hope will benefit learners and teachers. I’ll let you know when that’s available later this month.

Also later this month I’ll have a post with Black History titles for ages 13 and up, and hopefully some adult reads on race that have had the biggest impact on me over the last year.

Please share this post with anyone it can benefit. It’s an easy way to promote the racial equity we all long for.

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