My Favorite Black History Books
It’s that time of year when bookstores, libraries, and classrooms will have displays of Black History books. And that’s great, but it’s not enough. If you’re like me, a white mom with white kids, you should also have some of these books in your home. Don’t do it to ease some white guilt. Do it because it’s important for your kids to see books in their home in support of people who don’t look like them. Do it because these are wonderful books. Most importantly, do it because they are human stories of struggle and triumph and they are our history no matter the color of our skin. It’s the story of America. Of all the seasonal books we have, my Nora loves Black History books the most. She helped me write these recommendations because she has her favorites. The thing is, Nora loves to read, but her love for these books helps grow her heart into someone that sees every person as someone created by and loved by God. And I believe her sweet heart will change the world. So, let's get to the book recommendations...
When it comes to biographies, there are a few series we really love. Each of these series will feature some of the same people, but they differ in the difficulty of the text. Once you select a series that’s right for your readers, check out all the great biographies they carry.
Ordinary People Change the World Series
My kids love this series of books. The cartoons on the front are cute and inviting for young readers. Also, it’s the same brand as Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum on PBS so they may even been familiar to your kids. Although these are small picture books, there is quite a lot of text on each page. So, though your little ones will be able to follow along, it may be a read aloud until they’re a little bit older. We’ve all been there. Your new reader wants to read the story and you open the book to see a lot of black text and you gulp. Those are the times I’ve had to pivot and say, “How about you do one page and I’ll do one,” or maybe it’s a great time to learn what a bookmark is. The reading level on these books is K-4, but it would take a pretty advanced kindergartener to handle it alone.
Some of the biographies you can find in the Ordinary People Change the World series are: John Lewis, Mohammad Ali, Oprah Winfrey, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr. , Jackie Robinson, and Rosa Parks. We have Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks and they give enough information to be educational but not too much to bog down little brains.
This company has also expanded into board books. For Black History Month, they have: I Am Brave; a Little Book about Martin Luther King, Jr. and I Am Strong a Little Book about Rosa Parks.
National Geographic Kids
Another great biography series is National Geographic Kids. Don’t be put off by the covers which simply feature a photograph of the person. If you’re familiar with National Geographic magazines, you now they’re full of color photos, catchy side-bars, and tons of interesting facts. I love these books because they are leveled. You choose the level that best fits your reader. Topics/people in the series are: African-American History Makers, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.
"Who Was/What Was" (WhoHQ)
I so wish this series was around when I was a kid. I would have blown through them they way my kids do. WhoHQ, or the “Who Was/What Was” series is just wonderful. The cover of the biographies always feature a drawing of the person with a huge, exaggerated head teetering on a tiny body. That’s their signature look. These books are all roughly 100 pages in length which is long enough to feel like big kid book and short enough to read in less than an hour. They also have black and white illustrations on every page, so those pages turn quickly, which builds reader confidence as they learn.
There are so many great topics for these books such as: Tuskegee Airmen, Booker T. Washington, Coretta Scott King, The Williams Sisters, Maya Angelou, George Washington Carver, Sojourner Truth, Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, MLK, Ida B. Wells, Underground Railroad, March on Washington, Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, Reconstruction, Juneteenth, The Civil Rights Movement, and The Negro Leagues. And at only $5.99 for a paperback you can’t beat the price. Your local library will carry tons of them too, so check there first if you’d like.
In addition to the biographies, there are a few picture books we love. Often we think only little kids read picture books, but actually these books have wonderful inspiration and truth for older kids too.
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
Don’t be dissuaded by this rather boring title. You can’t read this book and not cry a little. That’s all I’m going to say. Read it and if you don’t cry, I’ll buy you lunch. Not that I don’t want to take you to lunch, but I’m pretty sure I won’t have to. Sure, it’s about Ruby Bridges who went to school all by herself for a year because the white parents of her classmates wouldn’t allow them to attend school with her, but there’s more to this inspiring story and this inspiring girl.
Be a King; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream and You by Carole Boston Weatherford
This is one of those books we keep out from January (on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) though February. I’ve actually bought this book twice because my puppy ate the first copy we had. Seems he likes these kinds of books too (just in a different way). The theme of this book is we can all be a King by the way we treat others. Instead of just describing MLK, the book gives clear examples of how young people (and their parents) can follow in his footsteps every day.
Unspeakable; the Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper
I remember learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and feeling really stupid. I was in my 30’s and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about it already. Turns out, most people didn’t because it was sort of swept under the rug in American history. This book was written to remedy that. It's a picture book, but I recommend reading it with your kids since the subject matter is heavy and they may have lots of questions. I think it does a great job of covering such a serious topic in a way kids will understand.
Rosa's Bus; The Ride to Civil Rights by Jo S. Kittinger
There are so many wonderful books about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but this one has a little different angle. It’s about the bus itself -where it was made and what it encountered during the boycott. I loved this book because although it’s about a bus, it puts a spotlight on the courage of Rosa Parks and all those who walked to work for over a year. The illustrations are also stunning.
A Ride to Remember; A Civil Rights Story by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan
For every Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, there were hundreds of others who were the first to cross some color line. Someone you may not have heard of is Sharon Langley. She’s a Baltimore native and she and her parents were the first people of color to ride the carousel at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore. Before they were admitted, the park was reserved for white customers only. A Ride to Remember is her story.
Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey
If all the books were about historical figures, it’s possible to come to the conclusion that they were the only ones who suffered under Jim Crowe laws. I loved this book because, although Ruth is a fictional character, her story represents many black families who were trying to live and thrive in the south during the Civil Rights Movement. In this book, Ruth and her family travel south to visit her Grandma and she encounters ugly, hateful racism in a way she hadn’t in her home up north. They learn about the green book which lets them know which restaurants and hotels will cater to them because they are black. It’s heartbreaking, but really helpful for young people to understand this part of American history.
New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer
Although this is a work of fiction, New Shoes shines a light on real people who didn’t have simple freedoms like trying on shoes before buying them. And if by chance the shoe didn't fit? Too bad. In this book, Ella Mae and Charlotte find a way to serve the people in their community and take a stand against unjust laws.
I absolutely love poetry, so I had to include a section featuring books written in verse.
Standing in the Need of Prayer; a Modern Retelling of the Classic Spiritual by Carole Boston Weatherford
One of the best experiences for me in college was singing with a gospel choir. Those two hour rehearsals every Tuesday evening sometimes got me through the rest of my stressful week. One of my favorite songs we sang was, “Standing in the Need of Prayer”. I remember thinking, “If I ever get to the place where this isn’t true, there’s something really wrong.” We are always in the need of prayer, especially when we don’t think we are. So, when I saw this title, I knew I would love this book. Spoiler: I did. Standing in the Need of Prayer is modern retelling of that spiritual, but it highlights specific moments in black history. The book is brand new and a perfect addition to any library.
Change Sings; a Children's Anthem by Amanda Gorman
I saw this book at my kids’ Scholastic Bookfair, and I knew I had to have it. First, just look at that gorgeous cover. I remember being so moved by Amanda Gorman when I first heard her speak. In fact, I was afraid to read the book at the bookfair with all the other parent volunteers because I thought I might cry. I was wise to wait. I bought it and took it home. And although this isn’t specifically a Black History Month book, its message is clear: IF WE TEACH OUR CHILDREN TO LOVE OTHERS, a change is coming.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This Promise of Change by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. And that’s really saying something. I didn’t know what to expect when I got it from the library, and I was surprised to see it was a novel in verse. The reading level on this is late middle grade, so probably readers 6th grade and up would understand it. Notice I didn’t give an age range because it’s an amazing book for kids and adults. I absolutely devoured it. There were times I laughed. There were times I cried. And as soon as I finished, I talked to everyone about it. The main character, Jo Ann Allen, is one of the Clinton 12 (a group of black students who were the first to break the color barrier and integrate a white high school in Clinton, Tennessee). The poetry in this book is heartbreaking and beautiful. I can’t really do it justice in my description, so just go get the book and read it. Then talk to me about it because I’m dying to talk about it with someone else.
I hope you check out some of these books. And if not, I hope you find others that you like. Read them with your kids or grandkids. Talk about the themes in them. Help your kids process this part of our history and decide how we can work together to see a “change that’s coming”, as Amanda Gorman would say. Happy Reading!