Books to read for African American History month

February is African American History month, celebrating the diverse and rich history of Black Americans.

While February is set aside to celebrate Black history, it’s incredibly important that we don’t allow February to be the only month we support African Americans in kid lit. Every year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center analyzes diversity in children’s literature. In 2017, of the 3,700 children’s books they received, only 122 were written by an African American. That’s 3.3% of children’s books. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.4% of the population is Black. This is an appalling disparity.

We as parents can help fix this problem by supporting Black kid lit authors. We can read their books. We can promote their books on our blogs and social media accounts. We can gift these books to friends and family. And this needs to happen not just in February, but in every month of the year.

But African American history month can help us remember to do so. It can be a starting point for the rest of the year.

As suggestions, Jen and Margaret round up some of their current picture book reads about Black history. These are just a few of the many picture books that celebrate prominent African Americans and their history. We’ll be reviewing more throughout the month and year. I also recommend checking out the Coretta Scott King Book Award and the Here Wee Read website.

6 Picture Books Celebrating African American History

Cover of Moses by Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir NelsonMoses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedomby Carole Boston Weatherford, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Publisher description: This poetic book is a resounding tribute to Tubman’s strength, humility, and devotion. With proper reverence, Weatherford and Nelson do justice to the woman who, long ago, earned over and over the name Moses.

Margaret’s review: This book is gorgeous. If I were going to try and prove to someone that children’s literature can be art, this is one of the books I would grab. Kadir Nelson is one of the best illustrators and artists today, and this book is a stunning example of that. But the writing is stunning as well. Told as a poem and prayer, it depicts Harriet Tubman’s perseverance and faith. Harriet Tubman needs no introduction to parents, but children love hearing her story. I remember consuming Harriet Tubman biographies in elementary school. It’s a bit big for younger children, but perfect for elementary school ages.

Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

Publisher description: Elizabeth Cotten was only a little girl when she picked up a guitar for the first time. It wasn’t hers (it was her big brother’s), and it wasn’t strung right for her (she was left-handed). But she flipped that guitar upside down and backwards and taught herself how to play it anyway. By age eleven, she’d written “Freight Train,” one of the most famous folk songs of the twentieth century. And by the end of her life, people everywhere—from the sunny beaches of California to the rolling hills of England—knew her music.

Jen’s review: This is a lovely biographical book about the folk singer Libba Cotten, who wrote the classic song ‘Freight Train’ when she was 13.  Libba Cotten sounds like a truly remarkable lady and this was a gentle and informative book that captures her story beautifully. There are also a couple of extra pages of information from the author, and a reference list! The academic in me loves that.

Cover of Someday is Now by Rhuday-PerkovichSomeday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-insby Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Illustrated by Jade Johnson

Publisher’s descriptionSomeday Is Now tells the inspirational story of the celebrated civil rights leader, Clara Luper, who led one of the first lunch-counter sit-ins in America. 

How will you stand against something you know is wrong? One way is to follow the lessons of bravery taught by civil rights pioneers like Clara Luper.

As a child, Clara saw how segregation affected her life. Her journey famously led her to Oklahoma, where she and her students desegregated stores and restaurants that were closed to African-Americans. With courage and conviction, Clara Luper led young people to “do what had to be done.”

This moving title includes additional information on Clara Luper’s extraordinary life, her lessons of nonviolent resistance, and a glossary of key civil rights people and terms.

Margaret’s review: I’d never heard of Clara Luper until reading this book. I recently finished the March trilogy by Congressman John Lewis, where he recalls similar demonstrations he led and participated in. The difference here is that these are children! I love this story because it shows that children matter. That their voices and thoughts matter, that they can enact change. That they’re important. Rhuday-Perkovich also introduces a lot of key terms in the Civil Rights Movement, which would make this a great accompaniment to any Civil Rights lesson plans for teachers. I recommend this for older elementary students.

Cover of The Quickest Kid in Clarkesville by MillerThe Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller and Frank Morrison

Publisher description: It’s the day before the big parade. Alta can only think about one thing: Wilma Rudolph, three-time Olympic gold medalist. She’ll be riding on a float tomorrow. See, Alta is the quickest kid in Clarksville, Tennessee, just like Wilma once was. It doesn’t matter that Alta’s shoes have holes because Wilma came from hard times, too. But what happens when a new girl with shiny new shoes comes along and challenges Alta to a race? Will she still be the quickest kid? The Quickest Kid in Clarksville is a timeless story of dreams, determination, and the power of friendship.

Jen’s review: I love that the ending surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have because this is a children’s book, but in my non-baby time, I read a lot of crime fiction and those typically do not leave you with warm fuzzy feelings. So when there is a story with rivalry and competition, my brain is primed to expect something cut-throat and bloodthirsty. I also liked how what Alta thinks/chants as she runs to keep her rhythm (‘Wil-ma Ru-dolph’) repeats itself throughout the story, as though taking the reader along on the run. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Cover of Radiant Child by SteptoeRadiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiatby Javaka Steptoe

Publisher’s description: Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Now, award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork echoing Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean–and definitely not inside the lines–to be beautiful.

Margaret’s review: My husband is an artist and introduced me to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. It’s playful and messy, dark and bold, and the writer/illustrator of Radiant Child does a superior job of reflecting that art in this picture book. I love that the book still represents the darkness in Basquiat’s life, albeit minus the drug addiction. I’ve always thought elementary school students should be shown Basquit’s work. It’s so perfect for early artists to see they can be messy, combine words with art, to scribble and be bold. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Radiant Child is perfect for the earlier elementary school years.

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra.

Publisher description: In New Orleans, there lived a man who saw the streets as his calling, and he swept them clean. He danced up one avenue and down another and everyone danced along. The old ladies whistled and whirled. The old men hooted and hollered. The barbers, bead twirlers, and beignet bakers bounded behind that one-man parade. But then came the rising Mississippi—and a storm greater than anyone had seen before. In this heartwarming book about a real garbage man, Phil Bildner and John Parra tell the inspiring story of a humble man and the heroic difference he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Jen’s review: I really loved this book. I love thinking more deeply about the mundane and everyday life (hello, there is my academic background shining through) and especially recognising all the work that goes into maintaining a city. Sanitation workers are some of the most important people in the everyday functioning of cities (bin day in our household is our favourite day. Possibly a sign that we are getting old), and this is one of my favourite picture books for highlighting their worth. I also loved the humanity and generosity that was shown in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Cornelius’ role in that, and the way this was depicted in the book. The illustrations are gorgeous too.

What are your favorite picture books about Black history?

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