Books for Black History Month
I thought long and hard about how I wanted to approach this post. I realized I didn’t want to limit this reading list to a specific sub-theme or create my own lens for how Black history should be viewed. Instead the focus of this post will be on children’s books that are written and/or illustrated by Black Americans sharing Black history, culture, and the lived experience. While these books are intended for children, they are gut-wrenching at times but always soaring with hope and celebration nonetheless.
For the babies and toddlers
Dream Big, Little One / Follow Your Dreams, Little One
Written and Illustrated by: Vashti Harrison
Recommended Ages: 12 months-3 years
A lovely abridgement for very little readers, these books are adapted from Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders: Bold Women In Black History and Little Legends: Exceptional Men In Black History, respectively. These board books are inspiring; highlighting contributions of Black women and men leaders in fields like STEM, arts, politics, sports, entertainment, etc. Each leader is introduced with their name and what they were famous for accomplishing. As you work your way through each leader’s achievements, see if your kid is especially curious about one and look up their story to learn more about that person together. The artwork is a confection of cotton candy—beautiful pastel artwork with each leader posing on a “stage” with artifacts identifying their sphere of influence. The message is so positive and encourages the reader that the world is awaiting their accomplishments.
Baby Young Gifted And Black
Written by: Jamia Wilson
Illustrated by: Andrea Pippins
Recommended Ages: 12 months-3 years
Like the Vashti Harrison books listed above, this board book celebrates famous Black men and women leaders and is a baby-friendly version of the older kids’ book Young, Gifted, and Black. Unlike the Harrison books, this book highlights Black leaders that are more contemporary. One of the things I like best about this book is the introduction to each individual is centered on the impact they have had. For example, “I bring people together like Nelson Mandela.” It doesn’t go into the specifics of each leader’s achievement—the artwork does a nice job of that—but making it impact-focused means it’s something your child can accomplish too and immediately. The artwork pops off the page in a bold and contemporary graphic art style. While the Harrison books are more comprehensive, if I had to pick just one book, this one would be the one I’d buy.
For the little kids
Black Is A Rainbow Color
Written by: Angela Joy
Illustrated by: Ekua Holmes
Recommended Ages: 5-12 years old
This book is exquisite. I hate it when people say things are a must-buy and, yet, here I am saying, this book is an absolute must. Where do I even begin? The title alone is provocative: most of us probably don’t even realize that the color black is not in the rainbow (Roy G. Biv, I’m looking at you). From that first observation, the book explodes into all the beauty of the color black—both as it relates to the color itself and to important facets of Black history. The gravity of certain sentences may not resonate with the little ones but will ring true for the adults. It’s one of those books that you may experience a certain way as a child and when you go back with older, wiser eyes, you see the true intent behind the text. The artwork is bright and colorful and while it is clearly professionally done, it has the whimsy of a child’s artwork. Ekua Holmes intersperses news headlines and other text within the illustrations to drive home the imagery. Additionally, at the very back of the book are a few pages with a suggested playlist, details on some of the references the book makes, famed poems, and the history of the word “black” as it relates to the African diaspora. Combined with all this amazing reference material, this book packs an extremely powerful expression of what it means to be Black. This is a book I can see being on the bookshelf throughout a kid’s childhood.
The Year We Learned To Fly
Written by: Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by: Rafael López
Recommended Ages: 4-7 years old
This lovely book takes the lessons learned in Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly (summarized in the Big Kids section below) and applies them in a contemporary setting. It begins with a sister and her younger brother cooped up in their city apartment. As you can imagine, boredom and rivalry ensue until their grandmother reminds them that they aren’t the first people to feel the way they feel and that they can use their imaginations to “fly.” The direct reference to Virginia Hamilton’s work comes when the grandmother explains why she encourages them “to fly.” One of the things I love best is how the grandmother’s encouragement is internalized by the main characters and becomes their inner voice when they face challenges. The illustrations are soft and cozy but bright. As you read, it’s easy to step into the beautiful world Rafael López creates and feel like you’re listening to the grandmother’s story firsthand.
Ablaze With Color: A Story Of Painter Alma Thomas
Written by: Jeanne Walker Harvey
Illustrated by: Loveis Wise
Recommended Ages: 7-9 years
This absolutely stunning book details the life of Alma Thomas and her journey to becoming a celebrated Expressionist artist. She grew up in Jim Crow-era Georgia until her family moved to Washington, D.C. where she lived the rest of her life. Her artwork is renowned for it’s vivid use of color and this book certainly reflects that. The story begins with the unfairness of the segregated South and the lack of options Alma had to pursue schooling. Eventually, at the ripe age of 70, she decides to focus on creating her own art which leads her to great acclaim. I encourage you to have a look at her artwork; it truly is ablaze with color and, having learned Alma’s history, you can imagine the generosity of spirit she must have had to look at the world and see the bright, beautiful colors she did. This book is a masterpiece of illustration and Loveis Wise has done an amazing job incorporating Thomas’ style with their own through lush, vivid colors that are a feast for the eyes. There are a lot of different lessons you can discuss with your child in this one: hope, generosity, overcoming obstacles, and not letting age be a limiting factor. This is a truly beautiful book that both kids and adults will enjoy. TIP: A fun activity would be to create artwork in Thomas’ style!
For the big kids
A History Of Me
Written by: Adrea Theodore
Illustrated by: Erin K. Robinson
Recommended Ages: 8-11 years old
This is a story of feeling alone. As the only brown person in her classroom, our main character feels like all eyes are on her when elements of Black history are being taught in school. She feels like she becomes the “representative” of what is being taught and would much rather fade into the background. Her mother, however, reminds her that she should be grateful to be in school considering her ancestors didn’t have those opportunities. If you’ve ever been the minority in any situation, I think you’ll be able to relate to this book. It can be hard to want to be recognized for who you are as an individual and not feel like others are making generalizations about you or that you feel you have to be the voice for a whole group of people. The illustrations are beautiful and include the reader in that feeling of being “separate.” This is a great book to encourage empathy for those who may be in the minority.
Build A House
Written by: Rhiannon Giddens
Illustrated by: Monica Mikai
Recommended Ages: 7-10 years old
This is a rhythmic and moving tale. At first glance, it seems simple but as it builds and crescendos (literally), you can’t help but feeling sad and uplifted all at once. Written by Grammy Award winner Rhiannon Giddens, this is both a song and an illustrated book. It’s a story about a family looking to build their home but instead have to deal with the violence of slavery. It is a child-friendly book and, while it does showcase some violence, it is not explicit or disturbing. A lot of sentences repeat themselves so as you read, a rhythm will start to build and that rhythm is a very powerful way of feeling the urgency and steadfastness of this family as they experience hardship. The illustrations do a great job of using color to showcase the sadness and the hope. Rhiannon Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma have even recorded the “song” of this book (it is not the exact same so don’t use the recording as a read-aloud tool) that helps bring this story to life. My recommendation would be to first read the book together aloud and then listen to the song recording.
The People Could Fly: The Picture Book
Written by: Virginia Hamilton
Illustrated by: Leo and Diane Dillon
Recommended Ages: 9-11 years old
This is a standalone picture book of one of the 24 folktales in Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly. The way this story is written, it feels as if you’re being told it verbally. The language uses a speaking voice and it feels a lot like being curled up in front of an elder who’s sharing a tale from long ago. The story shows how some enslaved people escaped slavery by literally flying away because of magic they had retained from their homelands in Africa. This story does not gloss over the horrors of slavery: there are parts that refer to being whipped and beaten by an overseer. You will likely have a conversation with your kid about the pain and violence of slavery. After you read the folktale, it will be clear that there’s two ways of perceiving the story—literally or allegorically. At this age, readers will probably be able to understand the allegory and how meaningful it was to those who suffered from enslavement. The illustrations are gorgeously painted and incredibly moving and humbling. This is a beautiful read to understand how hope and imagination get passed down generation to generation. This book pairs well with The Year We Learned To Fly by Jacqueline Woodson that I summarized in the Little Kids section above.
I hope you and your kids enjoy these books. As I was reading these books, it struck me that these stories are great for adults too. Since these books are geared to kids they eliminate all the noise and focus on the human element—the things that are truly important like freedom, community, and lots and lots of hope.
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