As a mom of little kids and a high school educator I read both children’s and young adult books. And I am OBSESSED with children’s books!!! Sometimes I have to stay away from that section because I can feel my credit card heating up as I approach lol. I do backflips when I come across children’s books that teach Black history!
Why I Love Children’s Books
In addition to reading these books with my own children, I am an advocate of using children’s/picture books in the secondary classroom. I think we are often too quick to categorize books by age instead of interest. I can learn as much, if not more sometimes, from reading a children’s book as I can a book that is for an adult. They are quick and provide information in a way that hopefully inspires you to seek out more. I love the illustrations, the more straightforward language and the bravery of emotion that children’s books capture.
So in honor of Black History Month, I am sharing a few recommendations for children’s books that teach Black History. I hope parents and educators, especially, will check them out and consider reading them throughout the year because #BHM365. You can find additional pictures and features on my Instagram, @CocoaWithBooks.
Nina: A Story of Nina Simone
Have you seen this gorgeous new book (Pub date: Sept. 2021), Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd and illustrated by Christian Robinson that honors her legacy?
Synopsis: Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in small town North Carolina, Nina Simone was a musical child. She sang before she talked and learned to play piano at a very young age. With the support of her family and community, she received music lessons that introduced her to classical composers like Bach who remained with her and influenced her music throughout her life. She loved the way his music began softly and then tumbled to thunder, like her mother’s preaching, and in much the same way as her career. During her first performances under the name of Nina Simone her voice was rich and sweet but as the Civil Rights Movement gained steam, Nina’s voice soon became a thunderous roar as she raised her voice in powerful protest in the fight against racial inequality and discrimination.
Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy
Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy by Misty Copeland (Pub date: Nov. 2021) is a must have for any little girl interested in ballet and dancing. Copeland talks about how isolated she felt in the American Ballet Company as the only Black dancer. Doing this research helped her to understand that she was never alone. There were others who had come before her, that she could look to for inspiration and hope.
The artwork is absolutely gorgeous as are the dancers that are featured. I love the way each biography is connected to Copeland’s experience and builds on her understanding of the black ballerina community over the years. It connects to her journey of discovery to understanding that even though she feels alone, there have been many Black women who have paved the way for the path she dances today. The book features ballerinas from the past as well as the present. I wish that I had a book like this when I taking ballet classes as a little girl.
Synopsis: As a young girl living in a motel with her mother and her five siblings, Misty Copeland didn’t have a lot of exposure to ballet or prominent dancers. She was sixteen when she saw a black ballerina on a magazine cover for the first time. The experience emboldened Misty and told her that she wasn’t alone—and her dream wasn’t impossible.
In the years since, Misty has only learned more about the trailblazing women who made her own success possible by pushing back against repression and racism with their talent and tenacity. Misty brings these women’s stories to a new generation of readers and gives them the recognition they deserve.
With an introduction from Misty about the legacy these women have had on dance and on her career itself, this book delves into the lives and careers of women of color who fundamentally changed the landscape of American ballet from the early 20th century to today.
Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery
Y’all remember JJ from Good Times right? Well, Ernie Barnes was in a sense, the artistic role model for JJ’s character. You may recall one of Ernie Barnes’ most iconic pieces of art, “Sugar Shack” that was showcased on the show.
Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery tells the amazing story of Ernie Barnes who played football, but in his heart he was a true artist.
Synopsis: Ernie Barnes was an NFL football player who longed to make art. Finally his dream came true.
When Ernie Barnes was growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s, he loved to draw. Even when he played as a boy with his friends he drew with a stick in the mud. And he never left home without a sketchbook. He would draw families walking home from church, or the old man on the sofa. He drew what he saw.
But in the segregated south, Ernie didn’t know how to make a living as an artist. Ernie grew tall and athletic and became a football star. Soon enough the colleges came calling. Still, in his heart Ernie longed to paint. Would that day ever come?
Ernie Barnes was one of the most important artists of his time known for his style of elongation and movement. His work has influenced a generation of painters and illustrators and can be found in museums and collections, such as the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the California African American Museum.
Between the Lines is a story of inspiration, spirit, and of an American original who pursued his dream. This enchanting picture book includes pieces of artwork created by this little known artist who captured the truth and beauty of the world he saw around him.
The People Could Fly: The Picture Book
I love the story, The People Could Fly: The Picture Book by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. I read it as a child in the story collection of the same name. But I fell in love with it all over again when I read it to my AP students as a companion text for our study of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. When I began reading her novel, this story immediately entered my mind and I asked a colleague if I could borrow her copy to read to my students. At the time some of the literary articles on the novel stated that the myth Morrison was referencing was the tale of Icarus. When I read that I absolutely knew that had to be incorrect… and it was.
This picture book has gorgeous new illustrations and an editor’s note from Virginia Hamilton that is a must-read too. If you are a fan of Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, you should definitely give this folktale a read.
Synopsis: Virginia Hamilton’s Coretta Scott King Honor book is the breathtaking fantasy tale of slaves who possessed ancient magic that enabled them to fly away to freedom. And it is a moving tale of those who did not have the opportunity to “fly” away, who remained slaves with only their imaginations to set them free as they told and retold this tale.
Leo and Diane Dillon’s powerful illustrations accompany Hamilton’s voice as it sings out from the pages with the soaring cadences that echo the story tellers of her childhood as the granddaughter of a fugitive slave.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated Ekua Holmes tells the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, a heroine in the Civil Rights Movement. I wish we heard more about her heroic work and sacrifice. This book tells her story through poetry and absolutely beautiful illustrations. This is a children’s book, but a person of any age could learn from it. I would use it in a high school class.
Synopsis: Despite fierce prejudice and abuse, even being beaten to within an inch of her life, Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. Integral to the Freedom Summer of 1964, Ms. Hamer gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that, despite President Johnson’s interference, aired on national TV news and spurred the nation to support the Freedom Democrats. Featuring vibrant mixed-media art full of intricate detail, Voice of Freedom celebrates Fannie Lou Hamer’s life and legacy with a message of hope, determination, and strength.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez is about Afro-Puerto Rican historican, Arturo Schomburg. He was an OG Black Bibliophile. This man saw the hidden gems of Black history in what other would deem “worthless material.” He refused to accept the idea that Black people had no history worth studying. If you want to learn increase your knowledge of Black historical facts and firsts, then check this book out.
For all my fellow book collectors, check out the poem, “Home” and see if you find anything you relate with lol.
Schomburg is also illustrated by another one of my fave illustrators and Pura Belpre award winner, Eric Velasquez, who has written a few books of his own.
Synopsis: Amid the scholars, poets, authors, and artists of the Harlem Renaissance stood an Afro–Puerto Rican named Arturo Schomburg. This law clerk’s life’s passion was to collect books, letters, music, and art from Africa and the African diaspora and bring to light the achievements of people of African descent through the ages. When Schomburg’s collection became so big it began to overflow his house (and his wife threatened to mutiny), he turned to the New York Public Library, where he created and curated a collection that was the cornerstone of a new Negro Division. A century later, his groundbreaking collection, known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has become a beacon to scholars all over the world.
When I was first introduced to The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, it was at a conference and presented by the author. The pages were slides that were projected on a large screen. It is one of the few times, that I have teared up in public. The poem in the book is so powerful and the illustrations add to that power. This book recognizes the trauma and the triumph of African-American people.
Synopsis: Originally performed for ESPN’s The Undefeated, this poem is a love letter to black life in the United States. It highlights the unspeakable trauma of slavery, the faith and fire of the civil rights movement, and the grit, passion, and perseverance of some of the world’s greatest heroes. The text is also peppered with references to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others, offering deeper insights into the accomplishments of the past, while bringing stark attention to the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present. Robust back matter at the end provides valuable historical context and additional detail for those wishing to learn more.
Born on the Water
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith is a children’s companion to The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones. If you are interested in teaching it check out Aeriale Johnson’s teacher’s guide for it.
The way this story begins, I’m sure that many Black readers can relate to a similar experience in their childhood. I know I can. The energy and beauty that the illustrations exude even when the focus is such a painful and traumatic topic, is phenomenal. I love the way the joy and reality is captured of life in Africa before slavery. It is the vibrancy we need to see to reaffirm that our people did not begin with slavery.
Synopsis: A young student receives a family tree assignment in school, but she can only trace back three generations. Grandma gathers the whole family, and the student learns that 400 years ago, in 1619, their ancestors were stolen and brought to America by white slave traders.
But before that, they had a home, a land, a language. She learns how the people said to be born on the water survived.