Celebrating Black History Month with Picture Books

Celebrating Black History with Picture Books

Explore these powerful picture books for Black History Month. They include real people who fought for change, equality and improved the lives for many.

Celebrating Black History with Picture Books

Why Use Picture Books for Celebrating Black History?

If you are as interested in children’s picture books as I am, you will have noticed the increase in titles about black history and identity.

No matter the cultural makeup of your school, your students need access to books celebrating black history and culture.

Black children need to see themselves and their ancestors represented in books. Other children need to read about the experiences and lives of those different from themselves to educate and counter racism and prejudice.

Remembering and Celebrating Black History

Books with black characters like the ones below need to be accessible to students all year round. Black History Month, observed in America during February and in the UK in October, offers the opportunity to celebrate the history, art and culture of people often under-represented in literacy and media.

You will find Black History Month activities below the picture books, which provide ways to teach and discuss racism, slavery, and prejudice in the classroom.

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Picture Books for Black History Month

These picture books for Black History Month explore many aspects of black history and culture, including:

  • Role models who fought for change and equal rights.
  • Scientists and inventors who improved all our lives.
  • People who experience racism and prejudice, and fought for tolerance and equality.
  • Positive relationships that inspire and empower.

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom, but this biography describes the other names she used at different times during her life.

Use this book to discuss remarkable women, slavery, civil rights and the underground railroad.

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

In 1930s Harlem, Lewis Michaux Sr. opened the National Memorial African Bookstore. The shop became a hub for fostering new ideas and empowering people to make changes.

Promotes the importance of books, learning from others and the community.

Coming to England: An Inspiring True Story Celebrating the Windrush by Floella Benjamin

Baroness Floella Benjamin recalls her journey from Trinidad to London as part of the Windrush generation. The ten-year-old grew up to educate millions of children on TV and become a member of the House of Lords. 

Use to discuss overcoming adversity, hope, and determination.

Counting on Katherine by Helaine Becker

Katherine Johnson was one of the real-life heroes of the Apollo 13 moon landing because of her mathematical abilities, curiosity and determination. This biography shows Katherine's journey to becoming an important part of NASA and an inspirational woman in STEM.

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

Joe and John are best friends. Before 1964, John, who is black, may not use the pool. The Civil Rights Act allows John to legally use all public places, but the local pool closes rather than allow black people to use it. Joe is dismayed and cannot understand why Joe doesn’t have the same rights as himself.

Use to promote discussions on civil rights, prejudice, equality, segregation and fairness.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford

Gordon Parks, born in 1912, lived in a time of limited prospects for a poor African American. He bought a camera for $7.50 and taught himself to take photos. He saw people being treated differently because of their race and used his camera to take a stand against racism. Gordon followed his dream despite the prejudice he faced and brought awareness to others who faced intolerance.

This biography highlights civil rights, artists, black history and social justice.

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine

Henry Brown, a slave, overcomes many challenges, including being torn from his family who were sold as slaves. Working at a warehouse he comes up with the idea of achieving his dream of freedom by mailing himself to the North.

Reinforces themes of freedom, overcoming adversity and resilience.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures tells the inspirational story of four black women who worked at NASA in the 1940s. Their intelligence and determination changed the world by putting a man on the moon.

A powerful picture book to promote gender roles, tolerance, inquirers and perseverance.

Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes

Explore the story of the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian American to become Vice President of the United States. Read how Kamala Harris’ immigrant parents instilled her with a passion for freedom and justice.

Promotes gender roles, female role models, empowerment, social justice and equality.

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson

Narrated by a child who joined the 1963 civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama. Through their words, we see the harsh consequences for children protesting after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Children were jailed and treated with disdain by many adults. Regardless, they took a stand and used their voice to change the world.

Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs

Elisabeth Cotten taught herself to play her brother’s right-handed guitar upside down and backwards as she was left-handed. She created her own music as a teenager and composed the song ‘Freight Train’

This biography illustrates the determination of an inspiring woman who didn’t become well known as a blues and folk musician until she was in her 60s.

Lillian's Right to Vote by Jonah Winter

Lillian, a one-hundred-year-old African American woman, is determined to walk up the steep hill to her polling station to make her voice heard. During her journey, she remembers the difficult voting history of her family. After the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment her great grandfather voted for the first time, she witnesses her parents registering to vote and she marched from Selma to Montgomery.

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed

As a child, Mae Jemison dreamed of travelling into space. Her curiosity, intelligence, and determination led to her becoming the first African American woman to travel in space.

Use to promote gender roles, remarkable women, perseverance, and inspiration.

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz

Ilyasah Shabazz writes about the childhood of her grandfather, Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X. We learn about his natural leadership, his curiosity, and his nurturing family. His optimism is tested when he experiences intolerance and tragedies, including the death of his father by the Ku Klux Klan.

Promotes discussions on black history, activism and racism.

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport

A biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., using quotes from his important speeches to tell the story of his life. The book includes a timeline and further resources to learn about this influential man.

Use to discuss black history, civil rights, segregation, freedom, courage, integrity and activism.

My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth by Ann Turner

Former slave, Isabella Baumfree, became the preacher Sojourner Truth, fighting for abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Use to discuss how adversity can be used for change, black history, abolition and women’s rights.

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard

Mary Walker was born into slavery in 1848, and at the age of 116 she learned to read. She witnessed the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and through her perseverance, she showed you’re never too old to learn.

Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment by Parker Curry

When Parker Curry visited the National Portrait Gallery, she looked up to see a portrait of a queen. The powerful painting of Michelle Obama captured Parker’s imagination about the possibilities of her future regardless of race, class, or gender.

The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome

The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Ethel Payne fought for her education despite the adversity and racism she faced. After graduating in journalism, she wrote about segregation and racism, before becoming one of three black journalists to be issued a press page for the White House. She asked tough questions and was a vocal critic to those in power for their lack of action in the civil rights movement.

Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus

This biography of the poet Maya Angelou describes how she turned the adversity of her childhood into an inspiring life as a mother, writer, activist and humanitarian.

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni celebrates the life of the inspirational Rosa Parks. Over 50 years ago, Rosa refused to give up her seat on a bus during segregation in Alabama.

Read to discuss the inspiration and courage of one woman, black history, civil rights, and racism.

Salt in His Shoes by Deloris Jordan

A young Michael Jordon thought about giving up his basketball dream because of his size. His parents shared with him the qualities that make a champion, patience, determination, and hard work.

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford

Arturo Schomburg was an Afro–Puerto Rican who moved to Harlem. When his collection of African literature, art and music threatens to burst out of his house he created and curated a collection at New York Public Library. Today, scholars from around the world still use the collection.

The Teachers March! by Sandra Neil Wallace

Reverend F. D. Reese was a teacher, principal and leader of the Voting Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama. He recognised the respect felt towards educators and organised a teacher only march for voting rights. In 1965, black teachers left their classrooms to march to the courthouse to register to vote.

The book includes an interview with Reverend F.D. Reese and other teachers, photographs and a timeline.

This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson writes about one African American family and the effect of the Great Migration on them. As the family moves from South Carolina to New York, a piece of rope symbolizes the journey and connections of the three generations of the family.

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander’s poem pays tribute to African Americans who fought against injustice by showing determination, passion, grit and courage. Search the illustrations for Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jesse Owens, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and many more.

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole

A girl is frightened when she discovers a slave hiding in a barn. Her compassion takes over when she saw the fear in their eyes and she cares for them even when slave hunters come looking for the escaped slave. She is rewarded with a doll as a token of gratitude.

Use this wordless story promotes themes of black history, courage, compassion, inference and asking questions.

Voice of Freedom Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford

Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of equal voting rights, but she had to overcome prejudice, verbal abuse and a beating which nearly killed her. In 1964 she gave a televised speech that prompted people to support the Freedom Democrats.

Told in verse the book shares Fannie Lou Hamer’s life from her tough childhood, showing determination, courage and hope and standing up for social rights.

We March by Shane W. Evans

A family joins protesters, young and old, on August 28, 1963, for the March on Washington. They march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where they listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that advocates for racial harmony.

White Water by Michael S. Bandy

As Michael quenches his thirst with gritty water from a fountain, he is curious whether the water from the white-only fountain is better. Set in the segregated South just before the civil rights movement, he plucks up the courage to taste the white water, only to realise it is exactly the same.

Promotes discussions on civil rights, racism, segregation, courage and prejudice.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson

Audrey lived in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. She saw first-hand the mistreatment and discrimination of people because of their skin color. Despite knowing the dangers, she marched to end segregation after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King talk. Audrey Faye Hendrick, at nine, was the youngest child arrested and placed in jail.

This powerful book about a young girl taking a stand will help children realize they too have a voice, no matter their age.

Black History Month Activities

What Next?

Visit Embrace Race to read more on choosing picture books with diverse characters.

What picture books for black history month do you recommend? Let me know in the comments!

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