This selection of historical picture books for Black History Month is tailored to read aloud to your preschoolers, kindergartners, or early elementary age kids. This booklist is filled with compelling stories that will both educate and inspire.
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This picture book booklist is by no means exhaustive. Instead, these are just a few of my favorite historical non-fiction picture books to read aloud for Black History Month, or any time of the year. If you have a favorite, please share in the comments!
In their storytelling, these books are powerful and thought-provoking. You will likely be familiar with Harriet Tubman, Aretha Franklin, or perhaps Lonnie Johnson (of Super Soaker fame). Other names may be unfamiliar, but each book is a story of perseverance, hope, and especially freedom.
Lonnie Johnson is persistent, hard-working, and creative. In a quest to improve the cooling systems of refrigerators and air conditioners, Johnson realized he had unexpectedly engineered a way to create the most phenomenal water gun. But even with this amazing new creation in hand, toy company after toy company denied him the chance to mass-produce it. However, (not for the first time in his life) his persistence won out. You’ll love hearing just how the famous water gun came to be in this non-fiction picture book filled with compelling illustrations (including a fold-out page of the Super Soaker in action) and the stories of Lonnie’s inspiring inventions! Ages 7-10.
It’s 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, and Georgia Gilmore is a Black woman who makes incredible-stop-you-in-your-tracks-delicious food. She uses her culinary talents to lead a group of women to cook, bake, and bake some more--all to fund raise for the Alabama bus boycott. Later in life, Georgia starts her own business, cooking her delicious food and doing so much more at the same time. The book explains, “She was providing good food for her community, but she was also bringing the people of Montgomery together—Black and white.”
That request resounds through Horace Pippin’s life. But circumstances, and later a devastating bullet wound to his right shoulder during WWI, prevent him from pursuing his art. His persistence after discovering he could use his left arm to support and strengthen his right hand led to his artistic dreams coming true as he went on to paint many great works of art. This picture book does an excellent job at illustrating his life in a style that supports and honors Pippin’s own artistic bent. I especially love the way Melissa Sweet lettered quotes of Pippin’s throughout her artwork.
This book is captivating from the beginning, but I love the climax where Mahalia prompts Martin, “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” and with that encouragement from his friend, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words flow into what we are now familiar with as his “I Have a Dream” speech. Brian Pinkney’s illustrations are so thoughtful and expressive—a beautiful accompaniment to the work that Mahalia and Martin did. And don’t miss the extra additional historical notes in the back. Ages 6 and up.
A sweet introduction to the poetry of the famous Langston Hughes, who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance. The colorful collage illustrations complement the lullaby beautifully. Ages 4-7, but babies and toddlers will of course love this lullaby too!
Poetry and watercolor paintings tell Harriet Tubman’s story in this powerful picture book tribute. The book begins with Harriet, “an old woman, tired and worn” and then flies swiftly back in time to when, “she could walk for miles, and see clearly”. We see Harriet in her various roles, with her various names and titles as times passes. She’s a suffragist, General Tubman, a Union Spy, a nurse, Moses. We continue all the way back to Harriet’s childhood and learn her very first name…a name she left behind, just as she left behind slavery. The poem closes with an elderly Harriet, thankful that she has lived long enough to be achy, worn, and free. A masterful picture book by a husband-wife duo who have a gift for causing their readers to think deeply. Ages: 4-8.
It’s spring in 1889 and William, “Doc” Key watches his beloved mare Lauretta give birth to a sickly spindly-legged foal. Though prospects look dim, his kind heart prompts him to use his veterinarian skill nurse the colt to health. He names him Jim, and Jim turns out to be a very, very smart horse. Doc begins to teach him reading, writing, and…arithmetic?! It’s amazing! When Doc decides it’s time to show the country what Jim can do, they head out on a tour across the United States. On the tour they break through racial barriers, teach people about kindness, and amaze audiences with Jim’s talents. There is much more to their story, so don’t miss reading this picture book. Includes a detailed historical afterward. Ages 8-11.
Don Tate’s picture book captures what is indeed a remarkable story. From his youth, George Moses Horton–a slave–begins to teach himself to read. By dim light after long hard days of labor, he learns letter by letter. Soon, he composes his own poetry. Eventually his talent is discovered and Horton earns money from people eager to pay for his poetry—while still enslaved. Though he tries to buy his freedom, it’s not until slavery ends and the war is over that he is finally free. A powerful story you won’t want to miss. Also includes an excellent author’s note where Don Tate shares his heart and thoughts behind creating this picture book. Ages 6-10.
Narrative poetry and swirling watercolor illustrations tell the story of Martin Luther King’s last months as I have never heard them told before. This is a powerful book. Poetry divided into three sections, “Daylight, Darkness, Dawn” tells Martin’s story. The sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech”, his devastating assassination, and Coretta Scott King’s determination and grace as she instead leads the march that Martin was scheduled to lead on April 8, 1968.
The book is masterful. Carefully crafted poetry and sweeping illustrations convey great emotion. The book also includes a history in the back with more details of the story the poetry tells. A book to add your home collection—it will be one that calls for re-reading. Ages: 9-12.
I love how this book provides a closer look at who Martin Luther King, Jr. was to his family. A loving and caring father—who was simultaneously changing the world. Martin Luther King III lost his father when he was only ten years old, but he writes in the book that he is “blessed with the memory of a warm and playful man. And I’m reminded of him everywhere I go.” He shares sweet childhood moments with his father and hard ones too—like the fear he experienced when he learned his father was in jail.
The book, written in first person, begins with a young Marty (as he was called) and his sister learning that the reason they could not go to Funtown (a local amusement of roller coasters and rides) was because it was for white people only. After that sobering story, the book continues with a flyover of the history taking place, but primarily focuses on who Martin Luther King, Jr. was to his son. It concludes with the momentous change—brought about by the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others—of the desegregation of schools. Ages 4-8.
From the publisher: "In 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, thousands of African American children volunteered to march for their civil rights after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. They protested the laws that kept black people separate from white people. Facing fear, hate, and danger, these children used their voices to change the world."
This book. Everything a picture book should be. Frank Morrison’s paintings are beautiful. The light, the emotion, the detail. I’d love to see the originals. This non-fiction picture book tells the story of George Washington Carver, his secret garden, his scientific pursuits, and his persistence. Absolutely add this one to your collection. Includes a timeline and suggestions for further reading at the end of the book. Ages: 4-8 years.
From the publisher: "Most people know of opera singer Marian Anderson from her historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, which drew an integrated crowd of 75,000 people in pre-Civil Rights America. While this momentous event showcased the uniqueness of her voice, the strength of her character, and the struggles of the times in which she lived, it is only part of her story."
From the publisher: “A window into a child’s experience of the Great Migration from the award-winning creators of Before She Was Harriet and Finding Langston. As she climbs aboard the New York bound Silver Meteor train, Ruth Ellen embarks upon a journey toward a new life up North–one she can’t begin to imagine. Stop by stop, the perceptive young narrator tells her journey in poems, leaving behind the cotton fields and distant Blue Ridge mountains.” Ages 4-8 years.
I remember that the thing I dreaded most about the return of the school year when I was growing up was…MATH. This picture book, a biography of human computer Katherine Johnson, will inspire your kids to see the wonder and possibilities of math. Ages 4-8.
One of the women in the Hidden Figures film, you’ll love reading about Dorothy Vaughan with your kids in this children’s picture book. Includes a coding activity, timeline, and glossary for more in-depth learning. Ages: 5-8.
From the publisher: "This beautiful picture book, illustrated by Coretta Scott King Award-illustrator George Ford, and written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Coles, tells the true story of six-year-old Ruby Bridges. In 1960, Ruby, a young African-American girl, entered a whites-only school in New Orleans. Even though she had to pass through crowds of angry protesters, Ruby bravely walked into the school. Every day for months, Ruby persevered."
Everyone has heard at least one Aretha Franklin song! This picture book dives into her life story and shares the ups and downs, heartaches and joys. I loved reading about Aretha’s extraordinary talent--from her uncanny way with music to the way she would light up a room. Pick this one up for your young musicians. They will be inspired! Ages 4-8.
From the publisher: "Sojourner Truth was born into slavery but possessed a mind and a vision that knew no bounds. So Tall Within traces her life from her painful childhood through her remarkable emancipation to her incredible leadership in the movement for rights for both women and African Americans."
A young girl wakes up a slave, and soon hears words that change everything. “We were all / now and forever free / and things / would be / all different now.” Beautiful watercolors, free verse, and an extended author’s note with more details about Juneteenth.
Mazie is ready to celebrate. This book covers both the struggles and the celebration enveloped in the meaning of Juneteenth.
Hope you enjoyed this short list of historical picture books to read aloud during Black History Month. I’d love to hear if YOU (or your kids!) have any favorite read-alouds to add to this list, so share with me in the comments!
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