February is African American History Month. While many of us are waiting for the day when there is no longer a need for African American History Month to balance the history that children learn, the commemorative month provides an opportunity for celebration and information that enriches the minds of all children.
At what age does history become relevant? Very young children have no concept of the past, and it isn't until around age 4 that children realize people can live very different lives, some far away, some long ago, and some close to home. But stories, folktales, and nursery rhymes can open their minds to the idea of alternate lives before they understand the idea of past.
From the time children begin exploring books, they should be exposed to multicultural images. Four-year-olds can imagine living differently and are interested in how people and the lives that they lead are the same and different. School-age children are steadily constructing a picture of a world around them and trying to place themselves in time and space.
Here is list of great books that offer windows into the world of African American lives and history. Note: Many of the books for older readers are good read-alouds for younger children.
For Preschool and Young School-Age Children
Shades of Black, written by Sandra L. Pinkney, illustrated by Myles Pinkney. The many shades of black are beautifully illustrated in this photo album of the many characteristics of blackness; available in board and hard copy versions. (Ages 2-6)
Oh Lord, I Wish I Was a Buzzard, written by Polly Greenberg, illustrated by Aliki. A gentle, universal story about wanting to be "anywhere but here." A little girl picks cotton, wishing she was something and somewhere cooler and doing something less back breaking like "a snake curved up cold and cool or a dog under a bush." A great read-aloud that easily turns into a joyous call and refrain. Aliki's bright, expressive illustrations are unforgettable. (Ages 3-5)
Goin' Someplace Special, written by Patricia C. McKissock, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Newbery medal-winning author Patricia C. McKissock and Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney bring the reality of segregation to life in Nashville through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl. (Ages 3-7)
Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King Jr., written by Jean Marzollo, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Pinckney's stunning and beautiful illustrations and Marzollo's spare text make this a terrific book to introduce preschoolers to Martin Luther King and the civil rights struggle. (Ages 3-7)
No Mirrors in My Nana's House (Musical CD and book), written by Ysaye M. Barnwell, illustrated by Synthia Saint James. A young granddaughter's joyful tribute to her Nana composed by Barnwell and sung by world renowned "Sweet Honey in the Rock" on the CD. The CD also has a spoken-word recording of the book. (Ages 3-8)
Show Way, written by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott. In this Newbery Honor Book, Woodson uses a "Show Way," a quilt sewn with secret meanings, to tell her family's history of African American women from slavery and to trace the history of the civil rights movement to the present. Talbott's exquisite illustrations will inspire readers to explore their own family history. (Ages 4-8)
Mr. Williams, written and illustrated by Karen Barbour. A beautifully illustrated retelling of one man's oral history of the hardships of African American rural life in the '30s and '40s. (Ages 4-8)
Sky Sash So Blue, written by Libby Hathorn, illustrated by Benny Andrews. The special sky-blue sash that a young slave girl offers to give her older sister for her wedding dress becomes a lifelong tie between them. This inspiring book depicts a slave family story from the perspective of a child who turns fabric into art and uses hope and joy to transcend sorrow and oppression. Hathorn's simple rhyming narrative story of a slave who secretly makes a wedding dress out of scraps and patches and the extraordinary bright fabric collage illustrated by Andrews will captivate children. (Ages 4-8)
Visiting Langston, written by Willie Perdomo, illustrated by Bryan Collier. This is an inspiring, poetic book about an African American girl anticipating a visit to the Harlem brownstone of Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes. Perdomo's poetry and Collier's watercolor and collage bring to life the first half of 20th-century Harlem. (Ages 4-8)
For Young School-Age Children
I Saw Your Face, illustrated by Tom Feelings, text by Kwame Dawes. Feelings is a widely acclaimed illustrator who illustrates history "through the multiplication of faces" while Dawes creates stories around the faces Feelings sketches. (Ages 5-10)
A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr., written by David A. Adler, illustrated by Robert Casilla. A beautifully illustrated, easy-to-read biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Also worth reading by Adler: A Picture Book of Rosa Parks and A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman. (Ages 5-8)
The Village That Vanished, written by Ann Grifalconi, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. A folklore tale of quick-witted African villagers who draw on the spirits of their ancestors to hide from approaching slavers. This is a story of community solidarity and resourcefulness overcoming evil. (Ages 6-10)
For Older School-Age Children
Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis. Narrator 11-year-old Elijah is the first child born into freedom in Buxton, Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves. Elijah ends up on a journey and becomes exposed to the horrors of slavery. This Newbery Honor book is at times funny, exciting, thrilling, suspenseful, and deeply moving; a subtle, original story by a wonderful writer. (Age 9-12)
A Friendship for Today, by Patricia C. McKissack. Rosemary, who is black, develops an unlikely friendship with mean Grace Hamilton, considered "white trash" by classmates, after school integration in 1955. Rosemary is a plucky character with wry observations on life and people and the book offers a great view of life in the 1950's. (Age 9-12)
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn. An engaging and inspiring look at the contributions of 10 women from former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth to the first black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm. Pinkney tells the stories of Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others - stories of hardship and struggle, determination and strength. Alcorn's beautiful and exciting oil painting illustrations bring life to each story. This is a good read aloud for kindergarten and young school-age children. (Ages 8-12)
There are several good source books that help children explore and understand the history and contributions of African Americans. Good sources are Black Books Galore's Guide to Great African American Children's Books and Black Books Galore!: Guide to More Great African American Children's Books, written by Donna Rand and Toni Trent Parker.
Below are additional good choices about African American lives, history, and culture:
- Rap A Tap Tap, written and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. (Ages 3-6)
- Mr. George Baker, written by Amy Hest, illustrated by Jon Muth. (Ages 4-8)
- My Dream of Martin Luther King, written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold. (Ages 4-8)
- Martin's Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier. (Ages 4-8)
- Yesterday I Had the Blues, written by Jeron Ashford Frame, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. (Ages 4-8)
- Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, written by Carle Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. (Ages 4-8)
- Henry's Freedom Box, written by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. (Ages 5-8)
- When Marian Sang, written by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick. (Ages 5-8)
- Li'l Dan, The Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story, written and illustrated by Romare Bearden. (Ages 5-10)
- Ellington Was Not a Street, written by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. (Ages 5-10)
- Love to Langston, written by Tony Medina, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. (Ages 5-10)
- Through My Eyes, written by Ruby Bridges, illustrated by Margo Lundell. (Ages 8-12)
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, written by Christopher Paul Curtis. (Ages 8-12)
- Only Passing Through, written by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. (Ages 9-11)
- A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1966, by Diane McWhorter. (Age 9 and up)
The above linked books go to the Growing Readers Amazon store where a percentage of all purchases go to the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children's efforts on behalf of homeless children.
More on This Topic