Library List: Picture Books for Black History Month and Beyond

Is it okay for white people to celebrate Black History Month? Feel free to laugh or shake your head, but I wondered this for years. Maybe you have too.

A few years ago, I realized I needed to listen more, especially in conversations about race. As I listened and read more, I began to understand how black history is a rich and integral, yet often overlooked, part of US history. Black History Month exists to highlight the stories of African Americans, past and present, who have contributed to the country and the world we share. It also serves to soberly remind us where we’ve been as a nation and of the work that remains. As a friend’s husband recently pointed out, Black History Month is actually more helpful to white rather than black Americans, because many of the latter already know their history.

So clearly, yes, it’s good and right for my white family to celebrate Black History Month.

We’ve primarily been doing so through reading more books by and about African Americans. Below, you’ll find descriptions of the books my kids and I especially enjoyed recently, along with a list of those we haven’t read yet but would like to soon.

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I have to start with the fascinating and inspiring book 28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World by Charles R. Smith Jr. and Shane W. Evans. Smith explains in his author’s note, “I wanted to bring Black History Month alive. I wanted to go beyond the familiar names and faces I saw every year without new additions. I wanted to show the variety of accomplishments black people have achieved, not just in the long ago past, but in recent times and present day, as well. Ultimately, I wanted to provide a wealth of information for teachers and students alike all in one book.”

He absolutely succeeded. This book spans from 1776 (Crispus Attucks killed in the Boston Massacre) to 2009 (President Barack Obama inaugurated). It tells stories of remarkable individuals and events, both bad and good, that shaped black history—and world history. I also enjoyed Day 29, the provision for leap year, that invites each of us to make our own mark on history. This book is recommended for children ages 6 - 10.

Shane W. Evans is a prolific illustrator and author. His books Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom and We March are perfect for introducing younger children to key pieces of black history, but they will also appeal to kids of all ages. Through sparing, poetic language and powerful illustrations, each of these books follows a family on a monumental journey. The first is an enslaved family traveling to freedom on the Underground Railroad. The second family is taking part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which ends with the rally where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. I love that both books allow young readers to follow other children through the stories. Each book also includes a note at the end that explains more of the story’s historical context and encourages readers to look for their own ways to make a difference. I fully agree with Booklist’s review of We March, and I think Underground is effective in the same way: “This makes a pivotal event in our nation’s history accessible to our youngest citizens without compromising any of its power.”

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate lives up to its name. This is the true story of George Moses Horton: how he fell in love with language at a young age, taught himself to read, then began a career as a poet—all while enslaved. Tate tells this story, even the hard and heart-breaking parts, in a beautiful, honest, and age-appropriate way. I also love the way his illustrations include snippets of Horton’s poetry. This book is intended for children ages 6 - 10, but I think it may be fine for some four- and five-year-olds.

In Juneteenth for Mazie by Floyd Cooper, a loving father uses a teachable moment to dispel his daughter’s frustration and explain to her the significance of June 19. Mazie’s dad tells her about her great-great-great-grandfather who celebrated his freedom from slavery on the first Juneteenth. He also gives her an overview of the continued struggles and triumphs of African Americans in more recent history. Finally, he tells her it’s her turn to celebrate and to remember. This book is recommended for ages 6 - 9, but again, I think it’s probably fine for some younger children.

Finally, my space-obsessed four-year-old and I had a great time reading Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, Winifred Conkling, and Laura Freeman. This is an excellent adaptation of the same story told by the best-selling book and movie. The main portion of the book explains how Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden overcame challenges in order to play key roles at NACA/NASA. I love the recurring themes of the ladies’ confidence in their skills and their willingness to work hard to achieve the “impossible.” The illustrations are gorgeous, and I appreciate the way the author explains everything from segregation to aeronautics in ways that children can easily understand. The book’s back matter contains a timeline of events, a “Meet the Computers” section, a glossary, and an author’s note. This book is recommended for children ages 4 - 9.

Here are a few of the titles on my family’s TBR list:

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and Dream Big, Little One by Vashti Harrison

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton and Don Tate

Carter Reads the Newspaper by Deborah Hopkinson and Don Tate

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and Stasia Burrington

Ron’s Big Mission by Don Tate

Black history is woven throughout the tapestry of US history, and those strands are worth following. Let’s intentionally include more books by and about African Americans and other people of color all year long.

What titles would you add to this list?

Many thanks to Zeena Regis, Mike and Emily Green, and Jean Givan for offering feedback and suggesting content for this post.

Picture Books for Black History Month and Beyond