RALEIGH, N.C. — As we all know, February is Black History Month, serving as part celebration and part reminder to continue the work of making sure that the stories and contributions of Black Americans are a part of our collective knowledge. As a school librarian, it has been really exciting to see the options for books that share and celebrate these stories grow over the last few years. From biographies to historical nonfiction and fiction alike, there is a lot to learn from and enjoy. However, having more choice and variety is only the first step. For these stories of change, bravery and innovation to become a part of general knowledge, they need to be read.
To get you and your family started with this year’s celebration, I’ve put together a list of some acclaimed titles for all ages that highlight historical people and moments in Black history. All of these books have won or been nominated for the Coretta Scott King Award. In honor of Mrs. King, this award is given out annually to the works of Black authors and illustrators “that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.” To help your family select what’s best for you, I’ve arranged these recommendations from those more suited for the youngest audiences to older teen students. Happy reading!
We Wait for the Sun by Katie McCabe, illustrated by Raissa Figueroa
This beautifully illustrated retelling of an evening of blackberry picking is simple enough to be read with the youngest children and insightful enough to be used as a conversation starter with older students. It is a loving tribute to the relationship between civil rights leader Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her grandmother with an introduction and author’s note that give more details about their lives and accomplishments. Ages 0-8.
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
Young and old hip hop lovers alike will treasure this story of how DJ Kool Herc birthed a new musical genre. It’s unlike any other picture book, with its masterfully simple but detailed discussions of musical production and DJing, and it is such a welcome addition. Ages 6-10.
Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Let the Children March tells the story of the Children’s Crusade, during which children protested inequality in Birmingham and were jailed in 1963. This book does a great job of telling this story in a way that younger kids will understand, while not shying away from discussing the abuse and injustice that the children faced as they fought for equal treatment under the law. Ages 6-10.
Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd illustrated by Christian Robinson
Eunice Kathleen Wayman (better known as Nina Simone), a native of North Carolina, left us a legacy of music and bravery. This emotional biography plainly discusses the racism that she encountered during her life and career, but highlights how she used her voice to speak up for those who weren’t being listened to and became part of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Ages 7-12.
Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Fans of Old West adventures will love this biography of the first Black U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. Readers will eat up the retellings of his most thrilling exploits, while learning more about this truly impressive man. Ages 9-12
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Part heart-warming story of family, part historical fiction, this story of sisters traveling across the country in 1968 to visit their mom who abandoned them to work with the Black Panther party delves into themes of racism, activism and forgiveness. This is the first in a series that follows the sisters as they learn about the Civil Rights movement through the lives of various members of their family. Ages 9-12
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
North Carolina author Kwame Mbalia has written a thoroughly entertaining read that weaves together traditional African American folktales with fantasy. Readers will love encountering favorites like John Henry, Brer Rabbit and Anansi as young Tristan sets out to save the world. Ages 10-14.
Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis
Sure Octavia’s grandmother is an energetic spitfire who was in the African American battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, but that doesn’t make the prospect of a summer long road trip with her any more exciting. That is until she really starts listening. Told in alternating voices, readers hear the perspectives of both Octavia and her grandmother in this history rich novel about familial bonds. Ages 12-17.
Lifting as We Climb by Evette Dionne
All too frequently Black women’s contributions to voting rights are barely touched on or are completely left out of any conversation about the Women’s Suffrage Movement. This book’s goal is to change all of that. This is an engaging and eye opening historical guide to the people and actions of women of color that changed American democracy forever. Ages Teen.
March: Books 1-3 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
Civil Rights icon, John Lewis, co-wrote this series of graphic novels to invite readers into a first hand account of his childhood and work in the Civil Rights Movement. With insight that only he can give, his harrowing and inspirational history is strengthened by the detailed black-and-white illustrations. Ages Teen.