Greetings, parents and caregivers of young children!
From the incredible serendipity of Rosa Parks’s and James F. Blake’s second meeting to the bravery of Henry “Box” Brown to the subtle symbolism packed into Keats’s The Snowy Day I found myself humbled and inspired as I worked to put this list together.
Whether you have preschoolers and want to share the importance of diversity and kindness, or you have a child in elementary school and want to share with them the incredible bravery of some of America’s finest heroes, I hope you’ll be similarly inspired this month while we acknowledge and honor African-American History Month.
Until next time, keep reading together!
For ages 3-5
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox (illustrated by Leslie Staub)
This is a book that encourages inclusiveness and diversity told from a child’s point of view. Mem Fox’s lulling refrains of whoever you are, wherever you are, all over the world remind children that no matter how we look, we’re all made of flesh and blood, we all laugh, we all cry, and we’re all in it together.
I’m Like You, You’re Like Me by Cindy Gainer (illustrated by Miki Sakamoto)
Come along as a group of children explore their many differences and similarities. This is a fun way to help children understand that though we have differences, we’re far more alike than we may think.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
This book is in my top five favorite picture books of all time. Keats’s masterpiece was published in pre-Civil Rights Act America (1962) and includes an African-American main character, Peter. Peter is a boy who is easy to relate to, easy to like, and easy to love. This is a classic of children’s literature that hardly needs anything more said about it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my family’s newly minted traditions: watching the movie version of this book every December. It is a perfect companion to the book.
For ages 6-8
I am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer (illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos)
This book is in graphic novel (comic book) format and includes a few pages at the back with real pictures of Rosa. It does a marvelous job of accurately depicting the serious nature of racism, but in a way that is easy for young minds to digest. It’s clear the author spent a lot of time researching and interviewing people for this book. Kids will be able to relate to the struggles Rosa faced through kid-friendly illustrations and a harmonious balance of narration and dialogue.
I am Martin Luther King, Jr. by Brad Meltzer (illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos)
This is from the the same series as the Rosa Parks book, Ordinary People Change the World. Even though it’s in graphic novel (comic book) format, it still does a wonderful job of depicting the life of MLK. It does not portray his slaying, but rather ends with a snapshot of him at the podium encouraging people to repay hatred with love and to return violence with kindness. These books are interesting in the fact that both Rosa and MLK remain somewhat childlike, even as they age. This was not distracting at all. In fact, I think it may help keep children interested.
I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr. (illustrated by Kadir Nelson)
I chose this book because of the beautiful illustrations and the fact that the text is taken directly from MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. If you’ve never read or listened to the speech in its entirety, it’s a life-changing event. This book is a good introduction for kiddos to the speech, and though it is short, it covers many of the most beautiful bits and pieces.
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
When Clover asks her Mama, “Why does everything seem so separate,” Mama responds, “Because that’s the way it’s always been.” So too is Clover’s backyard that is home to a big wooden fence between the neighboring house. “Don’t go over that fence when you play,” says Mama. “It’s not safe.” One day a little girl sits on the fence and watches Clover jump rope with friends. Clover is brave and decides to talk to the girl. Find out what happens next in this uplifting picture book about life in a segregated town.
For ages 9-12
Bessie Smith and the Night Riders by Sue Stauffacher (illustrated by John Holyfield)
This book details the July 1927 meeting between Bessie and the Ku Klux Klan. While Bessie is giving one of her famed tent performances, the Ku Klux Klan arrive on the scene with torches and begin pulling up the stakes to the tent in order to put a stop the the concert. Bessie has none of it and faces down the Klan by yelling and cursing and startling their horses. Famously, Bessie goes back into the tent and the show goes on.
Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine (illustrated by Kadir Nelson)
I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard the story of Henry “Box” Brown before reading this book. He is a true hero, one of those like Harriet Tubman that tried to weather the storm of slavery but ultimately decided that any price was worth the hope of freedom. This book catapults the reader from the depths of sorrow to the rush of victory as Henry makes his journey out of a land of prejudice and hatred.
Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan by Mary Williams (illustrated by R. Gregory Christie)
Brothers in Hope documents the hazardous, sometimes terrifying journey out of war-torn southern Sudan for the “Lost Boys”. Through the eyes of a fictitious character, Garang, this emotional picture book tells the story of the some 30,000 boys who trekked 1,000 miles through the desert to safety. The author portrays these events without leaving anything out, so the story can be pretty intense at times. I included this story for African-American History Month because many of these “lost boys” were able to find a permanent home in America as refugees. This particular book doesn’t give great detail about their trials as new American citizens, instead it focuses on their trials to get to refugee camps in Kenya.
Richard Wright and the Library Card by William Miller (illustrated by R. Gregory Christie)
This book tells the moving story of Richard Wright as he struggles to gain access to information at his local library. In his town, black people aren’t allowed to read, but against all odds, Richard is able to find a white man willing to “share” his library card. It takes careful planning and consideration but Richard is able to go undetected and begin reading. It’s a good thing for Richard Wright's amazing courage and bravery, as he went on to become one of American literature’s finest voices.