Up until now, I haven’t written a post with a list of books for Black History Month because it worries me to think that there would be only one month out of the year in which we read biographies about amazing African Americans. The only reason I’m writing this list now is with the hope that this is not the case. Just like I review books year-round, this list will help teachers, parents, and librarians find excellent children’s book biographies to read any time of the year. Right?
I’ve organized this into sections related to their impact on the world: scientists, artists, activists, leaders, athletes, and more. Also, the people in these books are mostly Americans but there are some international biographies as well.
Table of Contents:
For Black History Month activities, visit Here We Read.
Picture Book Biographies for Black History Month
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, illustrated by Stasia Burrington
Beautifully illustrated and inspirationally written! Little Mae dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Her parents told her she could do it if she worked hard, taking Mae to the library to find information and encouraging her astronaut pretend play after dinner. Despite her teacher’s discouragement (“Nursing would be a good profession for someone like you,“) Mae listened to her mom while sticking to her dream. Mae kept dreaming, believing, and working hard. Finally, she became the first African American female astronaut in space.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, illustrated by Laura Freeman
An essential book for Black History Month, learn about Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden who worked for NASA during a time when being women and black was a lot harder than in today’s world. It’s really cool to learn about the work they did, providing calculations that made a difference in the world and set a new standard for other black women.
The Doctor With an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath by Julia Finley Mosca, illustrated by Daniel Rieley
Read how Patricia, despite being a girl and African American, stood firm in her goal to become a doctor. Consequently, she did and later invented the laser probe to heal eyes.
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson NASA Mathematician by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by Raul Colon
You can’t help but be inspired by Katherine’s life story. Katherine, after zipping through her schooling early because she is so smart, finds a job as a teacher. But she’s most well known for her next job as a human calculator for NASA’s space program, helping the first American travel to space.
What Color is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld, illustrated by Ben Boos & A.G. Ford
Twins, Herbie and Ella, move into a new house where they meet Mr. Mital, a handyman who surprises the kids with fascinating information about African-American scientists. Throughout the narrative are non-fiction lift-the-flap sidebars and two-page spread biographies of people like James E. West who invented a compact microphone used in race cars or Frederick McKinley Jones, Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, George Crum, Dr. Valerie L. Thomas, and many others. The large size of the book, the fold-out parts, and bright illustrations make it an appealing design for kids.
Activists & Historical Biographies
I am Martin Luther King, Jr. by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
This nonfiction biography series for young readers is absolutely fantastic. The latest is this book about Martin Luther King, Jr. whose cartoon illustration will give you a chuckle — since it’s he’s a kid with a mustache. We learn about when a white friend wouldn’t play with him because he was black and how much that hurt him as well as how much the injustice in the world bothered Martin. The biography does NOT end with his death but ends on a positive note of standing strong and facing struggles.
The Escape of Robert Smalls A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery by Jehan Jones-Radgowski, illustrated by Poppy Kang
ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY
Don’t miss this heart-stopping, inspiring story of a daring escape from slavery on a Confederate ship. It’s a true story of a heroic man!
Let The Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson, illustrated by Frank Morrison
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect historical picture book. The author shares the events leading up to a Birmingham, Alabama march with only of children and teens. The illustrations are dynamic, too, showing expressive children and passionate adults — each two-page spread evokes an emotion. I LOVE this book so much.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
9-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks wanted to do her part and picket white stores and march to protest unfair laws. She became the youngest child to be arrested in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Her life story is very inspiring.
Someday is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, illustrated by Jade Johnson
I love the captivating folk-art style illustrations, the repetitive text of “separate and unequal” and “someday was now,” plus that it’s a true story. It’s about an amazing woman named Clara who advocated for justice and equality during a time when black people weren’t permitted the same rights as white people. As a teacher, she inspired her students to believe that change was possible. Read how Clara and her students went to the Katz drugstore and asked to be served — even though the store didn’t serve black people.
Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Simone Agoussoye
I found the recent middle-grade biography Never Caught to be so compelling that I was excited to see Ona Judge’s life captured in a picture book biography as well. It introduces younger readers to Ona, the personal slave to Martha Washington, who eventually escaped. Not only will it give readers a sense of life as a slave, but it will also show that George Washington owned slaves who were treated like property and not paid. The illustrations are very unique which I really liked– a sort of folk-artsy style.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
ACTIVIST / LEADER
I love this beautifully illustrated, lyrically written book that shows how incredibly brave and determined Harriet Tubman was and how her faith in God was part of everything she did.
Lilian’s Right To Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Blueish-tinted illustrations capture the somber mood of Lillian’s memories in this historical nonfiction picture book. Lilian’s memories begin with her great-great-grandparents who were slaves, sold and separated from each other. As Lillian remembers all people who struggled to gain equal rights and all who have gone before her, she walks slowly up a steep hill to cast her vote. Gaining the right to vote was a journey, somewhat like her steep climb up the hill.
Chasing Freedom by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Michele Wood
This lovely nonfiction picture book is about Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Tubman — two women who changed the world!
Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
You’ll find this to be a fascinating glimpse of two activists who are both fighting for their rights — one for women and one for black Americans.
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Eric Shabazz Larkin
Most people don’t have Will Allen’s vision. Instead of an abandoned city lot, he saw a farm. In fact, he figured out how to create an innovative urban farm despite huge obstacles. Very inspiring.
Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Myers expertly captures Frederick Douglass’ life starting from Douglass’ desire to learn even though he was a slave child and it wasn’t allowed. His life as a slave wasn’t easy with daily hardships and brutal beatings. He was influenced by free black sailors then eventually escaped to freedom in the Northern United States. Once there, he passionately fought against slavery.
Artists, Actors, & Writers
Magic Trash by J.H. Shapiro, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
This is the true story of artist Tyree Guyton who made his own crime-ridden Detroit neighborhood into an urban canvas in the 1980s. His grandfather told him to “paint the world” and that’s exactly what Guyton did using houses, trash, found objects, and more. As a result, Guyton created magic and healing for the community. Read more at the Heidelberg Project website.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Horace loved to draw. He liked to paint exactly what he saw. Even after a wound in WWI prevented him from using his right arm without help from his left, he began painting as an adult again, paintings that are now hung in museums. I adore the whimsy of Melissa Sweet’s illustrations in this inspiring biography.
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Blade, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
Talk about a growth mindset! Gwendolyn loved words and poetry and from a young age, wrote poetry of her own. She never had monetary success but with persistence and dedication, she eventually found success as an adult with publications and winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate
George loved words and even though he was a slave, he taught himself to read and began composing verses. When students at Chapel Hill began to pay George for his poetry, a professor helped him learn to write which led to his poems protesting slavery to be published in the newspaper. But his owner would never sell George, no matter how what George’s fans and friends offered. It took until George was 66 years old to be freed from slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation. While I liked this book a lot, I only wished it included George’s poetry.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe
This picture book biography won the Caldecott award for illustration in 2017. The illustrations are painted (and collaged) on found wood and are EPIC! You could frame every single page! The story is about the sometimes challenging young life of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Keith Mallett
James VanDerZee got his first camera by winning a contest where he had to sell the most perfumed sachets. From that moment on, he worked hard to be the best photographer he could be, even moving to New York City where he eventually opened his own photography studio. His story is fascinating, as are the people whom he captured in photographs during the Harlem Renaissance, many of which were displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a special exhibit.
The Story of… Trailblazing Actor Ira Aldridge by Glenda Armand, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (beginning chapter book)
Read the true story of an African American boy who wanted to be an actor in a time when most African Americans were still enslaved. He achieved his dream by moving to England where he performed Shakespeare’s plays and spoke out against slavery. The beginning chapter book biography also includes informational sidebars, highlighted vocabulary words, a timeline, glossary, bibliography, and recommended reading.
Salt in His Shoes by Deloris Jordan & Roslyn M. Jordan, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Mike wants to grow taller so he’ll be better at basketball. His mom tells him to put salt in his shoes and say a prayer every night. But his father also tells young Michael that it also takes hard work and patience. It’s an optimistic, growth mindset perspective.
Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born by Gene Barretta, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Kids should all learn the story of Muhammad Ali because his determination and grit are so inspiring. And to think, it all started with a stolen bicycle! Read how a police officer got Ali into boxing as well as about his never waning confidence and the grueling workouts. Superbly done.
Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Kull, illustrated by David Diaz
After having polio as a child, Wilma was told she wouldn’t walk again, let alone run. But Wilma was determined. She worked hard, becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals at the Olympics. This is a favorite picture biography about an athlete with growth mindset.
Stephen Curry: The Boy Who Never Gave Up by Anthony Curcio
People said Steph Currey was too short, too weak, and not good enough. But he followed his dreams and proved everyone wrong. This picture book biography will be popular with sports-lovers.
Above the Rim How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Elgin grew up during segregation which dictated where he was allowed to play basketball and attend college. Despite this, he was the top recruit for the NBA when he graduated from college. But even traveling with his basketball team, he was often turned away from places because of the color of his skin. Eglin decided to protest the discrimination by sitting out of future basketball games. His activist actions made a difference. The NBA put out a statement that they would not give their business to hotels and restaurants that discriminated against Black people. Rich, evocative illustrations and lyrical writing perfectly capture the importance of Eglin’s life and impact.
Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Growing up in New Orleans is a life filled with music. Troy sees his musician family members and follows the bands in parades. One day he finds an old trombone that he dedicates himself to learning. And as you might have guessed, that’s how he got his nickname, Trombone Shorty. Gorgeous Caldecott-winning illustrations!
A Voice Named Aretha by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Laura Freeman
This picture book shares the story of how Aretha used her pain and passion to become a world-known soul singer. After reading about this iconic, groundbreaking singer, listen to some of her greatest hits.
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
Clive loved music. He really wanted to be a DJ. After moving to the Bronx from Jamaica, he eventually became DJ Kool Herc, known for playing records differently. He had two turntables so he could have breaks for hip-hop dancing. Because of this innovation, he is credited with helping start the movement of hip-hop.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Little Melba Doretta Liston was something special! She loved music and taught herself to play the trombone. Her gift led her to become a famous trombone player and arranger. A delightful musician picture book biography for black history month or anytime!
We Are the Supremes by Zoe Tucker, illustrated by Salini Perera
Three friends from Detroit started a girl singing group while they were in high school. They worked hard, practiced, and after high school, got signed to a record label. Interesting.
Rule the Music Scene Like Queen Beyonce Knowles by Caroline Moss, illustrated by Sinem Erkas
You’ll zip through this impressive biography with information, history, conversation, and short chapters all accompanied by cool graphic illustrations. You don’t have to be a Beyonce fan to enjoy this biography because it’s so well-written and appealing.
Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz, illustrated by AG Ford
While this picture book black history biography has more text on each page than I normally like in picture books, the content will help kids learn about how Malcolm Little used his childhood experiences to become the leader we know as Malcolm X.
Marvelous Cornelius Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra
This is a lovely new American folk tale with evocative, colorful illustrations about a bright spirit in the city of New Orleans. Cornelius takes care of New Orleans’ trash. His positive attitude, infectious spirit, and dancing moves brighten everyone’s day. And after the great flooding of Hurricane Katrina, he and the whole town pitch in to clean up and rebuild. (Teacher’s Guide here.)
Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson
Growing up in the prejudicial apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela faced horrible racism and many years in prison. Despite all of this, his spirit continued to be strong. As a result of his faith and determination, he eventually achieved his dream to improve South Africa by becoming the president of his country.
Little Guides to Great Lives Nelson Mandela by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Hannah Warren
Written more like a narrative story, this is an excellent beginning chapter book with an engaging, informative story about one of the world’s most admired activists and leaders, Nelson Mandela.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
A moving, emotionally compelling lyrical poem celebrates the strong, unforgettable, hard-working black Americans who persevered through slavery, prejudice, war, civil rights, and who rise up, cool and unbending. It’s a reminder not to forget the past and to notice the amazing strength of a people who have endured and risen. The lush, realistic illustrations feel totally transcendent. Everything about this book is excellent! (2020 Caldecott winner!)
Little Leaders Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Beautifully designed and illustrated, Little Ladies shares 40 one-page biographies of inspiring African-American women. Above all, I can’t believe how many new women I learned about from this book. Women like Marcelite Harris, Mamie Phipps Clark, and Phillis Wheatley. It’s a superb, inspiring must-read book.
Black Heroes of the Wild West by James Otis Smith
This exceptional graphic novel contains three compelling biographies of little-known historical black individuals who lived during the Old West. Smith is an exceptional storyteller and you’ll be pulled into the stories immediately. Read about Stagecoach Mary, a former slave who had the most interesting life that included many jobs, and Bob Lemmons whose horse training skills helped him capture a wild mustang stallion.
Young, Gifted and Black Meet 52 Heroes from Past and Present by Jamia Wilson, illustrated by Andres Pippins
If you’re like me, you’ll immediately love the eye-catching, colorful design and illustrations. Then, you’ll read about influential people like George Washington Carver, Stevie Wonder, Oprah Winfrey, and Serena Williams. There’s about half a page to a full page of text for each biography making this easily digestible for young readers.
A Black Woman Did That: 42 Boundary-Breaking, Bar-Raising, World-Changing Women by Malaika Adero, illustrated by Chante Timothy
In this book, you’ll meet women and girls who will inspire you. Read about fascinating and admirable women who are scientists, models, athletes, politicians, dancers, and more. Fascinating writing and fascinating people with impactful, vivid illustrations.
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