Picture Books to Honor Moments and Leaders in Black History

While Black stories and culture should be celebrated all year long, Black History Month is an opportunity to examine the moments in Black history that inform how we understand the world today. Moreover, Black history can be seen as both the periods of transformation and the influential people who changed the course of history. Because of the abundance of exceptional youth literature relevant to Black History Month, the list of titles in this blog post focuses on picture books, a versatile format that can be shared with people of all ages. Some of these picture books highlight the full scope of Black history in a trim page count, like Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson’s Caldecott-winning title, The Undefeated, that poignantly depicts the resilience and power of Black folks throughout eras of the past and present. Other stories hone in on pivotal leaders that broke barriers, such as Shirley Chisholm working to become the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. Read, learn, and share these stories to celebrate Black History Month.

Alexander, Kwame
Illustrated by: Kadir Nelson
The Undefeated. 2019 (Picture Book).
This picture book is an ode to the power and resilience of Black Americans in the United States. Alexander’s text is a poem that highlights the unspeakable trauma of slavery, the faith and fire of the civil rights movement, and the grit, passion, and perseverance of some of the world’s greatest heroes. The text is also peppered with references to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others, offering deeper insights into the accomplishments of the past, while bringing attention to the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present. Nelson’s richly toned, photo-realistic oil paintings bring the poem to life, earning him the 2020 Caldecott Medal.
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Barretta, Gene
Illustrated by: Frank Morrison
The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver. 2020 (Picture Book).
When agricultural expert George Washington Carver was just a young child, he had a secret: a garden of his own. There, he rolled dirt between his fingers to check if plants needed more rain or sun. He protected roots through harsh winters, so plants could be reborn in the spring. He trimmed flowers, spread soil, and studied life cycles, and learned through observation and experimentation. It was in this garden that George’s love of nature sprouted into something so much more: his future. This picture book opens with Carver’s 1921 speech in front of a room of white men in the House of Representatives at a time when “African Americans were… treated as second-class citizens.” The rest of the book transports readers back to Carver’s dedication to his childhood farm, beginning in 1874. Morrison’s beautiful oil paint illustrations show Carver’s passion for agricultural sciences and commitment to racial equality.
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Clark-Robinson, Monica
Illustrated by: Frank Morrison
Let the Children March. 2018 (Picture Book).
In 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, thousands of African American children volunteered to march for their civil rights after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak. In this semi-fictionalized picture book, an unnamed Black girl narrates her experiences at the massive nonviolent protest, which became known as the Children’s Crusade. At the march, the young people of Birmingham were harassed and beaten by police, attacked by police dogs, and many were sent to jail, including the narrator. Clark-Robinson’s poetic text immerses readers in the moment, illustrating why the unnerving but strategic decision to allow the impassioned young people to march, instead of adults, was so impactful. Facing fear, hate, and danger, these children used their voices to change the world.
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Cline-Ransome, Lesa
Illustrated by: James Ransome
Overground Railroad. 2020 (Picture Book).
As she climbs aboard the Silver Meteor train bound for New York, young Ruth Ellen embarks upon a journey toward a new life up North, which she can hardly begin to imagine. Stop by stop, the observant young narrator tells the story of her journey in poems, leaving behind the cotton fields and distant Blue Ridge Mountains. Each leg of the trip brings new revelations as scenes out the window of folks working in fields give way to the Delaware River, the curtain that separates the “colored car” is removed, and glimpses of the freedom and opportunity the family hopes to find come into view. Ransome’s mixed-media illustrations are full of bold color and texture, bringing Ruth Ellen’s journey to life, like the sprawling cotton fields and cramped train cars, the wary glances of other passengers, and the dark forest through which Frederick Douglass traveled towards freedom. This is a story, as Cline-Ransome notes, “of people who were running from and running to at the same time” as part of the Great Migration, and it’s a story that will stay with readers long after the final pages.
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Henderson, Leah
Illustrated by: Floyd Cooper
A Day for Rememberin’: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day. 2021 (Picture Book).
Inspired by true events and told through the eyes of a young boy, this is a deeply moving story about what is regarded as the first Memorial Day on May 1, 1865. Today is a special day. Eli knows it is important if he is allowed to miss a single second of school. He dresses up in his best clothes, Mama gathers the mayflowers, Papa straightens his hat, and together they join the crowds filling the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, with bouquets, crosses, and wreaths. Abolitionists, missionaries, teachers, military officers, and a sea of people of different races all march as one and sing for those who gave their lives while fighting for freedom during the Civil War. With poignant prose and powerful illustrations, this book shines light on the little-known history of this important holiday and reminds us never to forget the people who put their lives on the line for their country and for freedom.
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Johnson, Katherine G., Joylette Hylick, and Katherine Moore
Illustrated by: Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
One Step Further: My Story of Math, the Moon, and a Lifelong Mission. 2021 (Picture Book).
This picture book autobiography reveals what it was like for Katherine Johnson, a young Black mother of three and one of the now legendary “hidden figures” of NASA computing, to navigate the difficult world of the 1950s and ’60s and to succeed in an overwhelmingly white male industry. Johnson’s own narrative is complemented by the recollections of her two daughters about their mother’s work and insights about how she illuminated their paths, including one daughter’s fight for civil rights and another’s journey to become a NASA mathematician herself. The narrative weaves together Johnson’s personal story, her influence on her daughters’ formative years, their family’s fight for civil rights, and her lasting impact on NASA and space exploration. Barlow’s engaging illustrations incorporate elements of collage and show family photos of Johnson and her daughters, historical images, and even Johnson’s school report card.
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Lyons, Kelly Starling
Illustrated by: Keith Mallett
Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations. 2019 (Picture Book).
This stirring book celebrates the song known as the Black National Anthem and how it inspired five generations of a family. In 1900, in Jacksonville, Florida, two brothers, one of them the principal of a segregated, all-Black school, wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” so his students could sing it for a tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. From that moment on, the song has provided inspiration and solace for generations of Black families. Parents passed it on to their children who sang it to their children and grandchildren. It has been sung during major moments of the Civil Rights Movement and at family gatherings and college graduations. Inspired by this song’s enduring significance, Lyons and Mallett beautifully tell a story about the generations of families who gained hope and strength from the song’s uplifting words.
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Todd, Traci N.
Illustrated by: Christian Robinson
Nina: A Story of Nina Simone. 2021 (Picture Book).
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in a small town in North Carolina, Nina Simone was a musical child. She sang before she talked and learned to play piano at a young age. With the support of her family and community, she received music lessons that introduced her to classical composers like Bach who influenced her for the rest of her musical life. She loved the way his music began softly and then tumbled to thunder, like her mother’s preaching, and in much the same way as her career. During her first performances under the name of Nina Simone, her voice was low and sweet. Yet, as the Civil Rights Movement gained steam, Nina’s voice soon became a thunderous roar as she raised her voice in powerful protest in the fight against racial inequality and discrimination. Robinson’s illustrations vibrantly depict the story of little Eunice who grew up to become an acclaimed singer with a bold, defiant, and exultant legacy.
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Weatherford, Carole Boston
Illustrated by: Michele Wood
Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom. 2020 (Picture Book).
Henry Brown wrote that long before he came to be known by the nickname Box, he “entered the world as a slave” in Richmond, Virginia in the 1800s. When he was an adult, his wife and children were sold away from him out of spite. Brown watched as his family left bound in chains, headed to the deeper South. What more could be taken from him? But then hope, and help, came in the form of the Underground Railroad. Escape! In concrete poems of six lines each, one line representing one side of a box, celebrated poet Weatherford powerfully narrates Brown’s story of how he came to send himself in a box from enslavement to freedom. Strikingly illustrated in rich hues and patterns by Wood, this book is augmented with historical records and an introductory excerpt from Brown’ own writing, as well as a time line, notes from the author and illustrator, and a bibliography.
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Williams, Alicia
Illustrated by: April Harrison
Shirley Chisholm Dared: The Story of the First Black Woman in Congress. 2021 (Picture Book).
Discover the story of the first Black woman elected to Congress and to run for president in this picture book biography. Meet Shirley, a little girl who asks way too many questions! After spending her early years on her grandparents’ farm in Barbados, she returns home to Brooklyn and immediately makes herself known. Shirley is an excellent student; she plays jazz piano instead of classical; she is spirited and opinionated and breaks her mother’s rules. As a young adult, she fights against the injustice she sees around her, affecting women and Black people. Soon she is running for state assembly and winning in a landslide. Three years later, she is on the campaign trail again, as the first Black woman to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Her slogan? “Fighting Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed!” Does she win? You bet she does.
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