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.
Q. S.811 Al2715un and available online

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.
Q. SB. C331ba

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.
Q. SE. C559le

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.
Q. SE. C615ov

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.
Q. SE. H3837da

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.
Q. SB. J6338jo2

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.
Q. SE. L9956si

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.
SB. Si56to

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.
Q. SB. B8782we

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.
Q. SB. C542wi


From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas

Black History Month 2007

Beginning as Negro History Week in 1926, and expanding to Black History Month in 1976, February for decades has been a time to recognize the active role and valuable contributions of African Americans in the shaping of the United States. This effort is spearheaded by the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH), which sets an annual theme emphasizing various elements of African American history, culture, and experiences. The National Black History Theme for 2007 is “From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas.”*

The following is a list of titles found in the Education S-Collection which relate directly to this year’s National Black History Theme, as well as several relevant web sites. Additional information on locating other titles relevant to African American history can be found at the end of this entry.

*Source: The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History http://www.asalh.org.
Fiction Titles

Lester, Julius.
Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue. 2005.
Emma has taken care of the Butler children since Sarah and Frances’s mother, Fanny, left. Emma wants to raise the girls to have good hearts, as a rift over slavery has ripped the Butler household apart. Now, to pay off debts, Pierce Butler wants to cash in his slave “assets,” possibly including Emma.
[Education S-Collection: S. L567d]

Mosley, Walter.
47. 2005.
Number 47, a fourteen-year-old slave boy growing up under the watchful eye of a brutal master in 1832, meets the mysterious Tall John, who introduces him to a magical science and also teaches him the meaning of freedom.
[Education S-Collection: S.M853f]

Woodson, Jacqueline
Show Way. 2005.
The making of “Show ways,” or quilts which once served as secret maps for freedom-seeking slaves, is a tradition passed from mother to daughter in the author’s family.
[Education S-Collection: S.W868s]

Walter, Mildred Pitts.
Alec’s Primer. 2004.
A young slave’s journey to freedom begins when a plantation owner’s granddaughter teaches him how to read. Based on the childhood of Alec Turner (1845-1923) who escaped from slavery by joining the Union Army during the Civil War and later became a landowner in Vermont.
[Education S-Collection: Q.SE. W171a]

Wait, Lea.
Seaward Born. 2003.
In 1805, a thirteen-year-old slave and his friend make a dangerous escape from Charleston, S.C. and stowaway to head north toward freedom.
[Education S-Collection: S.W134se]

Nolen, Jerdine.
Big Jabe. 2000.
Momma Mary tells stories about a special young man who does wondrous things, especially for the slaves on the Plenty Plantation.
[Education S-Collection: Q.SE.N717b]

Siegelson, Kim L.
In the Time of the Drums. 1999.
Mentu, an American-born slave boy, watches his beloved grandmother, Twi, lead the insurrection at Teakettle Creek of Ibo people arriving from Africa on a slave ship.
[Education S-Collection: Q.S.Si154i]

Non-Fiction Titles

Kramer, Ann.
Blacks in America. 2005.
Explores the history of Black people in America, how they got here, their years of slavery, their right to freedom, and the constant battle for equality.
[Education S-Collection: S.973 K8601b]

Cloud Tapper, Suzanne
Voices from Slavery’s Past: Yearning to be Heard. 2004.
Contains compelling stories about slaves, slave owners, abolitionists, and the whole concept of how slavery affected America
[Education S-Collection: S.973 C624c]

Hatt, Christine.
The African-American Slave Trade. 2003.
Recounts the history of slavery and the slave trade in the United States discussing the causes, the slave experience, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and its aftermath.
[Education S-Collection: S.306.3 H287a]

Lilly, Melinda
From Slavery to Freedom. 2003.
Introduces the Underground Railroad, a group of people and places through which runaway slaves escaped to freedom before the Civil War.
[Education S-Collection: S.973.7115 L628f]

Rappaport, Doreen
No More!: Stories and Songs of Slave Resistance. 2002.
Songs, stories and poems about slavery and the struggle to maintain dignity and freedom.
[Education S-Collection: Q.S.306.362 R182n]

Diouf, Sylviane A.
Growing Up in Slavery. 2001.
Examines what life was like for children who grew up as slaves in the United States, describing the conditions in which they lived, the work they did, how they were educated, and their efforts to obtain freedom.
[Main Stacks: 306.362083 D624g]

Rappaport, Doreen.
Freedom River. 2000.
Describes an incident in the life of John Parker, an ex-slave who became a successful businessman in Ripley, Ohio, and who repeatedly risked his life to help other slaves escape to freedom.
[Education S-Collection: SB. P241r2000]

Materials on the Web
The following web sites contain materials that are particularly relevant to the 2007 National Black History Theme: “From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas.”

Africans in America
This PBS site provides narrative, images, and other resources about the African American experience from 1450-1865.

African American World
Another PBS website that explores the role of African Americans in History, the Arts and Culture, and Society. A children’s version of the site is available at http://pbskids.org/aaworld/

Kids’ Place: African American History
The Newark Public Library Kids’ Place offers a good list of links to sites related to African American history and culture.

Lest We Forget
A web presentation of the history of slavery and African American culture in the Americas created by the New York Public Library and the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The Underground Railroad
An interactive journey through the Underground Railroad, created by National Geographic.

Finding More Black History Month Materials in the Education S-Collection

Biographies of Important African Americans: Enter one of the following combinations into a subject search in the UIUC online catalog:
African Americans–biography–juvenile literature
African Americans–biography–juvenile fiction
African Americans–biography–juvenile poetry

African American History: Enter one of the following combinations into a subject search in the UIUC online catalog:
African Americans–history–juvenile fiction
African Americans–history–juvenile literature

African American Life, Heritage, and Culture: Enter one of the following combinations into a subject search in the UIUC online catalog:
African Americans–juvenile literature–bibliography
African Americans–juvenile poetry
African Americans–juvenile literature
African Americans–juvenile fiction

(Information compiled by graduate assistant Jennifer Erbach)