This Top 10 list of African-American Picture Books is different for me, because rather than list the books from favorite to most favorite as I usually do, I chose instead to list the books in historical chronology such that each book touches on a significant period or event of African-American history in the United States. If you read all 10 (and please use your library for this!), you and your child will get a sense of history through picture books. Because each picture book tells its own powerful story, I am hoping you and your child will get images and vignettes that will linger in your mind.
If you want more details on the history of African-Americans, please go to this link.
African-American History Through Picture Books
10. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James Ransome
Clara is a slave who escapes to freedom by creating a quilt that maps the way to freedom. [ages 5-9]
9. Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
An insightful fictionalized account of 8-year-old Araminta “Minty” Tubman as a young slave child. The story depicts the cruelty of slavery but also shows the strength Minty possessed as a child that shaped her into the extraordinary heroine and leader she became. [ages 4-9]
8. Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
A true story of a slave who shipped himself to freedom. [ages 4-8]
7. Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
This is the story of Patricia Polacco’s ancestor’s who survived the Civil War due to the kindness of a black soldier and his mother, both of who perished brutally during the war. [ages 6-12]
6. Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, illustrated by E. B. Lewis*
Set in Reconstruction Tennessee, Virgie, a girl, goes to school to learn to be free. [ages 5-9]
5. Rosa by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier
This picture book tells the story of Rosa Parks on that fateful day in December of 1955. [ages 4-10]
4. The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford
When Ruby Bridges was 6-years-old, she was the only African American student to attend a newly desegregated school in Louisiana. Her extraordinary ability to withstand a hostile environment while viewing her tormentors (adult and child) with forgiveness makes her an inspiration to us all. My kids were lucky to meet her at a school event a few years ago. She continues to inspire! If you want to see if you can get her to come to your school, go to this link: www.rubybridges.com/ [ages 4-8]
3. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier
This multi-award winning book somehow manages to put the power of Martin Luther King Junior’s words into a format that is accessible to kids as young as preschoolers while simultaneously telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement in an accessible way. A must-read! [ages 4-9]
2. Don’t Say Ain’t by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman
Dana learns to navigate two worlds: an advanced integrated school and the friends she has at home. [ages 5-10]
1. Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch
A charismatic little African American girl realizes that she can be anybody and do anything despite the color of her skin. [ages 6-10]
Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy Taylor
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“This was very well researched and covered a lot of additional history of the Black experience in the US, not just travel. I loved that the author traveled to different places mentioned in the Green Book, and took photographs of places that were listed in the travel guide, very few of which still exist. The personal connections to her family were interesting as well. The small things that you would only know about if you lived through an era, like the fact that many Black men who had nicer or newer cars kept chauffeur’s caps in the car in case they were stopped by the police are invaluable.” [middle grade nonfiction, ages 9 and up]
Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters by Barack Obama, illustrated by Loren Long
Who knew Barack Obama was a poet? This love letter to his daughters inspires in this tribute to thirteen groundbreaking Americans but also highlights the simple human characteristics that made each of these people great and lie within all of us: creative, smart, brave, healer, strong, kind, possessing our “own song,” and inspiring. And he bids us remember others’ sacrifices, never give up, and will always belong. Beautiful words from father to child but also from President to his people!
White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman
The actor Amber Tamblyn reads it in a very compelling way.
Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch
The sequel to Amazing Grace stands on its own. Grace frets that her family isn’t the traditional two parents, two kids. She has a mother and a grandmother while her father, now remarried, lives in Gambia, Africa. When he sends her tickets to visit, she experiences the culture of Africa and that a father’s love is boundless. [ages 5-10]
Hot Day on Abbott Avenue by Karen English, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
Wonderfully illustrated with collage art, this is a story about a hot day in an inner-city. [ages 4-8]
My First Biography: Martin Luther King, Jr. by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Jamie Smith
The perfect first biography for preschoolers on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement is a story that young children can relate to. [ages 3-5]
p.s. I have more book lists to celebrate Black History Month and MLK Day here:
Celebrating MLK Day with 3 Children’s Books. I selected two picture books and one chapter book to help tell the story of the impact Martin Luther King, Junior made.
As Fast As Words Could Fly: Picture Book of the Day. Ruby Bridges came to visit my elementary school and her story is contrasted with 14-year-old Mason Steele who used his typing skills both as a writer and a speed typist to prove that he had the right to attend a previously all-white school.
Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with Children’s Books. I have seven books for kids including picture books, YA, non-fiction and chapter books.
Ten Chapter Books for Kids on the Civil Rights Movement. This list covers many genres including picture books, chapter books, Young Adult and non-fiction.
5th Grade Slavery Unit. I cover a little of the history of the Underground Railroad where I live, what life was like during this time and book list including picture books and chapter books.
Booker T Washington: Picture Book of the Day. The story of Booker T. Washington told through an advanced picture book.
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.