Children’s books for Black History Month and every other time of year

Moving Forward by Chris Barton

If I were going to teach a unit on prejudice, I’d start with a fabulous picture book, “Moving Forward: From Space-Age Rides to Civil Rights Sit-Ins with Airman Alton Yates,” by Chris Barton and Steffi Walthall. There are many, many wonderful nonfiction books aimed at middle grade readers, books which are perfect for research projects or just informational reading. A powerful picture book like this one about Alton Yates will elicit many emotions in readers. We admire Yates for his dedication and bravery, we are infuriated on his behalf because of the prejudice and mistreatment he endured after serving our country in the military, and we are inspired by his fight, at times endangering his very life, against the Jim Crow laws of the south. The story is factual and gripping. The illustrations are powerful. Alton is a heroic person, and his story is a wonderful example of how one man fought against injustice. It’s a fight that is ongoing. (Beach Lane Books)

The perfect follow-up to reading about Alton Yates is to read “What Is Black Lives Matter?” by Lakita Wilson, part of the WHOHQ series by Penguin that provides short, informational texts that are well-written, topically important, and relevant. In this book, readers learn about the three women who started the BLM movement. The story doesn’t start with the women, though, but with the stories of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd. As we read about young Black men killed for wearing a hoodie or walking in the street and arguing about their right to do so, literally being shot while holding their hands above their heads, we understand the need for BLM. This is a short, easy-to-read book that is ideal for young readers (intermediate elementary school).

Two books that are part of the same series and help explain why BLM came into existence are “What Was the Harlem Renaissance?” and “Who Sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Rosa Parks.” The book about the Harlem Renaissance is twice as long as the BLM text, and it’s filled with information about a plethora of Black Americans who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance or came to prominence thereafter. While there are many important figures presented in this historical summary, Langston Hughes is central to the book. We learn about the impetus for so many Black Americans to move north, where there was more opportunity than in the deeply racist south. We also learn that while there was more opportunity in New York for Black people to perform and create art, there was still pervasive racism that prevented the Black performers from attending performances at the very clubs and theaters where they performed. The many illustrations throughout the story help to break up the text and provide visual interest. In addition to a table of contents, there is a timeline and bibliography at the end. Photographs are also included at the end so that readers can see images of the people they read about.

“Who Sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Rosa Parks” is part of the same series in a graphic novel format. Most of the information is presented through dialogue bubbles with a few single pages of informational text. While some of the dialogue in the bubbles is quite lengthy, a lot of important information is presented. The focus is on the courageous people involved in the boycott, and while this is a graphic novel, much of the information is shared through the dialogue, not visually. For example, we learn about the threats of violence against those organizing the protests through their own words, not through visual images. I think it’s important that we see those people, their fears and worries, but I do wish they had also focused on the difficulties that those who participated in the boycott faced. Some walked hours, miles and miles, to get to work in order to support the boycott of the buses. On the whole, though, this is an important book in a format many readers will enjoy.

“John Lewis” is one of the “You Should Meet” series published by Simon & Schuster. This title is written by Denise Lewis Patrick and illustrated by Steffi Walthall. It’s also a “Ready to Read” book, and its rating of level three means that it’s for those who can read larger passages of text containing multiple paragraphs on one page. This is not a book for beginning readers, but it is a simple nonfiction book with chapters. The introduction does a laudable job of creating interest for the book. “Have you ever felt upset when you saw someone treated unfairly? Were you brave enough to do something to help?” In the pages that follow, young readers are introduced to Jim Crow laws of segregation and the peaceful protests in which Lewis participated. While Lewis and his fellow protestors were peaceful, those who opposed them and arrested them were often not. In simple, factual language, readers learn the story of Lewis’ life and his fight against prejudice and segregation, at times risking his life. The color illustrations help make the text even more engaging. This book is appropriate for primary and intermediate elementary school readers.(Simon Spotlight)

National Geographic Kids publishes books that are filled with photographs, brightly colored pages, images and text in inserts that make information easy to digest, as well as different colored text to make information easier to understand. The two new biographies, “Kamala Harris” and “Stacey Abrams,” are books that teachers and librarians will want to use in schools because they are exemplary examples of accessible nonfiction texts—biographies that kids will want to read. Children will learn about the goals that each woman set and how each woman was the “first” in many important achievements. Because of the large print, the simple text, the blocks of information, and the many images, these books are an excellent vehicle to introduce young readers to nonfiction material that contains important information. (National Geographic Kids)

Bold Words from Black Women

“Perfection is often the enemy of greatness. Embrace what makes you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable.” These words are just one of the quotes from “Bold Words from Black Women: Inspiration and other Truths from 50 Extraordinary Leaders Who Helped Shape our World,” a compilation of words from Black women of today and important icons of yesterday like Mae Jemison and Zora Neale Hurston. Many of the quotes are inspirational, like Dee Dee Bridgewater’s “Do not accept the word ‘no.’ ‘No,’ when you are going for your dreams, can be one of the most destructive words you have ever heard. When someone tells you ‘no,’ step around, go to the next door. There is a door that will open.” In addition to the oft-inspiring quotes and text selected by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, the bright digital illustrations by Monica Ahanonu create a book that is visually brilliant, filled with blocks of bright vibrant colors and portraits of the women, portraits that are expressive and stunning. It’s reminiscent of the book, “Have I Ever Told You that Black Lives Matter” by Shani Mahiri King and Bobby C. Martin, Jr., which also combines brilliant color and quotes and text about Black people of note. (See “Black history comes alive with these 4 children’s nonfiction books.”) The size of this book and its beautiful design make it a book that would not look out of place on a coffee table. I could see teachers presenting it to students and having them pick a favorite quote, then instructing them to write an essay (or paragraph) on why that quote speaks to them or what they learned from that quote. Much of it is inspirational, no matter the color of one’s skin. (Simon & Schuster)

Speak Up, Speak Out

“Speak UP, Speak OUT! The Extraordinary Life of ‘Fighting Shirley Chisholm,'” by Tonya Bolden with a foreword by Stacey Abrams, is a nonfiction book aimed at middle grade readers but that would also be appropriate through high school because of its text-heavy content and lack of images and illustrations throughout. But in spite of the dearth of graphics, the text is superbly approachable and almost conversational without being inappropriately informal. The story of Shirley (Shirls) and her life is told in engaging language that reads almost like fiction. The text is broken up so that each chapter has different sections for different periods of Shirls’ life. When we learn about her early childhood time spend on Barbados, we read,
“So many hot sunny days.
Stunning white-sand beaches.
Clear-clear turquoise water.
Palm trees sent swaying by a breeze.”
There are copious Notes and Sources and an index at the end. I think the quote from Chisholm is both witty and powerful: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” (National Geographic)

For other articles about nonfiction picture books including books about diversity, see:

Fabulous nonfiction children’s books you need on your bookshelf: Part One

7 Nonfiction Picture Books Perfect for Gift Giving

Children’s nonfiction books for Black History Month 2020 and beyond

Black history comes alive with these 4 children’s nonfiction books