Looking for fabulous children’s books to celebrate Black History Month? Look no further, because Happily Ever Elephants has got you covered!
Black History Month. It’s a celebration engrained in the fabric of our society, a month of learning and healing and remembering in our homes and schools. The national celebration was established around 1976, when President Gerald Ford decreed it an annual American observance. His goal? To honor the frequently overlooked or neglected accomplishments of Black women and men across America.
Throughout our lives, and most notably during our grade school years, many of us studied the groundbreaking — even radical —accomplishments of important social justice advocates such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But African-Americans were not only leading the fight for civil rights. They were doing so much more to leave lasting and vital impacts on our world! Contributions by Black Americans on our society were - and continue to be - nothing short of phenomenal. Yet, they are so frequently ignored. From artists to engineers, dancers to doctors, the stories of Black Americans who tenaciously broke boundaries and challenged societal norms are not just inspiring, but necessary to our country’s beautiful, multi-layered tapestry. I am absolutely delighted that we are finally beginning to see these thrilling stories come to life through picture books.
While the children’s publishing industry has made progress over the last couple of years, it continues its tremendous push to bring diverse books of superior quality to the market. There is a concentrated effort to publish more representative stories, including more biographies of Black men and women highlighting their remarkable achievements. Though we still have significant work to do, the results are tangible. As our homes, schools, libraries and bookstores continually showcase these beautiful new books, the smiles that light up children’s faces when they find themselves in stories for the first time is nothing short of magical.
As we lead into Black History Month, Happily Ever Elephants is thrilled to share some of our favorite picture books. Below you’ll find several outstanding picture books on Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as numerous biographies about Black men and women whose determination and accomplishments have left indelible contributions on our country. And that’s not all. You’ll also find a moments and movements section, which contains numerous breathtaking stories about slavery, the fight for civil rights , and even music and space. Happy reading!
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
I Have a Dream, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and illustrated by Kadir Nelson: On August 28, 1963, MLK stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. during the March on Washington. It was there he delivered one of the most powerful speeches our nation has ever witnessed. His words from this monumental speech are paired with Nelson’s exquisite paintings, making this a magnificent book to be treasured, memorized and honored for generations to come.
Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You, by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by James E. Ransome: I love reading this beautiful book with my youngest students, for it imparts all of the values MLK stood for, without going into the more painful details of his journey. This book encourages a new generation of young people to be kings by emulating MLK’s remarkable character traits and actions. The lovely illustrations show kids how they can reenact his teachings in their own lives by always standing up for peace, breaking the chains of ignorance, and stamping out hatred by putting a foot down and standing tall.
As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Herschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom, by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Raul Colon: We all know the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., a Black boy who grew up to witness horrifying racial discrimination in America. He became a minister like his father before him, and subsequently rose to become one of the most visible and vital voices of the Civil Rights Movement. Abraham grew up years earlier in Europe, and as a Jewish man, he too, faced atrocious persecution. Abraham fled to America where he became a rabbi, and like MLK, he became a voice for equality. This is the story of how these two remarkable men came together as victims of discrimination, formed an unbreakable friendship, and used their voices to fight for peace and social justice. An extraordinary story, and a favorite to read to tweens.
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier: Through his own famous quotes, this beautiful picture book brings MLK to life. Beginning with his life as a young boy and his vow to one day get “big words” like his father, to his death at a garbage worker’s strike, this biography is a fabulous introduction to one of the most prominent voices of the Civil Rights Movement. This is one of my favorite books to read with early elementary students, for its simple narrative that doesn’t stray from the gritty facts but hits all the right notes for younger readers. Age appropriate, powerful, and elegant.
I am Martin Luther King, Jr., by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulous: We absolutely love the Ordinary People Change the World series for the way it tackles big stories and remarkable heroes in a kid-friendly, accessible manner. Through comic illustrations and word bubbles, this story gives voice to MLK as a child, then subsequently showcases his journey to changing the American landscape through peaceful protests and powerful words. This series is a favorite of my students.
PICTURE BOOK BIOGRAPHIES
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad, by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson: Henry Brown was born into slavery, never even knowing his own birthday. Torn from his family at a young age, he is put to work at a warehouse. And though he grows up, marries, and has a family of his own, he is once again devastated when his own family is sold at a slave market. Henry longs to be a free man, and upon lifting a crate at his warehouse one day, he knows just what he must do: he will mail himself to freedom. Teach children about the Underground Railroad with this gripping true story.
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, by Jabari Asim and illustrated by E.B. White: Provide kids with background on the Civil Rights movement and the childhood story of one of its most important heroes. John wants to be a preacher when he grows up - but he doesn’t want to wait! Upon being put in charge of the family’s farm, John discovers his chickens make an amazing congregation, and he begins preaching to them. John’s journey — from addressing his farm animals to becoming one of the most vital voices of the Civil Rights Movement, to his stint as a Georgia Congressman to his continued contributions as a significant activist in America — is simply remarkable.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and illustrated by Bryan Collier: Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on the city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, remains one of the most pivotal moments - and remarkable actions - in American history. The stunning prose and cut paper illustrations are a winning combo here, bringing new life to Parks’s perseverance, courageous story and steadfast commitment to the civil rights movement.
Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges: At just six years old, Bridges became a focal point of the Civil Rights Movement when she walked, surrounded by federal marshals, through a mob of angry segregationists and became the first Black student at an all white school in New Orleans, Louisiana. This stunning memoir describes Bridge’s courageous- and at times harrowing - journey, in her own words. It is a testament to hope, courage, and the lengths one innocent child went to be afforded an equal education to her white peers.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Ekua Holmes: This gorgeous biography highlights the life and achievements of Fannie Lou Hamer, particularly her stunning accomplishments in connection with the Civil Rights Movement. Fannie, the youngest of twenty children, grew up in a family of sharecroppers. She endured hardship after hardship at her home in Mississippi but never gave up, eventually making it to the stage at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, giving a speech that roused support for the Freedom Democrats and was integral to civil rights for black Americans.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist, by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton: Inspire child activists with the true story of a little girl who fought for freedom despite her young age. At nine years old, Audrey wanted to go places. So when she heard grownups speaking about doing away with Birmingham's horrible segregation laws, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. Audrey stepped up with confidence, used her voice, and marched for freedom alongside thousands of children and teens. The youngest person to be arrested for protesting in Birmingham, Audrey’s story shows that you are never too young to make a difference.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library, by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez: This book absolutely blew me away. Schomburg tells the story of Arturo Schomburg, an Afro-Puerto Rican man who was astonished that people of African descent had no historians to bring their stories to life. Schomburg became determined to correct history, and his quest led him to curate a remarkable collection at the New York Public Library that became the cornerstone of the new Negro Division. I can’t rave enough about this fascinating story – this was my favorite picture book biography of 2017.
Take a Picture of Me James VanDerZee, by Andrea Loney and illustrated by Keith Mallett: James VanDerZee fell in love with the camera when he was just a young boy. He moved to the bustling world of New York City after school and got a job, only to be told by his boss that no white person would want their photographs to be taken by a black man. VanDerZee was undeterred and opened his own studio in Harlem where he took portraits of not just the ordinary neighborhood folk but prominent Harlem Renaissance figures as well, including Marcus Garvey, Florence Mills, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. His portraits were eventually displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, by Deborah Blumenthal and illustrated by Laura Freeman: Ann Cole Lowe, great grand-daughter of slaves, learned to use a needle and thread as soon as she could walk! She worked with her mother in their dress shop, sewing dresses for fancy ladies who had fancy parties to attend. Ann’s mother died when Ann was only 16, and Ann eventually left home for New York City to pursue her dreams. She went to design school, but due to segregation Ann was forced to study on her own. Through it all, Ann never gave up. She studied, designed and sewed, working her way towards becoming society’s “best kept secret” and designing dresses for Oscar winners and even Jackie Kennedy.
Mae Among the Stars, by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Barrington: This beauty of a book tells the story of Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel to space! With her mother’s words of encouragement continually whispered in her ears, Mae’s intelligence and drive led her to conquer insurmountable odds until she found herself at NASA. “If you believe it, and work hard for it, anything is possible.” You can even touch the stars.
The Doctor With an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath, by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley: From toy chemistry sets to laser probes, this engaging, rhyming book tells the story of Dr. Patricia Bath, a woman born in Harlem with big dreams of becoming a doctor. Undeterred by the evils of sexism and racism, Dr. Bath persevered, eventually becoming an ophthalmologist and subsequently co-founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting, preserving and restoring the gift of sight. Another win for STEM!
Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery, by Sandra Neil Wallace and illustrated by Bryan Collier: My students fell hard for this fascinating story of Ernie Barnes, a young black man who loved art but took to playing football in order to make a living. After all, the south was segregated when Barnes grew up, and he knew there was no future in painting - there were no black artists in the museums! Nonetheless, despite his career as a professional football player, Barnes never stopped yearning to be an artist. He eventually conquered his dreams, painting for the NFL and influencing a generation of artists and illustrators.
Champion: The Story of Muhammad Ali, by Jim Haskins and illustrated by Eric Velasquez: Sure there have been books about the great Muhammad Ali, but this one is a gem. With beautiful illustrations that at times are so real they look like photographs, this stunning biography of the great boxer and his commitment to social justice touches upon the struggles, successes and set backs of Muhammad Ali. It truly shines a light on his great legacy and will be a treasure for fans new and old
Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III: Today’s generation of ballerinas admire and hope to emulate the great Misty Copeland. But do these young ladies know about the famous ballerina who inspired Misty herself? Raven Wilkinson was the first African-American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company, never letting racism and mockery hold her back from her dreams. Raven’s persistence led her to dance for royalty in Holland and at the New York City Opera after that— until she was fifty years old. A must have for your little dancers.
Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams, by Lesa Cline-Ransom and illustrated by James E. Ransome: If you know kids who can’t stop, won’t stop when it comes to tennis or any sport, they will absolutely love this beautifully illustrated story of tennis stars and sisters Venus and Serena Williams. The dynamic sisters are two of the greatest athletes of all time, but they didn’t become champions without dedication, talent, and a whole lot of heart. A wonderful story of perseverance and a testament to their tenacity and love for their sport.
Dream Big Dreams: Photographs from Barack Obama’s Inspiring and Historic Pregnancy, by Pete Souza: Souza was President Obama’s Official White House Photographer for two years and was with him during more critical moments of his presidency than anyone else. In this stunning book of approximately seventy-five photographs, Souza captures photos of Obama that showcase him as both an extraordinary leader and man, one who frequently engaged with America’s youngest citizens and continually encouraged them to “dream big dreams.”
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, by Vashti Harrison: This stunning anthology features snippets of 49 black women who, in their own various ways, helped change the world. From poets to pilots to politicians, the fascinating stories combined with stunning illustrations make this book a winner, conveying to our children how people can break barriers when they dream, persevere and never stop believing in themselves.
MOMENTS AND MOVEMENTS
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Dreams and Their Lives Brought to Life, by Ashley Bryan: This stunning book of poetry incorporates actual documents from an estate appraisal on July 5, 1828, valuing the will and worth of eleven slaves who live and work on the plantation. The only thing that can not be valued? The dreams of these men and women. On stunning collaged spreads, each slave is given a voice, with one page describing the “worth” and skills he or she brings to the plantation, while the other page explores the dreams that each slave wishes he could achieve with those skills. Powerful, astonishing, and incredibly emotional, this is a stunning achievement and an important, unique look at this stain on American history.
Freedom in Congo Square, by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie: In this poetic work of nonfiction, readers learn about a little-known piece of Black history. Though slaves toiled during the week in nineteenth century Louisiana, they counted down to Sunday afternoons - a time when they congregated at Congo Square in New Orleans. Here they could temporarily forget about their oppression and, for several hours, sing, dance, play, and even open up a market. Congo Square was a place of celebration, freedom, hope and resilience, and it helped black men and women maintain some of their significant cultural traditions.
Let the Children March, by Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrated by Frank Morrison: After hearing the powerful words of Martin Luther King, Jr., many Black children volunteered to march for their civil rights in protest of the laws that forbid them from attending the same schools, playing on the same playgrounds, and drinking from the same water fountains, as white children. Despite their fears, these children faced hatred and danger to march in The Children’s Crusade, using their voices to change the world.
Freedom Summer, by Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue: This remarkable story describes what happened after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forbidding segregation. When two best friends, one white and one black, discovered the town pool would now be open to everyone, the two boys raced each other there, only to be in for a very rude awakening. Use this story as a springboard to discuss segregation and the unfortunate reality that it takes more than new laws to eclipse hate. One of my very, very favorite stories - incredibly powerful and thought-provoking.
Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney: This wonderful book celebrates the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, when four college students, following Martin Luther King’s example of peaceful protest, sat down at the “white’s only” counter at Woolworths and placed a simple order for a doughnut and coffee with cream. This sit-in became a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in America.
Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Shane W. Evans: This is a powerful historical picture book about a 100 year old African-American woman who makes a long trek up a steep hill to vote for the very first time. As she walks, she remembers her family history — from the passage of the fifteenth amendment to her parents registering to vote, from the impossible tests given to prevent Black men and women from voting to marching in the civil rights protest from Selma to Montgomery. Moving, lyrical and tremendously important, this is a fabulous glimpse at American history.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, by Selina Alko and illustrated by Sean Qualls: I love this beautiful, non-fiction book about the Lovings and their fight to make interracial marriage legal in every state across America. Richard (a white man) and Mildred (a Black woman) fell in love and got married - yet, marriage between people of different races was illegal in Virginia and they were thus forced to marry legally in Washington D.C.. After their marriage, the police barged into their Virginia home and jailed the couple, prompting a fight against the unfair law that ended up before the Supreme Court -- where the Lovings won. A fabulous intro to the Lovings and the fight for marriage equality.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly and illustrated by Laura Freeman: Did you love this movie? Well now you can share the inspiring story of these four brilliant women with your kids and students. Hidden Figures is the captivating true story of four Black women who lived at a time when being Black— and being women — limited their abilities to do what they wanted to do: math. And they were really good at math. Did they let societal and gender norms stand in their way? Absolutely not… and so they broke boundaries. This book is outstanding.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, by Roxanne Orgill and illustrated by Francis Vallejo: We are in love with this beautiful tribute to jazz musicians in the fifties! In 1958, Esquire Magazine planned to salute the American jazz scene in one of its issues. One graphic designer had a crazy idea to gather and photograph a group of beloved Black musicians on a Harlem stoop. The photograph became iconic, and this fascinating collection of poetry celebrates the lives — and even quirks — of some of America’s most beloved musicians.
Roots of Rap: 16 Bars and the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop, by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Frank Morrison: Did you know that hip hop has its roots in folktales and poetry? That rap music long preceded DJ Cool Herc and Grandmaster Flash? With a forward by Swiss Beatz, this vibrant book uses the four pillars (graffiti, break dancing, rapping/MCing and DJing) to illustrate how hip hop is a language spoken around the globe, including nods to some of the music’s most prominent artists today.
We hope you commemorate Black History Month in your homes and schools with these outstanding works of children’s literature. Enjoy!
Which of these books are your favorite? Make sure to let us know on our Facebook page (and don’t forget to “like” us there, too!)