African American History Month is in February. African American History Month began in 1976 as a week called National Negro History Week. Carter G. Woodson started the week in 1926 with the goal of making people more aware of the important things that African Americans did for the world. It’s important for people to “catch the chance” to “honor the too-often overlooked achievements of black Americans in every field of work that we have done over time.” Here at Book Riot, we celebrate this month in the best way we know how: by reading books about it.
This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome
In South Carolina, a little girl finds a rope under a tree one summer. The story of one family’s journey north during the Great Migration starts with this little girl and the rope. She doesn’t know that the rope will become a part of her family’s history, but it will. However, for three generations, that rope has been passed down from one generation to the next. It has been used for everything from jumping rope games and attaching luggage to a car for the big move north to New York City, to a family reunion where that first little girl is now a grandmother.
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
John wants to be a preacher when he grows up. He wants to be a leader who makes hearts change, minds think, and bodies do things. But why? It turns out that the chickens on the family farm are a great group to be in charge of. In this way, he preaches to his flock. They are happy to be under his watchful eye, and they are drawn to the rhythm of his voice.
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier
This picture book biography is a great way for young people to learn about one of the world’s most important leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Doreen Rappaport tells the story of Dr. King’s life by putting his words together in a way that is both moving and interesting. Martin’s Big Words is a stunning picture of a man whose dream changed America and the world. Bryan Collier, a well-known illustrator, did the art.
Everett Anderson’s Goodbye by Lucille Clifton, illustrated by Ann Grifalconi
Seeing kids who looked like them in a picture book was a big deal for authors and illustrators of color when they were younger. Lucille Clifton’s Everett Anderson series is a big part of that. Beautiful verse and beautiful illustrations make this series even better. Everett’s thoughts and problems are still relevant to young people today.
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Levine Ellen, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Henry Brown doesn’t know how old he is, and he doesn’t want to know. Nobody keeps track of when slaves were born. When he is taken away from his family and put to work in a warehouse, that dream seems even farther away than before. Henry grows up and gets married, but he is still heartbroken when his family is sold at the slave market. In the warehouse, he picks up a crate and knows what he needs to do: He will mail himself north. In the end, Henry has a birthday. This is his first day of freedom after a long trip in the crate.
Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans. He got his nickname because he played the trombone for twice as long as he was tall. This Grammy-nominated artist is headlining the New Orleans Jazz Fest today, and by the time he was six, he had his own band. Andrews and Bryan Collier, a well-known illustrator, have written a picture book autobiography about how Andrews pursued his dream of becoming a musician, even when the odds were against him, until he became an international star. In Trombone Shorty, you can see how New Orleans has a lot of different cultures and how powerful music can be.
Minty: The Story of a Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Her name became Harriet Tubman, the brave and heroic woman who helped many slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. But for a while, she was just a little girl. This is her story. She was a young slave named Minty, which means “Araminta.” Minty was a very feisty and headstrong young woman. Her rebellious spirit often got her into trouble. To her doll, she told stories and freed animals from traps. She also dreamed of running away. When her father began to teach her how to get out of the house, she listened very carefully and learned….
The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud, illustrated by Erin Susanne Bennett
Her quilt is more than just a precious memento of Mama. It’s also a series of hidden clues that will help them find their way through the Underground Railroad to Canada, now that Hannah’s father is running for freedom, too. As a fictionalized account of an interesting oral history, The Patchwork Path tells the story of two people who escaped from slavery and made the dangerous journey to freedom. It is a tale of courage, determination, and hope that will make you want to read the book.
John Henry by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
People say John Henry is more powerful than ten men, but that’s not true. He can dig through a mountain faster than any steam drill. In Julius Lester’s version of a popular African-American folk song, he tells the story in a way that is both heartwarming and funny. Jerry Pinkney used “rich colors that come from rocks and the earth” to illustrate the story. The colors are so beautiful that they make people smile and cry on their own.
Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson, illustrated by Bryan Collier
It’s great to have you here at Mammoth Cave today. In 1840, my name is Stephen Bishop, and I was born in that year. As your guide, I’ll lead you into the deepest and largest cave in the United States. By the light of my lantern, we’ll go down into the cave. You don’t have to be a slave down here. I’m not just one. I’m an early person. I know the cave’s turns and twists. It made me not be afraid of the dark. All these people writing their names on the ceiling? That’s true, too. It’s hard to believe that. Slaves are reading. But down here, I’m not just a slave. I’m a helper. I’m a man, and I’m here.
Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
A picture book biography of Duke Ellington is paired with bright illustrations and swinging verse. Learn about his childhood and rise to fame.
Martin & Mahalia by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
“I have a dream” speech: On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Mahalia Jackson was a world-renowned gospel singer at the time. It was a moment that changed the course of history and will stay with us for a long time. This book tells the stories of two powerful people, Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney. They tell them side-by-side, as if they were walking together one day. This book shows how their lives and powerful voices came together at this historic event. It also encourages kids to find their own voices so they can speak up for what is right.
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford
Today, Ruby Bridges is six-years-old. Her family moved from Mississippi to New Orleans in search of a better life. Angry parents don’t want their kids to go to school with Ruby when a judge rules that she must go to William Frantz Elementary, a school for all white kids.
If a Bus Could Talk by Faith Ringgold
Wouldn’t it be interesting for the bus to tell the story of Rosa, a young African-American girl who had to walk a lot to her one-room schoolhouse while white kids rode in a bus? It would show how Rosa, now an adult, took a segregated city bus to and from work. She couldn’t sit next to a white person. People around the world would learn about the day that Rosa refused to give up her seat to a white man. They would see how that bravery inspired them to stand up for what they thought was right, too. When a girl named Marcie is on her way to school, she learns why Rosa Parks is the mother of the Civil Rights movement from a bus.
Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream by Deloris Jordan and Roslyn M. Jordan, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
There are images of basketball being played at its best when the name is mentioned at all. That didn’t stop Michael from wanting to be a hoops player, though. He thought he wouldn’t be tall enough to play the game that would later help make him famous. That’s when his parents came in and taught him a valuable lesson about what it takes to become a champion. They told him that patience, determination, and hard work are what really make a champion.
I am Rosa Parks by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
Rosa Parks took a stand for herself and other African Americans by refusing to get off the bus. As a result, she helped end public bus segregation and start the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
I, Too, Am America , illustrated by Bryan Collier
I, too, sing about America. I’m the one who is dark. During company, they make me eat in the kitchen. I laugh, eat well, and grow strong.
During his time, Langston Hughes was a brave person who spoke out for what was right. His call for equality still rings true today. Bryan Collier, a Barack Obama illustrator, did a great job of illustrating the famous lines of the poem “I, Too.” These beautiful paintings show that we are all Americans, no matter how different we are.