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10 Books That Introduce African-American History To Your Kid

Every year the Coretta Scott King Award is given by the American Library Association to a deserving African-American author and illustrator. Books that are honored are excellent examples of how to relate black history and culture to a young audience, which is no small feat, given how intertwined that history and culture is with struggle and tragedy. But these authors and illustrators turn an often ugly past into beautiful picture books — ones with positive messages that will instill your child with the spirit of “I Have a Dream” right before dream time.

Ellington Was Not A Street Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange and Kadir Nelson

Unlike when your parents had the neighbors over for “game night”, poet Ntozake Shange’s childhood home hosted some legitimately brilliant minds. Great African-American figures like Paul Robeson, WEB DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. She quotes from her poem “Mood Indigo” to talk about all of these innovators, who she knew long before they icons with streets named after them.
Ellington Was Not A Street by Ntozake Shange and Kadir Nelson ($18)
Ages: 5 – 11

Rosa
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and Bryan Collier

The story is one of the cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement, but Rosa Parks gets a little more backstory in this book than she probably does in the elementary school texts. Of course, there’s a lot more to this part of history than just a brave woman and racist bus driver, but Giovanni and Collier do brilliant work to help kids understand why the back of the bus wasn’t the cool place to sit in the 1960s.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and Bryan Collier ($8)
Ages: 4 – 8

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People To Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

The story of the Underground Railroad, as told through the eyes of Harriet Tubman, centers on her faith in God that she would one day be free. Even if your kid is too young to get the Biblical overtones, they’ll understand why this courageous woman who lead her people out of slavery was called “Moses.”
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson ($16)
Ages 5 – 8

Let It Shine Let It Shine by Ashley Bryan

Bryan illustrates 3 well-known spirituals: “This Little Light of Mine,” “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” in colorful construction paper silhouettes that act out the lyrics. Add some new bedtime songs to the repertoire — ones that have a rich history and a meaning deeper than “Twinkle, twinkle.”
Let It Shine by Ashley Bryan ($18)
Ages: 4 – 8

My People
My People by Langston Hughes and Charles R. Smith, Jr.

Langston Hughes’ iconic poem is paired with a series of sepia-toned portraits by Charles R. Smith Jr. Each picture points at a different age, a different shape, or a different shade of skin color — but it all comes together to put a smile on the diversity within the black community.
My People by Langston Hughes and Charles R. Smith, Jr. ($18)
Ages: 4 – 8

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier

Two points about Dave the Potter: 1. He was a slave in South Carolina in the 1800s and 2. He was a badass potter. But Dave wasn’t just turning out crockery, he was making inspirational art inscribed with short, two-line poems. The next time you take the kids to Color Me Mine, tell them what they make doesn’t have to be pretty, but it should be meaningful.
Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier ($18)
Ages: 5 – 8

Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans

This tale of the Underground Railroad is told through a series shadowy illustrations and spare words, suggesting the kind of secrecy slaves had to endure as they made their way to freedom. Underground doesn’t get into the whys and hows — it’s really a book for younger readers who are just being introduced to this sad, shameful period in American history. But at least this story ends in the light.
Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans ($9)
Ages: 4 – 8

Firebird
Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

The American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American soloist, Misty Copeland, is an inspiration to tutu’d little girls and dance-belted boys everywhere. The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky serves as the thematic muse for Bryan Collier’s kinetic illustrations, over which Copeland writes about her own struggles as a young dancer. And they’re not the Footloose kind.
Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers ($18)
Ages: 6 – 8

Trombone Shorty Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier

New Orleans is to jazz what New York is to pizza or cars honking — the epicenter. Trombone Shorty was a very young man when he got his start in the Crescent City scene (just 6 years old), but is now an international superstar. If this book doesn’t get your kid to stick with those afterschool lessons, nothing will.
Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier ($18)
Ages: 4 – 8

Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes and Earl B. Lewis

Amelia Earhart gets the headlines in aviation history, so drop some little-known knowledge on your kids about Bessie Coleman, who was the first licensed female African-American pilot. In this fictional account, her life is told through monologs at her funeral (she died at 34 from an accident). It’s a little morbid for an inspirational tale, but you can point out that all great pioneers are risk takers.
Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes and Earl B. Lewis ($18)
Ages: 4 – 8

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