Beyond Rosa and Harriet: Black History Picture Book Biographies
Let’s start with the most important fact: we need to be teaching Black history all year long. Black history is American history, and once we start doing the work and making the connections, opportunities to share picture book biographies about Black historical figures will bubble up naturally. However, it’s February now, and Black History Month brings the spotlight onto the often overlooked or purposely ignored narrative of Black people in America.
As an elementary librarian, I know that my students are exposed to the most common figures in their classrooms. In January they were doing Martin Luther King Jr. activities, and they have read about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. They have had discussions about segregation in schools and at water fountains. They have named the horror of how Black people were kidnapped and enslaved as common practice. This brutal truth can’t be ignored, and I’m glad that most of my students have been exposed to this in age-appropriate ways from the earliest grades. However, there is so much more to Black history than trauma.
Below, I’ve gathered some of my absolute favorite picture book biographies that celebrate Black joy, ingenuity, athleticism, talent, and magnificence. It’s impossible to tell a story about being Black in America without a thread of oppression, but these books add to the narrative in the most important and lovely way.
Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and Stasia Burrington
Mae knows from a very young age that she would like to be an astronaut. When her teacher tells her “girls like her” would be better off as nurses, Mae decides not to let small minds stand in her way. Based on real-life astronaut Mae Jemison, this simple book sings.
Serena Williams: A Kid’s Book About Mental Strength and Cultivating a Champion Mindset by Mary Nhin and Yuliia Zolotova
Serena Williams is a powerhouse of the modern age, famous for her tenacity as much as for her tennis prodigy. This book takes readers through her young life, sharing both her life story and the positive affirmations and mental strength that made both her and her sister the champions they will forever be remembered as.
Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dee Romito and Laura Freeman
Here is a civil rights figure your students have likely never heard of! Georgia Gilmore supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott by cooking and selling food to fundraise for the gas and cars needed. Her house was a meeting point for civil rights meetings — she even testified on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr! When asked where she got the money to fund her efforts, she would reply “from nowhere,” giving us the title of this great book.
Opal Lee and What It Means to Be Free: The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth by Alice Faye Duncan and Keturah A. Bobo
Introduce children to the activist who dreamed of Juneteenth being a national holiday. Opal Lee knew that Juneteenth celebrated freedom (even if it was a few years late), but in her town, she still saw treatment of Black folks that didn’t seem like freedom at all. Could one little girl bring about national change? Absolutely!
Stacey’s Remarkable Books by Stacey Abrams and Kitt Thomas
A follow-up to Stacey’s Extraordinary Words, this bookish masterpiece depicts another true story from the representative’s childhood. Stacey loves library day at school. When she notices another student struggling to read in English, a special friendship is born.
The Way Champs Play by Naomi Osaka and Kamala Nair
Dedicated to her girls’ empowerment program, Play Academy, Osaka’s The Way Champs Play is, well, playful! Energetic, rhyming text blends with bright and inclusive illustrations to champion the values of sportsmanship and healthy activity. This book will introduce kids to tennis star Naomi Osaka in an exciting way.
Madam C. J. Walker Builds a Business by Denene Millner and Salini Perera
This chapter book is part of a new series highlighting stories from the Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls book. Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, made history by creating hair care products, especially for Black hair. She was America’s first self-made female millionaire, and her story is as impressive as it is beautiful.
Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd and Christian Robinson
I am a huge fan of Christian Robinson’s artwork, and his breathtaking paintings and collage work shine here alongside an equally gorgeous story by Traci N. Todd. The story starts with a celebration of Simone’s early life and musicality, ramping up the volume as Simone’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement begin to sing on the page.
Hopefully, you’ve found a book to complement a lesson or just introduce your students to new and exciting historical figures. Looking for more Black History Month guidance? As an educator, I highly suggest checking out Vera Ahiyya or Dawnavyn M. James on social media. They generously share book recommendations and other amazing resources. Looking for more picture book biographies? Check out these picture book biographies about authors, or this list of diverse picture book biographies. Happy reading!