52 Incredible Picture Book Biographies of Black People Creating and Leading

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Whether star athletes, artists, musicians, politicians, or something else, Black people have always been here. For young readers, whether Black or not, learning this and never questioning the contributions of Black people begins with early, frequent exposure that encourages them to continue learning outside the designated Black History Month celebrations in February. One way adults can begin to introduce Black lives into the world of young people? Picture book biographies of Black people.

Find below an array of picture book biographies highlighting Black talent, Black achievement, and Black history. These stories offer a little bit of everything and encourage both pride and desire to seek further education for young readers of any racial background.

But don’t limit this books to young readers. As adults, we’re able to also expand our knowledge of Black excellence through these incredible books that offer stories as well as tremendous art.

Note: I did not include collective biographies but chose instead to stick to stories of individuals. Likewise, some of these books highlight individuals who are biracial, and I’ve done my best to note their exact background in the notes.

This roundup is, of course, far from comprehensive, and it is primarily America-centric.

Picture Book Biographies of Black People Doing Art, Creating Movements, and Changing The World

Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis’ Fleet-of-Foot Girl by Megan Reid and Laura Freeman 

Althea Gibson was the quickest and most fearless athlete in 1940s Harlem. Though she was able to demolish her competition in anything she tried, she wasn’t allowed to play against white athletes. Determined to become the best, though, Althea played her way to the top of Wimbledon, the first Black person to do just that.

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes and Bryan Collier

Written in 2008 at the start of Obama’s first term as President, this book explores the wide range of experiences he had growing up in Hawaii, through Indonesia and Kenya, and ultimately Chicago and how he held on to the power of hope through his entire life and career.

Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring by Nancy Churnin and Felicia Marshall 

Laura Wheeler Waring never saw artists who looked like her in the late 19th century—nor did she see people in art who looked like her. When she went to study art in Paris, she found herself inspired by Matisse and Gaugin and came back to Philadelphia to begin painting the people she knew best: those who looked like her.

Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford and Sean Qualls 

The story of young John Coltrane and his life growing up in the 1930s south, including the inspirations for his music.

Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins by Michelle Meadows and Ebony Glenn 

Despite experiencing regular racial discrimination in dance academy—even being told by Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as a teenager she’d need to paint her skin white to be part—Janet Collins went on to become the first African American principle dancer at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Bread for Words: A Frederick Douglass Story by Shana Keller and Kayla Stark 

Told from the first-person perspective, this picture book biography of Frederick Douglass explores his desire to learn to read, to write, and to understand his experiences as an enslaved person who didn’t know his father or even when he was born.

Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner by Janice N. Harrington and Theodore Taylor III

Get to know a pioneer in STEM with this book about Charles Henry Turner, the first African American entomologist. Turner explored questions about the insects around him not only through books but through his own experiments.

By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, the Father of Gospel Music by Carole Boston Weatherford and Bryan Collier 

Unlike so many of his African American counterparts at the time, Tindley was not enslaved when he was born. His life was far from easy though, and during the long days working, he found himself learning spirituals. He also taught himself to read at night. From these experiences, he was able to become a founder of American gospel music, becoming most well-known for his Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa by Veronica Chambers and Julie Maren 

Cruz was an Afro-Latina salsa singer, and this book celebrates her life and legacy from her childhood to her worldwide fame.

Coretta Scott by by Ntozake Shange and Kadir Nelson 

Growing up in the segregated south, Coretta Scott knew how unfair her life was, and together with Martin Luther King Jr. she helped to usher in the push for change through nonviolent protest.

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker and Dow Phumiruk

You know her story from Hidden Figures, but this picture book biography of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson offers a more intimate look into how she ensured Apollo 13 made it home safely. Becker and Phumiruk dig into her childhood, her dreams, and her lasting legacy.

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

An incredible evocative and rich story of a man named Dave who, in 1800s South Carolina, combined his skills as an artist and poet to create pottery to tell a story far bigger than his individual experiences being enslaved.

Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon by Kelly Starling Lyons and Laura Freeman  

Freelon’s grandfather was a well-known painter of the Harlem Renaissance, and his father was a businessman who attended the March on Washington in 1963. In attending architecture school, Freelon decided to focus specifically on African American and Islamic design to create communal spaces that welcomed people to connect with heritage and legacy. You may recognize his 2009 work, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra by Andrea Pinkney and Brian Pinkney

You know his music. Now get to know the life of Duke Ellington, celebrated Black musician.

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade and Cozbi A. Cabrera

Brooks was the first Black person to win a Pulitzer Prize, which she received in 1950 for poetry. Her work, known for being about real life, comes from her own experiences of growing up at the challenging intersections of race, gender, and the poverty of the Great Depression.

Fearless Mary: Mary Fields, American Stagecoach Driver by Tami Charles and Claire Almon 

Chances are you’ve never heard of Mary Fields, but her legacy is one still felt today. She became the first African American stagecoach driver in 1895—when she was in her 60s—beating out the cowboys applying for the job because she was the fastest to hitch six horses. She spent much of her time in the Badlands with her pet eagle (!) protecting the mail from outlaws and animals. There’s certainly something to be said here about the challenges of her legacy with that of western settlement of the U.S., though her legacy helped allow other women and people of color to get involved as postal workers and more.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

This is an autobiography written from the perspective of a girl named Misty, making it read more like a biography by the author than an autobiography. In any case, this is the story of how legendary ballerina Misty Copeland believed in her self and became a Firebird—her life-long dream.

Harlem’s Little Black Bird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson and Christian Robinson

Early in her life, Florence knew she wanted to sing. Born to formerly enslaved parents, she also knew how hard she’d have to work—and lucky for her, her incredible voice helped her make it to 1920s Broadway. While she certainly made a name for herself and inspired others, she used her hard-earned fame to champion the work of other Black performers—as well as championed civil rights.

I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer by Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velásquez

Too often, stories of adventurers are only about white men. But they weren’t the only people exploring far-flung corners of the globe. Matthew Henson survived the Arctic Passage and made his way all the way to the North Pole.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson

From growing up in a challenging part of St. Louis to performing on some of the biggest stages throughout the world, this biography of Josephine Baker is one of an artist and civil rights advocate.

Kamala Harris: Rooted In Justice by Nikki Giovanni and Laura Freeman

Get to know Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s beginnings as the daughter of immigrants, growing up biracial Black and Indian, and her work throughout the political system in California.

Let ‘er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Gordon C. James

Pop culture loves to showcase white cowboys, but rarely do we see the stories of cowboys of color. This is the story of George Fletcher, one of three cowboys at the 1911 Pendleton Roundup in the final round (one was white, one was Indian, and he was Black). When the white cowboy was declared the winner, the audience was unhappy and named him the “People’s Champion,” bringing him fame and fortune greater than the win itself may have.

Lizzie Demands a Seat!: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights by Beth Anderson and E. B. Lewis 

Before Rosa Parks, there was Lizzie: a school teacher in 1854 New York City denied entry onto a street car. The denial led her to a life-long fight for equal rights on public transportation.

Mae Among The Stars by Roda Ahmed and Stasia Burrington

Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to reach space and has become a NASA legacy.

Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up To Become Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz and A.G. Ford

Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm Little, has been putting out so many excellent books about her father and his legacy, including this picture book about his youth and how it helped him became the infamous Malcolm X.

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier 

There are a number of excellent MLK Jr. picture books, but this particular one uses King’s own words to tell his life story in a way that’s straightforward and feels almost like King himself authored it first-hand.

Molly, by Golly!: The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter by Dianne Ochiltree and Kathleen Kemly

On a winter day in 1818, when scores of firefighters were sick with the flu, a small house was ablaze. Molly, who’d served as a cook for New York City’s Fire Company 11, jumped in to help out. For this, she’s considered America’s first female firefighter.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson 

An award-winning book about the legacy of Harriet Tubman and a look at how she earned the right proper nickname Moses.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael James Mahin and Evan Turk

From the fields of Mississippi to a performance spaces in Chicago, Muddy Waters wouldn’t let anyone tell him he couldn’t pursue his dream of music. His blues music legacy helped pave the way for rock and roll, while also leaving an impact on the entire genre of blues itself.

Muhammad Ali: A Champion Is Born by Gene Barretta and Frank Morrison 

Before converting to Islam and become a world-renowned boxer, Ali’s story began in Louisville, Kentucky, when another boy stole his prized possession: a red and white bicycle. The story of how Ali became a legend, beginning with his youngest years.

The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard and Oge Mora 

Mary Walker was born enslaved, freed at age 15, then married at age 20. Her life spanned the Civil War to Civil Rights, but it wasn’t until she reached the incredible age of 116 that she finally learned to read.

Patricia’s Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight by Michelle Lord and Alleanna Harris 

The incredible story of Dr. Patricia Bath, born in the 1940s and determined to become an ophthalmologist at a time when African Americans and women weren’t able to become doctors as a career path. She did it anyway, cofounded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, and even earned a medical patent—the first Black woman doctor to do just that.

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise and Paola Escobar 

A picture book biography of groundbreaking Afro-Latina librarian and storyteller Pura Belpré.

Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim and E.B. Lewis

At a young age, Civil Rights leader John Lewis dreamed of being a preacher. So when he’s put in charge of the family chickens, he sees the perfect congregation with which to practice.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe 

Utilizing his identity to inform his art, Basquiat’s collage-style work rose to prominence in the 1980s. The big message throughout this biography mirrors precisely what Basquait does in his work: it’s okay to be messy, imperfect, and bold.

Ready to Fly: How Sylvia Townsend Became the Bookmobile Ballerina by Lea Lyon, Alexandria LaFaye, and Jessica Gibson 

When given a book about ballet from the librarian on her bookmobile, Sylvia Townsend teaches herself classical ballet and opens herself up to a world otherwise not accessible to her in 1950s America.

Richard Wright and the Library Card by William Miller and R. Gregory Christie

While libraries were gateways for some, they were locked gates for others, including Richard Wright. The famed author was unable to get a library card growing up because he was Black in the 1920s, despite his passion for reading. This is the story of how he persevered and made his dream of borrowing library books a reality.

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus and Tonya Engel

This picture book biography is geared toward older readers, as it explores the depths of Maya Angelou’s experiences including the wide array of trauma in her life.

Salt in His Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of a Dream by Deloris Jordan, Roslyn M. Jordan, and Kadir Nelson 

Written by his mother and sister, this picture book biography tells the story of Michael Jordan’s youth and his hope to achieve great things as an athlete and more.

The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver by Gene Barretta and Frank Morrison 

George Washington Carver had a secret garden growing up where he tended to various plants, studied their life cycles, and learned how nature could harm or help the world around him. This access to nature helped him become one of the leaders in botany, science, and invention.

She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick and Don Tate 

Growing up, Effa loved watching the Yankees play, but she never thought she’d herself be an owner of a team some day. Not only did she become owner of the Newark Eagles, but she was the first woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It’s worth noting that Effa didn’t discuss her racial identity in her life, though she grew up with biracial siblings and a Black stepfather. Her biological parental identity isn’t entirely known, but many believe her to have been a light-skinned Black woman.

Sisters and Champions: The True Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Howard Bryant and Floyd Cooper 

This list doesn’t include collective biographies—that is, books that compile numerous biographies into one place—but of course, a biography of the incredible Williams sisters and their rise to fame in tennis is not that and indeed, their stories deserve to be told together.

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet 

Pippin loved to draw from an early age. He even drew during his time in the trenches during World War I, and though he was shot and had thought he’d lost the ability to use his right arm—his drawing arm—he worked and worked until he could use it again. You can see his work in galleries around the United States today.

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

Eleven years old when the Wright brothers took flight, Bessie declared that she would be the first African American female pilot. Though poverty, racism, and her gender stood in the way, especially during the Jim Crow era in which she lived, she pursued her dream wholeheartedly.

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges tells the story of her historical move in November 1960 of walking into a segregated school as a Black girl while the entire country watched.

Thurgood by Jonah Winter and Bryan Collier 

Thurgood Marshall became the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, but even before then he was a man known for being an incredible joke teller, impeccable arguer, and absolutely eager to tear down unjust and discriminatory laws in America—including arguing in the pivotal Brown v. Board of Education case.

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier 

Troy Andrews got the nickname “Trombone Shorty” because he carried around his trombone around his New Orleans neighborhood, and it was twice the size he was. The real story of a legendary jazz musician offering a look at the cultural legacy of music in New Orleans.

The Unstoppable Garrett Morgan: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Hero by Joan DiCicco and Ebony Glenn

A compelling look at the life of Garrett Morgan, who dedicated his life to not only inventing, but to helping make the world a better place for others.

A Voice Named Aretha by Katheryn Russell-Brown and Laura Freeman 

The first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Rolle Hall of Fame, this picture book biography is the story of Aretha, starting with her start in Detroit church choirs to years and years of hoping to make a hit while in New York City to finally cracking the biggest stages in the world.

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill and Theodore Taylor III 

There just isn’t enough respect paid to the history and legacy of hip hop, but this book does it exceptionally well. It follows DJ Kool Herc, born in Jamaica and raised in the Bronx, who developed a new way to play music that encouraged dancing and ultimately, paved the way for the rise of breakdancing and hip hop music.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick 

An integrated crowd of 75,000 gathered at Lincoln Memorial to hear Marian Anderson sing in 1939, a historic and groundbreaking event in American history. Though her voice is part of her story, there’s much more and this book showcases her life from youth to and beyond that tremendous moment.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson and Vanessa Brantley-Newton 

No child is too young to stand up against discrimination, and that point is no clearer than in this story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, believed to be the youngest person ever arrested for taking part in a civil rights protest in Birmingham, 1963.