Reading Black History

Books for kids and teens to read during Black History Month

In February, we celebrate the history of Black people in America — a history that we can sometimes find ourselves shying away from because of the shame of slavery and persecution. Luckily there are talented authors and illustrators to educate our children about the true-life tortures and triumphs of Black people who were brought to this country in chains but have risen to a point where, today, one of their own has represented all Americans as the president of the United States. Here are some children’s and young adult books that are perfect for Black History Month reading lists.

— McClatchy-Tribune

“We March”

Written and illustrated by Shane W. Evans, Roaring Brook Press, $16.99, ages 3 and up

Author and illustrator Shane W. Evans doesn’t use a lot of words — a little over 60 — in his book “We March.” He doesn’t have to. His textured, full-color drawings do the work of telling the story of a young African-American family preparing for the August 1963 March on Washington.

Exploring the historical event through the family’s eyes illustrates how much the civil rights struggle was about regular people uniting to peacefully demand change. Dr. King plays an important supporting role in the story. However, it’s the family — standing together, comforting each other — who is the star.

— Eric Goodwin

“Chocolate Me!”

By Taye Diggs, illustrated by Shane W. Evans, from Macmillan books, $16.99, ages 4 and up

“Chocolate Me” opens with an unhappy little boy, being taunted by neighborhood boys for his differences in appearance — everything from his curly hair to his wide nose to his seemingly extra-white teeth against his dark skin. But his mother tells him why those things all make him special. By changing his attitude, which gives him a confidence boost, the boy returns to the other boys and teaches them about acceptance and appreciation of peoples’ differences. The book is also wonderfully illustrated with full-page spreads depicting the boy’s story, sometimes with just a few words per page, which help enrich the story for those too young to read on their own.

— Kim Ossi

“When Grandmama Sings”

By Margaree King Mitchell, illustrated by James E. Ransome, from HarperCollins books, $16.99, ages 5-9

Eight-year-old Belle narrates “When Grand-mama Sings” and tells the story of the summer she and Grandmama, who has an amazing singing voice but can’t read, went on a tour with a band. It’s the first time Belle has traveled outside of Pecan Flats, Miss., and she helps her grandmother read while they travel throughout the South. The story talks about the segregation they experience in their travels. But the overarching message of the story, besides giving young readers a brief history lesson, is the power of music to bring people together. Grandmama also proves to be an excellent role model for Belle – and the reader – about not giving up on your dreams and achieving happiness, no matter your age or how unreachable they may seem when you start your journey.

— Kim Ossi

“My Uncle Martin’s Words for America”

By Angela Farris Watkins, PhD., illustrated by Eric Velasquez, Abram Books for Young Readers, $19.95, ages 5 and up

Describing the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement to a young child is a challenge. The average 6-year-old doesn’t comprehend “Jim Crow” or “prejudice” right away. Parents may stumble to find analogies that frame the terms in the proper context. But where parents falter, “My Uncle Martin’s Words for America” succeeds, explaining Dr. King’s life and work in a way kids can readily grasp.

Written by his niece, Angela Farris Watkins, the book describes how Dr. King’s philosophy of love and nonviolence chipped away at U.S. segregation laws. The key pillars underlying Dr. King’s beliefs — justice, freedom, brotherhood and equality — are highlighted in the text. Watkins then picks events from the civil rights movement that demonstrates how these pillars were made manifest.

— Eric Goodwin

“Freedom’s a-Callin Me”

By Ntozake Shange, paintings by Rod Brown, HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 8-12

“Freedom’s a-Callin Me” tells the tale of a slave, following him from working in the cotton fields and getting beaten by his master to his harrowing escape to Michigan. The story is told through a series of poems and is written in Southern dialect, both of which may be obstacles for younger readers trying to digest the story. But the tale is accompanied by full-page paintings that depict the narrator’s experiences on his journey and may help struggling readers comprehend the text better. That said, the story introduces readers to a new story form and simultaneously teaches them about the history of slaves in our country, and the brave souls — both Black and White — who brought danger on themselves to help men and women escape to freedom.

— Kim Ossi

“The Mighty Miss Malone”

By Christopher Paul Curtis, Random House Children’s Books, $15.99, ages 9-12

The author of “Bud, Not Buddy,” finally brings us a full-length story about Deza Malone, who fans will certainly remember from “Bud.” The story follows 12-year-old Deza and her family’s struggles during the Great Depression in Gary, Ind. Deza is an incredibly smart and capable young lady, but her parents have difficulties just putting food on the table when work becomes difficult to find. After a serious mishap that leaves Deza’s gregarious and loving father depressed, the Malones become homeless, riding the rails and living in a Hooverville outside Flint, Mich., fighting not to be crushed against the heel of poverty. “The Mighty Miss Malone” shows how this family supports each other and presents a united front against the everyday injustices and huge setbacks that so many families faced in the 1930s.

— Merrie Leininger

“The Silence of our Friends: The Civil Rights Struggle Was Never Black and White”

By Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, illustrated by Nate Powell, First Second books, 208 pages, $16.99, ages 12 and up

This graphic novel tells a story set in 1968 in Houston. Mark Long’s father, Jack Long, is a TV station race reporter, an eye witness to the violence and anger coming from Whites and Blacks. Jack is attempting to cover the events occurring in town and do justice to the people that he’s covering. Larry Thompson, an advocate for poor African Americans, saves him from an angry mob at an event. The two become friends and their lives intertwine. But when Long witnesses a shooting at a violent protest that leaves a police officer dead, what will he do? The story is a bit longer than it needs to be — it is based on events in Long’s real-life childhood — but it is quietly powerful.

— Merrie Leininger

“Black Boy White School”

By Brian F. Walker, from HarperCollins, $17.99, ages 14 and up

In “Black Boy White School,” readers follow the present-day story of Ant, from eighth grade through his freshman year of high school. Ant grew up in a violent neighborhood in East Cleveland, Ohio. With his mother’s urging, Ant applies and is accepted to Belton, a boarding school in Maine.

The world at the boarding school there is so different from his home. Most of the children attending the school are rich and White. There are few other students of color.

Despite the story taking place in present-day, with Obama as president and when equality is all but expected, all is not well for many of the people both on campus and in the nearby town. And Ant finds he’s struggling with identity.

The book forces readers to open their eyes to both subtle and blatant racism, still experienced today by many.

— Kim Ossi


  • “Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom,” by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, for ages 5-8. A poetic story of faith and sacrifice. Winner of the Caldecott Honor.
  • “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier, ages 5 and up. This picture-book biography is an excellent and accessible introduction to one of the world’s most influential leaders. Winner of the Orbis Pictus Honor, the Coretta Scott King Honor and the Caldecott Honor.
  • “Wind Flyers” by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Loren Long, for ages 7-10. A child recounts the story of his uncle, who was one of the Tuskegee Airmen.
  • “Zora and Me,” by Victoria Bon and T.R. Simon. For ages 10 and up. A novel that explores the childhood of author Zora Neal Hurston. A winner of the 2011 John Steptoe New Talent Author Award.


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