Black History Month is the perfect time to acquaint youngsters with the traditions and accomplishments of African Americans. To help celebrate this period of observance, BookPage has rounded up a group of standout picture books—beautifully illustrated titles that will teach young readers about some of the seminal events and individuals that make the African-American legacy so rich. The history makers and groundbreakers featured in the books below helped shape our identity as a nation. Their stories are truly worth sharing.
Remembering a baseball legend
Spinning a treasured childhood memory into a winning story for children, Sharon Robinson presents a loving portrait of her famous father in Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson. This warm-hearted tale is set in rural Connecticut, where the Robinsons have a home on a beautiful lake. Young Sharon and her friends swim and dive all summer long; Jackie, meanwhile, refuses to go near the water. The youngsters don’t understand his reluctance to enjoy the lake until he bravely ventures out onto its icy surface one winter day. With this act of courage, the reason for Jackie’s fear becomes clear to Sharon and her friends, and their adoration for the great ball player grows. Focusing on her father’s life after sports, Robinson gives readers a glimpse of what Jackie was like away from the baseball diamond, as he assumed the roles of author, businessman and civil rights spokesperson. Author of a number of acclaimed books, including Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America, Robinson reveals the human side of a star athlete with this poignant story. Featuring playful illustrations by Coretta Scott King Award-winner Kadir Nelson, Testing the Ice is a touching memorial to a man of integrity.
Finding salvation in song
Sisters and music fans, Ann Ingalls and Maryann MacDonald became intrigued by the story of Mary Lou Williams when they lived in Kansas City, Missouri, former home of the jazz queen. Inspired by the sisters’ interviews, research and immersion into Williams’ music, The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend is a spirited tribute to a remarkable artist. Growing up in Atlanta in the early 1900s, Mary Lou learns early on that music will save her. At the age of four, she’s able to play her mama’s organ, and the experience is revelatory. But when the family moves to Pittsburgh to look for better-paying jobs, they leave the organ behind. The jeering and loneliness Mary Lou experiences as the new kid in town make music extra-meaningful to her: “Even without a keyboard she could do it. Tapping on the tabletop, she beat back the bad sounds and sang out her sadness.” After a kind-hearted neighbor hears about Mary Lou’s talent, she invites the little girl into her home and lets her practice on her piano. Mary Lou proceeds to enchant everyone around her with her marvelous playing. By the age of seven, she’s performing in public—showing signs of the jazz queen she’ll become. Giselle Potter provides the book’s beautifully detailed paintings, giving the story a vintage feel: The women wear dainty, printed dresses, the gents sport jaunty hats and everybody shimmies to Mary Lou’s music. This is a true story of triumph.
Taming the Wild West
A terrific way to introduce young readers to the Old West, Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshall tells the story of a legendary lawman. Big Bass Reeves sits proud in the saddle and cuts a forbidding figure, but he’s as honest as they come. A man of integrity and courage, he’s also an expert shot. Bass spends his early years as a slave in Texas, but after the Civil War, he becomes a free man. He settles in Arkansas and soon gets hired on as a deputy to assist Judge Isaac C. Parker in bringing justice to the Indian Territory. Bass is resourceful and successful at his job, using his wits as well as his gun to bring in 3,000 outlaws over the course of a 32-year career. He also stands tall in the face of racism, defying white men who dislike the idea of a black deputy. Author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson brings impressive authenticity to this story of bandits and cowboys, using folksy metaphors and slang words from the Old West. Beloved artist R. Gregory Christie captures the essence of Texas in his illustrations. Stark desert landscapes contrast with expanses of deep blue sky, and Bass himself appears immense and dignified, with a wide mustache, a dark, stately suit and a gleaming deputy badge. Nelson rounds out the tale with a bibliography, a timeline and supplementary information about the Indian Territory, making Bad News an irresistible history lesson.
In the Ring with Ali
Sure to have a magnetic effect on young readers, Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champion is a vibrant biography of one of America’s most outstanding athletes. Written by award-winning author Walter Dean Myers, the book provides a fascinating overview of Ali’s career. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, the future champ starts boxing at the age of 12. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he wins a gold medal—the first in a string of triumphs that will eventually include three world heavyweight titles. In 1964, Clay joins the Nation of Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. Outspoken on race and religion, he quickly becomes one of the most controversial figures of his generation. “I am America,” he says. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky.” Fighting until the age of 39, he retires with a record of 56 wins and three losses. Ali’s career is dynamically chronicled by Myers, who concludes the book with a helpful timeline of the boxer’s life. Adding wonderful energy to the narrative, Alix Delinois’ fluid crayon and pastel drawings swirl with kaleidoscopic color. A compelling little biography of an uncompromising athlete, this is a book that will interest readers of all ages.
Words to Live By
A stirring tribute to African-American history and to the important role religious faith has played in it over the centuries, The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights by Carole Boston Weatherford takes readers on a lyrical journey through the past. Using the Beatitudes from the Bible as a platform for her extended free-verse poem, Weatherford traces the arc of African-American history, starting with the slave era and ending with the swearing-in of President Barack Obama. Along the way, Weatherford alludes to a host of notable African-American figures, including Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks and Marian Anderson—individuals whose determination and endurance helped make freedom a reality. Tim Ladwig’s beautifully realistic renderings of U. S. Colored Troops, Freedom Riders and civil rights organizers give the book a documentary feel. With The Beatitudes, Weatherford—winner of the Caldecott Honor forher book Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom—offers an inspiring review of black history and the ways in which spirituality has guided its leaders. The book includes brief biographies of the famous figures who appear in Weatherford’s poem. This is a special testament to the legacy of a people—a book that’s sure to be treasured by future generations of readers.