Black History Month is right around the corner, and there are SO MANY great books out there to teach your students about African American heritage and history in this country. When I first started teaching, it seemed like every teacher knew really good books to read for every holiday, while I was left asking around everywhere. After years of talking to librarians, teachers and kids, here are, in my opinion, the best Black History Month read alouds!
If you’re looking for any other ideas for Black History Month for kids, I have a great resource page where you can access all of my ideas for your Black History Month celebration.
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Check out the books:
So Tall Within by Gary Schmidt
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery but possessed a mind and a vision that knew no bounds. So Tall Within traces her life from her painful childhood through her remarkable emancipation to her incredible leadership in the movement for rights for both women and African Americans. Her story is told with lyricism and pathos by Gary D. Schmidt, one of the most celebrated writers for children in the twenty-first century, and brought to life by award winning and fine artist Daniel Minter. This combination of talent is just right for introducing this legendary figure to a new generation of children.
This is a poem written by Newbery Medal-winning author Kwame Alexander. It tells of the unshakeable grit of the African American experience in the United States. Kadir Nelson’s illustrations for this book won it both the 2019 Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King honors. Saying the the text or the illustrations are what carry this book would be to undercut what both do separately and together to make this powerful book.
The word choice in the title alone “The Undefeated” is enough to give you a taste of what Kwame Alexander does time and again throughout the text. This is a book that you’ll read and immediately want to go share it with your teacher friend (and promise to let them borrow it once you’ve read it to your class, of course).
Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the most influential and gifted speakers of all time. Doreen Rappaport uses quotes from some of his most beloved speeches to tell the story of his life and his work in a simple, direct way. Bryan Collier’s stunning collage art combines remarkable watercolor paintings with vibrant patterns and textures. A timeline and a lsit of additional books and web sites help make this a standout biography of Dr. King. Definitely one of my favorite read aloud books for 3rd grade to talk about MLK and activism.
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Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine
Henry Brown doesn’t know how old he is. Nobody keeps records of slaves’ birthdays. All the time he dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom.
A beautiful, lyrical story of the Great Migration, the movement of more than 6 million Black citizens to the North from the rural South to escape sharecropping and other discrimination. A lesser known story of escaping the South with parallels to the Underground Railroad. The illustrations are beautiful and evocative. An eye-opening view that many students and even adults will likely not have heard of.
Another Caldecott Honor book is Going Down Home With Daddy. It is the story of a family reunion. Alan is going to his family’s multi-generational reunion. He’s worried, though, that he will be the only one who will not have anything to share with his Granny when all of his cousins do.
This story is one I love for boys. It is filled with positive role models and problem-solving strategies. It also touches on the family’s struggles from being taken as slaves through Jim Crow to the mighty family that they have been and continue to be. Alan finds, through his family’s experiences, the inspiration and strength to have something to share with his Granny.
Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford
In stanzas of six lines each, each line representing one side of a box, celebrated poet Carole Boston Weatherford powerfully narrates Henry Brown’s story of how he came to send himself in a box from slavery to freedom. Strikingly illustrated in rich hues and patterns by artist Michele Wood, Box is augmented with historical records and an introductory excerpt from Henry’s own writing as well as a time line, notes from the author and illustrator, and a bibliography.
Above the Rim by Jen Bryant
Hall-of-famer Elgin Baylor was one of basketball’s all-time-greatest players—an innovative athlete, team player, and quiet force for change. One of the first professional African-American players, he inspired others on and off the court. But when traveling for away games, many hotels and restaurants turned Elgin away because he was black. One night, Elgin had enough and staged a one-man protest that captured the attention of the press, the public, and the NBA. Above the Rim is a poetic, exquisitely illustrated telling of the life of an underrecognized athlete and a celebration of standing up for what is right.
All Because You Matter by Tami Charles
This powerful, rhythmic lullaby reassures readers that their matter and their worth is never diminished, no matter the circumstance: through the joy and wonder of their first steps and first laughs, through the hardship of adolescent struggles, and the pain and heartbreak of current events, they always have, and always will, matter.
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes
The confident Black narrator of this book is proud of everything that makes him who he is. He’s got big plans, and no doubt he’ll see them through–as he’s creative, adventurous, smart, funny, and a good friend. Sometimes he falls, but he always gets back up. And other times he’s afraid, because he’s so often misunderstood and called what he is not. So slow down and really look and listen, when somebody tells you–and shows you–who they are. There are superheroes in our midst!
Salt In His Shoes by Deloris Jordan
Michael Jordan. The mere mention of the name conjures up visions of basketball played at its absolute best. But as a child, Michael almost gave up on his hoop dreams, all because he feared he’d never grow tall enough to play the game that would one day make him famous. That’s when his mother and father stepped in and shared the invaluable lesson of what really goes into the making of a champion—patience, determination, and hard work. Another great book for social emotional learning to talk to students about perseverance and grit.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and Bryan Collier
Fifty years after her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus, Mrs. Rosa Parks is still one of the most important figures in the American civil rights movement. This tribute to Mrs. Parks is a celebration of her courageous action and the events that followed.
This is the story of Clive Campbell aka DJ Kool Herc who helped create a new form of dance music: hip hop. This story is one of the more contemporary stories in this list and is really engaging to upper elementary students. Hip hop changed music as we know it and has influenced many other musical genres since like rap.
This book was published in 2019, and is simply amazing for upper elementary and middle school students with an interest for rap and hip-hop music. As of this writing, there is no beat to accompany this book that I’ve been able to find, but I guarantee that someone, somewhere will create a sick beat to accompany someone reading this book. The verse it is written in DEMANDS it. It gives a history of rap and hip-hop from, as the title says, their roots with wonderful illustrations that both the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King awards committees snubbed.
Another wonderful book written in verse by Carole Boston Weatherford. It tells about New Orleans’s Congo Square became a place of hope and where slaves in New Orleans could feel free for even just part of a day. The story talks about slaves’ duties throughout the week and shows how they counted down the days until they could go to Congo Square to dance, meet and have an open market. An excellent book for grades 2-5 and for studying poetry.
Islandborn by Junot Diaz
When Lola’s teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families immigrated from, all the kids are excited. Except Lola. She can’t remember The Island—she left when she was just a baby. But with the help of her family and friends, and their memories—joyous, fantastical, heartbreaking, and frightening—Lola’s imagination takes her on an extraordinary journey back to The Island. As she draws closer to the heart of her family’s story, Lola comes to understand the truth of her abuela’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.” A great book for talking about immigrants and immigrant communities.
A wonderful biography for primary students about astronaut Mae Jemison. Mae was the first African American woman to travel to space. What I love most about this book for Black History Month, is that it focuses on her hard work and perseverance and the steps she took even as a child to reach her dreams. It also shows her parents’ encouragement and belief in their daughter making it perfect for school as well as a home read aloud.
Follow The Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter
Winter’s story begins with a peg-leg sailor who aids slaves on their escape on the Underground Railroad. While working for plantation owners, Peg Leg Joe teaches the slaves a song about the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper). A couple, their son, and two others make their escape by following the song’s directions. Rich paintings interpret the strong story in a clean, primitive style enhanced by bold colors. The rhythmic compositions have an energetic presence that’s compelling
A book that focuses on the remarkable story of Mary Walker. She was a woman born into slavery in 1848, and lived to the ripe old age of 121 surviving 2 husbands and her 3 children. At the age of 114 she decided that she had lived too long to know nothing, so she fulfilled her lifelong ambition to learn to read a bible she had been given shortly after being freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation. The book also focuses on the Freedmen’s Bureau and the difficulties of sharecropping.
A great book for grades K-3
Thanks to the popularity of the movie Hidden Figures, this book focuses on the mathematical genius of Katherine Johnson. She was one of NASA’s “human computers” who did the calculations necessary to ensure the safety of all crewmembers of Apollo 13 and prevented a tragedy. It tells of her struggles growing up and eventually her breaking barriers and becoming one of the most relied upon women in NASA.
A great biography for 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade!
If it were for the illustrations alone, this book would be worth reading to your students. Gene Barretta’s words mixed with George Washington Carver’s own words make the book even better. An amazing story about the man born into slavery who became one of the most prominent agricultural experts in the nation’s history.
In the same vein as Counting On Katherine, this book also features African American female mathematicians who worked for NASA. It again features Katherine Johnson but also talks about Christine Darden, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. They were all some of NASA’s “colored computers” who did the calculations for some of NASA’s most important missions. It talks about how some astronauts refused to fly unless hearing that one of these women checked the numbers.
Great for grades 2-5 and especially to encourage girls to pursue careers in STEM.
Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco
After being initiated into a neighbor’s family by a solemn backyard ceremony, a young Russian American girl and her African American brothers’ determine to buy their gramma Eula a beautiful Easter hat. But their good intentions are misunderstood, until they discover just the right way to pay for the hat that Eula’s had her eye on. A loving family story woven from the author’s childhood.
Lillian’s Right to Vote by Jonah Winter
An elderly African American woman, en route to vote, remembers her family’s tumultuous voting history in this picture book publishing in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As Lillian, a one-hundred-year-old African American woman, makes a “long haul up a steep hill” to her polling place, she sees more than trees and sky—she sees her family’s history. She sees the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and her great-grandfather voting for the first time. She sees her parents trying to register to vote. And she sees herself marching in a protest from Selma to Montgomery. Veteran bestselling picture-book author Jonah Winter and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner Shane W. Evans vividly recall America’s battle for civil rights in this lyrical, poignant account of one woman’s fierce determination to make it up the hill and make her voice heard. With the focus on an array of time periods in American history, this book is definitely one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books for 5th grade.
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
The inspirational true story of Ruby Bridges. The year is 1960, and six-year-old Ruby Bridges and her family have recently moved from Mississippi to New Orleans in search of a better life. When a judge orders Ruby to attend first grade at William Frantz Elementary, an all-white school, Ruby must face angry mobs of parents who refuse to send their children to school with her.
This tells the story of jockey Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield and his amazing accomplishments at the Kentucky Derby. African American jockeys are inextricably linked to American horse racing from its roots until Wink became the last African American jockey to ever win the Kentucky Derby due to discrimination and prejudice. This biography tells the story of Wink’s life from being born to sharecroppers in the 1880s until his retirement in France. A great lesser known story from American sports.
They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . . In this glorious celebration of observation, curiosity, and imagination, Brendan Wenzel shows us the many lives of one cat, and how perspective shapes what we see. When you see a cat, what do you see?
Did I miss any REALLY good Black History Month read alouds?
These are just a few of the very best Black History Month read alouds that I’ve found. There may be more that I haven’t read yet. Do you know any better ones? Let me know in the comments!
Remember: If you need any other ideas for Black History Month for kids, I have a page of resources with all of my ideas for your Black History Month celebration.