Black History Month: A Wealth of Great Books

“I had no idea that history was being made.  I was just tired of giving up.”    Rosa Parks

Rosa’s Bus: The Ride to Civil Rights.  Jo S. Kittinger.  Calkins Creek, 2010.
An excellent, factual picture book history of Bus #2857 from it’s rolling off the assembly line in 1948 to it’s final resting place in the Henry Ford Museum in 2003.  Though there are a lot of books on this subject, this is an exceptional one for reading aloud.  Quality writing and art work.
Read-aloud 2nd-6th grade

Alec’s Primer.  Mildred Pitts Walter.  Vermont Folklife Center ,2004.
Based on the childhood of Alec Turner who escaped slavery by joining the Union Army during the Civil War.  As a child, the plantation owner’s granddaughter teaches him to read, which is forbidden.  The owner slashes his face upon discovering him with the primer.  Blood drips onto the book, which he kept with him the rest of his life.  His daughter gave the primer to the Vermont Folklore Center.  A very powerful true story.  Picture Book
Read-aloud 3rd-6th grade

Almost to Freedom.  Vaunda Micheaux Nelson.  Carolrhoda Books, 2003.
Sally, Lindy’s rag doll tells the story of how Lindy’s family escaped on the Underground Railroad.  The pain of separation (her father is sold and she loses her beloved rag doll), the pain of punishment )Lindy is beaten for asking the owner’s son how to spell her name) are handled appropriately for children.  Hope, love and friendship prevail.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-5th grade

An Apple for Harriet Tubman.  Glennette Tilley Turner.  Albert Whitman, 2006.
The author learned of this story when she interviewed Tubman’s grandniece who heard it from Harriet Tubman.  As a child, Harriet’s favorite job on the plantation is picking, washing and polishing apples for the owners, but she was not allowed to eat them.  When she did eat one, she was beaten.  As a free woman, she planted apple trees and shared them with everyone in her town.  A great place to start discussions about slavery, race and freedom.  Picture Book
Read-aloud 1st-5th grade

Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky.  Faith Ringgold.  Crow, 1992.
Cassie flies on a fantastical sky train run by Harriet Tubman which traces the route of the Underground Railroad and reunites her with her brother.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud K-4th grade

Back of the Bus. Aaron Reynolds.  Philomel, 2010.
Sitting in the back of the bus, a black child and his mother watch the arrest of Rosa Parks.  Written from the child’s point of view, we feel his uncertainty when he repeatedly asks his mother if they are doing something wrong.  We also feel his sense of strength
he acquires from witnessing this event.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 1st-4th grade

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation.  Andrea Pinkney.  Greenwillow Books, 2008.
This large, dramatic picture book uses poetic blues language to tell Rosa Parks’ story.  One reviewer noted that this is one of the few books that shows how long it took to defeat Jim Crow laws.  One of my favorites.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 3rd-6th grade

Dave the Potter : Artist, Poet, Slave.  Laban Carrick Hill.  Little Brown, 2010.
This picture book biography of Dave the Potter, is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary, gifted man.  Though born a slave 200 years ago, he found a sort of freedom in his craft.  It is estimated that me made around 40,000 pots in 70 years.  No one knows how he learned to read and write.  Picture Book. 2011 Coretta Scott King Award.
Read-aloud 1st-4th grade

Days of Jubilee: The End of Slavery in the United States.  PatMcKissack.  Scholastic Press, 2003.
Kids in a community center learn how slavery came gradually to an end.  The authors used many primary sources and archival illustrations.  Chronological chapters and readable text with many quotes from well known leaders.  A useful resource.
Grades 4 and up

Finding Lincoln.  Ann Malaspina.  Albert Whitman, 2009.
Whites only signs are everywhere in 1950’s Alabama, including the public library.  One understanding librarian lets Louis in after hours so he can get the book he needs to do a school report on Abraham Lincoln.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-5th grade


Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins.  Carole Boston Weatherford.  Puffin Books, 2007.
We see the story of the Greensboro Sit-ins in 1960 North Carolina from a girl’s point of view.  Connie and her mother like to shop at Woolworth’s but are not allowed to sit at the counter.  After hearing MLK speak, her older siblings join the NAACP and participate in the sit-in.  This event started a wave of demonstrations that led to change throughout the South.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-5th grade

Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Russell Freedman.  Holiday House, 2006.
Nobody does biography and nonfiction better than Freedman, a master with photo-essay.  His research is impeccable and his writing accessible.  Here he lays out for us the people and events that led to the 381 day bus boycott.
Read-aloud 5th-6th grade

Goin’ Someplace Special.  Pat McKissack.  Atheneum, 2001.
One of the few integrated places in this 1950s southern town is the public library. A girl convinced she is old enough to go there on her own encounters many segregation obstacles on the way.  The girl’s mama refers to the library as “a doorway to freedom”.   Based on the author’s personal experience in 1950’s Nashville.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 1st-5th grade

A Good Night For Freedom.  Barbara Olenyik.  Holiday House, 2004.
Inspired by the true story of abolitionists, Levi and Catherine Coffin, this dramatic picture book is told through the eyes of Hallie, a white child who helps slave sisters, Margaret and Susan escape.  A powerful and beautifully written story.
Read-aloud 1st-5th grade


Henry’s Freedom Box.  Ellen Levine.  Scholastic, 2007.
Based on the true story of Henry “Box” Brown’s escape from slavery.  Having been separated from his mother, wife and children, leaves Henry desperate.  With the help of an abolitionist, Henry mails himself in a wooden crate “to a place where there are no slaves !”  He travelled by horse cart, steamboat and train for 27 hours to reach Philadelphia.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 3rd-5th grade


January’s Sparrow.  Patricia Polacco.  Philomel, 2009.
Based on true events that took place in Marshall, Michigan.  This dramatic story is told through the eyes of Sadie, a young girl born into slavery.  Sadie and her family watch as January, their foster brother is whipped to death (it seems) for attempting to escape.  Sadie and her family escape that same night and are tracked by slave catchers for 4 years.  The black and white folks of Marshall rally to their support, and the family escapes once again to Canada.  Polacco at her best.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 4th-6th grade


Liberty Street.  Candice Ransom.  Walker, 2003.
An intense story about a young slave girl whose mother helps her escape.  In a secret school she learns to read and hope as her mother tries to save enough money to help her escape to Canada.  Shows how family separation was one of the cruelest aspects of slavery.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 3rd-4th grade

The Listeners.  Gloria Whelan.  Sleeping Bear Press, 2009.
Slavery through the eyes of slave children on a cotton plantation.  Hard labor and constant fear are a reality, but also moments of joy.  Beautifully told and illustrated.
Picture Book.
Read-aloud 3rd-6th grade

Mr. George Baker.  Amy Hest.  Candlewick, 2007.
An 100 year old jazz musician and a first grade boy form a special bond.  They are both going to school to learn to read.  A powerful message simply told.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud K-3rd grade

Mr. Williams. Karen Barbour.  Holt, 2005.
This beautiful picture book biography comes from the author’s childhood recollections.
Mr. Williams worked hard on his farm and found great satisfaction in living a simple like in Arcadia, Louisiana in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Through his storytelling you get a clear picture of a black man’s life at that time, including racism: “If you ever saw white people you’d go way around them.”  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 3rd-6th grade

The Other Side.  Jacqueline Woodson.  Putnam, 2001.
True friendship has no color.  Clover and Annie Rose come together on the fence that separates their yards.  Their parents say it isn’t safe to climb over, but one day Annie Rose crosses over to join Clover and her other black friends jump rope.  A lovely metaphor.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud K-4th grade

Our Children Can Soar:  A Celebration of Rosa, Barack and the Pioneers of Change.  Michelle Cook.  Bloomsbury, 2009.
Brief text introduces 13 African Americans who were “pioneers of Change.”
Each double page spread is illustrated by a different artist.  Back matter includes a paragraph about each individual and each illustrator.  Perfect introduction to biography
or Black History Month.  Students should be inspired to find out more about these influential Americans.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 3rd-6th grade

The Patchwork Quilt.  Valerie Flournoy.  Dial, 1985.
Tanya helps her mother and grandmother make a beautiful quilt using pieces of the children’s old clothing to tell the stories of their lives.  Jerry Pinkney’s warm art enhance the story.  A Reading Rainbow book.  Picture Book
Read-aloud K-3rd grade

Richard Wright and the Library Card.  William Miller.  Lee and Low Books, 1997.
One of my all-time favorites, this story is based on a scene from Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy.  17 year old Wright is working in an optometrist’s shop to try to earn money to go north.  He borrow’s the library card of a white man in the office and begins to voraciously read the great literature that changed him and inspired him to become an author.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-6th grade

Riding to Washington.  Gwenyth Swain.  Sleeping Bear Press, 2008.
This story is based on the author’s experience traveling by bus with her dad to attend the 1963 March on Washington.  Growing up in an all white area of Indianapolis didn’t prepare her for the discrimination she saw directed towards black traveling companions
along the way.  Lots of great discussion starters in this picture book.
Read-aloud 2nd-5th grade

Ron’s Big Mission.  Rose Blue.  Dutton, 2009.
Based on the childhood experiences of astronaut Ron McNair who at age nine walked into his local public library to get a library card so he can check out books.  This was prohibited in 1959, but Ron wouldn’t budge.  The police were called.  Finally, the head librarian agreed.  His favorite books–aviation!  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 1st-4th grade

Rosa.  Nikki Giovanni.  Holt, 2005.
Beautifully illustrated by Bryan Collier, this picture book biography gives a well rounded view of Parks as well as the community of activists in which she participated.  A good balance of her personal and political sides.  Picture book.
Read-aloud 3rd-5th grade

Ruth and the Green Book.  Calvin A. Ramsey.  Carolrhoda Books, 2010.
Ruth and her parents are driving from Chicago to Alabama to visit her grandmother.  It’s 1952 and they encounter many “whites only” situations.  At one stop they are introduced to Victor H. Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book, which listed establishments that would serve African Americans.  Back matter explains the importance of the Green Book which was in use from 1936-1964 to help make travel safer for African Americans.
Outstanding!  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-6th grade

The Secret to Freedom. Marcia K. Vaughan.  Lee & Low Books, 2001.
Certain quilt patterns hanging on a fence or porch helped direct slaves to safe house on the Underground Railroad.  Lucy’s brother, Albert, teaches her the code which helps her escape.  Students really feel the courage required to leave all you have known.
Great storytelling from an important time in American history.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-6th grade

Show Way.  Jacqueline Woodson.  Putnam’s, 2005.
To me, this is as perfect as a book gets.  Based on the author’s personal story this tells the story of eight generations of women in her family from slavery and the civil rights movement to the present.  Show Way refers to the quilts that were used as code traveling on the Underground Railroad.  The quilt making tradition is passed down through the generations  This is a very sophisticated book.  Each double-page spread is illustrated eloquently with many details to poor over.  The book received the Newbery Honor in 2006, but it could just have well won the Caldecott for Hudson Talbott’s incredible art.  A Reading Rainbow Book.Picture Book.
Read-aloud 3rd-6th grade

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt.  Deborah Hopkinson.  Lee and Low Books, 2001.
A young slave girl sews a quilt with a map pattern that guides her to freedom.  This was the first book I read many years ago, that had to do with quilts and the Underground Railroad.  It remains one of my favorites.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-5th grade

A Sweet Smell of Roses. Angela Johnson.  Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Two young girls sneak out of their house to join a freedom march led by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The realistic charcoal drawings with an occasional touch of red, are as powerful as the simple text.  They return home safely to “a sweet smell of roses all through (their) house.”  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 1st-4th grade

These Hands.  Margaret H. Mason.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
Based on oral stories told by bakery union workers, this powerful book shows an African American grandfather telling his grandson what his hands could and couldn’t do.  In the 1950‘s and early 60‘s, Wonder Bread factories would not allow black workers to mix bread dough.  They were only allowed to sweep the floors and load the trucks.  Peaceful protests brought change.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-6th grade

Under the Quilt of Night.  Deborah Hopkinson.  Atheneum, 2001.
This is a great companion to “Sweet Clara” above.  Poetic text captures the desperation, fear and courage felt in escaping and finding the Underground Railroad.
In this story an entire family escapes.  The Log Cabin quilt pattern helped them locate a safe house early in their journey north.  Dramatic storytelling.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-6th grade

Up the Learning Tree.  Marcia K. Vaughan.  Lee & Low Books, 2003.
A big favorite of mine and students.  A slave boy risks serious punishment to learn to read and write, which costs Miss Hattie her job.  It evokes courage, hope and the power of literacy.  Picture Book.
Read-aloud 2nd-6th grade

White Socks Only.  Evelyn Coleman.  Whitman, 1996.
A grandmother recounts her experience in segregated Mississippi, on her first trip to town alone.  She thought the “whites only” sign on the water fountain meant white socks, so she removes her shoes and steps up to fountain in her white socks.  An angry white man pushes her to the ground.  Depicts racism in a way young children can appreciate. Picture Book.
Read-aloud K-4th grade

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