February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, so I thought it would be fun to combine the two and create a list of picture book biographies about African-American women. I even threw in a few chapter books for good measure.
I drew a few of these titles from last year’s picture book biographies of women in history and the post I created for No Twiddle Twaddle for Black History Month, but most of them are fresh selections. Biographies are a nice way to include picture books in your older child’s reading diet. Many of them are text heavy and include historical details that will spark great conversations.
I’m not an author, but I suspect picture book biographies must be rather difficult to write. The author has to give a meaningful overview of a person’s life but without getting bogged down in facts or allowing them to overshadow a compelling narrative voice. The books below achieve this with varying degrees of success. I recommend all of them, but I’ve made special note of my particular favorites. (Note: all books chosen by me and my kids. Affiliate links are included.)
If you are new here (welcome!), you can always find all of my book list indexed here –> Master Book List.
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is a splendid book about the singer for kids ages 7 and up, although I read it aloud to my 5 year old and he liked it, too. It’s a great blend between chapter and picture book. The text is what you might expect from a picture book: rhythmic, poetic, expressive (just like Josephine, really) but its 100 pages are divided into chapters based specific periods of her life. Bold graphics accompany the story and I love how pages are blocks of color. I found it to be a very visually appealing book. There is so much information about the singer in this book, but it is never dry and quite honestly, I found it quite suspenseful! Highly recommended. (Note: I requested and received a copy from the publisher since my library did not have this book on the shelf yet.) Also available as an ebook.
Molly, by Golly!: The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter. I love when picture books teach me about obscure but fascinating bits of history I didn’t hear about in school! In the early 1800s, Molly was a cook for a New York City firehouse but during a snowstorm her courage turned her into the first female firefighter in the United States. The book also contains fascinating facts about early firefighting and a useful bibliography. Kids will like this one a lot.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom emphasizes Tubman’s spiritual journey as she determines that God has called her to help slaves escape to freedom. Weatherford’s lyrical text and Kadir’s expressive paintings bring this inspiring woman to life. The author’s note explains that the particulars of her text are fictional but gives a biographical account of Tubman’s life. Highly Recommended.
When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson is written and illustrated by a stellar team: Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick. Like her jazz counterpart, Josephine Baker, contralto Marian Anderson found true acceptance first in Europe because Americans were unwilling to accept a black woman on the stage . When the DAR refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. (Watch a video of that performance here.) Like all the other women on this list, Anderson had to overcome strong barriers to achieve her success. Ryan skillfully recounts Anderson’s life as a singer and civil rights activist and captures the emotional ups and downs of Anderson’s journey. Selznick’s illustrations shine. An extensive author’s note is included. Highly Recommended!
Jazz Age Josephine is another wonderful picture book about the iconic singer. Josephine Baker overcame a difficult childhood, pushed back against racist entertainment policies and dazzled audiences with her dancing. Winter’s spirited text and Priceman’s lively, jazzy illustrations, brings Josephine’s particular brand of joyful performance to life. Terrific. Also available for the Kindle.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird is the story of singer Florence Mills, who used her fame to fight for civil rights in the 1920s. She was well-known for her compassion for the less-fortunate and for helping to advance the careers other African-American performers who faced profound racism. Highly Recommended. Also available as an ebook.
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story. Effa Manley is the only woman to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. She was the business manager of the Newark Eagles, a Negro League Baseball team, which she and her husband founded. She fiercely campaigned for the rights and due recognition for African-American ball players. Also available as an ebook.
Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman. Wilma grew from a 4 pound baby to be one of the fastest women in the world and competing at the Olympics. This is amazing considering that after a childhood bout of polio, it was thought that her leg was permanently damaged. Wilma worked through her injury as a young girl, earned an athletic scholarship and won three Olympic gold medals. My kids were fascinated with the idea that she won her medals even though she had a twisted ankle!
Only Passing Through is not an easy book to read. Although most of the book focuses on Sojourner Truth’s time as a free woman, truths about slave ownership are straightforward and graphic and I recommend it for kids ages 7 and up. The story of Sojourner’s journey out of slavery into her newfound role as a prominent speaker for the abolitionist movement is inspiring. The emphasis is on the facts of Sojourner’s life, the legal difficulties of her life, as well as her charismatic nature. Personally I preferred the Pinkneys’ Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride. It is more poetic in tone, the truth about slavery is still present but not as graphic. There is also a strong emphasis on Sojourner’s work as a feminist. Both books have historical endnotes.
In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage. Author Alan Schroeder admits it was difficult to research the very private Augusta Savage (1892-1962). The story focuses on Savage’s youth up until her entrance into art school and her discovery of the importance to “sculpt what she knows.” There is an afterward with photos and more information about the artist. Savage is not very well know, but after reading this book I am curious to see more of her work!
Coretta Scott, written by playwright and poet, Ntozake Shange, is a wonderful, lyrical recounting of the civil rights leader and wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Shange’s imagry brings Coretta’s world to life. The text is not dense, like many of these biographies, but there is still much to engage children. As usual, Kadir Nelson’s illustrations glow.
The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend focuses on the childhood of amazing pianist Mary Lou Williams and her impoverished background in Pittsburg where she charmed the neighbors with her magical playing. As a biography I felt it lacked a sense of urgency and interest about an important figure in history, but as the story of an extraordinary girl who overcame hardship to be accepted for her talent it is interesting and I think music-loving kids will enjoy the story. Also available as an ebook.
Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson. Before Venus and Serena there was Althea. Althea grew up in Harlem as a rowdy tomboy and went on to become the first African-American to win the Wimbledon Cup. My favorite part of the book is the way Greg Couch illustrated Althea, with a sort of constant rainbow vibration. This is a fun read aloud, especially for sports fans, who will enjoy mimicking the voice of an announcer.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald is the story of Ella as a young teenager until her big break with A Tisket A Tasket at the age of 21. Although I did like the book, and especially Qualls’ illustrations, it falls into the trap of a lot of picture book biographies. The story overwhelms you with dense text. There are a lot of details and I think the book could offer more of an introduction to the famous singer if it was easier to sit though. It’s not badly written, it’s just a lot.
Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis. I think it’s a stretch to call this book a biography, but nevertheless, it’s nice to have a foodie book here in the mix. Lewis became a famous chef, known for her cookbooks and fresh, Southern cooking. The story follows her connection to the harvest. As the season progresses, her family picks fresh fruits and vegetables, reveling in their bounty. The book is more about Lewis’ early connection with food than the details surrounding her career and growth into a professional chef, although there is an author’s note with some biographical information. This would be a fun book to read aloud in the summer.
Through My Eyes is written by Ruby Bridges, the girl who is best known for being the first African-American student at a New Orleans school after a court-ordered desegregation. Bridges pens her story in an appealing, direct voice and I was impressed at how well the book speaks to young children. It’s definitely written in a style that makes the events of the time understandable for kids. It’s a long book (60 pages) and includes some wonderful photographs. Highly Recommended. (See my list of civil rights picture books for an additional title about Ruby.)
Fly High!: The Story of Bessie Coleman. Here is a story that is well suited for an inspiring picture book: a daring woman overcomes the hardships and prejudices of her early life to become the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Unfortunately, I found it a bit dry but you’ve probably figured out by now I like books with suspense and metaphorical imagery and language. It did receive several starred reviews, which is why I’m including it here. I do think it’s worth getting from the library because Bessie’s story is one that should be told.
A FEW CHAPTER BOOK BIOGRAPHIES: (also see Josephine, at the top of the list)
Rosa Parks: My Story. I didn’t particularly like any of the picture book biographies about Rosa Parks that I read (got any to recommend?). I do really like Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation, (see it on my list of civil rights picture books) but to me that’s more about the Montgomery Bus Boycott than a biography of Parks. Parks’ autobiography, however, is wonderful. It’s a well-written, thoughtful and moving portrait of her life and role in one of the most important periods in American history. This middle grade book is a great addition to any study about the civil rights movement.
Zora!: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read any of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing, but now There Eyes Were Watching God is on my to-read list. This is a wonderful biography for middle grade students, ages 9 and up. (Good middle grade biographies are a rarity, unfortunately). It manages to convey a lot of information without becoming dry and “list-like”. Hurston was a complex figure, living almost her entire life in poverty and the personal details make the book that much more engaging.
Have you read any of these? How familiar are you with the lives and works of these African-American women. Do you have any additional books to recommend?