In school, children learn about Black heroes like Fredrick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, but do they know the stories of Carter Woodson, MaVynee Betsch, and Mary Fields? Be sure to incorporate these picture book biographies of lesser known Black heroes into your child's reading curriculum and they will learn about the fascinating and world-changing lives of important historical figures.
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The men and women featured in these children's biography books fought for justice, created art, completed daring feats and even made streets safer. Your lives will be richer knowing about them.
While we encourage you to patronize your library and local bookstore, should you choose to purchase books online, consider Bookshop. Bookshop supports independent booksellers. For your convenience, I've curated this list of Black biographies at Bookshop here.
Need a pdf version of this book list? Find it at the bottom of this post.
CARTER READS THE NEWSPAPER by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Don Tate
I begin this list with a picture book biography of Carter G. Woodson because Woodson is widely seen as the father of Black History Month. Woodson grew up reading the newspaper to his father because, although his father couldn't read, he believed that he should be informed. When Woodson moved away and went to work in the coal mines, his life took a turn when he began reading to the other miners, taking the time to find materials that would interest them. Woodson went on to earn a PhD from Harvard and a professor challenged him to prove that Black people had a history worth learning about. He does that, and more. Ages 6 and up.
STITCH BY STITCH by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
I found the life of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley so compelling, I made my husband read this children's book! Keckley was born enslaved and treated by her white owners with unconscionable cruelty. When sold, her new owner had her learn how to sew and Keckley developed an incredible talent. White women, including Robert E. Lee's wife, sought her handiwork. She was eventually able to purchase her freedom and went into business for herself, becoming the official dresser for first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Don't miss this one. Ages 7 and up.
SAVING THE DAY by Karyn Parsons, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
As a boy growing up in a farming family, Garret Morgan was eager to help, but he wasn't as adept at farm work. However, he loved to dream. His parents encouraged him to move to the city to study, where he nurtured his interest in tinkering and fixing things. After witnessing a collision between an auto and a horse and wagon, he comes up with the idea for a traffic signal. Bright and bold illustrations accompany a rhyming text, making this a great read aloud. Ages 4 and up.
NINA: A STORY OF NINA SIMONE by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Todd's picture book biography of African-American musician, Nina Simone, begins in Nina's childhood. Her mama was a pastor and a housemaid and young Eunice (as she was then known) started piano lessons that her mama's employer helped arrange. Eunice continued playing her music in the segregated South but was denied entrance to the Curtis Institute of Music on account of her skin color. But Eunice couldn't stop the music within her and she began playing in bars and clubs, bringing music to the civil rights movement. Ages 6 and up.
SAVING AMERICAN BEACH by Heidi Tyline King, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
MaVynee Betsch grew up in Jim Crow Florida where the ocean had a literal rope line separating where whites and blacks could swim. Her grandfather purchased a stretch of beach where African-Americans could come to enjoy the seaside. MaVynee grew up to be an opera singer but when she returned home, she found the beach full of litter and on the verge of being taken over by developments. She spent the rest of her days trying to save "American Beach." Ages 6 and up.
RUNAWAY: THE DARING ESCAPE OF ONA JUDGE by Ray Anthony Shepard, illustrated by Keith Mallett
Ona Judge grew up enslaved by George Washington's family. When Martha Washington gives Ona to her granddaughter, Ona runs away. The text is written as if the narrator is speaking to Ona, asking her questions about her choices and describing her surroundings. This narrative conceit facilitates asking kids thoughtful questions about Ona's experience. I think Ona's story is particularly important as a counterpoint to all the George Washington-as-hero picture books. Not to diminish Washington, but to give children a clearer and more nuanced understanding of life at the time. Ages 6 and up.
DARK WAS THE NIGHT by Gary Golio, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
This lyrical biography reads like a love letter to "Blind Willie" Johnson. In 1977, NASA sent a collection of recordings into space. The selections were chosen because they represented Earth and humanity. One of Johnson's wordless songs was among them. Golio begins Johnson's story in childhood. His mother died early and young Willie went blind around age seven. But Johnson brought light into the world with his singing and innovative music style which, "conveyed the sense of loneliness that all people feel." Lovely illustrations mirror the soothing rhythm of the text. Ages 5 and up.
LET 'ER BUCK by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James
When George Fletcher's family moved to Oregon, he grew up playing with children from the Umatilla Indian Reservation, learning their language and the art of horsemanship. In his teen years, he started competing in rodeos. In the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, Fletcher competed against a white rancher and a Nez Perce cowboy. Even though Fletcher out-performed the other men, the prize went to the white man. However, the local sheriff wouldn't let the injustice stand and led a campaign to have Fletcher honored as "The People's Champion." The author includes excellent endnotes. Ages 6 and up.
BETWEEN THE LINES by Sandra Neil Wallace, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Ernie was a quiet child who loved to draw. His hands were drawing hands. But that didn't stop the high school football coach from recruiting him to play football. Ernie studied art at college while on a football scholarship. Even as he continued to play ball, he still pursued art. He never stopped seeing beauty in the world around him. As usual, Collier's paintings are stunning. Ages 6 and up.
LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT by Beth Anderson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
This is a wonderful book to start a conversation with children about how the absence of slavery did not mean the presence of equality. Elizabeth Jennings was a free Black woman living in 19th century New York, which was then a "free" state. When a white conductor tells Lizzie she must wait to ride the streetcar for "colored" persons, she becomes upset and files a lawsuit. Excellent end notes give further information and context. Ages 6 and up.
FEARLESS MARY by Tami Charles, illustrated by Claire Almon
In 1895, the city of Cascade, Montana needs a stagecoach driver. This particular route is dangerous and requires the driver defend the stagecoach against outlaws, wild animals and potentially hazardous conditions. Former slave, Mary Fields, wants the position. Not surprisingly, few believe a Black woman is suited for the job. But Mary is determined. A fun, fast-paced story that is a great read aloud. Ages 5 and up.