1. Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass by Lesa Cline-Ransome
This beautiful book tells the story of Frederick Douglass as a child slave in Maryland in the 1820s. When the wife of his master takes the time to teach him his first letters and words, he learns that reading might be the key to his freedom from slavery.
2. Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa by Andrea Davis Pinkney
This fun telling of Ella Fitzgerald’s career is shared in the voice of Scat Cat Monroe, who talks in the rhythms of scat. He relays the story of Fitzgerald’s rise to international fame beginning from her early days in Harlem. We especially loved the illustrations in this book, which we learned were inspired by the works of Harlem Renaissance artists who were working when Ella Fitzgerald came of age in Harlem. We had fun listening to examples of Ella’s “scat” on iTunes after reading this book together.
3. Play Ball, Jackie! by Stephen Krensky
I loved that this story about Jackie Robinson — the first African American to play in the major leagues — was told through the eyes of a ten-year-old baseball fan. He shares how many fans didn’t like that an African American was being allowed to play for the major leagues, but goes on to stand up for African Americans among his peers. The end of the book includes a short biography of Jackie Robinson along with photos of this real-life hero.
4. Malcolm X: A Fire Burning Brightly by Walter Dean Myers
This book handled the life of controversial civil rights activist Malcolm X in a very clear and balanced way. While conveying his passion and highlighting some of his powerful quotes, the book also didn’t shy away from sharing information about his troubled past and how he condoned violence as a part of revolution. It opened up great dialogue between my 5-year-old and me about how people are complicated and can say things that we agree and disagree with.
5. Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford
A great read for preschool and early elementary kids, this book tells about the sounds young John Coltrane heard as he grew up in the South during the 1930s. The noises of steam engines whistling, his grandfather’s preaching and the cranking of the phonograph all lent inspiration to this legendary Jazz saxophonist. The vivid illustrations evoke a Jazz-feel to the story that is perfect for the text.
6. Jump: From the Life of Michael Jordan by Floyd Cooper
Though I’ll admit I have some lingering resentment for Michael Jordan after he whooped my beloved hometown’s team (the Utah Jazz) in two NBA finals in a row when I was a teenager, as an adult I can appreciate his talent. Plus my 5-year-old thinks I’m super cool that I actually watched him play basketball when I was a kid. (“So you were in the same room as him once?”) Anyhow, this book was a sweet story about Michael Jordan’s hard work and perseverance as a child and I’m sure all of his fans will enjoy it. (Okay. I did, too.)
7. Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull
This story was so very inspiring. The author tells of Wilma’s childhood, when polio left her paralyzed and she was told she would never walk again. But her determination and hard work, along with a supportive family, helped her to go on to become a phenomenal athlete. The story shares her experience at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where she took home three gold medals.
8. Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer by Michaela DePrince
I shared this book on my Empowering Books for Girls book list, and I share it again here because it’s such an excellent read about a contemporary African American hero, ballerina Michaela DePrince. The story of war orphan Michaela working hard to achieve her dreams of becoming a professional ballerina after she is adopted to an American family is certainly one of importance, and the photographs of her dancing are stunning for children and adults to see!
9. Michelle by Deborah Hopkinson
My husband and I — both on different ends of the political spectrum — agree that Michelle Obama is ‘da bomb. She is intelligent, funny, a fantastic mom, and I envy her those chizzled upper arms. This children’s book highlights the many reasons she is an excellent role model for all — her desire to ask questions and learn from her mistakes, her ability to dream big and work hard, her passion for learning and making things better for her community, culminating with the 2009 inauguration night when she became the First Lady of America.
10. Twice as Good: The Story of William Powell and Clearview, the Only Golf Course Designed, Built and Owned by an African American by Richard Michelson
I LOVED THIS BOOK. We checked it out from the library, but the story itself I found so moving that we ordered our own copy to have at home and read often as there are so many important messages within the pages. William Powell — the only black child at his school in Ohio — is told by his school principal that, “If you are going to get ahead in this world, Willie, you can’t be as good as the white children; you have to be twice as good.” With a lifelong passion for golf, he returns from fighting in the war to purchase land and open a golf course where people of any color are allowed to play. But the bank won’t give him his GI loan because he is black. He works with two local African American doctors to secure the land, and opens a golf club in 1948. At the end of the book, the author shares the rest of the story — of William’s daughter Renee who continues his golf legacy.
11. When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan
This book is simply exquisite. The story contains musical lyrics throughout as it details the life of Marian Anderson and her remarkable gift. Despite her talent, she was turned away from even applying to music school in 1915 because of the color of her skin. Her church community raises money for her to study with the famous instructor, Giuseppe Boghetti. She achieved success in many other countries where audiences welcomed her and considered it a privilege to hear her sing. But the United States still would not allow her to perform in many venues because she wasn’t white. Finally, she is invited to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. The story ends with her singing at long last at the Metropolitan Opera.