Beyond Black History Month

Celebrate Black History Month beyond February with the following recent picture book biographies of inspiring Black figures, recommended for sharing with young readers all year long.

 

Anderson, Beth Lizzie Demands a Seat!: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights
32 pp. | Boyds Mills & Kane/Calkins | January, 2020 | Trade ISBN 978-1-62979-939-1 $17.99

Illustrated by E. B. Lewis. In 1854 New York City, Elizabeth Jennings, an affluent African American woman, took a stand against discrimination by refusing to depart a streetcar. This led to a groundbreaking court case—Jennings v. Third Avenue Railroad Company—and victory. Anderson’s author’s note provides more detail (including about occasional fictionalization). Lewis’s illustrator’s note explains why he chose a brighter color palette for his typically muted eye-pleasing watercolors. Reading list. Bib. Reviewer: Elissa Gershowitz

Berne, Jennifer Look Up with Me: Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Life Among the Stars
40 pp. | HarperCollins/Tegen | February, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-0-06-284494-1 $17.99

Illustrated by Lorraine Nam. Introduction by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Berne’s upbeat text describes the famous astrophysicist’s life from childhood (when he discovered his love of outer space at the planetarium) to adulthood (when he became director of the Hayden Planetarium). She encourages readers to maintain a sense of wonder about the universe and their place in it. Colorful cut-paper and digital collage illustrations enhance the excitement and feeling of infinite possibilities. Reading list, websites. Glos. Reviewer: Renée Wheeler

Charles, Tami Fearless Mary: Mary Fields, American Stagecoach Driver
32 pp. | Whitman | January, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-0-8075-2305-6 $16.99

Illustrated by Claire Almon. It's 1895, and Mary Fields wants the stagecoach driver job she sees advertised around Cascade, Montana. Unfortunately, she has two strikes against her: she's black and female. (Driving a stagecoach, which can mean run-ins with thieves, is considered man's work.) Charles tells Fields's triumphant story with aplomb, and illustrator Almon captures the Wild West's earth tones and Fearless Mary's arms-akimbo determination. Reviewer: Nell Beram

Cline-Ransome, Lesa Counting the Stars
32 pp. | Simon/Wiseman | October, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-5344-0475-5 $17.99 | Ebook ISBN 978-1-5344-0476-2

Illustrated by Raúl Colón. Mathematics prodigy Katherine Johnson’s (1918–2020) opportunities were limited by mid-century America’s attitudes toward women of color. But the space program’s growth during the Cold War opened doors for her, first as a human “computer” then as a researcher. Cline-Ransome focuses on Johnson’s childhood and early career; illustrator Colón renders Johnson in vibrant colors, making her a literal standout among the men and women of NASA. Reviewer: Danielle J. Ford

Cohen-Janca, Irène Ruby, Head High: Ruby Bridges’s First Day of School
32 pp. | Creative/Editions | April, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-56846-341-4 $18.99

Illustrated by Marc Daniau. Translated by Amy Novesky. Inspired by the Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With, this French import presents the story of six-year-old Ruby Bridges (b. 1954), one of the first African American children to integrate a Southern school. Written in first person, and paired with expressive, striking illustrations, the book should resonate with readers with its frank presentation of the difficulties Bridges faced during this flashpoint in American history. Reviewer: Monique Harris

Curry, Parker and Curry, Jessica Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment
40 pp. | Simon/Aladdin | October, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-5344-5186-5 $17.99 | Ebook ISBN 978-1-5344-5187-2

Illustrated by Brittany Jackson. Preschooler Parker visits the National Portrait Gallery and is entranced by Amy Sherald’s painting of First Lady Michelle Obama. The brief text (co-written by Parker and her mother) and cartoony but personality-rich illustrations capture the girl’s exuberance while exploring the gallery and then her awe of the portrait. “‘She is a queen,’ Parker whispered.” A joyous and empowering picture book, based on a viral 2018 photograph. Reviewer: Martha V. Parravano

DiCicco, Joan The Unstoppable Garrett Morgan: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Hero
40 pp. | Lee & Low | October, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-62014-564-7 $19.95

The son of sharecroppers, Garrett Morgan (1877–1963) worked his way up from handyman to janitor to machinist to inventor/entrepreneur (inventions included a life-saving safety hood for firefighters and soldiers, and a traffic signal system). The book acknowledges racial discrimination he faced but focuses mainly on Morgan’s intelligence, accomplishments, determination, and courage; digital illustrations in mostly sepia tones emphasize time period and setting. Timeline. Bib. Reviewer: Martha V. Parravano

Duncan, Alice Faye A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks
48 pp. | Sterling | January, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-4549-3088-4 $16.95

Illustrated by Xia Gordon. Encouraged to write from a young age, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) became one of America’s most prolific and beloved poets. Part biography, part poetic ode to a literary legend, Duncan’s “song” helps introduce Brooks’s work to new generations by incorporating several of her poems throughout. Gordon’s expressive illustrations, in a warm color palette, are full of movement and emotion. Reading list, timeline. Bib. Reviewer: Monique Harris

Greenfield, Eloise The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives
32 pp. | Alazar | September, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-0-9977720-7-4 $17.95

Illustrated by Daniel Minter. In a series of poems that make up a collective “biography” of African American midwives, esteemed poet Greenfield begins with the women midwives kidnapped from Africa to America as slaves and moves through the generations to present day. A multi-page historical introduction, complete with photographs, offers concrete information about midwives. Minter’s art is powerful and luminous, full of symbolic imagery and sinewy figures. Bib. Reviewer: Martha V. Parravano

Henderson, Leah Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball’s Negro Leagues
32 pp. | Capstone/Editions | February, 2020 | Library ISBN 978-1-68446-023-6 $18.95 | Ebook ISBN 978-1-68446-024-3

Illustrated by George Doutsiopoulos. Mamie Johnson was “the first female pitcher in professional baseball” in 1953. She faced discrimination because of gender (male players “grumbled about sharing the field with her”), size (“you’re not as big as a peanut”), and race (“the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League wasn’t ready to give black women the opportunity to try”). Though the illustrations can be stiff and cartoony, Johnson’s determination and confidence shine. Bib. Reviewer: Elissa Gershowitz

Hohn, Nadia L. A Likkle Miss Lou: How Jamaican Poet Louise Bennett Coverley Found Her Voice
32 pp. | Owlkids | August, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-77147-350-7 $16.95

Illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes. Readers meet Louise Bennett Coverley (1919–2006), a Jamaican poet, musician, storyteller, and broadcaster known as “Miss Lou.” Her “dialect poems sounded like the speech of everyday Jamaicans”; as a schoolchild, however, she was discouraged from writing anything but “proper English.” Fernandes’s vibrant textured illustrations reflect young Coverley’s creativity and enthusiasm. Hohn’s author’s note includes her inspiration plus more about Coverley and Jamaican patois. Glos. Reviewer: Elissa Gershowitz

Hopkinson, Deborah Carter Reads the Newspaper
40 pp. | Peachtree | February, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-56145-934-6 $17.95

Illustrated by Don Tate. Hopkinson’s inspiring story explains how young Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950) read the newspaper to his father and fellow coal miners. Their desire to be informed citizens, plus a challenge from his Harvard professor, led Woodson to later establish Negro History Week, predecessor to Black History Month. Tate’s engaging mixed-media illustrations and endpaper drawings include portraits of Black leaders throughout history. Timeline, websites. Bib. Reviewer: Monique Harris

Jones-Radgowski, Jehan The Escape of Robert Smalls: A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery
40 pp. | Capstone/Editions | September, 2019 | Library ISBN 978-1-5435-1281-6 $18.95 | Ebook ISBN 978-1-5435-1289-2

Illustrated by Poppy Kang. In 1862, enslaved crewman Robert Smalls planned and executed an audacious, dangerous nighttime hijack of a Confederate warship, piloting ten miles into Union-controlled waters—and thereby rescuing himself and fifteen others from slavery. The text clearly relates the story while also maintaining intense suspense and drama. Illustrations are rather bland and static but help establish setting and atmosphere. Reading list. Bib., glos. Reviewer: Martha V. Parravano

Keller, Shana Bread for Words: A Frederick Douglass Story
32 pp. | Sleeping Bear | January, 2020 | Trade ISBN 978-1-53411-001-4 $16.99

Illustrated by Kayla Stark. Keller incorporates Frederick Douglass's own words (indicated in bold type) throughout this first-person perspective text, which explains how young Douglass learned to read and write despite laws prohibiting slave literacy. After seven years of trying, he succeeded, and knew he would be free. A mix of vignettes and full- or double-page illustrations nicely paces the story. Appended with more on Douglass's life and an author's note. Bib. Reviewer: Martha V. Parravano

Langley, Sharon and Nathan, Amy A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story
40 pp. | Abrams | January, 2020 | Trade ISBN 978-1-4197-3685-8 $18.99

Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. On August 28, 1963, as Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Sharon Langley became the first black child to ride the carousel at a previously segregated amusement park near Baltimore. Dialogue keeps the story personal in this well-paced, engaging autobiography. Cooper’s warm, vintage-style art homes in on faces and, of course, the colorful carousel. Timeline. Bib. Reviewer: Martha V. Parravano

Lord, Michelle Patricia’s Vision: The Doctor Who Saved Sight
48 pp. | Sterling | January, 2020 | Trade ISBN 978-1-4549-3137-9 $16.95

Illustrated by Alleanna Harris. At age six, Patricia Bath (1942–2019) declared: “I want to be a doctor!” Though she faced obstacles because of her gender, race, and socioeconomic status, she succeeded, breaking boundaries in many arenas including becoming the first African American female doctor granted a medical patent. Quotes from Dr. Bath appear throughout, and colorful digital illustrations reflect her curiosity and compassion. Reading list, timeline. Bib. Reviewer: Elissa Gershowitz

Lyon, Lea and LaFaye, A. Ready to Fly: How Sylvia Townsend Became the Bookmobile Ballerina
40 pp. | HarperCollins/Harper | January, 2020 | Trade ISBN 978-0-06-288878-5 $17.99

Illustrated by Jessica Gibson. Foreword by Sylvia Townsend. In chipper first-person text (“As musical notes start to float, I rise to my toes”), the authors describe African American ballet dancer Sylvia Townsend’s childhood. Although her parents couldn’t afford lessons (and segregation meant that ballet school was “for white girls” only), Townsend turned to the town bookmobile to teach herself and others. The digital illustrations are somewhat generic but bright and cheerful. Reading list. Bib. Reviewer: Elissa Gershowitz

Reid, Megan Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis’ Fleet-of-Foot Girl
40 pp. | HarperCollins/B+B | January, 2020 | Trade ISBN 978-0-06-285109-3 $17.99

Illustrated by Laura Freeman. Groundbreaking tennis player Althea Gibson (1927–2003) had an outsize personality and talent to match. From playing stickball in Harlem to becoming the first African American Wimbledon champion, the book covers her perseverance (despite a quick temper and daunting racial discrimination) and eventual triumphs. A concise, clear text tells Gibson’s story with verve and immediacy. Digital illustrations add color, drama, and energy. Timeline. Bib. Reviewer: Martha V. Parravano

Respress-Churchwell, Gloria Follow Chester!: A College Football Team Fights Racism and Makes History
32 pp. | Charlesbridge | September, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-58089-835-5 $16.99 | Ebook ISBN 978-1-63289-723-7

Illustrated by Laura Freeman. In 1947 there was “an unwritten college-football agreement that said when integrated…teams played schools in the South, they wouldn’t play their black players.” Respress-Churchwell tells the fictionalized (somewhat awkwardly) story of how Chester Pierce and his Harvard team broke this rule. Color-saturated digital illustrations highlight Pierce’s deep-brown skin tone—along with Harvard’s crimson and gold school colors and the green football fields. Bib. Reviewer: Elissa Gershowitz

Robeson, Susan Grandpa Stops a War: A Paul Robeson Story
48 pp. | Seven/Triangle | January, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-0-60980-882-2 $17.95

Illustrated by Rod Brown. The author recalls her father telling the story of how her famous grandfather, the singer Paul Robeson (1898–1976), "stopped a war." In 1938, his singing for the soldiers on the front lines of Teruel temporarily halted the Spanish Civil War ("The battlefield grew silent. No shots were fired"). The story's humanity is underscored with paintings by a sure hand. Reviewer: Nell Beram

Winter, Jeanette Sisters: Venus & Serena Williams
48 pp. | Simon/Beach Lane | May, 2019 | Trade ISBN 978-1-5344-3121-8 $17.99 | Ebook ISBN 978-1-5344-3122-5

Written with her customary succinct text and illustrated with simple yet eloquent acrylics, Winter recounts the Williams sisters' tennis careers, from childhood practices in Compton, California, to international championships. It is clear that their paths have not been easy, and the sustenance of their sororal bond is appropriately invoked and celebrated in this tribute. Bib. Reviewer: Miriam Lang Budin

 

 

For additional selections, check out recent Horn Book Magazine reviews, including those for Black Is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes; The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by John Parra; The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora; By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, the Father of Gospel Music by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Bryan Collier; Thurgood by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Bryan Collier; A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison; Caldecott Medal-winner The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson; I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon by Baptiste Paul and Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon; and Let ’Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James. Or you can peruse the highly searchable Horn Book Guide Online, containing more than 30,000 Horn Book reviews.

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