American stories for Black History Month

Before, during, and after February’s upcoming celebration of Black History Month, young readers can check out these six recent picture-book biographies highlighting important figures in American history. See also our five questions interview with debut illustrator Dare Coulter about An American Story, written by Kwame Alexander.

Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar: The Musical Story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Woman Who Invented Rock and Roll
by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow; illus. by the author
Primary    Doubleday    40 pp.
2/23    9780593571064    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780593571088    $11.99

In her time, some said Sister Rosetta Tharpe could make her guitar talk. Today, many credit her unique mix of gospel, jazz, and blues as the foundation for what would become known as rock-and-roll. Born in rural Arkansas in 1915, young Rosetta received her first guitar at four and mastered the instrument in just two years. She performed on the gospel circuit as a child and eventually in nightclubs as a hit-record-making adult, but her contributions to music were often ignored because of her gender and race. Barlow’s picture-book biography focuses on Tharpe’s childhood, depicting her guitar as echoing the sounds she encounters in her small African American community and debuting in her triumphant first performance at church. The lyrical text is rich with sound words (“The vibrations hummed through her body like bees through a garden”). Movement-filled, whimsical mixed-media illustrations have a folksy feel; the soft pinks, purples, blues, and yellows that recur throughout the pages convey the security and support of Tharpe’s tight-knit community. An author’s note provides further details about her rise to stardom as well as her lasting, if ignored, impact on many musical genres. An inspiring story that may encourage others to pick up an instrument and make it speak. ERIC CARPENTER 

I Am Ruby Bridges
by Ruby Bridges; illus. by Nikkolas Smith
Primary    Orchard/Scholastic    48 pp.
9/22    9781338753882    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781338893212    $11.99

“When I grow up, my work will be precious, I will be a bridge.” Bridges, known for her brave work in desegregating a Louisiana school at the age of six, here recounts her monumental entry into William Frantz Elementary as she remembers experiencing it as a child. This includes her excitement about testing into a new school that would provide “better opportunities” and her confusion about why four white men needed to drive her there. Her impressions of the noisy (white) adults screaming as she entered the building are innocent until she realizes she is the only student, and the only Black person inside. In this worthwhile and unique introduction to the civil rights era, Bridges shares memories of optimism and hope, told from a child’s point of view that allows for an intimate connection with primary readers. Smith’s illustrations, often sweeping double-page spreads, are equal parts immediate, metaphorical (at one point Ruby’s fingers are positioned as an actual bridge), and informative. Back matter includes author and illustrator notes and a glossary, whose terms are highlighted in red throughout the story. EBONI NJOKU 

Curve & Flow: The Elegant Vision of L.A. Architect Paul R. Williams
by Andrea J. Loney; illus. by Keith Mallett
Primary    Knopf    48 pp.
9/22    9780593429075    $18.99
Library ed.  9780593429082    $21.99
e-book ed.  9780593429099    $11.99

Paul R. Williams was born in Los Angeles in 1894; his parents died when he was five, and his brother was sent to a different foster home. Despite this early tragedy, Paul flourished creatively, demonstrating a talent for drawing that blossomed into a career as an architect. By 1921, facing discrimination and prejudice at every turn, he had become the first Black certified architect west of the Mississippi River. Southern California was becoming a cultural mecca, and Williams took advantage of that to put his iconic stamp on many prominent buildings. He didn’t stop there, though. He also got into the banking industry to help African Americans overcome the predatory, discriminatory practice of redlining. In 1948, the Supreme Court struck down laws upholding restrictive housing covenants, and Paul was finally free to build his dream house in his desired neighborhood. If “curve and flow” represents elements of Williams’s design style, the motto also signifies how he dealt with the obstacles and opportunities he faced in life. Alongside the generally optimistic text, the illustrations reinforce this theme of overcoming adversity. They convey grace, warmth, and dignity with a color palette dominated by purple, gold, blue, brown, and burgundy, and expressive figures who fairly shine and glow. An author’s note, sources, photos, and a timeline are appended. JONATHAN HUNT 

On Her Wings: The Story of Toni Morrison
by Jerdine Nolen; illus. by James E. Ransome
Primary, Intermediate    Wiseman/Simon    48 pp.
9/22    9781534478527    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781534478534    $10.99

This picture-book biography of writer Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford), by the team behind Freedom Bird (rev. 1/20), pays homage to its renowned subject and the wondrous power of storytelling. In childhood, Morrison was a listener, relishing the stories and music shared by her parents and grandparents. She was also an avid reader and continued to read more and more, “feeding a hunger that would never end.” After attending college and graduate school and a brief teaching career, she began working as an editor in New York, at which time she started to write, publishing many books and winning awards for her stories about the lives of Black people in America. Nolen emphasizes Morrison’s uncanny gift for storytelling (“She could look beyond things as they were and see a greater vision”) and celebrates her not only as a brilliant writer but also as an inspiration to others. The straightforward main narrative is appealingly accompanied by words floating at the tops of pages in a storyteller’s voice (“I’m telling you, that girl was magic”). Ransome’s expressive watercolor and collage illustrations, delivered as mostly double-page spreads, are perfectly matched to the text and especially compelling in conveying a sense of Morrison’s profound legacy. Back matter includes an author’s note, a bibliography, important quotes, and a list of select achievements. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY 

Love Is Loud: How Diane Nash Led the Civil Rights Movement
by Sandra Neil Wallace; illus. by Bryan Collier
Primary, Intermediate    Wiseman/Simon    48 pp.
1/23    9781534451032    $18.99
e-book ed.  9781534451049    $10.99

“During the 1960s, Diane Nash was one of the most influential and effective leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, yet most people don’t know who she is.” Wallace’s latest picture-book collaboration with Collier (Between the Lines) seeks to correct that. The second-person narrative highlights major moments in Nash’s life, beginning with her birth in Chicago and moving quickly through her childhood and high school years. When she moves to Tennessee to attend Fisk University, Nash experiences for the first time the overt segregation from which her parents wanted to shield her. This begins her commitment to civil rights activism, starting with integrating Nashville’s lunch counters. “You stay BRAVE. You won’t cave. Sit-in after sit-in. As hot coffee burns and sugar turns hair white, you focus on love. And when you get arrested for ordering a sandwich, more students fill the seats each week — one hundred, two hundred, three hundred strong!” Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations beautifully complement the text. The book opens with images of Nash’s parents cradling her as a baby and then of Nash, as a small child, being hugged by her grandmother, highlighting the love that encouraged her activism. In later images, Nash stares directly at the reader with a look of determination on her face. The back matter includes an author’s note that discusses gender discrimination within the movement, an illustrator’s note, a timeline, a bibliography, and video resources. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY 

A Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington
by Carole Boston Weatherford and Rob Sanders; illus. by Byron McCray
Primary, Intermediate    Holt    40 pp.
11/22    9781250779502    $19.99
e-book ed.  9781250906106    $10.99

This necessary backstory of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom illuminates the significant role played by activist Bayard Rustin in that immensely successful event. Born in 1912, Rustin was raised by his grandmother on Quaker values of nonviolence and awareness of injustices suffered by fellow African Americans. In later years, he “put his feelings about equality and pacifism into action.” Undeterred in his resolve, he was beaten, arrested, and jailed for refusing to give up his seat on a bus or to fight in World War II. Upon his return from India, where he traveled to learn about nonviolent protest from Gandhi’s followers, he introduced the philosophy to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It became the strategy that anchored the civil rights movement. Although rebuked and sidelined because he was gay, Rustin remained committed to his personal cause of equality for all. Weatherford and Sanders’s engaging and fluid narrative is accentuated with titles of protest songs, alluding to Rustin’s love of music and its importance in the civil rights movement. Acrylics in bold, vibrant colors with collage elements convey the quiet, unassuming demeanor of Rustin as well as the triumphant spirit of the March on Washington. Back matter includes a timeline, information on music and peaceful protests, a copy of the official program, and references. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY

From the January 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.