The best part about this list is that, in many cases, you and your child will get to experience learning about these interesting stories for the first time together! My son finds it funny and fascinating each time I tell him we are learning together. The little ones in your life will too. Hopefully it will spark their interest in reading biographies for life and they will be the foundation of a more informed, more tolerant future.
After I finished this list, I realized it features a lot of males. I review books based heavily on the reading life of the kid in my life. I'm a boy mom, so pretty-please forgive the slant. This list contains 17 biographies, 5 books that are biography-ish and 1 book that everyone should have.
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Now to it...
Y'all know I use to homeschool. Since my son started school-school a few month ago, I haven't really changed my homeschooling ways. My son's teacher sends the lesson plans for the following week to parents on the weekends. I sneakily hit up our neighborhood library to borrow weekly reading to supplement what he'll be learning at school. When I read that they would be learning about he Pony Express, as with all American History lessons, I wondered what black people were doing while the Pony Express was happening. They were doing something. I immediately recalled a picture book we had read (and I reviewed) about Bass Reeves and wondered if his story occurred at the same time as the famous Pony Express rider Buffalo Bill's. To my excitement, it did! So we checked out books about The Pony Express and Buffalo Bill and Bass Reeves! While Buffalo Bill was delivering packages and outrunning thieves and outlaws, Bass Reeves, an ex-slave, was striking fear in the hearts of criminals and rounding them up as a Deputy United States Marshall! As you can imagine, connecting these two important figures in American History has changed my son's imagery of "cowboys and Indians" forever. Bass Reeves was the original Lone Ranger! These books do depict violence, and are for a wide range of age groups.
The Legend of Bass Reeves by Gary Paulsen (Grade 6+)
Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George
Joseph, the only child of a black slave in the West Indies and her white master, becomes "the most accomplished man in Europe" in 18th century France. I ran across The Other Mozart in Half Price Books. Both books are appropriate for young readers or pre-readers. Younger readers may engage more with the beautifully illustrated Before There was Mozart.
Give the current story of a living legend instant relevance to Charlie Brown fans by telling them this guy's trombone is the wah-wah voice of the grown-ups in the latest Charlie Brown movie.
Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews (Grades 1-4)
From the Amazon description: "Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews got his nickname by wielding a trombone twice as long as he was high. A prodigy, he was leading his own band by age six, and today this Grammy-nominated artist headlines the legendary New Orleans Jazz Fest."
Works featuring Author, Illustrator Don Tate
Full disclosure: I will always automatically recommend anything this Austin-based author writes or illustrates or writes AND illustrates, because (he is a fellow Austinite) his work is all about bringing important stories about lesser-known black figures throughout history exclusively to children. This man's work is so important and when you see his body of work, you'll witness a person who is doing exactly what he was put on this planet to do. He manages to tell these stories depicting the harsh realities of black histories from slavery through the civil rights movement era to today. If I started talking about all the awards and lists and accolades his work has received, it would hijack this whole blog post. Get into Don Tate's work HERE. But check out the following titles first. We own both of these books because Don Tate.
The only thing I will say about this book is this: Nat Turner and nem weren't the only slaves who fought back.
This is the story of how an ex-slave, freed after the Emancipation Proclamation, eventually made it among the ranks of the first African American Congressmen in the United States.
My son has a deep interest in clean energy. His interest was sparked at age six, by a DVD called Power Surge by NOVA that we borrowed from the library and subsequently purchased because I constantly ran out of renewals, had to return the DVD and check it out again and again. He would pause it and rewind it and draw diagrams of the concepts being described. He filled a whole notebook with notes and drawings from that DVD. I digress.
This book is on this list, not only because it is a great example of why clean energy is important and because it shows every child who reads it that there is no amount of hardship that can prevent them from making a difference in their communities and in the world if they are resourceful and seek out mentors. We discovered the picture book version at the library before learning there was a chapter book for older readers. I recommend them both. This story is fascinating.
From Amazon site description: "When fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba's Malawi village was hit by a drought, everyone's crops began to fail. Without enough money for food, let alone school, William spent his days in the library . . . and figured out how to bring electricity to his village."
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Chapter Book (Grades 6-12)
DJ Kool Herc
Because the genesis of hip hop should be required reading. It's important for children to know what hip hop is and how to distinguish it from current garbage passing for hip hop. Aside: When I thought I was introducing this book to my son, he was all, yeah I checked that out from my library at school. I love his reading life.
Michael Jordan (The Greatest of All Time. Never forget.)
He is the greatest of all time, and a great example that talent and achievement require hard work and continued PRACTICE. Plus his mom and sister wrote this book. Kadir Nelson illustrated this book. Check it out from the library, buy it, share it!
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodsen (Grades 5+)
I borrowed this book from the library after I heard this piece on NPR. This is a children's book that I borrowed just for me. I had to read it because I was a black girl once, and there are elements of ever story about girlhood that resonate with all women, and because this book is written entirely in verse.. I don't regret it. For the intended audience, adolescent girls, it invites them to read about other's girlhoods, and realize different and how similar all girlhoods are. If you have a girl who loves to read and write poetry, encourage her to add this book to her list.
I absolutely love it when I find opportunities for kids to encounter powerful, controversial characters in history when they were kids just like them. The daughter of Malcolm X wrote this beautifully illustrated book, that will make a great introduction to the incredible Malcolm X.
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford (Grades 1-3)
Most of us are familiar with the breathtaking black and white photographs Gordon Parks shared with the world. There is so much here that I did not know. It's only ever life-enriching to learn the life stories of artists.
From Amazon site description: "His white teacher tells her all-black class, You'll all wind up porters and waiters. What did she know? Gordon Parks is most famous for being the first black director in Hollywood. But before he made movies and wrote books, he was a poor African American looking for work…"
This is another one of those awesome stories that begins with the person in childhood. As a man who had lost everything but hope, Henry Brown mailed himself to freedom. Y'all know Whitney Houston said something when she said "I believe the children are our future…" The people who write and illustrate these books… I'm so grateful they exist. Every time my son's face lights up when he asks if the book we're reading is about a real person…smh
I love this story, because at it's core, is parental support of their child's dream. It's also one of those amazing stories of adoption that reinforce how important adoption is. Every person who wants a child to love should have the opportunity to love and guide a child into adulthood. Bonus: World History—readers will learn about a significant conflict in Africa. War is a real and present-day reality for many children around the world. If you're a parent who shields your young child from the harsh realities of war, this may be a great, non-graphic way to broach the topic. I'm including two books, each for different reading levels. I'm so excited this one is available to readers of all ages.
This book is full of illustrations and real photos from the dancer's childhood.
Here's a great recent article from New York Times posted on March 13, 2015. It's a perfect follow-up for kids who read either of these books and wonder what she is up to now.
These are NOT biographies, but very historically significant.
Eight Days: A Story of Haiti by Edwidge Danticat (Grades 2-5)
Many of you grown-ups might know Edwidge Danticat from her acclaimed novel Breath, Eyes Memory, or her collection of short stories Krik? Krak! If you're not, this Haitian author crafts beautiful, fictional stories about life in Haiti. If you want to be transported to another place and feel some feels, definitely check out her work.
Eight Days tells the fictional story of a boy who was trapped under rubble following the devastating 2010 Haiti Earthquake, and uses his imagination to help himself survive until he was found.
Beautifully written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, an old woman tells stories of slavery and triumph as she recalls from what her elders told her. Heart and Soul uses phrases similar to, "chile, they wouldn't have won the revolutionary war without black soldiers." In chapter one, about the Declaration of Independence, it tells the story of the revolutionary war, including how slaves were manipulated into fighting with promises of freedom, then put right back into slavery after the war. COMPLETE U.S. History through relatable storytelling for kids. Children will find the story and the images delightful.
Works by Virginia Hamilton
You're going to pretty much want to read everything by Virginia Hamilton. I have a growing Virginal Hamilton library. The age recommendations for these books are from the publisher, but slavery is a tough topic to talk about with kids so young, in my opinion. I have owned these books for years, but have yet to read every story with my son. Some of it is too painful for me, like the real advertisement for a slave in Many Thousand Gone, and the image of winged Africans losing them in slavery. I recommend pre-reading these then deciding if they're right for your kiddo.
The People Could Fly: The Picture Book by Virginia Hamilton (Ages 4 and up)
I cried the first time I read this fantasy tale of Africans who had wings, shed them on the boats to slavery then forgot they ever had them once they reached the other shore. Beautifully illustrated.
This is the companion book to The people Could Fly. It contains true accounts of slavery life and is full of beautiful, black and white illustrations. The stories are short enough for young readers and are written in simple, accessible language.
The Book Every Household Should Have
Maybe this ages be, but do you remember growing up and everybody had two big books in their houses--the Webster's Dictionary--the big one with ALL the words, and the Holy Bible--the big one with with a leather embossed cover? No? Just me? Well, every American household library should contain this title. I first encountered this book at the library and then, by luck at Half Price Books. I don't know why anyone would resale this. This book is delightfully textbookie with it's hardback cover and index and bibliography. It starts at the beginning of Black American History (with a black sailor on the ship with Christopher Columbus) and, since it was published in 2012, includes a section about the early years of Barack Obama. Your child will reference this book in their papers on American History through college.
I hope you and the kids in your life will find this list exciting and interesting and helpful. If you love it, don't be shy! Pin it, share it on Facebook, Tweet it, spread the word to the parents and teachers in your life.
Thanks and Happy Reading!