Black History Month Books for Young Readers

By Lee Littlewood

January 28, 2013 6 min read

Martin Luther King, Jr. isn't the only African-American hero to grace the pages of inspiring children's books. Nelson Mandela, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Breedlove Walker are just a few of the icons portrayed in these fascinating books.

"Nelson Mandela" by Kadir Nelson; Katherine Tegan/HarperCollins; 38 pages; $17.99.

Nelson Mandela's birth name was Rolihlahla. He was born on the grassy plains of Qunu, South Africa. He became a lawyer who protested against apartheid. He was arrested several times and finally jailed for 27 years, all while apartheid barriers and "European Only" signs at the beach came down. When he was freed, Nelson Mandela was elected the leader of South Africa, which finally became a free nation.

Told clearly, with brief, poetic-like text and warm, deep water-colored pages, Kadir Nelson's homage to Mandela is a loving tribute that isn't bogged down with mature details, but still gets the inspiring point across. Even young children will come away with the empowering idea that one person can have impact on the world.

"I Have a Dream" from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrated by Kadir Nelson; Schwarz & Wade Books; 34 pages; $18.99.

Again illustrated beautifully by Kadir Nelson, this bold picture book presents Dr. King's entire speech, all his iconic words, resulting in a spectacular ode to freedom and equality. Children certainly will be able to understand and appreciate Dr. King's speech, and they'll be able to relate to the geographic and motivational message.

"Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California," shows palm trees and a snow-capped mountain. "But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia" captures the majesty of the southern slope while "Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi" presents a sunset-glowing field of green.

Included in this gloriously motivating and gorgeous book is a CD of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's original speech.

For more background on Dr. King's life, "I've Seen the Promised Land," by Coretta Scott King Award winner Walter Dean Myers and Leonard Jenkins, (HarperCollins), is a moving narrative with visually expressive artwork. The eloquent story of the powerful spiritual leader and his belief that nonviolence could be used to overcome racial discrimination is now in affordable paperback, at $6.99.

"Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker" by Kathryn Lasky; illustrated by Nneka Bennett; Candlewick Press; 46 pages; $14.99.

From the "Candlewick Biographies," this chapter book for newer readers tells the story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, a woman who rose from poverty and discrimination to rename herself Madame Walker and become an influential businesswoman and philanthropist. Walker longed to have swingy, bouncy hair as a child, and she brought that desire to adulthood by creating products that made black women's skin beautiful and their hair healthy. She used her wealth from the sale of her products to donate to many causes, especially to protest violence against colored people. (Lasky uses the term "colored" in the book so her language would be consistent with Madame Walker's era).

With full color, illuminating illustrations that help showcase Lasky's clearly-penned, short chapters, "Vision of Beauty" defines the life of a notable woman.

"Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat" by Roxane Orgill; illustrated by Sean Qualls; Candlewick Press; 42 pages; $14.99.

Another Candlewick biography, this depiction of the life of jazz and skat singer Ella Fitzgerald bops along zestily, making it a fun, exciting read for youngsters. From the love of singing of Ella's mother Tempie to the streets of Harlem where Ella and her friend Charlie danced the Lindy Hop and the "Shortie George," Orgill's book explains how Fitzgerald's drive to sing skit scat began.

With fun text — "Ella was a rough-tough raggedy cat on the outside, but inside she was milky and silky and soft and shy" — Orgill writes poetically and humorously. Vintage-appealing pages have plenty of poetry interspersed with illuminating text, resulting in a singer bio that's super cool.


"In the Land of Milk and Honey" by Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper (Amistad/HarperCollins), is the true story of author Thomas' trip from Oklahoma to California in 1948, when many people of all colors and cultures went west to start new lives.

"Brick by Brick" from Charles R. Smith, Jr. and Floyd Cooper, (Amistad) is the powerful story of the slaves and laborers who built the White House.

Kathleen Krull's "What Was the March on Washington?" (Grosset & Dunlap), is a fact-filled and illustrated non-fiction little book with 16 real photos inside.

To find out more about Lee Littlewood and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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