February is Black History Month. During the month, people in the United States commemorate the struggles, achievements and history of African Americans. The following books, which were released during the past year, are great ways to learn about members of the Black community’s past, present and hopes for the future.
Books are listed in order of suggested age and range from ages 4 to young adult. Synopses in blue italics are provided by publishers.
AGES 4 AND UP
A HISTORY OF ME, by Adrea Theodore and Erin Robinson, Neal Porter Books, Jan. 18, 2022, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 4-8)
Life can be hard for the only brown girl in a classroom full of white students. When the teacher talks about slavery, she can feel all of her classmates staring at her. When they talk about civil rights, she is the one that other kids whisper about on the playground. In those moments, she wants to slip away or seep into the ground; and she wonders, is that all you see when you look at me?
What really matters is what she sees when she looks at herself. She is a reflection of the courage, strength, intelligence and creativity that’s been passed down from generation to generation through her ancestors. —Synopsis provided by Neal Porter Books
A History of Me is inspired by the author’s own experiences and her hope that people will recognize the humanity of Black Americans who had been enslaved. Adrea Theodore’s poetic verse forces readers to pause, to think, to understand. Paired with Erin Robinson’s thoughtful illustrations, A History of Me is a moving look at the past and prayer for the future.
OVERGROUND RAILROAD, by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome, Holiday House, Jan. 11, 2022, Paperback, $8.99 (ages 4-8)
Climbing aboard the New York bound Silver Meteor train, Ruth Ellen embarks upon a journey toward a new life up North — one she can’t begin to imagine. Stop by stop, the perceptive young narrator tells her journey in poems, leaving behind the cotton fields and distant Blue Ridge mountains.
Each leg of the trip brings new revelations as scenes out the window of folks working in fields give way to the Delaware River, the curtain that separates the colored car is removed, and glimpses of the freedom and opportunity the family hopes to find come into view. As they travel, Ruth Ellen reads from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, reflecting on how her journey mirrors her own — until finally the train arrives at its last stop, New York’s Penn Station, and the family heads out into a night filled with bright lights, glimmering stars, and new possibility. —Synopsis provided by Holiday House
Overground Railroad refers to the railway system that carried Blacks north during the Great Migration. Families often left their homes covertly during this time to escape the sharecropping system that kept many in debt to their landlords. Lesa Cline-Ransome’s poetic text is sparse and thoughtful, and James Ransome’s mixed-media illustrations are bold and expressive. This book is a great introduction to an aspect of Black history that isn’t often discussed.
FLY, by Brittany J. Thurman and Anna Cunha, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Jan. 11, 2022, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 4-8)
Africa’s grandmother was a double Dutch legend, and Africa knows she can become the same. Her brother scoffs when she signs up for a double Dutch competition, though — how can she hope to compete when she’s never done it before? But Africa has all the tools she needs: memories of her grandmother, her bestie Bianca’s dance moves, her friend Omar’s rhythm, and her classmates’ Mary Mack timing and cartwheels.
If Africa can pull everything together to jump some winning moves, she might just fly, but it’s the birthmark in the shape of her name that tells her she’s always been a winner. —Synopsis provided by Atheneum Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Fly is a book that radiates joy. Joy in dreams. Joy in simple things. Joy in the experiences friendship brings. Africa’s brother tells her she “can’t do something you’ve never done before.” But Africa has been trying new things all week, just not in competition. Fly is a gentle story full of warmth and promise. It’s a great addition to any book collection.
WHEN LANGSTON DANCES, by Kaija Langley and Keith Mallett, Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Sept. 7, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 4-8)
Langston likes basketball okay, but what he loves is to dance — ever since he saw the Alvin Ailey Dance Company perform. He longs to twirl into a pirouette, whirl into a piqué. He wants to arabesque and attitude, grand battement and grand jeté. When he walks, the whole street is his stage.
With his neighborhood cheering him on, will Langston achieve his dream? —Synopsis provided by Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
When Langston Dances celebrates the love of dance. While Kaija Langley’s clear tone sets the framework, it’s Kaieth Mallett’s photo-realistic paintings that bring it to life. Not only does Mallett capture the correct dance positions and technique, but he captures the pure delight of jumping and twirling. When Langston Dances is the picture book aspiring boy dancers need and girl dancers will appreciate.
AGES 5 AND UP
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC READERS: KAMALA HARRIS (LEVEL 2), by Tonya Grant, National Geographic Kids, Jan. 4, 2022, Paperback, $4.99 (ages 5-8)
Explore one of the most powerful and highest-ranking female figures in American history with this biography of Vice President Kamala Harris in this Level 2 reader.
On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris made history. That day, she became the first woman, the first Black American, and the first South Asian American to be elected as Vice President of the United States. Young readers will learn about Harris’s childhood, her early career, and her journey that led to winning the vice presidency. This early reader also explores how Harris devoted her life to helping others, from serving as the Attorney General of California, to being elected as a U.S. Senator, to working alongside President Joe Biden on the campaign trail and in the White House. —Synopsis provided by National Geographic Kids
The minute my 7-year-old saw this book, she begged to borrow it. We watched Kamala Harris get sworn in. It was such a big moment to see a woman become vice president, and my daughter wants to know all about her. Level 2 books are fairly simple but offer chapters, a quiz and glossary, which are exciting for early readers. There are lots of pictures and pull-out facts for more visual learners.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC READERS: STACEY ABRAMS (LEVEL 2), by Melissa Mwai, National Geographic Kids, Jan. 4, 2022, Paperback, $4.99 (ages 5-8)
Learn about the voting rights advocate and politician Stacey Abrams and her groundbreaking achievements in this appealing Level 2 reader. Young readers will find out about Abram’s childhood and her early career as a city attorney and as minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. The reader also explores her run in Georgia as the first Black woman to be nominated by a major party for governor, and how losing that race inspired her to devote her life to making elections and the voting process more equitable for everyone. —Synopsis provided by National Geographic Kids
This is another book that caught my daughter’s eye. Though she is well into novels, she’s read many Nat Geo books and knows what to expect. The Level 2 books offer great introductions that often inspire further research. She was excited to learn about another woman in a leadership position.
AGES 6 AND UP
THE FAITH OF ELIJAH CUMMINGS: THE NORTH STAR OF EQUAL JUSTICE, by Carole Boston Weatherford and Laura Freeman, Random House Studio, Jan. 11, 2022, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 6-9)
When Elijah Cummings was a little boy, he struggled in school. His teachers thought he talked too much and asked too many questions. They said he’d never be able to read or write well. Despite his difficulties, Elijah never gave up. He persevered, having faith that with hard work, he’d be able to achieve his goals.
Best known as a voice for people of color and an advocate for equal opportunity, Elijah Cummings was a man of faith and dignity, a beacon of justice, and an unrelenting warrior for equality and change. —Synopsis provided by Random House Studio
Elijah Cummings lived an inspiring life. He was involved in so many things that inspired change, that it’s hard to know what to cover and what to leave out. In The Faith of Elijah Cummings, author Carole Boston Weatherford focuses on the foundation of Elijah’s beliefs — his childhood experiences. She tells his rich story while incorporating his own quotes throughout. Weatherford dedicates the final few pages to some of Elijah’s accomplishments as an adult, inspiring further study. Paired with Laura Freeman’s expressive illustrations, The Faith of Elijah Cummings is an excellent look at a man of principle and faith.
MOVING FORWARD: FROM SPACE-AGE RIDES TO CIVIL RIGHTS SIT-INS WITH AIRMAN ALTON YATES, by Chris Barton and Steffi Walthall, Beach Lane Books, Jan. 11, 2022, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 6-10)
As a child growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, Alton Yates watched Black veterans return home from fighting for their country, only to have that country turn its back on them. After Alton joined the Air Force and risked his life to make spacecraft and airplane flight safer, he returned home to the same Jim Crow laws.
Alton now had a new mission: To make a stand against Jim Crow.
Based on author Chris Barton’s extensive interviews, witness Alton Yates’s lifelong commitment to his country, as he put his life on the line time and again for science, for civil rights, and for America’s progress. —Synopsis provided by Beach Lane Books
Moving Forward offers readers a unique juxtaposition — great advances in science and technology happening at the same time of Jim Crow laws. It’s hard to come to terms with the idea that the same person who was a valued member of the Air Force was also considered a lesser being, depending on where in the country he was at. Author Chris Barton presents Alton’s story through fascinating but accessible text. While illustrator Steffi Walthall provides the imagery that brings his story to life.
AGES 7 AND UP
A PLACE TO LAND: MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. AND THE SPEECH THAT INSPIRED A NATION, by Barry Wittenstein and Jerry Pinkney, Neal Porter Books, Jan. 18, 2022, Paperback, $9.99 (ages 7-10)
Much has been written about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington. But there’s little on his legendary speech and how he came to write it.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was once asked if the hardest part of preaching was knowing where to begin. No, he said. The hardest part is knowing where to end. “It’s terrible to be circling up there without a place to land.”
Finding this place to land was what Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled with, alongside advisors and fellow speech writers, in the Willard Hotel the night before the March on Washington, where he gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. But those famous words were never intended to be heard on that day, not even written down for that day, not even once. —Synopsis provided by Neal Porter Books
Originally published in 2019, the story behind MLK’s famous speech is now available in paperback. Everyone knows of the “I Have a Dream” speech. It gets quoted a lot this time of year, but it’s more than quotable words. A Place to Land explores the inspiration and the process. Paired with Jerry Pinkney’s beautiful and emotive illustrations, Barry Wittnestein’s text comes to life. This book offers multiple discussion points and would be a great addition to classroom instruction.
STITCH BY STITCH: ELIZABETH HOBBS KECKLY SEWS HER WAY TO FREEDOM, by Connie Schofield-Morrison and Elizabeth Zunon, Holiday House, Nov. 9, 2021, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 7-10)
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born in 1818, enslaved to a Virginian plantation owner. As a teenager, Lizzy was sent to work as the only slave on a small plantation, where the work was endless, and the masters treated her with unspeakable cruelty. A new master, learning Lizzy could sew, sent her to work for a tailor, who paid the master, not Lizzy, for Lizzy’s work.
The beautiful gowns that Lizzy created were displayed in the tailor’s window and soon attracted the attention of the wealthiest women in Virginia. Among them was Mrs. Jefferson Davis who also introduced Lizzy to Mary Todd Lincoln. Though Lizzy first had to borrow money from her wealthy patrons to buy her freedom, once she was free, she was able to earn money of her own and pay them all back. —Synopsis provided by Holiday House
Stitch by Stitch is an inspiring story of a woman who was able to use her talent to achieve freedom. Her perseverance shines through Connie Morrison’s honest text. And Elizabeth Zunon’s mixed media illustrations —including oil paint, paper, fabric, ribbon, embroidery, lace, and appliqué — embrace not only the book’s feel, but Lizzy’s gifts, too.
AGES 9 AND UP
Black Artists Shaping the World, by Sharna Jackson and Zoé Whitley, Thames & Hudson, Nov. 23, 2021, Hardcover, $19.95 (ages 9-12)
Written by award-winning Black children’s author Sharna Jackson, this book introduces young readers to 26 contemporary artists from Africa and of the African diaspora, working in everything from painting, sculpture, and drawing to ceramics, installation art, and sound art.
These include prominent American artists Kerry James Marshall, Faith Ringgold, portraitist to Michelle Obama Amy Sherald, and Kehinde Wiley; British Turner Prize–winning painters Lubaina Himid and Chris Ofili; renowned South African visual activist and photographer Zanele Muholi; Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh; Sudanese painter Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq; Kenyan-British ceramicist Magdalene Odundo; Afrofuturist-inspired performance artist Harold Offeh; and moving image artist Larry Achiampong, among others. —Synopsis provided by Thames & Hudson
Black Artist Shaping the World features 26 chapters, a glossary, list of illustrations, bibliography, index, and section on the author and consultant. Each chapter begins with a picture of the artist and a short bio. That is followed by pictures of some of each artists’ works and exploration of the creative process. Author Shana Jackson has done an excellent job curating a wide-ranging group and capturing each vision in an accessible way.
THREADS OF PEACE: HOW MOHANDAS GANDHI AND MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. CHANGED THE WORLD, by Uma Krishnaswami, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Aug. 17, 2021, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 9 and up)
Born more than a half-century apart, with seemingly little in common except one shared wish, Mohandas Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. would go on to be icons of peaceful resistance and human decency. Both preached love for all human beings, regardless of race or religion. Both believed that freedom and justice were won by not one, but many. Both met their ends in the most unpeaceful of ways — assassination.
But what led them down the path of peace? How did their experiences parallel… and diverge? Threads of Peace keenly examines and celebrates these extraordinary activists’ lives, the threads that connect them, and the threads of peace they laid throughout the world, for us to pick up, and weave together. —Synopsis provided by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Threads of Peace is a dual biography that shows that ideas of freedom and equality are universal and how each step forward builds upon the past. The bulk of Threads of Peace is two straight-forward biographies. These well-researched and tightly-written sections are extensive. Thoughtful discussion includes politics, events and personal emotions. Photographs, illustrations and pop-out boxes break up the text and transport readers to the center of the action.
At just above 300 pages, Threads of Peace isn’t the densest non-fiction MG book I’ve read, but it’s not the lightest, either. Though the writing is smooth and accessible, it’s not a one-sitting read. It is, however, a book that should appeal to readers ages 9 to 100.
AGES 10 AND UP
SPEAK UP, SPEAK OUT!: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF FIGHTING SHIRLEY CHISHOLM, by Tonya Bolden, National Geographic Kids; Library ed. Edition, Jan. 4, 2022, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 10-14)
Before there was Barack Obama, before there was Kamala Harris, there was Fighting Shirley Chisholm. A daughter of Barbadian immigrants, Chisholm developed her political chops in Brooklyn in the 1950s and went on to become the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
This “pepper pot,” as she was known, was not afraid to speak up for what she thought was right. While fighting for a better life for her constituents in New York’s 12th Congressional District, Chisholm routinely fought against sexism and racism in her own life and defied the norms of the time. As the first Black woman in the House and the first Black woman to seek the presidential nomination from a major political party, Shirley Chisholm laid the groundwork for those who would come after her.
Extensively researched and reviewed by experts, this biography traces Chisholm’s journey from her childhood in a small flat in Brooklyn where she read books with her sisters to Brooklyn College where she got her first taste of politics. Readers will cheer Chisholm on to victory from the campaign trail to the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol, where she fought for fair wages, equal rights, and an end to the Vietnam War. And while the presidential campaign trail in 1972 did not end in victory, Shirley Chisholm shows us how you can change a country when you speak up and speak out. —Synopsis provided by National Geographic Kids
You really can’t go wrong with National Geographic books, and Speak Up, Speak Out is no exception. What does make it different from most of the Nat Geo Kids books reviewed on Cracking the Cover is the format. Speak Up, Speak Out is a true chapter book — geared toward older middle grade and young adults — with full-color illustrations pulled together in one section rather than used heavily throughout. This absorbing biography captures interest from beginning to end. Author Tonya Bolden’s writing is thoughtful and clear, making this an excellent choice for readers of all backgrounds.
BLACK BALLERINAS: MY JOURNEY TO OUR LEGACY, by Misty Copeland and Salena Barnes, Aladdin, Nov. 2, 2021, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 10 and up)
As a young girl living in a motel with her mother and her five siblings, Misty Copeland didn’t have a lot of exposure to ballet or prominent dancers. She was sixteen when she saw a black ballerina on a magazine cover for the first time. The experience emboldened Misty and told her that she wasn’t alone — and her dream wasn’t impossible. In the years since, Misty has only learned more about the trailblazing women who made her own success possible by pushing back against repression and racism with their talent and tenacity. Misty brings these women’s stories to a new generation of readers and gives them the recognition they deserve. This book delves into the lives and careers of women of color who fundamentally changed the landscape of American ballet from the early 20th century to today. —Synopsis provided by Aladdin
While Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy may look like a picture book, it’s much more. A two-page spread is dedicated to each ballerina. One page features a beautiful dance portrait and the other is full text. The print size is what you would find in a typical middle-grade novel, and the text difficulty mirrors that as well. Not only are the mini-biographies heartfelt and inspiring. But the illustrations show a true understanding of movement and technique. Budding ballerinas and ballet fans alike will be drawn to this excellent book.
AIN’T BURNED ALL THE BRIGHT, by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Jan. 11, 2022, Hardcover, $19.99 (young adult)
Jason Reynolds and his best bud, Jason Griffin had a mind-meld. And they decided to tackle it, in one fell swoop, in about ten sentences, and 300 pages of art, this piece, this contemplation-manifesto-fierce-vulnerable-gorgeous-terrifying-WhatIsWrongWithHumans-hope-filled-hopeful-searing-Eye-Poppingly-Illustrated-tender-heartbreaking-how-The-HECK-did-They-Come-UP-with-This project about oxygen. And all of the symbolism attached to that word, especially NOW.
And so for anyone who didn’t really know what it means to not be able to breathe, REALLY breathe, for generations, now you know. And those who already do, you’ll be nodding yep yep, that is exactly how it is. Synopsis provided by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Ain’t Burned All the Bright is a book that you need to sit with as it sits with you. It doesn’t take long to read the actual words — maybe 15 minutes — but processing the depth of those words takes much longer. It is the story of what it is to be a Black teen in America.
“… I’m sitting here still still still wondering why my mother won’t change the channel and why the news won’t change the story”
This emotional piece is one that should be accessible to all teens across the country.