25 Picture Books Celebrating African American Heroes

Black history is American history, and engaging, age-appropriate books are a wonderful way to help kids of all ages and races learn about this important subject. Even young children can learn about topics such as slavery, the Underground Railroad, racism and civil rights when these matters are presented in the form of vibrant picture books.

The following outstanding children’s books sing the praises of some amazing American heroes that you’ll want to share:

Alvin Ailey

by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Growing up in a small, dusty Texas town, Alvin loved rejoicing to the music at church every Sunday. When he and his mother moved to Los Angeles, he wondered if he would ever find that joy again. Kids will enjoy watching Alvin learn to dance and eventually become one of the most significant choreographers of the 20th century.

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope

by Nikki Grimes

Even young kids can tell you who Barack Obama is, but they may not know what his life was like before he became the President of the United States. This colorful children’s book illustrates “Barry’s” life as a child and young man growing up in Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya and Chicago.

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream

by Kristy Dempsey

Janet was like many other little girls who dreamed of becoming ballerinas, but dreams like this didn’t often come true in Harlem in the 1950s. That didn’t stop little Janet Collins, whose daydreams and hard work helped her become the first African-American prima ballerina, as illustrated in this moving book.


by Jonah Winter

John Birks Gillespie was an underprivileged, mistreated, and angry boy… Until a teacher gave him a trumpet. This book tells the story of Dizzy Gillespie’s childhood in South Carolina, how music changed his life, and the history of the “bebop” music he helped to create.

Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington

by Jabari Asim

Although he was born into slavery, Booker always dreamed of a better life. That dream came true when he was emancipated. Kids will be inspired by Booker T. Washington, who traveled 500 miles –most of it on foot—to earn a college degree and became a celebrated educator, author and presidential advisor.

Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman

by Louise Borden

Even as a little girl working the cotton fields in Texas, Bessie knew she would do something special with her life. This beautifully illustrated picture book explains how Bessie learned French so that she could travel to France to learn how to fly, becoming the first female African American pilot.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America

by Carole Boston Weatherford

After a white teacher informed her black students that they would all grow up to be porters and waiters, Gordon Parks set out to prove her wrong. Spending $7.50 on a used camera changed his life. Kids will discover how he became a photographer, musician, writer and the first famous pioneer among black filmmakers.

Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills

by Renée Watson

Born in 1896 to parents who were former slaves, little Florence loved to sing, and it seemed she had a gift for performing. This book uses eye-catching mixed media images to tell the story of Florence Mills, who made her stage debut as “Baby Florence” at just five years old and went on to become a Broadway star who fought for civil rights.

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad

by Ellen Levine

What if your family could be taken away from you and sold? That is what happened to Henry Brown, so he decided to pack himself in a box and mail himself to freedom. The brilliant images enhance this riveting true story.

I Have a Dream

by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Using Dr. King’s historical speech as its basis, this book features arresting, realistic artwork to demonstrate the meaning behind these inspirational words as well as the emotions it prompted in those who truly listened. Every family could benefit from possessing this volume.

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Trayler Started to Draw

by Don Tate

Eighty-one-year-old Bill Trayler was a free black man, but that wasn’t always the case. Memories of his life as a slave and a sharecropper were buried deep inside of him and so, to release them, Bill began to draw. This enthralling book shares the history of this legendary, self-taught folk artist.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

by Patricia Hruby Powell

A stunning entertainer who took the world by storm in the 1920s, Josephine Baker was also a noteworthy civil rights advocate. The lively verse and rich illustrations in this picture book will make Josephine’s story a favorite.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

by Maya Angelou

Celebrated poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s stirring poem is written from a child’s perspective in this picture book. The prose is augmented by arresting illustrations by American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

by Katheryn Russell-Brown

Melba always loved music, so it was only fitting that she would teach herself how to play the trombone as a little girl. Children will love this delightful picture book, which shows how Melba Doretta Liston’s amazing talent and determination helped her become the first woman trombonist to play in big bands.

Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens

by Nina Nolan

Mahalia’s childhood in New Orleans was not an easy one, and her beloved gospel music was often the only thing that carried her through. In this exquisitely illustrated picture book, children will read the renowned singer’s biography and learn how this inspirational woman overcame adversity.

Rosa’s Bus: The Ride to Civil Rights 

by Jo S. Kittinger

In Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, city buses were segregated. White passengers rode up front while black passengers were relegated to the back. In this vivid picture book, young readers will learn how a woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, sparking a major civil rights event.

Salt in His Shoes

by Deloris Jordan

Michael always wanted to play basketball with his big brothers, but he was much younger and smaller than they were. His mother told him that every night, they would pray together and put magical salt in his shoes so he would grow tall. His father convinced him that practice mattered more than anything else did. Michael Jordan took his parents’ advice to heart, and the rest is history.

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat

by Roxane Orgill

When Ella was 15 years old, her mother died following a car accident. After being shuffled around between family members, she ended up in an orphanage, from which she ran away. Homeless and alone, when she tried singing at amateur night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, everything changed for Ella Fitzgerald.

Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride

by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Belle was born into slavery and mistreated by several cruel masters. As a young woman, she took her baby and escaped to freedom, changing her name to Sojourner Truth. This colorful picture book depicts her life traveling the nation to demand equal rights for all people.

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin

by Jen Bryant

Like many young children, Horace loved to draw. He never outgrew this passion, drawing throughout his school years into his adult life and even as a soldier in World War I. When he was shot in the trenches and could no longer use his arm, he didn’t give up. Horace Pippin worked hard to regain use of his arm and became a renowned African American artist. The short sentences and beautiful artwork in this book will keep young children engaged.

The Story of Ruby Bridges

by Robert Coles

Can a six-year-old change history? Ruby Bridges did when she became the first African American student in a formerly all-white school. Kids will find out how this little girl and her teacher helped advance civil rights in Mississippi in the 1960s.

Testing the Ice: A True Story of Jackie Robinson

by Sharon Robinson

Written by his daughter, this picture book tells the story of growing up with baseball legend Jackie Robinson as a father. Large, vibrant illustrations in pencil, oil and watercolors will draw children in as they learn about the strength and courage of the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era.

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa

by Jeanette Winter

Growing up in Africa, Wangari had a special love for the forests filled with trees. After spending six years in college in the United States, Wangari returned home to discover the trees gone and the land barren. She decides to do something about it, starting with nine seedlings in her own backyard. Children will be inspired to take action by this picture book about environmental political activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai.

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop

by Laban Carrick Hill

When his sister held a back-to-school party in 1973, Clive Campbell offered to handle the music. Everyone was thrilled with his new way of spinning records. With full-page illustrations and brief paragraphs, this picture book introduces kids to Clive –DJ Kool Herc—who is recognized as the originator of hip-hop music.

Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman

by Kathleen Krull

By the time she was five years old, Wilma Rudolph had survived both polio and scarlet fever, the former causing her left leg to be twisted. Doctors thought she would never walk again, but Wilma proved them oh-so-wrong. Children will enjoy hearing the story of how Wilma became the fastest woman in the world.

What are some of your favorite books that celebrate great African American heroes? Share with us!

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Tags : picture books   african american history   black history month   

Dona Kareno
I need all these books. All of them!
Maya Slavin
Amazing selection!