Twelve Fantastic Picture Books for Teaching Black History – Part 1
With so many amazing picture books out there, it was hard to narrow it down to a manageable list! These are the first six books of the 12 that my students and I love every year. Check back in a few days for the rest of the list!
This list is roughly in chronological order, and I give suggestions for teaching points for each book. Reading the books in order would give students a solid understanding of Black History in America, but of course, some of the books connect to content, and might best be taught within a unit (for example, on the Revolutionary War). However you bring these books to your classroom, you will be glad that you did. Enjoy!
All links are to Amazon.
The 1619 Project; Born on the Water
by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson
This book was not at all what I expected. I loved The 1619 Project for adults, and I was expecting essays and history, like the adult book. Instead, I got informational poetry. Poetry! That fills my heart and my mind! The book is appropriate for students in grades 5-8.
The book opens with a girl who has been given a class assignment. In clear, easy-to-understand free verse, the authors set up a situation that any kids can connect with – how to complete a class assignment when you have no idea where to begin. Each poem builds on the previous ones, slowly telling the story of The First Africans, their kidnap, but also their culture and resistance throughout history. The illustrations add a depth to the poetry, and help students understand that the dark times of history can include joy, resilience and power by the people living them.
This non-fiction leveled text tells the history of the First African’s arrival in Jamestown, and makes a great companion to this picture book.
This is a great book to use for teaching free verse, one of the most approachable forms of poetry. Throughout the book, you can find examples of imagery, symbolism and metaphors – key aspects of successful free verse. Towards the end of the book, the poem “Legacy” is a beautiful example of irony. The second and third stanzas are excellent examples, and will help your students understand and recognize irony in other poetry.
Your Legacy; A Bold Reclaiming of Our Enslaved History
by Schele Williams
This story tells the history of Black Americans from their arrival in 1619 to the present. It highlights cultural, scientific and historic accomplishments from history, and awakens students’ interest in further research. The text is highly accessible and the book is appropriate for students in grades 2-6. The illustrations are bold and powerful, just like the text, and key character traits are highlighted throughout the book. When I read this book to my students, they applauded, and then had so many, many questions!
This is a perfect book for teaching character traits. Words like “ingenuity”, “grace”, and “dignity” are reinforced several times throughout the book. After we read the book, I wrote the key words on the board, and we briefly discussed the meaning of each word and it’s part of speech (most are nouns). Then, students looked up a word of their choice in the dictionary to find the adjective form of the word. That formed the basis for a writing assignment about a Civil Rights Activist of their choice. For the texts that I gave students for their research on activists, click here.
This book is a terrific way to introduce the Revolutionary War. It is a chapter book, but with only 59 pages, it is an easy read-aloud to get through in about 3 sessions. If you teach the Revolution in 4th or 5th grade, this is a great book to bring in at the beginning of your unit. The author has included a basic overview of the war, including key battles and causes of the Revolution. There are also all the great text features that you expect in a non-fiction book. I usually have the document camera on when I read this aloud so that students can see the illustrations, captions, headings and sidebars.
In my classroom, I read this non-fiction book to my students at the end of our unit on Colonial America and right before we begin learning about the Revolution. It builds some important background knowledge and also gives an untold perspective on the war, raising the question, “If the founders valued their own freedom so deeply, why didn’t they free the slaves when they set up the new country?” That is a powerful lens to set up at the beginning of a unit on the Revolutionary War, and helps my students have a more nuanced view of the conflict. The book traces the entire war from the perspective of the black soldiers and patriots. I follow up by having my students read Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. The two books together help students understand the Revolution from many angles.
My Name is James Madison Hemings
by Jonah Winter and Terry Widener
This is a beautiful book, and would work well with students in grades 2-6. The illustrations are gentle water colors and the text is poignant and moving. Told in first person from the perspective of an enslaved boy, the book weaves a story of a complicated father-son relationship. At the end, the narrator reveals that his father was Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence and owner of slaves, including some he fathered. The story is true, and told in a matter of fact way that keeps the book approachable. Because the book is narrated in first person, the reader asks the same questions that James asks – questions like, “How can I be both his slave and his son?” As in life, the book does not have answers, so students must grapple with the contradiction of a man who brought freedom to many while enslaving his children. It’s a truth that we all have to face at some time, and this book is a perfect way to ease into that conversation with students.
I like to use this story to teach point of view in narrative writing. There is a paragraph about half way through the book where James is watching the other slaves work and thinking about his father’s promise that some day he will be free. With my class, I first read that paragraph as it was written. Then, we rewrite the paragraph together in third person and read the new version. The students and I analyze both versions, side by side, to better understand how the choice of narrator can affect a narrative. It’s a powerful lesson and helps my students think about first and third person narrators in their own writing.
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt
by Deborah Hopkinson
This is a beautiful book that tells the story of a determined young woman, Sweet Clara. She begins the story as a field hand, grueling work that only the strongest survive. At night she learns to sew, and eventually becomes a seamstress in the Big House. There, she learns about the Underground Railroad and begins to gather information about the route to the Ohio River, the beginning of the Underground Railroad. She pieces the information together into a quilt, and finally, she and her familiy make it to freedom.
One of the things I love about the story is the voice. The author tells the story in first person, and the voice is all Sweet Clara’s. You get a sense of who she is – her intelligence, her strength, her point of view – just by the words the author puts in her mouth. If you are going to read this aloud, definitely practice. You will want to correct the grammar as you read but if you do, your will miss much of the voice. Through Sweet Clara’s voice, we really come to know her, making this is perfect book to teach character analysis.
The United States v. Jackie Robinson
by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
Most sports fans, and students of history, know that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier to become the first black player in Major League Baseball. But this book tells the lesser known story of how Jackie Robinson took on segregation in the US Military – and won! The author has a factual, yet engaging style that makes this a really great read aloud. Students will also enjoy the colorful illustrations as they get to know Jackie as a person of dignity and integrity. This is a powerful book for students in grades 3-6.
The book is well written and organized chronologically, so we first meet Jackie as a student and an outstanding athlete. The text organization makes this a perfect book to practice summarizing. Be sure to check out this resource for support with that! I also like to teach language with this, specifically, prepositional phrases. Situating grammar within a text helps students see how to use grammar to make their own writing more descriptive and/or powerful. In this text, there are many really great passages that illustrate how to effectively use prepositional phrases. Check out this power-packed sentence, which includes 6 prepositional phrases!
This resource on TPT has Lesson Plans and Student Sheets to help students summarize and practice language skills. Check it out today!
More blog posts to check out:
- Twelve Fantastic Picture Books to Teach Black History – Part 2 of this blog post
- A Girl Like Me – This blog post features strageties for using this powerful, 7-minute film to help students understand the hidden cost of segregation.
- Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow – This blog post explores a powerful book for fans of graphic novels and sports. It’s great for 3-6 grade readers.
- Five Picture Books to Start the School Year Right! – This is my all-time favorite list of books, and includes another Jacqueline Woodson title – The Other Side.
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