Twelve Fantastic Picture Books for Teaching Black History – Part 2
This is the second part of this post – I just couldn’t get it all to fit in one reasonable length post! It’s so wonderful to be part of the education world in a time when authors are really coming through with so many amazing picture books! Be sure to check out the first six books here!
The first post featured books that dealt with the beginning of slavery, the Civil War and into the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. This post will feature books that focus on the more recent past, from the 1930’s to the present day. This part of the list shifts from strict history to books that use the words of black authors to share black experiences with students. Let’s dive in!
The Dreamkeeper and Other Poems
by Langston Hughes
There is a good reason this book has been in print since 1996 – it’s completely fabulous! Brian Pinkney chose a scratchboard technique for the illustrations that enhances the simplicity of Hughes’ poetry. If you don’t know Langston Hughes, here is the title poem from the book (it is in the public domain).
The Dream Keeper
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all of your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the World.by Langson Hughes
As he does in this poem, Langston Hughes wrote repeatedly about the American Dream – it’s fragility and his longing to make that dream a reality for all people, regardless of color. He has a simple, approachable style that makes him perfect for intermediate students. Students in 4th – 6th grades will easily understand all of the vocabulary, making these perfect for teaching poetic techniques like symbolism, personification and metaphor.
Some of my students’ favorite poems from the book include:
- Mother to Son
- The Dream Keeper
These poems plus a biography of Hughes and tons of great instuctional materials and Students Sheets are included in Poetry Break – Langston Hughes. Check it out on TPT now! This video features a demonstration of the final lesson in the unit.
Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou
by Bethany Hegedus
Even though this book was not written by Maya Angelou, you can hear her voice on every page. The book tells her story. If you’ve read her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you know the story is not a happy one. Hegedus handles the tragedies of Angelou’s life with compassion and nuance, making this an appropriate book for upper intermediate students – grades 5-7. The bold and colorful illustrations are also full of symbolism and nuance. This is a sophisticated picture book that is powerful for teaching deep analysis of text, illustrations, and mood. And the story is riveting.
Upper grade Reading Standards call for students to analyze visual elements to understand meaning and tone, and this is a perfect book for that. This illustration found on pages 7-8 of the text is especially powerful. The author writes about the “seesaw of the south”, and the illustrator has chosen to make Maya’s Momma Henderson the balance point of the seesaw. And then we see Maya, alone, at the bottom of the seesaw, and a group of white girls in the bucket at the top – clearly defying the law of gravity. This is a powerful illustration of discrimination and of the delicate balancing act that it took for Momma Henderson, and thousands of others, to survive in the segregated south. The book is full of illustrations with a deeper, symbolic meaning that provide a great opportunity for students to practice deep analysis of a text.
For older grade students, it is really powerful to follow this up by having them read Maya Angleou’s poem, Still I Rise. The poem reads like an anthem, and will help students hear Maya’s voice. After reading this picture book of her life, they will easily understand the theme of the poem. One caution, there is a stanza that mentions sexiness. Angelou was a passionate advocate for women, so that is something that she celebrates. If you feel like that is not appropriate for your students, I suggest having students read the first three stanzas and the last two stanzas, and being careful to let them know that it is an excerpt of her longer, really wonderful poem. Here is the first stanza.
by Jacqueline Woodson
“This Is the Rope” is a simple and beautiful story about a rope that begins with a grandmother in South Carolina and ends with a grand-daughter in Brooklyn. The story has a lovely message about the memories that are carried in our things and also about new beginnings. The family leaves the south during the Great Migration when many black families went north looking for a better life. The rope is a jump rope, and then it ties their belongings to the top of the car. It plays a small role in many events, eventually ending up as a tattered jump rope once again. This is wonderful book for grades 2 – 4.
I like to use this book to teach theme. The rope weaves in and out of the families’ everyday lives, always part of memories – big and small. Because the same idea is repeated, there is plenty of text evidence to support the idea that the author is talking about the importance of holding fast to memories while moving forward into new experiences. In the author’s note, Woodson writes, “The rope we brought to this ‘new country’ was Hope.” Once students realize that the rope symbolizes hope, they are usually able to infer the theme.
by Jonah Winter and Shane W. Evans
This is a moving tribute to all of the people who worked, across time, to ensure that a 100 year old woman could vote for the first black president of the United States. The title character was inspired by a real woman, but the author has used her walk up the hill to her polling place to symbolize the long journey towards the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lillian is joined by the memories of her ancestors as their lives move from enslavement to freedom, from voting under the 15th Amendment to discrimination under Jim Crow. As she continues trudging up the hill, she remembers John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their march becomes her march. She “hears” Lyndon Johnson’s words as he signed the Voting Rights Act, and finally, finally, she votes.
This is another book with powerful symbols in it. The entire book is an extended metaphor, exploring the challenges that Black Americans have faced in the voting booth. Throughout the book, Lillian climbs the hill and the struggle for voting rights unfolds.
This is a wonderful book for upper grade students, grades 5-7. It helps them understand the history of the Voting Rights Act, and its impact today, and its erosion. In addition to the great history, students will increase reading comprehension by exploring the literary device of extended metaphor. There is one illustration of a man begin sold without clothes, so if you think your students will be worried by that illustration, you might choose not to show that page when you read aloud. Or, you could have a mature conversation about the reality of being enslaved. The illustration is tasteful and not explicit, but it is something you will want to think about before reading this book aloud.
by Charlotte Watson Sherman
I wanted to end this blog post with two books that are pure celebrations! The first is Brown Sugar Babe. This book begs to be read aloud! It’s a poem to the beauty of all things brown. In the beginning, a little brown-skinned girl says, “I’m pink.” Her mama then spends the rest of the poem celebrating the beauty of brown all around us. This is a lovely book for students in grades 2-5. They will easily connect with the positive message and the love between the mother and the child.
This book is chock-full of metaphors. “Brown is a plum spurting sweetness on our tongues.” “Brown tastes like pancakes and syrup and caramel and spice…” Almost every page has a metaphor on it, making this a perfect book for figurative language. I actually use this book as part of a poetry unit that I teach in the spring, not during Black History month. I read Hailstones and Halibut Bones to my students along with this book. That book also features poems written with metaphors and exploring our feelings about colors. My students then use their understanding of metaphors to write their own color poem. It’s a quick unit, only about a week or so, but helps students really understand figurative language and use it consistenly in their own writing.
by Kwame Alexander
The final book is Kwame Alexander’s celebration of spirit and grit and persistence. This is a powerful poem, especially if students have some background knowledge. Woven throughout the poem are references to people who have survived, and the art that helped them overcome. For example, one page reads, “This is for the unafraid, the audacious ones, who carried the red, white and Weary Blues on the battlefield to save an imperfect Union.” The line is wonderful on its face, but becomes more meaningful if students realize that Weary Blues was Langston Hughes’ first book of poetry. There are other references to Hughes, who must be an inspiration for Alexander. This poem certainly connects in many ways with Hughes’ themes of hope and the American Dream.
I use this poem to teach prefixes and to practice compare and contrast. For me, the poem is a perfect follow up after I teach this Langston Hughes unit to my students. We compare and contrast Alexander’s poem with Mother to Son (scroll up to see the video for info on how I teach that poem). I read Alexander’s book out loud to the students and we discuss his theme of overcoming. Then I like to show this video of Alexander reading it to a group of school age teens. I love bringing in the author’s voice. After the students have heard the poem twice, I ask them to complete a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the two poems, and then use that Venn diagram to write a compare and contrast paragraph.
If your students are not familiar with Langston Hughes, there are still plenty of wonderful things you can teach with this book. Alexander ties the poem together with many words that begin with the prefix un (unafraid, undefeated, unforgettable, unflappable, undeniable…) Give students a copy of the text, or project it, and ask them to record all of the words with the prefix. I like to ask students to choose 3-5 words from our class list. They fold a piece of paper in half the hot dog way to create two columns. In one column, they write the word, and in the other, they illustrate it. Then, I have students fold the papers the other way, so the word faces them and the illustration faces outward. Then I give students a star sticky note and ask them to grab a pencil. Students move around the classroom, showing their illustrations ONLY to other students. The other student has to use the illustration to guess the word. If they guess correctly, both students mark a star on their stickies, and then move on to another student. This activity gives students lots of practice using target vocabulary and thinking about the meaning of the word. And, they think it’s fun!
I hope that you have found a book or three to add to your classroom library. 🙂 This is a theme that I have writing about for years, so, if you missed these blog posts, check them out now for more resources and insights to grow your teaching!
More blog posts to check out:
- Twelve Fantastic Picture Books to Teach Black History – Just in case you missed the first part of this two-part 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.