Black history makes for compelling reading for youngsters

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is in Washington, D.C.’s Potomac Park.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is in Washington, D.C.’s Potomac Park. AP archives

February is Black History Month, and we use this time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of historic black figures in America. Knowing our past and striving to better understand our culture helps us build a sense of pride in our identity.

History is the key to understanding a nation's past and can serve as a guide for our future. There are so many reasons to learn about history, including discovering who helped shape major change in a society, how they approached it, the events that took place and how they helped shape our understanding.

Here are some biographical children's picture books, published in the past year, to help our youngest readers learn about some of the most influential black Americans.

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"Muhammad Ali: A Champion is Born"

By Gene Barretta

Katherine Tegen Books, 2017

Age 5 and up

“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show the world.” Who would have thought a stolen bicycle, a tenacious boy, and a police officer, coming together, would have formed a bond as well as sparked the beginnings of a world champion and gold medalist. Meet Cassius Clay, a 12-year-old from Kentucky. This beautifully illustrated picture book shares the story of how a young boy who gets his bicycle stolen channels his anger in a positive way that will change his life. The book follows a timeline of major events in Muhammad Ali’s life, from childhood into a three-time world champion. A young child can learn about the man who could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

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"Martin’s Dream Day"

By Kitty Kelley

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017

Age 5 and up

Journalist and author Kitty Kelley wrote this children’s picture book to share the beautiful pictures taken by famous photographer and friend Stanley Tretick on one of the biggest days in the history of the civil rights movement. Black-and-white images as well as color pictures share the excitement and mood of Aug. 28, 1963, when 250,000 people marched on Washington, D.C., and heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

King believed in equality for everyone, and in the 1960’, African-Americans did not have basic rights. Sharing these exceptional images and King's inspirational words will connect young children to the atmosphere of the civil rights movement, during a time when our country was on the brink of change.


"Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History"

By Walter Dean Myers

Harper, 2017

Age 6 and up

The story of Frederick Douglass isn’t one that is easily forgotten. Walter Dean Myers tells a gripping story about Douglass' journey from a young boy living as a slave to a powerful advocate against slavery and a supporter of the abolitionist movement. At the age of 9, Douglass was sent to live away from his family. His new master’s wife began teaching him how to read, until his master found out and would not allow it. His master felt that teaching a slave to read would make him "unfit to be a slave." Hearing these words inspired the boy to try harder to educate himself by learning to read. “He felt that reading could make a difference in how a person lived.” The decisions Frederick made as a young man helped him change American history, and his passion for knowledge and reading will surely inspire young readers.

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"The Legendary Miss Lena Horne"

By Carole Boston Weatherford

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017

Age 6 and up

Filled with inspirational quotes and colorful pictures, this biographical picture book of Lena Horne’s life is sure to engage young readers. Born into a family of achievers, Horne was no different. She learned to read before kindergarten, and books became her haven “from hardship and heartache.” She began performing during the Great Depression, and quit school to help her family — as did many others at that time. Her first audition was at the well-known Cotton Club in Harlem, and that is where she began her career. Horne’s light shone bright at the 1963 rally at the March on Washington, when she sang the spiritual "This Little Light of Mine." Her commitment to the civil rights movement and for racial equality for black performers paved the way for black entertainers to come.


"Before She Was Harriet"

By Lesa Cline-Ransome

Holiday House, 2017

Age 5 and up

Born Araminta “Minty” Ross in 1822, this young woman would become a martyr for the African-Americans she led to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She fled slavery in 1840 and changed her name to Harriet. So began her notable life as a suffragist, a conductor, a nurse, and a spy. Follow along with this poetic expression of her story and discover more about her many roles in this country’s journey from slavery to freedom.

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"That is My Dream!"

By Langston Hughes & Daniel Miyares

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2017

Age 4 and up

Introduce a young child to the great era known as the Harlem Renaissance — when there was a marked increase of black writers and poets being published. The most famous poet from Harlem was Langston Hughes. "Dream Variation," one of Hughes’ most eloquent yet simple poems about being black and his hopes for the future, is illustrated in this children’s picture book. As interpreted by the illustrator Daniel Miyares, a child can envision the true meaning of what "Dream Variation" is truly about. The poem juxtaposes between the era Langston is living in and his "dream" for the future. Illustrations of black children soaring high on bird’s wings and a black child and a white child sharing water from the same source can help a child begin to understand the era in which Langston was writing and his vision for a future filled with hope and peace.

Dawn Guest is a library assistant for the Fort Worth Library