32 books to read during Black history month
This February, Black History Month is undoubtedly a time for history to be made.
Kamala Harris became the first black woman to take office as Vice President of our nation, an achievement that emerges from a national reckoning of racism. So there has never been a better time to celebrate the successes and experiences of those who came before.
Best selling author Kwame Alexander stopped by TODAY to share some of his favorite books on black history for people of all ages. Below, Harris’ niece Meena Harris, writer Andrea Davis Pinkney, Marley Dias, host of Bookmarks, and former NFL player Malcolm Mitchell curate these suggestions that will enhance the Black History Month for Black History Month 2021 and all year round celebrate and reflect.
Books to be seen TODAY
“End the fight!” by Veronica Chambers and the New York Times staff
Alexander’s reprint Versify published this book about lesser known heroines of the women’s suffrage movement. “What we get in this book is a much broader and fuller portrait of the struggle for women’s suffrage for readers of all ages,” he says. “This book could be an origin story for Kamala Harris and all the little girls who see themselves in it.”
“Tristan Strong is destroying the world” by Kwame Mbalia
Alexander’s choice for older children is Mbalia’s epic fantasy in a world inspired by black and African folk heroes. It was his family’s last reading with his daughter Samayah. “Your child will not be able to put down these adventures.”
“Selected Poems by Langston Hughes” by Langston Hughes
“We all had the chills when we delivered the necessary and majestic poem to Amanda Gorman at the inauguration,” says Alexander. “That is the power of poetry to tell a story, and who better to comfort us in words, amuse us with rhyme, make us dance to the rhythm of verse than the black bard, the Shakespeare of Harlem, Langston Hughes.”
“Just Mercy: A Tale of Justice and Salvation” by Bryan Stevenson
“‘Just Mercy’ is a scorching journey about a young lawyer defending a young man named Walter McMillian, who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for a notorious murder he did not commit,” says Alexander. “We read the book and Samayah was asked to read the YA adaptation in her class. Then we saw the film as a family. It’s dramatic, inspiring, sad, entertaining and ultimately hopeful.
“The dragons, the giant, the women” by Wayétu Moore
“I met Wayétu Moore almost a decade ago when she published books for children in her home country Liberia, where she also opened the first bookshop dedicated to recreational reading,” says Alexander. Her memories follow her journey from war-torn Liberia to the United States. “It’s about finding a home. And about your lifelong commitment to finding their voice and helping young children find theirs.”
“Heads of the Colored: Stories” by Nafissa Thompson-Spiers
Alexander said on hearing Thompson-Spiers read from that first collection of short stories, “I was knocked off my feet. And I sat down. I’ve never laughed so much in my life.” Thompson-Spiers won the PEN Open Book Award and was recognized for the National Book Award.
Books by our panelists
“Becoming Muhammad Ali” by Kwame Alexander and James Patterson
Alexander, author of last year’s Caldecott Winner and Newbery Honors “The Undefeated,” partnered with James Patterson on this young reader book that combines poetry and prose, biography and novel to tell Ali’s story to young readers.
“Ambitious Girl” by Meena Harris and Marissa Valdez
Harris followed up her debut picture book “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” with a story about a young girl who describes a strong woman as “too ambitious” and discovers how girls and women “can redefine, redefine and reclaim words” beat her down, “she says. “I wrote this book for everyone – regardless of age or gender – but especially for women and black girls who have ever been underestimated or overshadowed.”
“She Insisted: Harriet Tubman” by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Davis Pinkney’s inspiring chapter book biography for young readers is part of a new series that expands Chelsea Clinton’s “She Persisted” picture books.
“Marley Dias Can Do It: And So Do You” by Marley Dias
Dias loves to share this with kids so they know what they can accomplish. “Often times, children think that they have to wait until they are ‘adults’ to help others, but I use my story to question that thought,” says Dias.
“My Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World” by Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Robertson
Mitchell, a former New England Patriot, wrote this book based on his belief that reading creates potential. “Henley, the main character, shares with us that while some words are too big, some sentences too long, and some books too thick, overcoming reading barriers gives children the tools they need to empower their futures.”
Black history books for children
“Hair Love” by Matthew A. Cherry and Vashti Harrison
Harris says her family read this book too many times to count and it helped expand their ideas of who and what they think is beautiful. “Last year we spotted ‘Hair Love’ in a local bookstore and my daughter’s eyes lit up. The pride and excitement in her voice – the joy of seeing people like her not just portrayed but celebrated – was unmistakable. “
“I’m Enough” by Grace Byers
Harris calls this picture book “beautiful, joyful, and life-affirming,” especially for young black girls. “‘I’m Enough’ is a wonderful tool for teaching any girl – or reader of any age – that you are as perfect as you are.”
“What do you do with a voice like that?” by Chris Barton and Ekua Holmes
“Talk about fat! The narrative and collage images in this book speak loud and clear – and beautiful,” says Pinkney.
“Little Heroes of Color” by David Heredia
Pinkney says the pioneers featured here “opened my eyes to personalities who weren’t – but should be – in traditional history books!”
“Brown Boy Joy” by Thomishia Booker, Jessica Gibson and Vicky Amrullah
“The title says it all. Brown guys are full of kindness. It can’t be said enough,” says Pinkney.
“Respect: Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul” by Carole Boston Weatherford and Frank Morrison
“Thank goodness for this book,” says Pinkney. “I can now show my children that today’s pop stars owe their success to the respect that Queen Aretha has earned as a soul singer and that has opened so many doors.
“Did I ever tell you Black Lives was Matter?” by Shani Mahiri King; illustrated by Bobby C. Martin Jr.
“It’s time to tell our kids the truth about size. This book does it,” Pinkney says.
“Everything because you are important” by Tami Charles and Bryan Collier
Mitchell calls his election “an important message for the world. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, generation, religion, or sexual orientation, you are important.”
Black history books for tweens and teens
“Stella by Starlight” by Sharon M. Draper
Pinkney suggests this middle-class novel about a Depression-era girl who must be brave when the Ku Klux Klan returns to their separated town.
“King and the Dragonflies” by Kacen Callender
“‘King and the Dragonflies’ reminds me of my childhood in Valdosta, Georgia,” says Mitchell. “As a young African American who was in search of himself in sports and a variety of bad decisions, I learned that it was okay to be me.”
Best classic books
“Selected Poems by Nikki Giovanni” by Nikki Giovanni
Alexander chooses this specifically for the poem “Ego-Tripping”.
“Tar Beach” by Faith Ringgold
“As a city dweller, Faith Ringgold’s celebration of the magic on the roof is something our family has enjoyed for decades,” Pinkney says. “And this book speaks to anyone who can see the magic of the sky on a summer night.”
“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
Dias recently read this Read With Jenna selection, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. “It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read, and I want everyone to read this book. It gives insight into colorism, racism, sexism, economic inequality, and the intersectional struggles of being an American black girl.”
“Malcolm X: Necessary by all means” by Walter Dean Myers
“Malcolm X’s journey is one of complex twists and turns,” says Mitchell. “His experience in poverty and as a prisoner and cultural / religious icon offers many opportunities for judgment. For me, the crucial moment came when he stared at misconduct and hypocrisy in his circle and said, ‘No more.’ “”
“Parent Like It Matters: How to Raise Joyful, Changemaking Girls” by Janice Johnson Dias
“My mom wrote a book (and no, it’s not just about me). I’m really proud of her and this book because it combines social science research with the work she does with girls at the GrassROOTS Community Foundation and with me in one place, “says Dias. “It gives parents the opportunity to develop their own passions, and offers tasks that parents and children can do together to enjoy themselves and make a difference in the world too.”
“Through My Eyes” by Ruby Bridges
Needless to say, Rudy Bridges is a hero and champion of the Black Community. Her story is about bravery and justice. “Through My Eyes” takes us on an uncensored journey through the lens of a courageous woman.
Best authors’ books to look at
“Friday Black” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Alexander also recommends the debut of Adjei-Brenyah, which combats racism and unrest with a new voice.
“The Old Truck” by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey
“The best reading ever!” Says Pinkney. “I love this book to share with the kids in my life. We keep jumping in this truck.”
“Modern Herstory” by Blair Imani
Dias says, Imani “highlights the experiences and contributions of amazing women and non-binary people who have made a difference in the world. Although I am also featured in the book, this book is really helpful to me because it is more to me about the different things teaching kinds of work I could do to help others. “
The best books became a film
“Tiny Pretty Things” by Dhonielle Clayton and Sora Charaipotra
I read this book a few years ago and I love the author and her lively storytelling. I’m adding this book specifically for those who love a good story but don’t necessarily enjoy reading. “Tiny Pretty Things” recently turned into a Netflix show! If you are a teenager who does not enjoy reading, try to watch the series and read this lovely story.
“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
“‘The Hate U Give’ is a powerful story that documents the joys and horrors of growing up in the black community,” says Mitchell. “Unfortunately, misunderstanding and neglect lead to chaos. This book shows that unjust chaos is not immune to unity, courage and justice.”
Further book recommendations can be found at:
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