“History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is also a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. History tells a people where they have been and what they have been… where they are and what they are. Most important, history tells a people where they still must go…what they still must be.”
– Dr. John Henrik Clarke
In the United States, February is Black History Month. This month is devoted to educating and celebrating notable individuals and their accomplishments, organizations, events, and the movements of the Africa Diaspora. To learn more, there are so many amazing books from which to choose (a quandary that makes me deliriously happy!). In honor of this special month, I have selected several unique books I’m sure you will enjoy sharing with your global citizen of the world. Celebrate Black History 365 days a year!!
8 Best Children’s Books for Black History Month
A Kid’s Guide to African American History: More than 70 Activities (A Kid’s Guide series) – Written by Nancy Sanders
What is really wonderful about this book is that it includes a host of activities, games, and songs to engage the reader. Sanders wanted the learning experience of important topics to extend beyond the mere reading of the words.
She connects various folk tales to their African origins and includes stories of pivotal people such as author/mathematician/surveyor Benjamin Banneker and fur trader Jean Baptiste DuSable, the founder of Chicago. With the activities provided, true learning can increase and readers can enjoy a higher level of comprehension through synthesis and application.
Sundiata: Lion King of Mali – Written and Illustrated by David Wisniewski
This is the story of Sundiata Keita (1217 A.C.E. – 1255 A.C.E.), who would become known as “The Lion King” and the first Mansa, “King of Kings,” of Mali. It is highly inspiring, as Mansa Sundiata overcomes his inability to speak or walk as well as his having been exiled with his mother and later becomes the founder of the Mali Empire. The author did an incredible presentation in both words and art. Wisniewski retells this story in the oral tradition of the Malian griots, who were historians and storytellers during this time. The art is the author’s signature cut-paper illustrations, which have to be seen to be believed!
Mansa Musa: The Lion of MaliWritten by Kephra Burns, Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon
In selecting the Wisniewski book about Sundiata, I had to follow it up with this book about Mansa Musa. The great-nephew of Sundiata, this is the story of Musa (c. 1280 A.C.E. – c. 1337 A.C.E.), starting from his birth to his famous two-year el-hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in 1324 A.C.E. Burns recounts that in this lavish procession those in the caravan, including his enemies, were dressed in their finest for this holy trip. Burns writes, “Mansa Musa assembled a caravan that had never been seen before. The train of sixty thousand courtiers and servants included the king’s personal retinue of twelve thousand attendants, all dressed in brocade & Persian silk. Five hundred others each carried a staff of gold weighing six pounds. Behind Mansa Musa walked eighty gold-laden camels, each carrying three hundred pounds of gold bars & dust.”
Mansa Musa even provided all necessities for those in the caravan, including food for the animals. While en route to Mecca, he gifted the gold to the poor and traded gold for tokens to honor his travel. Also, as a sign of his wealth, he constructed universities and cultural centers along his travel route and several sources reported that every Friday he built a mosque, in preparation for worship. Because of the grand splendor of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage, European cartographers were inspired to include Africa on their world maps. Truly, only Leo and Diane Dillon could have illustrated such grandness, and they succeeded gorgeously!!
I also want to add that in October 2012, The Huffington Post announced that Mansa Musa was named “The World’s Richest Man of All Time!” After adjusting for inflation, as calculated by Celebrity Net Worth, Mansa Musa was worth “a staggering $400 billion dollars!!”
Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin’ CowboyWritten by Andrea D. Pinkney, Illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Although this may be for older readers, it is an exciting story of Willie “Bill” Pickett (Dec. 5, 1870 – April 2, 1932), the most famous black cowboy and rodeo performer. He created the technique of bulldogging, which is grabbing a steer by the horns and wrestling it to the ground. His showmanship in performing stunts and tricks was heralded as amazing, and he could be seen performing on the same circuit as Buffalo Bill and Will Rogers. What’s unique about this book is not only does it have a bibliography for further reading, it also includes a subsection on blacks in the American West, a topic often overlooked in American history.
Ellington Was Not a StreetWritten by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Poetess Ntozake Shange lovingly reminisces about her early childhood in this beautiful tribute to her close-knit family and the various leaders in the black community who often visited her home.
Illustrator Nelson graces this tribute with his inimitable artwork, allowing the reader to feel the love and pride emanating from the pages. It is his stunning portrayal of Shange’s parents’ family friends such as Paul Robeson, Ray Barretto, W.E.B. DuBois, “Dizzy” Gillespie, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, and Virgil “Honey Bear” Akins, that will cause one to reflect, especially during Black History Month, on how much has been overcome and what still needs to be accomplished. Shange also included short biographies of her family’s guests “who changed the world,” which is very thoughtful indeed.
Keats’s Neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats TreasuryWritten and Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats; introduction by Anita Silvey
One does not have to be black to make black history and Ezra Jack Keats is an excellent example. In 1962 he “forever changed the landscape of children’s literature when he chose an African-American boy as the hero of “The Snowy Day.” I still have my dog-eared, well-loved copy from my childhood more than 35 years ago! In this collection, Keats takes the readers to his “neighborhood,” which is a realistic portrayal of a multi-ethnic, urban setting filled with loving families and friends.
In “Keats’ Neighborhood,” readers will be treated to 10 of Keats’ best-loved stories, including “The Snowy Day,” which won The Caldecott Medal in 1963; “Goggles!,” a Caldecott Honor book; and “Whistle for Willie” and “Peter’s Chair,” both of which feature the hero Peter. This book is also exciting because it includes reminisces and reflections on Keats from Jerry Pinkney, Simms Taback, Reynold Ruffins, and Eric Carle, four of the most significant children’s writers and illustrators today, as well as an afterword that details Keats’ incredible life, including his creation of Peter.
Golden Legacy Illustrated History MagazineEdited and Published by Bertram A. Fitzgerald
Speaking of childhood, I would be remiss if I did not include Golden Legacy Illustrated History Magazine. This collection, which I also still have from my own childhood, is comprised of 16 volumes, each of them vividly illustrated in color. Every volume is a historical account of the black achievement of people from around the world, including revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti, the Dumas family (general, Thomas-Alexandre; his son, author, Alexandre, père, and grandson, author/playwright, Alexandre, fils,) of France; father of Russian modern literature Alexander Pushkin; and the first African-American explorer of the Arctic, Matthew Henson. The series also has a volume on ancient African kingdoms, African-American inventors Granville T. Woods and Louis Latimer, and black cowboys including Bill Pickett, who is mentioned above, and Nat Love.
Of Thee, I Sing: A Letter to My DaughtersWritten by Barack Obama, Illustrated by Loren Long
Written as a letter to his daughters, Sasha and Malia, before being elected president of the United States, Barack Obama created a “moving tribute to thirteen groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped our nation.” Paying homage to individuals such as Georgia O’Keefe, Sitting Bull, Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez, Maya Lin, Jackie Robinson, Neil Armstrong and Billie Holiday, President Obama beautifully expresses to his daughters the importance of pursuing their own dreams but also of incorporating values such as honoring others’ sacrifices and being proud to be an American. Every time I read this, it brings tears to my eyes because it’s beyond wonderful to read the gorgeous hopes that loving parents have for their children.