Black History Month celebrates the achievements of influential Black people. It’s also a great time to emphasize Black people’s struggles in American history so we remember. It is a horrific part of American history we cannot afford to forget. Books are a powerful tool to accomplish this. They help educate and guide dialogue with children about racial equality.
These are a few of my favorite children’s books that focus specifically on Black people’s struggles. They talk about racism, slavery, and segregation. The books are a mild, child-appropriate introduction to each topic.
The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones & Renée Watson
A young Black student struggles with a school assignment to trace her ancestral roots. She can only trace her roots three generations, all born in the United States. She is ashamed. Her grandmother comforts her with the story of her history.
She starts at the beginning before her ancestors are enslaved. Her grandmother describes how her ancestors were free Africans. They had their own language, traditions, and culture. She told how they were stolen and forced to live in cruel conditions on the White Lion bound for colonial America. Her ancestors were strong and resilient though. They held onto hope and faith.
Most importantly, they refused to die. They started as groups of diverse people from different tribes stolen from various parts of Africa. Then they became one—people born on the water.
I like this book because it teaches that African Americans are more than descendants of slaves. Too many times, I hear Black people say their ancestors were slaves. Yes, that is true, but that is not the entire truth. African American ancestors were once a free people. Their history goes beyond slavery. I also like that the story is a lesson in having hope and faith. It teaches that people should never stop dreaming or fighting.
Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Inspiration came to the author to write Almost to Freedom after seeing a rag doll displayed at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. The book is told from the perspective of a rag doll, Sally.
Sally belongs to a slave girl, Lindy. Sally narrates Lindy and her mom’s journey on the Underground Railroad to a safe house. Then one night, Lindy and her mom quickly leave the safe house to avoid slave catchers. Sally is accidentally left behind. The rag doll is sad and lonely until another little girl escaping to freedom comes to the safe house.
I love how the author tells the story from the perspective of a doll. She brilliantly describes the tragic events in a manner sensitive enough for young children and without compromising the cruelties of enslavement. I also like how she includes white people aiding in the escape to show that there were good people fighting for what was right.
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine & Kadir Nelson
Henry’s Freedom Box is based on the true story of Henry “Box” Brown. The story begins with Henry as a young slave boy. He doesn’t know how old he is because slaves’ birth dates are not recorded.
Henry’s master falls ill and gifts Henry to his son. Henry works hard for his new master. He grows older, marries, and has children. Then one day, while at work, Henry receives news that his family is sold. He would never see them again. Heartbroken, Henry decides to risk everything and escape to Pennsylvania in a cargo box.
This book does an excellent job of describing the inhumanity of slavery in a way suitable for young children. I particularly enjoyed the author’s note at the end of the book. It provides details about Henry “Box” Brown. Henry was one of the most famous runaway slaves. I appreciated this information because I feel mainstream education focuses on the same historical figures. Don’t get me wrong, influential heroes such as Harriett Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. should be celebrated. However, I feel it’s important to highlight other historical figures as well.
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
This book is about two little girls, one Black and one white. They live on the opposite side of a fence that segregates their town. Each girl is warned it’s unsafe on the other side of the fence. They are not given a reason and don’t understand why.
The girls are curious but do not go beyond the fence. Instead, they circumvent the rule by sitting on the fence. They slowly develop a friendship. They hope for a day when the fence is knocked down.
This is one of my favorite children’s books. The last page makes me cry every time I read it. First, I love the symbolism of the fence. I also like the message: children aren’t born to hate. Racism is a seed planted and watered by adults. These girls were determined not to let that seed grow in their hearts. Sometimes, adults can learn a lot from children and should follow their lead.
These are my favorite books to read during Black History Month and throughout the year. Each book is beautifully illustrated. More importantly, they delicately introduce some difficult, yet important, topics and raise awareness. They also encourage thoughtful discussions about right and wrong.
I hope these books, along with ones that highlight Black heroes, find their way onto your bookshelves and into your hearts.
Originally published February 2022.
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