Our top picks of books about trailblazing African-American girls and women!
Too often the stories of African-American women, who historically faced both racial and gender discrimination, have been hidden from many mainstream histories. Fortunately, in recent years, many have had their stories told in children's books and, in our blog post, we've featured 75 books for all ages, from tots to teens, about trailblazing African-American women and their diverse contributions to history. Their stories are heroic, heartbreaking, and hopeful, and are perfect for reading with your kids this summer!
You can find more books about African-American girls and women throughout history in our African-American History Collection.
Books About African-American Women Of History
"I look up to Michelle Obama. Let me tell you why..." Introduce your baby, toddler, or preschooler to a woman you admire with this book from the I Look Up To... series. This detailed board book distills Michelle Obama's excellent qualities into delicious little bites, with vibrant illustrations that are appealing for babies and toddlers but text that's interesting enough for preschoolers. Each spread is accented with a quote from Michelle Obama herself, encouraging kids to follow in the footsteps of this inspiring woman. For two more board books from this series featuring pioneering African American women, check out I Look Up To... Misty Copeland and I Look Up To... Oprah Winfrey.
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery — but she knew that everyone should be free. She made a courageous escape and journey north through the Underground Railroad, but she couldn't bear to stay there knowing others needed her help. Harriet would return over and over to help more people escape to freedom; in all of her missions, she never lost a "passenger." This simplified board book adaptation of Harriet Tubman (Little People, Big Dreams) is an accessible way to introduce Tubman's inspiring story to toddlers. For more board books about inspiring black women, we recommend Maya: My First Maya Angelou, Wilma: My First Wilma Rudolph and Rosa: My First Rosa Parks.
Mae Jemison famously became the first black woman in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992 but years before that historic journey, she was a little girl who dreamed of dancing in space. Her mother told her, "If you believe it, and work hard for it, anything is possible." Little Mae's curiosity, intelligence, and determination, matched with her parents' encouraging words, paved the way for her incredible success at NASA. This inspirational introduction to a trailblazing astronaut will encourage children to reach for the stars and never give up on their dreams.
When Rosa Parks was arrested for refused to stand up on a segregated bus to give up her seat to a white person, she became the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a pivotal moment from the Civil Rights Movement. In this picture book biography from the Ordinary People Change The World series, author Brad Meltzer shows how Parks dared to stand up for rights by sitting down — a simple act that shows that anyone can become a hero if they defend what is right. The fun, conversational, first-person text and the illustrations depicting child-like characters reinforce to young readers that every hero was a person just like them. For more books for children and teens about Parks, visit our Rosa Parks Collection; adults can read about her extensive work for civil rights causes in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Even as a young girl, Mahalia Jackson loved singing gospel music: no matter how difficult her life was, gospel made her heart feel light. And as she got older, she realized that her voice also had the power to bring joy to everyone around her and she wanted to share it with the world. Eventually, Jackson's determination took her all the way to Washington, where her voice helped inspire Martin Luther King Jr. — and everyone else during the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Full of rich, colorful illustrations, this poignant, inspiring story will fascinate kids.
When Alice Coachman was born, a black girl in rural Georgia certainly wasn't going to be a world-class athlete. She had to overcome stereotypes about women and about African-Americans in order to earn a place on the 1948 Olympic team. As thousands of spectators watched, members of the US track and field women's team went down to defeat one by one... until Alice Coachman ruled the high jump event and became the first black woman to ever win a gold medal. This inspiring story depicts a woman determined to overcome every obstacle, both the physical bar she had to leap and the metaphorical ones she faced on her way there. For another great book about Coachman, check out Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper for ages 4 to 8.
When Edna Lewis became a chef, it was strange enough to see a woman in a professional kitchen, let alone an African-American woman. Long before the natural-food movement became popular, she sang the praises of eating local foods, choosing pure, wholesome ingredients, and taking food from farm to table. In this lyrical book, readers follow Lewis through one year, from planting to growing season to harvest and finally to a family dinner with a table piled high with delicious foods. An author's note about Lewis' life provides more information, while eager young chefs can test out the five kid-friendly recipes that are also included.
To kids today, the idea of a child having to be escorted to school by armed guards to protect her from an angry mob is shocking, but 6-year-old Ruby Bridges faced exactly that in 1960. After a judge ordered that Ruby should attend the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School, parents withdrew their children and held angry protests in front of the school. This compelling depiction of the child who became a civil rights hero just by attending first grade is now available in a special anniversary edition. Independent readers can read more about Bridges in Ruby Bridges Goes To School for ages 5 to 8 Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges for ages 6 to 12. For more books about Bridges, visit our Ruby Bridges Collection.
She was born on a Mississippi pig farm, but from the age of three, Oprah Winfrey performed at churches, becoming known to crowds as the Little Speaker. When people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said, "I want to be paid to talk." It seemed like a crazy dream, but after years of dedication, she would become a news anchor, the host of a talk show, a TV producer, and ,eventually, the owner of a media empire that turned her into the first black female billionaire. This book focuses on Winfrey's childhood, portraying her determination to overcome stereotypes and prejudice to achieve her dreams; an author's note includes additional details about her adult life. Older kids can learn more about Winfrey in Who Is Oprah Winfrey? for ages 8 to 12.
Today, Beyoncé is a world famous superstar, but as a child, she was quiet — so quiet that most people overlooked her completely. Fortunately, a special teacher discovered her gift: on stage, she was confident and dazzling, with a voice that astounded everyone. In this picture book biography, kids will learn about Beyoncé's rise (as well as the mistakes and obstacles she encountered along the way) and leave with an empowering message: find a way to follow your dreams, and you too can shine.
Billie Holiday's life was big and bold: she had a powerful voice, gardenias in her hair, and country-wide fame as Lady Day, one of the great performers of her time. She also had dogs — lots of dogs: a coat-pocket poodle, a beagle, Chihuahuas, a Great Dane, and more. But her favorite was Mister, a boxer who bolstered her courage when she needed it — like before her big performance at Carnegie Hall. This charming story tells the story of Holiday's bond with Mister, accented with stylish and colorful illustrations. An author's note includes more details about Holiday's troubled life, as well as a photograph of Holiday with the real-life Mister. Fans of Lady Day can learn more about her in Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song for ages 7 to 10 and Becoming Billie Holiday for ages 11 and up.
Many people know her only as Coretta Scott King, but she holds her own place in civil rights history for her work both before and after her husband's death. In this poetic picture book, Ntozake Shange captures her childhood — including defining moments like walking five miles to the colored school while the white kids' bus showered her with dust — to the marches at Selma and Washington, and ends with stirring images of protesters set to lines from the gospel song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round." A prose biography at the end encourages kids to learn more. This evocative book is a powerful way to introduce this key figure of history. Kids can learn more in Coretta Scott King: I Kept On Marching (ages 7 to 10). Adults can read more about her life in her autobiography, My Life, My Love, My Legacy. For more books about King, visit our Coretta Scott King Collection.
As soon as she could walk, Ann Cole Lowe learned how to sew. She worked alongside her mother in her dress shop, sewing party dresses for glamorous, wealthy women. After her mother died, Lowe decided to go to design school and set up her own shop. She ended up becoming "society's best kept secret" and sewed exquisite creations, including Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress and Olivia de Havilland's dress at the Oscars when she won for Best Actress. This picture book biography of an influential yet little-known fashion designer celebrates art, vision, and those who create beautiful things.
Everyone she knows, from her parents to her teachers to the police officer on the local beat, agrees that Althea Gibson is nothing but trouble. But when Buddy Walker, the play leader on Althea's street in Harlem, sees her play paddle tennis, he sees something else: talent. Buddy bought Althea her first stringed tennis racket, and soon, she was rocketing through the tennis ranks! Gibson would become the first African American ever to compete in and win the Wimbledon Cup — and a role model for black children everywhere. This exuberant biography captures Gibson's spirit and energy, the same traits that both made her "nothing but trouble" and also pushed her to the top of her game. For a new picture book about Gibson, we recommend Althea Gibson: The Story of Tennis' Fleet-of-Foot Girl for ages 5 to 9.
As a slave girl on a plantation in Georgia, Harriet Powers learned how to sew and quilt — so after she was freed following the Civil War, it only made sense to turn to her skill with a needle and thread to support herself and her family. She eventually started making pictorial quilts, illustrating everything from Bible stories to local legends. Today, these quilts are priceless examples of African American folk art. This conversational biography about an important but little-known figure from the American art world will give kids a new perspective on the power of sewing stories, as well as the challenges and triumphs that African-American people experienced when slavery was ended.
When Harriet Tubman was a slave, her faith convinced her that she was meant to be free, and she risked tremendous danger to escape. But how could she leave others in the same bondage she had left behind? So Tubman became one of the most famous Underground Railroad conductors, leading hundreds of others to freedom. This poetic book compares the Biblical story of Moses to Tubman's story, reinforcing why so many people called her Moses. Poetic language and dark, dramatic artwork make this a stand out title for teaching African American history. Young readers can learn more about Tubman in the picture books Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman and I Am Harriet Tubman, both for ages 4 to 8, and in the early reader Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter for ages 4 to 7. Adults can read more in Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. For more books for all ages about Tubman, visit our Harriet Tubman Collection.
Folk artist Clementine Hunter created beautiful artwork, even if she didn't have a canvas to use: window shades, glass bottles, old boards, and more became her medium if that's what it took to paint. Her pictures captured both the backbreaking work and the many joys of working on a southern farm. When her talent was discovered, her art went from hanging outside her home to big, important galleries... segregated galleries that Hunter wasn't allowed to enter, even as people admired her work. This charming picture book biography celebrates creative expression and reminds young readers that there's no such thing as the perfect time to make art — so you may as well do it whenever you can!
As a child, Aretha Franklin was shy — but she had a powerful voice! She started by singing at home, then in her church choir, and later moved to New York City to become a singer. It took years of work and performing before she made it big, but she held true to the values of equality and justice she learned at home, refusing to sing in segregated spaces and often performing to raise money for the Civil Rights Movement. This inspiring picture book biography captures all the key moments of Franklin's life, celebrating the talent and perseverance that drove her to become the Queen of Soul and the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To introduce middle grade readers to Franklin's life, we recommend Who Is Aretha Franklin? for ages 8 to 12.
Raven Wilkinson saw her first ballet performance when she was five, and from that moment on, she wanted to dance. But no black ballerina had ever danced with a major touring troupe before, and even when she won role after role, she encountered racism and bigotry from her audiences. For a while, she even left to dance in Holland, where "people were far more interested in who I was, rather than what I was." But she returned to her home country, and danced with the New York City Opera until she was fifty, inspiring a new generation of dancers — including famous names like Misty Copeland. This elegant picture book biography of a dance pioneer celebrates the power of refusing to give up on your dream.
In Cascade, Montana, in 1895, a stagecoach driver had a critical job: without the stagecoach, nothing could get through the mountains to St. Peter's Mission and the people there. But when Mary Fields, a tough and unflappable former slave — a woman in her 60s, no less — applied for the job, everyone thought the idea was ridiculous... until she proved she can hitch a team of six horses faster than any other applicant. For eight years, with nothing but her gun and her pet eagle to protect her, Fields would ride the dangerous path, never once losing a package or passenger. Author Tami Charles creates a vibrant portrait of this determined woman — and, in an author's note, explains what details about Fields weren't recorded, inviting kids to think about who and what gets included in the history we read.
Katherine Johnson loved to count, and despite the prejudices against both women and African Americans, she was determined to find a way to make her love of math into a career. As one of NASA's "human computers," Johnson hand calculated elaborate equations... including the trajectories that helped launch the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. When disaster befell the Apollo 13 mission, it was Johnson's flight-path calculations that brought the astronauts safely home. This inspiring biography of the mathematician catapulted to fame by Hidden Figures celebrates a love of math and encourages kids to follow their passions. For another picture book about Johnson and her colleagues, check out Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.
When Mamie Johnson was growing up, she had a passion for baseball that drove her to overcome every obstacle: when she couldn't find gear to practice with, she made a bat from a branch and a ball from stone wrapped with twine and tape. She had a strong right arm and a pitcher's eye — but she couldn't find a team. The All-American Girls Pro Baseball League didn't admit black women, and while Jackie Robinson had already broken the color barrier in the Brooklyn Dodgers, the men's teams wouldn't even consider a woman. Finally, she got her chance in 1953, and after signing with the Negro Leagues' Indianapolis Clowns, she became the first female pitcher to play on a men's professional team! This empowering biography celebrates how a passion for baseball drove Johnson to become a pioneer for women in sports.
Imagine learning to read at the age of 116! When Mary Walker was born into slavery in 1848, she wasn't allowed to learn to read — and even once she was freed at the age of 15, there was too much work to do to learn... or so she thought. But she was healthy and strong, and at the age of 114, she had outlived all her other family. It was time, perhaps, to follow that long-held dream: "Could someone her age learn to read? She didn’t know, but by God, she was going to try." Walker was certified the nation's oldest student twice over, and at 116, she learned! This inspiring story proves that, with perseverance and dedication, there's nothing you can't achieve.
In 1930s Yonkers, young Ella danced the Lindy Hop for pocket change, but that wasn't enough to support an orphan with ragged clothes and nowhere to spend the night. One night amateur night at the Apollo Theater, Ella let the music flow through her voice instead of her feet — and soon, she was on her way to a feature spot with Chick Webb's band and a number one radio hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." With rhythmic text and jazzy mixed-media illustrations, this is a fascinating introduction to the woman who became known as "The First Lady of Song." Fans of Fitzgerald can also read Ella: Queen of Jazz for ages 4 to 8 and Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa for ages 5 to 9.
Ella Baker's grandfather was a preacher who questioned his flock: "What do you hope to accomplish?" Ella Baker's mother gave her the answer that everyone should "lift as you climb": use your own success and influence to help others. As an adult, Baker joined the Civil Rights Movement, and took both her relatives' words to heart, educating her fellow African Americans about their rights. She partnered with Martin Luther King, Jr. to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and worked with the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, too. In this stunning biography in verse about Baker's little-appreciated influence in the fight for equal rights, kids are invited to consider how they, too, will lift others up.
As a girl, Isabella was born into slavery but but possessed a mind and a vision that knew no bounds. She was never taught to read or write, and she was separated from her mother, brothers, and sisters — and then, when she was older, from her children. But she knew she, like every person, deserved to be free. And her vision of her future led her to take a new name: Sojourner Truth. This luminous picture book biography captures Truth's strength and perseverance as it tells the story of this giant in the struggle for civil rights.
Wilma Rudolph was born so tiny that no one expected her to reach her first birthday — but she did. Then, before she was five years old, her left leg was paralyzed by polio, and no one expected her to walk again — but she did that too, working so hard on her leg exercises that she stopped using a leg brace before she turned twelve. Eight years later, she represented the US at the 1960 Olympiad, where she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympic Games. Kathleen Krull's telling of this piece of sports history lets Rudolph's determination and drive shine through. For another picture book biography of Rudolph, we recommend Wilma Rudolph (Little People, Big Dreams) for ages 5 to 8. For a picture book that captures how Rudolph inspired the girls who watched her performance, check out the fictional The Quickest Kid in Clarksville which is suitable for ages 4 to 8.
When Sylvia Townsend saw Swan Lake on TV, she was captivated. She borrowed books about dance from the bookmobile and taught herself — and picked the skills up so quickly that she started teaching other kids, too! When her fourth grade teacher offered to pay for lessons, Sylvia discovered another, unexpected obstacle: in the 1950s, dance studios won't teach an African American girl. But eventually, Sylvia found a teacher who did appreciate her talent — and she grew up to teach other children who are ready to fly! This inspiring picture book biography is a celebration of dance and determination — and a reminder of the value of libraries.
Melba Doretta Liston loved music as far back as she could remember, but it was when she was seven years old that she fell in love with an instrument: a shiny brass trombone. She taught herself how to play, and by the time she was a teenager, she had entered the world of jazz, joining a band and touring the country. Overcoming prejudices based on both her race and her gender, she became both a renowned trombone player and a masterful arranger who worked with jazz greats like Randy Weston, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Quincy Jones. This exuberant biography of one of music's little-known trailblazers is bursting at the seams with the joy of music.
At the age of three, Shirley Chisholm was leading games in her Brooklyn neighborhood; by college, she was a debate team champion who never backed down when she knew her point was sound. She fought for the rights of women and minorities in her community, but she wanted to do more. So in 1964, she became the first black woman elected to the New York State Assembly — and then in 1968, the first black women elected to Congress. She fought for anyone who was neglected: children, students, people in poverty, Native Americans, and many more. And in 1972, she pushed even further, and became the first black woman to run for president of the United States. This inspiring picture book biography celebrates a trailblazing woman who opened doors for generations still to come.
When Patricia Bath was coming of age, the intelligent young woman was determined to become a doctor, but she had many obstacles in her way: sexism, racism, and poverty all seemed to be working against her. Despite it all, she broke new ground for both women and African Americans in her chosen field of ophthalmology. In 1981, Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, a quick and nearly painless way to treat cataracts — one which has now been used on millions of patients around the world! This inspiring story from the Amazing Scientists picture book series, which includes a note from Bath herself, highlights the power of fighting for a dream.
When the Montgomery Bus Boycotts broke out to protest segregated seating, cook Georgia Gilmore wanted to help. She knew that the boycotters would need cars and gas, and for that, they needed money — so she recruited a bunch of her fellow cooks and bakers to make food to sell. Supporting the boycott was risky, so Gilmore only took cash, and whenever someone asked where the food or money came from, the answer was always the same: "nowhere." This celebration of a little-known figure of the Civil Rights movement celebrates the power of community and how one person can fuel a movement.
Years ago, two sisters named Venus and Serena Williams joined their father early in the morning on a litter-strewn tennis court to play. Before long, they've attracted their first onlookers: a group of local older boys who are impressed by the sisters' determination and drive. As time goes on, they attract more attention, and as they rise through the tennis world, they win even more fans. But as they devote themselves to their sport, they face many challenges: studying late at night, injuries, and the stares of people who have never seen black girls dominate tennis before. Still, wherever they go, they always know they can rely up each other. This touching dual biography celebrates both the Williams' historic influence on their sport and the powerful bond of sisterhood.
When Elizabeth Cotten picked up her big brother's guitar for the first time, it was all wrong for her: it was far too big for the little girl, and it wasn't strung for a left-handed player. But she flipped it upside down and backwards and learned anyway! By the time she was eleven, she'd written one of the most famous folk songs of the twentieth century, "Freight Train"... and while her music was forgotten for a time, by the end of her life, it was famous around the world. This lyrical picture book pays tribute to a determined and talented folk musician whose innovative techniques are still used today — and whose music has delighted millions.
Even as a child, Barbara Jordan's voice made people stand up, take notice, and listen! But what do you do with a voice like that? In Jordan's case, she used it to carry her to places that African American women didn't usually go in the 1960s: to law school, to the Texas state senate, and to the United States Congress. She also used it to give voice to the marginalized people around her, fighting for civil rights and equality. This powerful picture book biography celebrates the power of raising your voice and owning your confidence.
Sarah E. Goode was born into slavery, and after the Emancipation Proclamation she moved to Chicago and opened a furniture store. But many of her customers didn't have much money or much space; they needed small furniture that was inexpensive to buy and served more than one purpose. Goode came up with an innovative idea: a bed that could fold up into a cupboard, leaving a desk exposed. But when she applied for a patent, she was turned down. She refused to give up, and after years of tweaking and reapplying, she became one of the first African-American women to receive a US patent. This inspiring story of a little-known inventor also includes a timeline of other African-American women patent holders.
Audrey was only 9 years old, but that didn't mean she didn't listen when the grown-ups talked about wiping out Birmingham's segregation laws. So when she heard them say that they were going to picket those white stores! March to protest those unfair laws! Fill the jails!... she stepped right up and said, "I'll do it!" Audrey would face unpalatable food, angry interrogators, and even solitary confinement over her week-long sentence, but when she was released, she knew she had done her part in the fight for a better future. This inspiring picture book biography of the youngest person to be arrested for a civil rights protest in Birmingham proves that there's no such thing as being too young to make a difference. For another picture book about the child activists of the Civil Rights Movement, check out Let The Children March for ages 5 to 9.
In the 1930s, Mabel Fairbanks was a homeless orphan who dreamed of figure skating, even though black girls like her weren't allowed in public ice rinks. She saved her pennies for a pair of skates and a compassionate rink owner eventually let her in. Her talent was obvious — but she still wasn't allowed to compete. Instead, she performed in clubs and on TV, and later became a coach, eventually becoming the first African-American woman inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. This introduction to a sports pioneer reminds kids just how big an obstacle prejudice was — Fairbanks never did get to skate at the Olympics — but also reminds them that each generation helps lift the next up.
As a 7-year-old during WWII, Raye Montague toured a captured German submarine and immediately set her sights on becoming an engineer. Little did she know that sexism and racism would challenge her dream every step of the way. Raye ended up working at the US Navy as a typist, studying engineering at night. One day, when all the engineers were sick with the flu, she astonished everyone by completing all of their work. She went on to become the first person to design a ship on a computer and the Navy's first female ship designer. This inspiring picture book from the Amazing Scientists series celebrates a pioneer who changed ship design forever.
In this story inspired by the life of Ella Shepperd Moore, young Ella attends the Fisk School, the first school for freed slaves. There, she sings and plays piano with the Jubilee Singers, helping to preserve traditional spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Go Down, Moses." When the Fisk School is at risk of closing, their concert tour not only saved the school; it also raised enough money to build Jubilee Hall, the first permanent structure in the American South for the education of African-American students. While this account is fictionalized, it draws on historical facts to create a compelling story of Moore's work and her part in the Jubilee Singers.
Effa Manley was a baseball-loving girl: she used to go to Yankee Stadium just to get a glimpse of Babe Ruth swinging for a home run. But as a biracial girl, she was used to a lot of obstacles and a lot of prejudice, all couched as being "just the way things are.” She refused to believe that, though, and she not only became founder and co-owner of a Negro League team, but she successfully lobbied for "her players" to be accepted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In fact, she would share that honor, becoming the first woman accepted into the Hall of Fame. This biography highlights Manley's activism, from labor protests to her campaigns in the baseball world, and celebrates a business and baseball pioneer.
Mae Jemison dreamed of becoming an astronaut from childhood. She went to medical school and joined the Peace Corps, but she never forgot that dream — so in 1985, she applied to NASA, and in 1992, Jemison became the first African-American woman to go into space! In this Level 3 Ready-To-Read book from the You Should Meet non-fiction series, newly independent readers can learn all about Jemison's fascinating life and career. Additional material at the end includes information about math and history, and even a timeline with fun facts about space!
A girl who grew up on the South Side of Chicago became a lawyer, a girl's rights advocate, and the first African American First Lady of the United States! In this Level 3 Step Into Reading book, kids will learn how Michelle Obama's parents' lessons about hard work and refusing to give up propelled her to Princeton, to Harvard Law School, and finally into the White House. Her parents also taught her the importance of serving a community and giving back to others in need — something else she embodied throughout her career. This book, perfect for newly independent readers, will fascinate kids with the realization that their hero was once a girl just like them.
She's been called one of the greatest American minds of all time, and when NASA first started using computers to calculate launch trajectories, they only trusted them after she double-checked the math! Katherine Johnson broke both gender and racial boundaries when she started working for NASA in the 1950s as a human computer, performing the complex calculations necessary to launch rockets, satellites, and eventually, the Apollo 11 moon mission. New chapter book readers who are fans of the hit movie Hidden Figures will be excited to read their very own book about Johnson.
Gwendolyn Brooks fell in love with poetry at a young age, thanks to her father's recitations and her mother's encouragement. She first picked up a pen to write her own poems when she was 7. Unlike many poets, she wrote about real life: about love and loneliness, the poverty of the Great Depression and the family that helped her survive. For many years, her published poetry earned little money — but in 1950, she became the first Black poet to with the Pulitzer Prize! This beautiful picture book biography explores how race, gender, and poverty intersected in Brooks' life, and celebrates the power of self-expression and creativity in difficult times.
Trailblazing journalist and activist Ida B. Wells was a suffragist, a Civil Rights campaigner, and an anti-lynching pioneer. This book takes young readers through Wells' life, from her birth in slavery to her remarkable academic career, and then highlights her work as a teacher and crusader for equality on multiple fronts. Her fierce determination and fiercer pen educated both America and the world about the unfair and hateful treatment directed at African Americans. Walter Dean Myers captures the determination and drive of this incredible woman, while Bonnie Christensen's historically accurate illustrations enhance the text. For more books about Wells, check out Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells: The Daring Life of a Crusading Journalist for ages 7 to 9. Adults can learn more about Wells in To Tell The Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells.
Even as a child, Ethel Payne loved hearing stories — and the best ones were the true ones. Her English teacher encouraged her writing, and her chance came when she got a job as a correspondent in Japan for a Chicago newspaper. An article she wrote about discrimination in the military made nationwide news, and soon she was breaking all kinds of gender and racial barriers for women in journalism. She wasn't afraid to ask the tough questions — even once she received a White House press pass — and it wasn't long before she was known as the "First Lady of the Black Press." This is an inspiring story of a woman who defied expectation and dedicated herself to truth and progress.
As an enslaved child in Kentucky, Lilly Ann Granderson learned to read from her master's children as they played school, and she passed on what she learned to others on the plantation. When she was sold to a plantation in Mississippi, she learned that it was illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write, and the punishment was brutal: thirty-nine lashes. Granderson was still determined to teach others, however, so she formed a secret night school, despite the risks, and taught hundreds of people. This inspiring story about a little-known champion of literacy captures Granderson's unwavering belief in the power and importance of education.
Elizabeth Jennings lived in New York, a "free state" where slavery was outlawed — but that didn't mean she was equal. That truth became shockingly clear one day in 1854 when she was in a rush for church. She boarded a streetcar, only to be ordered off by the conductor because it was a "whites only" car. When she refused to leave, she was thrown off the streetcar. Jennings decided to take her case to court — complete with testimony from a white witness — and won the first legal victory for equal rights on public transportation. This compelling picture book about Jennings' famous case also features back matter about how Jennings' case set a precedent for future battles, including Rosa Parks' future transit protest.
It sounds like a familiar story at first: an African American girl is told she can't return to school, because it's for whites only, and her family challenges the city with a court case. But the girl was Sarah Roberts, and the year was 1847 — over a hundred years before the famous battles faced by Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine. Roberts v. the City of Boston was the first court case challenging segregated schools, and it marked one of the first steps toward achieving legal equality for all people in the United States. With dramatic text from Susan E. Goodman and captivating artwork from E. B. Lewis, this book is a must have for any collection about the battle for equal rights.
Bessie loved to read and to learn — but for a black girl in rural Texas at the turn of the 20th century, school was a luxury that you only had when it wasn't time to work in the fields. Then, in her early 20s, she heard returned World War I veterans talk about women pilots in France, but she couldn't find anyone to teach her to fly... until she learned French, spent all her savings, and traveled to Europe, where she became the first African-American woman to receive a pilot's license. While Bessie's life was cut tragically short, her words of encouragement to other women, especially black women, ring on: "You can be somebody. You can fly high just like me." Fans of Coleman can read more about her in Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman for ages 7 to 10 and Bessie Coleman: Daring Stunt Pilot for ages 8 to 12. For more resources about Coleman, visit our Bessie Coleman Collection.
Former slave Isabella Baumfree transformed herself into the orator Sojourner Truth, speaking out for equal rights on behalf of both the abolitionists and the women's rights movement. This beautifully illustrated picture book biography is written in the voice of Truth herself, like a monologue in dialect, giving young readers a sense of the power of the spoken word to influence people. This moving and passionate story is a fitting tribute to a dedicated and inspirational figure from American history. For more books about Truth, check out Sojourner Truth's Step-Stomp Stride for ages 5 to 8, Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth for ages 7 to 11, and Who Was Sojourner Truth? for ages 8 to 12. Adults can read more about Truth in Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. You can find more resources about Truth in our Sojourner Truth Collection.
Throughout American history, there were bold, daring black women who broke all expectations and boundaries to make the world a better place! In this engaging picture book, author/illustrator Vashti Harrison introduces young readers to forty trailblazing women, including abolitionist Sojourner Truth, pilot Bessie Coleman, chemist Alice Ball, politician Shirley Chisholm, mathematician Katherine Johnson, poet Maya Angelou, and filmmaker Julie Dash. This inspiring book, filled with stunning full-page illustrations of each of the featured women, reminds young readers that every great leader began as a little leader, taking their first steps towards something big. Fans of Harrison's work can check out the sequel, Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around The World, or the Leaders and Dreamers box set, which includes both books. Younger readers can also enjoy the board book Dream Big, Little One for ages 2 to 5.
Mumbet was a slave in Massachusetts when she heard the state constitution's provision, "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights." If that's so, she thought, then I should be free too! With the help of a young lawyer named Theodore Sedgwick, Mumbet dared to challenge the legality of slavery under the constitution. Thanks to their work, in 1783 slavery was officially outlawed in Massachusetts — freeing 5,000 slaves in the state. This fascinating picture book biography tells Mumbet's story, accented with vivid illustrations, creating a sense of hope that all injustice can be righted with determination.
Lena Horne born into a family of teachers and activists, and by the age of 2, she was already a member of the NAACP. Inspired by her mother's dream, Lena became an actress — the first black actress to receive a studio contract. As her fame grew, she dared to decline the stereotypical roles that she was offered all too often — she was not going to play a mammy or a maid! — and she refused to use segregated entrances. Her powerful voice became an rallying cry to many as she joined civil rights rallies and urged people to remember, "You have to be taught to be second class; you're not born that way." While written as a picture book, this biography of Horne reveals the complicated life of one of Hollywood's first black stars; its challenging themes and advanced vocabulary make it an intriguing and inspiring pick for older children.
She was born in the slums of St. Louis and became one of the most glamorous stars in the world; she was a dancer, a singer, and a civil rights activist, and even a spy in occupied Europe during World War II. Josephine Baker was passionate about everything she did, whether it was performing for cheering crowds or fighting for racial equality by refusing to dance in segregated halls. Author Patricia Hruby Powell tells Baker's story in a free verse poem, perfect for capturing the sense of rhythm and music that wound its way through her life, while Christian Robinson's colorful illustrations capture her dramatic flair. It's a fitting introduction to the life and work of this remarkable, multifaceted woman. Teens can learn more about Baker in The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy for ages 12 and up.
Sarah Breedlove Walker was born in 1870 to former slaves, and she was determined to become more than her family could have dreamed possible a generation earlier. In her 30s, she realized that no company was making cosmetics or hair care products for African-American women. After tinkering with formulas (and changing her name to the more French-sounding Madam C. J. Walker) she started selling door to door. By 1912, the Mme. C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was one of the biggest companies in America and Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. This true story of the inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist who created a whole new field of beauty products is sure to fascinate readers. Adults can read more about Walker in On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.
Growing up in Florida in the 1890s, young Augusta loved playing with clay, sculpting it into little figures of animals and people. Her mother paid her play no mind, but her father disapproved, thinking she was wasting her time. However, as she grew, Savage's sculpting talent grew too, until she had to make a choice: pursuing her dream would mean leaving behind everything she knew. She dared to take the step of moving to New York City, and got accepted to an art school. Surrounded by other artists of the Harlem Renaissance, she became an artist and an instructor, passing on her love of art to others. This lovely biography draws on the spare facts about Savage's life and childhood to create a warm portrait of a woman who never gave up on her dream.
In the midst of the Civil War, the Confederate leadership was duped by an "illiterate" young black woman who managed to infiltrate at the highest level and smuggle their secrets back to the Union side. Mary Bowser had a photographic memory that allowed her to "copy" documents at a glance, and a knack for evading detection that helped her remain active despite her previous spying efforts. As they read this title, tweens will also use spycraft tools provided in the book to unravel clues and discover secrets in the illustrations, allowing them to determine the answer to the ultimate mystery: where did Mary hide her secret diary? This innovative interactive history book is sure to fascinate young would-be spies and detectives. For another book from this series, check out Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring.
On her way to church in July 1854, Elizabeth Jennings was refused a seat on a streetcar, and when she sat down anyway, she was forced off the car by the conductor and a police officer, leaving her bruised and injured. She decided to take her case to court with the support of her family and her community, and legal representation by a future President of the United States! Her victory is little known today, but it was a pivotal moment in the long fight for desegregation of public transportation. Amy Hill Hearth turns a journalist's eye to telling this inspiring story, packing in facts about life in mid-1800s New York and vivid storytelling that will keep middle readers engrossed until they reach the triumphant conclusion.
During her childhood in Chicago with her close-knit family, Michelle Obama became a star student — which stood her in good stead when she went on to shine at Princeton and at Harvard Law School. Then, she married a fellow lawyer, Barack Obama, little knowing that it would someday lead her to two terms in the White House as First Lady. As the self-proclaimed Mom in Chief, Obama encouraged America to think more about eating healthy food and turning exercise from a chore into fun. This accessible biography, part of the Who Was... biography series, provides an interesting look at Obama's life and work. For another biography for tween readers, check out Michelle Obama: An American Story for ages 9 to 13. Adults can read more about Obama in Michelle Obama: A Life.
Rebeka Uwitonze was born with arthrogryposis, a disease that twisted her hands and feet — and in Rwanda, there was little medical help to offer. The determined girl taught herself to walk on the tops of her feet by age 7, but she dreamed of getting the care she needed to stay mobile. Then, when she was 9, she received an incredible offer: the chance to travel to the US for the multiple surgeries it would take to turn her feet. To do so, however, she would have to live in America for a year — without her family. “Amahirwe aza rimwe,” her family says: “chance comes once.” With the help of the Davis family in Texas, Rebeka studied English, went through multiple surgeries, and finally learned to walk again. This inspiring book about courage in the face of disability and medical intervention celebrates perseverance and optimism.
In 1924, 5-year-old Norma Miller decided what she wanted to do when she grew up: she wanted to dance! Living behind New York's Savoy Ballroom, the only dance hall where white people and black people could dance together, she watched the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance and she practiced her steps. At 12, she matched steps with Twist Mouth George, a premier dancer of the day. By her teens, she would be one of the first performers of the acrobatic Lindy Hop, touring Europe and even performing on the silver screen. Author Alan Govenar drew on extensive interviews with Miller to write this vital, wryly funny portrayal of this indomitable woman.
Gwendolyn Brooks grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and she loved words: even as a child, she was constantly reading and writing. Her parents fostered her gifts, and as she grew older, Brooks developed her own voice: clever, thoughtful, and steeped in both the experience of black people in America's cities and the struggles of women in a world run by men. She would publish 20 books of poetry, two autobiographies, and a novel — and become the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. This elegantly written and complex picture book for older readers from the People Who Shaped Our World series is a stirring introduction to this distinguished poet.
Before people could orbit the Earth or fly to the moon, there was a group of "human computers": dedicated female mathematician who used pencil and slide rule to calculate how to launch rockets. Four African-American women, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, were critical to the story of space flight — and yet their story was largely untold. In this young readers edition of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, tweens will learn how these women, so little appreciated in their time, changed both NASA and America for the better.
A a child in Stamps, Arkansas, Maya Angelou seemed ordinary — even though she faced brutal trauma that left her feeling like a caged bird. But Angelou's love of the written and spoken word helped her survive her emotional pain, triumphing over all the forces that could have ground the inspiration out of her. In this luminous picture book, lyrical text by Bethany Hegedus and metaphorical illustrations by Tonya Engel create a unique, vibrant portrait of one of the 20th century's most distinctive voices. This stunning picture book biography for tween readers, written for the 50th anniversary of the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is both comprehensive and emotionally moving. For another middle grade biography of Angelou, we recommend Who Was Maya Angelou? for ages 8 to 12.
"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired," Hamer once famously proclaimed, and that sentiment drove her to be a champion of civil rights for over two decades. Her booming oratorical voice and her signature song "This Little Light of Mine" became a key part of the movement, including the Freedom Summer of 1964; her speech at the Democratic National Convention aired on national news despite interference from President Johnson and spurred people to action. Told in the first person, this book's lyrical text and collage illustrations depict the perseverance and courage of this heroic woman.
When Misty Copeland first started dancing at age thirteen, no one could have guessed she would become the first African-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. The quiet girl from a struggling family quickly demonstrated remarkable talent, and soon she was making a name for herself. But at the same time as she was discovering a new home onstage, her chaotic home life and a difficult relationship with her mother made things even more challenging. Copeland first told her story of resilience and following her dream for older teens and adults in Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina; now tween readers can enjoy her story as well. Younger fans of Copeland can check out When I Grow Up: Misty Copeland or Ready to Read's leveled reader Misty Copeland, both for ages 6 to 8. Copeland is also the author of a picture book, Firebird, which is suitable for ages 4 to 8.
Zora Neale Hurston was astonishingly confident: she famously declared that she found discrimination confusing because "how can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?" As an author of the Harlem Renaissance, she wrote alongside others like Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, supplementing the meager income from her books by working as a housemaid or a personal assistant. As a folklorist, she collected stories that would have too easily been forgotten. And when a new generation discovered such extraordinary works as Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston finally achieved the renown she deserved. This book captures Hurston's big, bold personality, her astonishing creativity, and the challenges she encountered living in her times. For more resources about Hurston, visit our Zora Neale Hurston Collection.
Marian Anderson never intended to become a symbol of equal rights; she just knew that she had to sing. But in the 1920s and 1930s, social constraints limited the careers of black performers. Anderson's voice, though, could not be silenced and she achieved international acclaim despite segregation in the arts. But thanks to the help of influential admirers — including Eleanor Roosevelt — her landmark concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 signaled a change for this history of art. This well-researched and expertly told book includes a bibliography, a discography, and an excellent examination of the cultural and social context of Anderson's life turned her into a civil rights icon.
When Jo Ann Allen joined the Clinton 12 — twelve African-American students who integrated Clinton High School in Tennessee — things seemed easy at first... but as time went on, there was unrest, anger, and even violence. Clever and popular Jo Ann became the spokesperson for the group, always aware that she and her peers were fighting for a critical change to the nation's education system. In this novel in verse, she tells her story, reminding readers that court-ordered integration was a double-edged sword ("We’re in, yes./ But it’s more complicated than that") but conveys a message of hope in a future of true racial equality.
When Ibtihaj Muhammad was in school, she was the only African American Muslim student — and when she discovered a love of fencing, she stood out even more in a sport most popular with wealthy white people. Ibtihaj was fast and hardworking, but as she rose through the ranks, she faced constant scrutiny from those who insisted she was too different to succeed. Instead of listening to them, she persevered and became the first Muslim-American woman to medal at an Olympic Games. This young readers edition of Muhammad's memoir Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream will inspire kids with her determination, faith, and courage.
Black women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) have faced both racial and gender boundaries throughout history — and yet they have persevered, changing our world for the better! In this inspiring volume, award-winning author Tonya Bolden explores the stories of more than 50 black women, from pioneers for the past to the trailblazers of the 21st century. She explores how the intersection of race and gender affected their careers, and how their contributions benefit us today. Complete with extensive back matter, this empowering book encourages readers to let their curiosity drive them to success.
Author Jacqueline Woodson tells her personal story in this collection of biographical poems. In her two homes, South Carolina and New York, Woodson never felt quite like she belonged, and growing up African-American in the 1960s and 1970s meant dealing with the remnants of Jim Crow laws and a dawning awareness of the Civil Rights Movement. In these poems, Woodson explores her search for her place in the world, her struggles with reading as a child, and her joy at discovering a talent for writing that allowed her to express her thoughts and feelings. Powerful and intimate, readers will enjoy seeing a glimpse into the childhood emotional life of one of their favorite authors.
In the midst of World War II, the United States Army found itself in desperate need of personnel — and women, including African American women, stepped up to serve. Black community leaders, including civil rights activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, saw it as an opportunity to end segregation — but the "separate but equal" policy stood. This book centers on Major Charity Adams and her 6888th Central Postal Battalion, but uses her story as a jumping off point to talk about other women who helped integrate the armed forces. Rich with historical detail, and including an inspiring forward by Maj. Gen. Marcia M. Anderson, Army (Ret.). this book gives these little-known military pioneers a voice.
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same — but rather than receiving support, she found herself shunned by classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Colvin was an unwed teen mother, not the right sort of person to rally the country for this critical civil rights battle. Yet she remained determined to effect change, and a year later, she challenged Jim Crow laws again by becoming one of the key plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, a landmark court case. This National Book Award winner shines a light on an important but little-known figure from civil rights history.
In the orphanage in Sierra Leone, Michaela DePrince was called "devil child" because of her vitiligo, a skin condition that makes her appear spotted. At the age of 3, she found a magazine picture of a ballerina on pointe, and that photograph became her inspiration — so when an American couple adopted her, she immediately asked about ballet lessons. DePrince proved to be a natural talent and became the youngest principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2012. In her memoir, DePrince shares the story of her unexpected journey to becoming on of ballet's most exciting stars. Younger readers can learn DePrince's story in the Step Into Reading level 4 biography, Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer, which is suitable for ages 6 to 9.
Kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1761 to the Wheatley family of Boston, the woman who would become known as Phillis Wheatley had a tremendous gift for poetry. While the Wheatley's recognized her gift and educated her along with their own children, she was still never considered their equal. Even once she became the first published African-American poet, she wrestled with the dilemma of not fitting in with either white or slave society. in this historical novel, author Ann Rinaldi tells Wheatley's unique story, and explores the details of life in colonial America. Younger readers can learn more about Wheatley in A Voice of Her Own: A Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet for ages 8 to 12. For more resources about Wheatley, visit our Phillis Wheatley Collection.
In 1848, 13-year-old Emily Edmonson and her siblings took a bold chance: they, along with seventy other slaves, boarded the Pearl in Washington, D.C., hoping to sail north to freedom. But the ship was captured before reaching its destination, and in retribution, the escapees were auctioned to plantations in the Deep South where they would experience even crueler treatment. However, Edmonson never gave up her dream of freedom, and eventually she would achieve it, becoming a teacher at a school for young African-American women. Author Winifred Conkling provides plenty of resources to reference about the real experiences of enslaved people and the risk associated with attempting to escape and failing, but also about the courage of people like Edmonson who refused to accept that they should not be free.
Simone Biles is best known for her nineteen medals — fourteen gold — and her Olympic successes, but getting there too perseverance and resiliency that many people didn't see. In her memoir, Biles talks about the challenges that faced her long before she had her sights set on the podium, from an early childhood in foster care to her adoption by her grandparents, who she now calls Mom and Dad. Their love and support helped her keep balanced as she rose through the ranks of gymnastics competition, ensuring that she always found joy in the sport in which she excelled. This optimistic and inspiring memoir will be a hit with anyone who found themselves spellbound watching Biles at the Olympic Games.
Oney Judge isn't called a slave on George and Martha Washington's Mount Vernon plantation. She's a servant, and Mrs. Washington's personal servant, a position that's respected and one that seemingly makes her one of the family. But slowly, Oney begins to realize the truth: it doesn't matter what she's called or how kindly she's treated, if she isn't free to go, she's still a slave. She faces a difficult choice: stay with the family that has owned her since she was born, or take her life into her own hands and find true freedom. This fascinating portrait of Judge herself, the Washingtons, and 18th century life is sure to intrigue fans of historical fiction.
As a child, Melba Pattillo Beals saw Klansmen hang a man from the rafters during a prayer meeting; as a teen, she was almost raped when she was unknowingly taken to a KKK meeting. Throughout it all, she asked tough questions: why should she have to drink from a separate fountain, or live her life feeling unsafe? The adults in her life wanted her to keep quiet out of fear, but she refused: she knew there was a future where she could live free — and as one of the Little Rock Nine, she made her mark on history. This newly released biography captures the courage and determination of Beals and the other child activists like her who pushed for change. Young adult readers can also check out Beals' earlier book, Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High.
Lynda Lowery was the youngest marcher in the 1965 Selma protest, but her youth never protected her; she had been arrested eleven times, and sent to jail nine times, before her fifteenth birthday. This gripping memoir captures the experience of being a teenage protester in Selma, from the constant threats of violence to the inhumane "sweatbox" steel cell where she and twenty other girls were imprisoned until they all passed out. And, yet, Lowery's memoir is one of home and optimism: while she doesn't shy away from the realities of what protesters faced, she highlights that she suffered these ordeals in order to change American history for the better.
Richard and Mildred Loving met as teenagers and quickly fell in love — but in Virginia, it was illegal for a black woman and a white man to marry. They married anyway, in a different state, and when they returned home and were threatened with legal consequences, they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. This novel is told in free verse, alternating between Richard and Mildred's perspectives, and includes news clippings, maps, and archival photos, as well as "visual journalism" style illustrations, all of which create a sense of immediacy to the story. Younger readers can learn this story in The Case for Loving: The Fight For Interracial Marriage, which is suitable for ages 5 to 9.
Few things are known for certain about Edmonia Lewis, whose sculptures of historical figures captivated the world. The daughter of an Ojibwe woman and an African-Haitian man, Lewis had the had the rare opportunity to study at Oberlin, one of the first colleges to admit women and people of color, but was forced to leave after being accused of poisoning and theft. She eventually moved to Italy, where her career finally took off. In this novel in verse, author Jeannine Atkins creates a fictionalized story of Lewis' life that fills in the spaces between events of historical record, imagining the emotional life of an artist whose determination to create beauty required her to force her way through many obstacles.