A Mighty Girl's top picks of the best children's books about pioneering black women published over the past year!
African-American women historically faced both gender and racial discrimination, and their stories are therefore often missing from mainstream histories — but today's children's authors are working to change that! Every year, we see more and more books celebrating inspiring black women pioneers in every field, many featuring little-known figures who have never had their own dedicated biographies before.
To help you build your own collection of books about African American trailblazers, we've showcased the best new children's biographies published over the past year. These books feature scientists and activists, entertainers and authors, athletes and more. Their passion and persistence will encourage your Mighty Girl to keep striving for her own goals, whatever they may be!
For even more books about pioneering women to share during Black History Month or any time of year, visit our blog post 75 Books About Extraordinary Black Mighty Girls and Women — or browse all of the titles in our extensive African-American History book collection.
New Books About Mighty Women For Black History Month
Introduce kids to a groundbreaking ballerina — and the qualities that make her such a great role model — in this book from the I Look Up To... board book series! This detailed board book explores Misty Copeland's story through her important traits. Each page spread includes vibrant artwork and a quote from Copeland herself that will inspire kids to follow in her footsteps. It's an empowering book to add to any preschooler's bookshelf! For another inspiring book from this series, check out 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. The same series includes Rosa: My First Rosa Parks, perfect to celebrate the life of this civil rights hero.
When a photo of 2-year-old Parker Curry, mesmerized by Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama in the National Portrait Gallery, went viral, people everywhere wondered how that moment of representation had affected that little girl. Now, Parker and her mother, Jessica Curry, tell the story of that moment. As the little girl and her friend pass portraits, still lifes, and more, their imaginations run wild — and when Parker sees the Michelle Obama's portrait, her imagination turns to what she herself might become in the future. This moving picture book includes a foreword by Sherald and back matter about the paintings Parker sees.
Janet Collins dreamed of being a ballerina, but in the 1930s and 40s, it seemed impossible: most dance schools wouldn't admit an African American student. But she sought out a school that would teach her, and her mother sewed costumes in exchange for tuition. Then, when she was accepted into the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as a teen, they told her she had to paint her skin white for performances — something she refused to do. Collins would dance flamenco and other styles to fulfill her love of dance, and finally became the first African American prima ballerina in the Metropolitan opera. With gentle, rhythmic verse, Michelle Meadows tells the story of a determined trailblazer who refused to compromise who she was.
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.
When Wilma Rudolph was a child, a bout with polio left doctors convinced she would never walk again. But the determined girl pushed herself as hard as she could, and by age 12, she had recovered he strength — and was so fast people nicknamed her "Skeeter" after a mosquito! She was only a college student when she had the chance of a lifetime: completing in the 1960 Olympic Games, where she won multiple sprint event gold medals and became a role model for women athletes everywhere! This stylish book from the Little People, BIG DREAMS series includes detailed back matter that will fascinate fans of this inspiring athlete.
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.
When Sharon Langley was almost a year old, she got to ride a carousel — and she had no idea that ride represented a civil rights victory. In the early 1960s, most amusement parks in the South were segregated, so few African-American families had the chance to enjoy the fun. In the summer of 1963, Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Maryland desegregated, and Sharon was the first African-American child to ride — on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In this picture book retelling of the story, Langley explores how her ride represented the possibilities of the dream of equality: "Nobody first and nobody last, everyone equal, having fun together."
Althea Gibson was an incredible athlete — she excelled at everything but sitting still! And she wanted to be the best tennis player... not just in Harlem, but in the world. But in the 1940s, segregation kept black athletes off of tennis courts in many places in the world. Althea was determined to break that barrier, and after years of determination, she became the first black person — man or woman — to win at Wimbledon. This dynamic biography captures Gibson's energy and forceful spirit that allowed her to keep striving for her goal, no matter how many obstacles were put in her way.
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.
As a child, Laura Wheeler Waring loved mixing paints to get the perfect shade — especially if it was to capture the skin colors of people in her family. But she couldn't help but notice that museums didn't show paintings of people with brown skin. Defying prejudice, she studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and then in Paris, where work by Matisse and Gaugin encouraged her to paint the people she knew. And when she returned home to America, her portraits of famous African American people would become classic works of art that still inspire visitors to the National Portrait Gallery. This beautiful picture book about a trailblazing artist celebrates self-expression, diversity, and welcoming different points of view.
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.
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.
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.
Katherine Johnson was a whiz with numbers, and she knew that just like 5+5=12 is wrong, so was the idea that women could only be teachers or nurses. She proved that girls and African Americans could be as smart as anyone else, zooming ahead of her school classmates and attending college at fifteen. But it wasn't until NASA hired her as a "computer" that she was able to prove that a woman like her could be a mathematician too — and once she did, her calculations helped take America into space, into orbit, and all the way to the moon! This uplifting biography celebrates a STEM pioneer, and includes back matter with inspiring quotes from Johnson herself.
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.
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.
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.
Ella Fitzgerald had a gorgeous voice that captivated jazz audiences — and one of her fans was an actress named Marilyn Monroe, who was fighting against sexism for better roles and more voice in her career. When Marilyn got a role with lots of singing, she listened to Ella's recordings to prepare. Her success helped her negotiate better pay and more creative control, and she wanted to thank Ella in person. And when she learned that Ella got turned away from the biggest club in town because she was black, Marilyn knew she could help Ella's voice be heard too. This powerful true story about these two close friends celebrates how far we can go when we lift one another up.
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.
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.
Even as a child, Katherine Johnson was always asking: "Why? What? How?" In this compelling picture book biography, award-winning author Lesa Cline-Ransome traces Johnson's story from her math-loving childhood to her full college scholarship at age 15 to her work for NASA, calculating trajectories for critical missions including John Glenn's orbital flight. Illustrator Raúl Colón's capture Johnson's determination and curiosity and wonder about the world. This is an inspiring introduction to the Hidden Figures mathematician who defied both sex and racial barriers to pursue her dreams.
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.
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.
Today, Oprah Winfrey is wealthy and influential around the world — but as a child, she was just a girl on a pig farm who loved to tell stories. Her fellow students made fun of her, calling her "preacher" because she often spoke at churches around her home, but her family encouraged her to recognize her talents and her strengths. Today, she is a talk-show host, and actress, a producer, and a philanthropist — and the richest African American of the 20th century. This volume from the captivating Who Was...? biography series introduces middle grade readers to this influential woman's fascinating story.
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 powerful 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.
Sharon Robinson's 13th birthday happened just before new Alabama governor George Wallace declared "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" on national television in 1963. But for Sharon, the privileged daughter of baseball star Jackie Robinson, she feels pulled between her parents' efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement and her classmates' ignorance about the struggle. In her large house and wealthy life, she feels different from both her white and black peers — and she worries about her brother, who feels like he has to live up to his father's name. Over the course of a year, this memoir traces how Sharon finds her place and her voice as a child of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.
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.
For the first time, Katherine Johnson, the now-famous mathematician featured in Hidden Figures, is telling her story in her own words! She begins her autobiography with her decision, at age 4, to begin attending school with her older brother so she could help him with his math assignments. Before long, the gifted girl leapfrogged through grades, eventually graduating college at age 18. Her years at NASA, including fascinating stories from her work on the Apollo 11 moon mission, are recounted in vivid detail. Warm and conversational in tone, Johnson doesn't shy away from the difficulties of being both female and black while growing up and during her time at NASA. For any young reader who has dreamed of sitting down to chat with this remarkable role model, this lively book is the next best thing — and it's sure to inspire them to reach for their own promising futures!
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.
Nikki Grimes is known today as a phenomenal author and poet — but her love of words began as a source of strength during unimaginable pain. Grimes grew up with a mostly absent father and a mentally ill mother who often had to spend time in psychiatric care. When she was three years old, abuse by a babysitter forced her and her older sister into the foster care system, shuttling from family to family. But at the age of six, she discovered that writing gave her a way to explore and focus her pain and help her heal. This raw memoir in verse, which will resonate with both young readers and adults, is an exploration of how trauma affects memory, a celebration of resilience, and a reminder of the incredible power of the written word.