Young Readers and Black History Month

When author Charles R. Smith was in elementary school in Compton, CA, he noticed that every February—for Black History Month—his teacher would display photos of famous African-Americans in the classroom with a blurb about their accomplishments. When February was over, the display would come down. The following February it would go up again—always with exactly the same faces as the year before. “With no new faces, it was as if, once we achieved equal rights in the law books, we were done,” Smith was quoted as saying in the Nerdy Book Club Blog. “Black history was complete. But it couldn’t be. Weren’t there other names and faces that achieved greatness in black history, past and present?”

Smith’s attempt to solve that problem can be found in his new book, 28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World. The book brings Black History Month alive by, on each day of February, focusing on an unsung hero, important event, or individual achievement. Smith proceeds chronologically, starting in 1776 with Crispus Attucks, whose death became a spark for the Revolutionary War, and ending in 2009 with the inauguration of Barack Obama. He even adds a 29th day, challenging readers to consider how they might one day make history. (Ages 8-12)

Happily, there are now many wonderful books for children that offer young readers a more expansive and immersive experience in African American history, culture, and literature. Here’s a small sample of books on our shelves all year—and on display this month in our Children and Teens Department:

The many awards that Jacqueline Woodson has won for Brown Girl Dreaming probably can’t fit on the book's cover. In the book, Woodson, writing entirely in verse, reflects on her childhood in South Carolina and her move to New York during the 1960s and 1970s. Her story, a deeply personal account of the challenges she faced as an African-American female, has resonated with Americans young and old of all backgrounds. (Ages 10 and up)

Marilyn Nelson also has written a coming-of age story—in this case about growing up in 1950s America—in How I Discovered Poetry. Nelson’s fictionalized memoir, which won a 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor, is a collection of 50 non-rhyming sonnets that introduce the reader to four-year-old Marilyn and follow her as she becomes aware of herself, the wider world, and her place in it. (Ages 12 and up)

While doing research for his award-winning book Bomb, Steve Sheinkin discovered another story he wanted to tell, that of The Port Chicago 50. The book is set in the segregated U.S. navy of the 1940s, when black men could serve only as low-ranking sailors. One group stationed at Port Chicago, outside of San Francisco, challenged the dangerous and unjust conditions under which they were commanded to handle dangerous munitions, providing a little known spark that helped ignite the civil rights movement. (Ages 11-15)

For younger readers, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone recounts the story of Melba Doretta Liston, one of the first women to become a renowned trombone player and composer. This picture book biography by author Katheryn Russell-Brown, with prize-winning illustrations by Frank Morrison, brings Melba’s history, and challenges, to life. (Ages 4-8)

— Brad and Lissa