Open Sesame: Celebrating Black History with Children’s Picture Books

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

10 New Books Celebrating Black History

In celebration of Black History, here are 10 new books for children of all ages and the grown-ups who love them. Full of inspiration, incredible acts of heroism and bravery, and striking illustration, these are needed books not just in February, but in every month of the year.

Love Will See You Through: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Six Guiding Beliefs (as told by his niece) presents the principles of nonviolence that “Uncle M.L.” practiced and lived by. Each principle, presented in oversized font and bold, mixed-media illustration – have courage; love your enemies; fight the problem, not the person who caused it; when innocent people are hurt, others are inspired to help; resist violence of any kind; and the universe honors love – is further explained with specific actions and events of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s life, from peaceful protests to rousing sermons.

Chasing Freedom: The Life Journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, Inspired by Historical Facts imagines a conversation between two legendary women. It’s 1904, and the 28th Annual Convention of the New York State Suffrage Association is meeting in Rochester. Tubman stops by Anthony’s house for tea, and the women share stories of their calling, their hopes, and their experiences in the fight for freedom and equality. Striking illustrations in acrylic and oil paint add to this extraordinary, though fictional, encounter.

My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth tells the story of how Isabella Baumfree became the great orator, Sojourner Truth. Through first person narrative, in fiery prose, Truth reveals how she was treated by her owners and how she attained her freedom, 100 years before the civil rights movement. Watercolor illustrations are realistic and full of emotion.

In 28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World, readers are introduced to events and people that were influential in African-American history. Starting in 1770 with Crispus Attucks and on through the new millennium with Barack Obama, each day of the month features poetry, informational slices, and fantastic illustrations to portray each moment.

Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight From Slavery tells the harrowing, and inspiring story of 13-year-old Emily Edmonson. In 1848, Emily and five of her siblings, along with 70 other enslaved persons, boarded a boat in Washington, D.C., sailing north to freedom. When the schooner is captured, the Edmonsons are sent to New Orleans to be sold. The historical narrative follows Emily through jail escapes, slave auctions, the Deep South, connections with luminaries such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglas, and into freedom. Primary documents, historical photos and maps lend authenticity to this compelling account.

In the picture book story, Harlem Renaissance Party, aspiring author, Lonnie, and his uncle travel back in time to 1930’s Harlem. They meet the giants of African-American culture, from Jack Johnson and Marcus Garvey to Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and visit iconic places like the Savoy Ballroom and Schomburg Library. Bold and lively illustrations express the colorful, creative vibe of the time.

  • Harlem Renaissance Party written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold. Published by Amistad, 2015. 40 pages. ISBN: 978-0060579111

Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens is a picture book biography about the Queen of Gospel. The story traces the main events in her life, from her girlhood love of gospel to her powerful singing at the March on Washington. Through myriad challenges and adversity, she held fast to her dreams and shared her gift with the world. Colorful illustrations bring her to life on the page.

Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama shares the true story of the peaceful protests that ended segregation in this town. Through lyrical narrative and rich, dramatic watercolors, readers witness how black and white citizens came together in nonviolent community activism to end injustices in public spaces and businesses, and then in education. Endnotes give more background on this incredible show of creative cooperation.

Freedom’s School, a picture book story, takes place in the rural south after the Civil War. Newly emancipated, Lizzie and her brother are going to school for the first time. There are challenges with the long walk to school and few supplies in the schoolhouse, and real danger from deep-seated racism. But Lizzie and her family believe it is a risk worth taking, because to them, education is freedom. Watercolor paintings tell the story with richness and emotion.

  • Freedom’s School written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome. Published by Jump at the Sun, 2015. 32 pages. ISBN: 978-1423161035

In the middle grade novel, Stella by Starlight, courage stands up to prejudice and demands change. Late one night in 1932, 11-year-old, Stella, and her little brother witness a terrifying gathering of the Ku Klux Klan in their segregated North Carolina town. With her community gripped in fear, Stella, an aspiring journalist, finds her voice and her bravery as she takes a stand against racial injustice. Readers will connect with her honesty and conviction. Told in clear, clean language that rings with truth and universal human themes.

  • Stella by Starlight written by Sharon M. Draper. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015. 336 pages. ISBN: 978-1442494978


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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