Summary: Ruby Bridges tells her story of integrating William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 at the age of six. While she has heard of Brown v. Board of Education, she is more interested in making friends and who her teacher will be. She is surprised to be driven to school by four white men, to have a white principal, and most of all, to discover that she is the only student in her classroom. Seeing that empty classroom makes her finally realize what is going on: she is the first Black child to attend the school, and that will allow other Black students to go there too. “And that’s a good thing, for Black kids. For white kids, too…for all the kids, once they finally get here!” Includes a glossary and notes from the author and illustrator. 48 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: An inspiring autobiography with bold illustrations that capture young Ruby’s humor and courage. If you’re looking for a Black history read-aloud for primary grades, this is a perfect choice that shows kids the powerful difference one six-year-old made in a way that they will relate to.
Cons: You will probably want to supplement this with additional material to explain to kids exactly what it was Ruby did.
Summary: The author introduces herself on the first page as Wakaja haja piiwiga, meaning “Beautiful Thunder Woman” from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin and the Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico. She loved dance from the time she received her first jingle dress and began dancing in the powwow at the age of 4. At 13, she started learning other forms of dance–modern, tap, jazz, ballet–and became a professional dancer after graduating from high school. Sometimes the restraints of classical dance felt wrong to her, though, and she felt like an outsider. She has returned to her roots, dancing the eagle dance with a set of eagle wings and now has a daughter of her own. Remembering how people used to say her name wrong, she corrects those who mispronounce her daughter’s: “Every time someone says our names, they are speaking a language that still exists, and a culture that we still honor, despite many attempts to wipe it out forever.” 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This beautiful story will resonate with anyone who is trying to find their place in the world. It celebrates both dance and indigenous cultures, with lovely illustrations filled with gorgeous colors that play with light, shadows, and patterns.
Summary: Beginning with Mamie Till’s decision to bring her son Emmett’s body home to Illinois after his horrific murder in Mississippi, the story goes back to trace Mamie’s life to that point. A smart, hardworking girl who graduated at the top of her high school class, Mamie married an abusive man, escaping the marriage with her son. Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he was murdered by white men who believed he had violated Jim Crow laws when interacting with the wife of one of the men at a store. The sheriff planned to quietly bury Emmett’s body, but Mamie insisted on bringing him home and having an open casket funeral. Photos were widely published, giving impetus to the civil rights movement. After Emmett’s death, Mamie remarried, went to college, became a teacher, and continued to work for civil rights until her death in 2003 at the age of 81. Includes notes from the author and illustrator, a playlist, a glossary, a timeline, and a list of sources. 64 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: This is a powerful book, both the free verse text and the cut paper illustrations. The tone is appropriately somber, but also inspiring, showing Mamie’s love for her son, her grief, and her incredible resilience. A Coretta Scott King Award contender for sure.
Cons: The narrative may be somewhat confusing to readers who aren’t familiar with Emmett Till’s story. They might want to start with the back matter.
Summary: Gibran Khalil Gibran was a shy boy growing up in Lebanon. He loved his country, but there was unrest there, and he often escaped into nature, hiking in the woods or swimming in the ocean. After his father was jailed, he and his mother and three siblings left for America. They settled in Boston’s South End, where a teacher changed his name to Kahlil Gibran, and where he often saw his mother treated disrespectfully despite her hard work as a shopkeeper. Kahlil often felt divided between his American self and his Lebanese self and began expressing himself through his poetry and art. Studying in Beirut and losing his mother, sister, and brother in a short period of time deepened and intensified his art, and in 1923, he published his most famous work, The Prophet. Includes source notes and additional stories from Kahlil Gibran’s life. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: The lyrical text and beautiful illustrations capture Kahlil Gibran’s spirit. Many of his quotes are included (including my favorite, “Work is love made visible”) which are helpful in introducing his writing. As usual, Ekua Holmes’s art is worthy of award consideration.
Cons: I wasn’t crazy about the format of the source notes and additional stories, which did not seem particularly kid friendly.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Lola loves helping out at the hotel where she lives with her mother and grandfather. Her mother is always ready to help guests; if they don’t have money to pay, she’ll accept food or even just a handshake and a promise. Lola is an enthusiastic worker, but she sometimes gets in trouble for talking too much. “Lolita Siete Lenguas (seven tongues)” her grandfather calls her teasingly, reminding her that sometimes it’s good to be quiet but other times “one strong voice is just what we need.” Lola remembers this lesson when she’s the only one who sees a woman and girl thrown off the streetcar in front of her house because they can’t pay the fare. She stays quiet about the two at first, but, remembering Grandpa’s words, she rallies her family and the other hotel guests to help them, using words that she would later become famous for, “¡SÍ se puede!” Includes additional information about the labor leader Lola grew up to be: Dolores Huerta. 32 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Keep this book in mind for the upcoming Hispanic Heritage Month, especially if you’re looking for something for younger readers. They’ll enjoy the story of young Lola, learn a little about Dolores Huerta, and take away an empowering message about using your voice to speak up about injustice. The illustrations add just the right touch of fun and energy.
Cons: It would have been nice to have a list of additional resources for older kids to dive into.
Summary: This biography of science fiction writer Octavia Butler is told through a collection of poetry, photographs, and quotations from Butler. Starting with her early life as a solitary child growing up in 1950’s Pasadena, readers get to see how Octavia’s struggles in school, her introverted nature, and her love of books combined to lead to her a life as a writer. She was fascinated by science fiction, although almost all of the writers and heroes of the stories were white men. After years of rejection, she finally began selling her stories and eventually wrote books that earned her Nebula and Hugo awards as well as a MacArthur fellowship. Includes a final chapter on Ibi Zoboi’s connection to Octavia Butler (they shared a birthday and met in person several times, including a science fiction writing workshop) and a list of Butler’s books. 128 pages; grades 7-12.
Pros: This unique biography is a pretty quick read but gives an intimate look at Octavia Butler’s life and writing. Readers who are not familiar with Butler’s work (like me) may be motivated to seek it out after getting this introduction.
Cons: I saw some recommendations for this book starting in fifth grade, but I think it would be better appreciated by middle school and high school students, since Butler’s books are for young adults and adults.
Summary: Kip Tiernan learned about helping others as a child growing up during the Great Depression. Her grandmother used to keep a pot of soup on the stove and would feed anyone who came to the door for a meal. In the 1960’s Kip gave up her advertising business to help the poor. While working in shelters, she saw that women had to disguise themselves as men to get a meal and a bed. Noticing how many homeless women there were on the streets, she became determined to find a way to help them. In 1974, she opened Rosie’s Place, the first homeless shelter in the country just for women. Over the years she expanded the services offered there to help women become self-sufficient. The book concludes with a story of Kip riding on a bus many years after starting Rosie’s Place. The bus driver pulled over to thank her, stating that he would not have had food to eat as a child if it hadn’t been for her. Includes additional information about Kip Tiernan and a list of quotations from her. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: An inspiring story of a woman who worked tirelessly to provide the services she envisioned, and who truly saw the humanity of every individual.
Cons: The story is a bit long to use as a read-aloud for younger kids.
Summary: Tybre Faw grew up learning Black history and was particularly inspired by John Lewis. In 2018, at the age of ten, he convinced his grandmothers to take him to Selma to be part of the commemoration of 1965’s Bloody Sunday. Tybre met John on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the two became friends. They walked together again in 2019 and in 2020 when John Lewis had been diagnosed with cancer. Lewis died a few months later, and Tybre was invited to recite one of the senator’s favorite poems, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley at the memorial service. Includes additional information about both John Lewis and Tybre Faw, a timeline of Lewis’s life, a list of sources and resources for further reading, photos from both the 1960’s and the interactions between John and Tybre, and the text of “Invictus”. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: I marvel at the way this book is written, using beautiful poetry and watercolor illustrations to weave together the lives of both John Lewis and Tyre Faw, and showing the intersection between the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements. The back matter adds a lot and gives resources for further exploration.
Cons: I found it a little difficult to figure out when and at what age Tybre met John; it would have been helpful to me to have those dates included in the timeline.
Summary: Readers familiar with the Hilde Cracks the Case series will already be acquainted with Hilde Lysiak, who wrote this memoir at the age of 14. The daughter of a New YorkDaily News reporter, she started tagging along with her dad when she was 4. When the family moved to suburban Pennsylvania, Hilde knew enough about journalism to start her own newspaper. She started off with human interest stories, but was soon reporting on more serious issues, including a local murder that she got an exclusive on (and also described how police were trying to cover up the crime). Hilde and her somewhat unconventional family were targeted by social media critics, and she has dealt with depression and an eating disorder. Ultimately, she opted to discontinue her journalism career, but has continued to speak out about the importance of a free press. 163 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: This book came to me via interlibrary loan right before I came down with Covid, and it was a perfect read while I was home. Hilde is an engaging writer who doesn’t shy away from difficult times she’s had, and I found her determination and hard work inspiring. I also admired her family’s do-your-own-thing approach to raising their kids, which seems to have been successful.
Cons: I was a little sad to learn that Hilde has discontinued her journalism career and look forward to hearing about what she does next.
Summary: This biography of Henry David Thoreau looks like a nature journal, with lots of watercolor sketches of the flora and fauna Henry observed through a year in Concord. A timeline running along the bottom of all the pages takes the reader through changes he would have seen through the seasons. Beginning with his childhood and continuing through his years as a teacher, writer, activist, and naturalist, the story of Henry’s life is closely tied to Concord and the surrounding countryside. Includes additional information about Thoreau’s Kalendar that he was working on at the time of his death which was a record of his observations of nature over many years, and which has been used recently to track climate change. There are also instructions for making your own Kalendar and a fairly extensive list of resources. 96 pages; grades 3-6.
Pros: This beautiful volume combines lots of illustrations with an engaging narrative that integrates the seasons of the year with the story of Thoreau’s life. The additional information makes his work relevant today and encourages kids to pursue their own explorations of the natural world.
Cons: While Henry’s abolitionist work is celebrated here, there’s no mention of the disturbingly racist ideas of his mentor Louis Agassiz.