Best children’s books about Black women leaders
There are so many inspiring and bold Black women leaders who children should learn about. Too often, the forces of racism and sexism have kept these leaders’ stories from being widely told. Fortunately, that’s starting to change. Today I’m sharing 15 of our favorite children’s books about Black women leaders in the arts, activism, science, and more.
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15 of our favorite children’s books about Black women leaders
Little People, Big Dreams: Maya Angelou by Lisbeth Kaiser and Leire Salaberria
This book uses simple language and relatable illustrations to help younger children understand the most important events in Maya Angelou’s life. I appreciated how the story included the childhood trauma Angelou endured without going into detail that young kids can’t handle.
Children will learn not only about her poetry, but also her many other careers. I didn’t know that Angelou was a street car conductor and a singer when she was a young adult! (Recommended for ages 4 to 9)
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison
I love how the text and vibrant illustrations of this book make us feel like we’re living in the world of jazz alongside Melba Liston. While you might not recognize Liston’s name, she was one of the most important jazz musicians of the 1950s and 60s. She was also a sought after composer. Liston had to break both barriers of race and gender to pursue her passion for music.
My son loved the part of the story where Melba gets her first trombone. She can’t event fully extend the slide because her arms are too short. This doesn’t stop her from putting everything she has into learning the instrument. (Recommended for ages 5 to 10)
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
This ambitious book includes 40 illustrated one page profiles of Black women leaders in American history, from the 18th century to the present. Little Leaders filled in many gaps in history for me. For example, I knew that a psychology experiment asking children to compare black dolls and white dolls was crucial to overturning segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. What I didn’t know was that the study was led by social psychologist Mamie Phipps Clark.
From anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells to sculptor Augusta Savage to groundbreaking politician Shirley Chisholm, children and adults alike will be inspired by the stories of these trailblazing women. (Recommended for ages 7 to 12)
Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden, Mary Kay Kroeger, and Teresa Flavin
To say Bessie Coleman overcame obstacles is a huge understatement. Born in 1892 in a sharecropping family, she probably never dreamed as a child that she’d become the first Black pilot in America. Flight schools in Chicago only accepted white men. So, Coleman studied French and saved up money to learn to fly in France.
When she returned “Brave Bess” became known for her daring air shows. She also refused to do shows in the South where other Black people weren’t allowed to attend. Coleman dreamed up opening up her own flight school for other women of color. Sadly, she died during a test flight before she was able to do it. (Recommended for ages 7 to 12)
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Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal and Laura Freeman
From a young age, Ann Cole learned the art of dress design in her mother’s shop, where they made fancy party dresses for some of Alabama’s most famous people. Cole once said that she felt so happy when she was designing clothes “that I could just jump up and down with joy.” Her talent caught the eye of Jackie Bouvier, who asked her to design the dresses for her wedding to John F. Kennedy.
Cole faced many obstacles, from racism to burst pipes in her dress shop that ruined some of Bouvier’s dresses. I loved how the illustrations captured the many different feelings must have had through her impressive, yet challenging career. (Recommended for ages 5 to 9)
Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story about Edna Lewis by Robbin Gourley
Warning: Do not read this book while you’re hungry! Long before the movement for local, seasonal food went mainstream, chef Edna Lewis was an expert. Lewis was a highly acclaimed chef at many different restaurants, as well as a prolific cookbook author. This book imagines her childhood in the 1920s in Freeport, Virginia.
We follow Edna and her family through the seasons as they delight in each new harvest. Edna is thrilled to pick, preserve, and bake everything from wild strawberries to honey to muscadine grapes. The book also includes several recipes made in the style of Lewis’ cooking. (Recommended for ages 4 to 9)
Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen and Kadir Nelson
Award-winning choreographer Debbie Allen tells her own childhood story of finding her place in the world of dance. Allen’s mother called her Sassy, a fitting nickname for a child who was always ready to trade insults with her brother. In ballet class, she longed to dance in the spotlight. But others told her she was too tall.
Her teacher announces that someone from the a prestigious summer dance festival in Washington, DC will be visiting. He’s looking for talented dancers to join the festival. Despite taunts from her classmates, Allen decides to audition, embracing how her height makes her stand out from others. (Recommended for ages 6 to 10)
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and Bryan Collier
Rosa Parks’ brave refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus is one of the best known moments of the civil rights movement. What is told less often is how an entire movement of Black women leaders and everyday people quickly mobilized in response to her bold act. Giovanni’s account captures this larger story, while still giving children details about what gave Parks the courage to act in that particular moment.
The illustrations are evocative. Parks often seems to have light streaming from her. Collier says he did this to indicate the inspiration she provided to many others in the civil rights movement. Children and adults alike will be inspired by how Parks integrity “turned her no into a YES for change.” (Recommended for ages 6 to 10)
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Molly, by Golly by Dianne Ochiltree and Kathleen Kemly
I certainly had no idea that America’s first female firefighter did her work in early 1800’s. Nor did I know she was a Black woman who started as a cook for a fire company! Adventure loving kids will be fascinated with Molly Williams’ bravery and determination.
At that time, groups of youth with bells would run through the streets to summon the volunteer firefighters. One wintry day during an influenza epidemic, Molly joined the youth to spread the word of a fire. When she arrived at the station, there were few men there because of the flu. So Molly jumped into help put out the blaze in the middle of a terrible snowstorm. From that day forward, she was a volunteer firefighter with her company. (Recommended for ages 5 to 9)
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and Laura Freeman
In the years leading up to the space race between the United States and the USSR, “computers” were people who did high level math problems. This engaging picture book tells kids about four Black women leaders whose math skills kept countless pilots and astronauts safe during their missions.
Young readers will also learn how Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden had to push repeatedly to break through racial and gender barriers. For example, Johnson wanted to go to research meetings with the other experts on her team. Her boss refused, saying that women couldn’t attend. But Johnson’s dogged persistence eventually won her entry.
Mary Jackson wanted to become an engineer, but officials at aeronautics lab said it was impossible. She would need to take high level math classes at a school Blacks weren’t allowed to attend. Jackson persisted, and became the first African American woman engineer in the lab. (Recommended for ages 5 to 10)
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Kadir Nelson
I had chills the entire time I read Moses. The book is written as a conversation between God and Harriet Tubman as she makes her escape from slavery. When she prays about her thirst for freedom, God tells her “I set the North Star in the heavens, and I mean for you to be free.” Through her harrowing journey alone, God continues to guide her.
When she isn’t sure how she’ll survive, God reminds her of the survival leassons from nature that her father taught her long ago. As Tubman finally reaches free soil in Philadelphia, she discovers a church that’s a station in the Underground Railroad. It’s there that she learns the secret routes that will allow her to free others as a conductor.
Others often thanked her for leading them to freedom. But Tubman told them “it wasn’t me. It was the Lord. I always trust him to lead me and He always does.” (Recommended for 6 to 10)
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Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Jospehine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson
Josephine Baker lived a remarkable and astonishing life as a dancer, comic performer, and even a French spy during World War II. Her determination to be a star led to many headstrong decisions. She once stole the spotlight from the star performer, angering her fellow chorus members but delighting critics and audiences.
As a light skinned Black woman, Josephine often had difficulty finding good places to perform in America. So she traveled to Paris. Josephine soon became famous, and she said that “for the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.”
The book does not shy away from the hard times of Josephine’s life, including towards the end, when she often lived in poverty. Although the illustrations may lead you to think of this as a book for younger children, be aware that there is a brief reference to rape. (Recommended for ages 10+)
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Stephen Alcorn
Let It Shine is ideal for older children who want greater detail about Black women leaders of the anti-slavery and civil rights movements. The illustrated volume chronicles the lives of crusaders who children are likely to have heard of, such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. It also tells the story of Biddy Mason, who successfully sued her master for her freedom after he moved her to California.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi tenant farmer who became one of the key leaders in the civil rights movement in her state, is also featured, along with Ida B. Well-Barnett, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Height, and others. (Recommended for ages 10+)
Nina: Jazz Legend and Civil Rights Activist Nina Simone by Alice Brière-Haquet and Bruno Liance
In this striking story with black and white illustrations, jazz artist Nina Simone tells her child a lullaby that conveys the importance of both music and civil rights in her life.
When she learns in her first piano lesson that white keys are whole notes and black keys are half notes, Nina connects this with the racist treatment Black people receive. But rather than thinking herself less worthy, Nina knew that “the notes had to mingle and dance together in the air so these lies would disappear.”
The story is moving, especially when Nina recounts how her mother had to move out of the front row at her piano recital once white people arrived. Nina refused to play until she was re-seated.
The one thing I did miss in the book was that there were no notes or pictures in the back about Nina Simone’s life. (Recommended for ages 4 to 9)
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and George Ford
I’ve long treasured this book and bought a copy years before I became a parent. In 1960, a judge ordered four New Orleans children to desegregate two white elementary schools. Six year old Ruby was sent to one school, while the other three children were sent to a different school.
For months, Ruby had to walk into school by herself, as white parents refused to send their children and angry white mobs chanted at the entrance. One day, Ruby’s teacher noticed that she seemed to be talking to the mob. Instead, she learned that Ruby was praying for them as she did every day, asking God to forgive them for the terrible things they were saying. (Recommended for ages 4 to 9)
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