Kids’ Books About Legendary Black Artists in Music
by Naima Jasmine Russell
Before there was Nina Simone, there was Florence Mills. Before there was Roberta Flack, there was Ella Fitzgerald. Before there was Sonny Rollins, there was Louis Armstrong. Long before hip-hop, soul, rhythm and blues, and hard rock, there was ragtime, jazz, blues, and rock and roll. The foundations of today’s favorite artists and music genres can be found in the roots of Black music in America. Black artists pioneered these early sounds and gave passion, joy, and hope to some of the greatest moments in American history. Each book on this list celebrates the musical talents of these legendary Black artists and their tremendous contributions to the music industry — making them excellent reads for Black History Month and Black Music Month. Read on for 15 kids’ books that will definitely give you something to sing about!
Song for Jimi
Song for Jimi does an impressive job of capturing this music-possessed guitar head who played Woodstock. Told in fiery verse and rhyme, this book gives us a literary taste of Hendrix’s style and the details of his life. With Hendrix’s mother’s abandonment, his father’s distaste for his music, being at odds with his bandmates, and the psychedelic style of the illustrations, this picture book biography is geared towards readers 8-14 years old. Edel Rodriguez’s artwork is described as “spectacular,” and the poster under the jacket cover will delight young readers. For rock lovers, this multi-award-winning book is not to be missed.
The Green Piano
Ms. Roberta Flack is known for the #1 singles: “Killing Me Softly,” “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and “The Closer I Get to You,” among others. These chart-topping tunes from the late 70s and early 80s won’t resonate with young children, but this story of her musical childhood and how her dad found a piano in a junkyard and renovated it will. With adorable illustrations by Hayden Goodman, this autobiographical look at Flack’s humble beginnings in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina encourages young musicians to dream big.
Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar
Finally, this much-overlooked Black artist is getting her due! Rosetta Thorpe is the little-known woman credited with creating rock and roll. From the first page of this new picture book biography, young readers will find themselves immersed in young Rosetta’s rural hometown of Cotton Plant, Arkansas. There, she absorbs the sounds of momma’s mandolin playing and her community's ordinary kerplunks and harmonies. Then, gifted a guitar of her own, she falls in love with music, and through hard work and determination, debuts her talent at her church’s anniversary celebration. Adorable illustrations and short text make this tribute to the “godmother of rock and roll” a good read-aloud for Black History or Black Music Month in June.
Who Was Bob Marley?
From the slums of Trenchtown, Jamaica, to an international icon, Bob Marley became the King of Reggae music. As a teenager, he started a band with his friends called The Wailing Wailers, and the rest is history. Marley’s album, Legends, is still the bestselling Reggae album of all time. This nonfiction book captures the facts and heart of this international symbol of Jamaican culture in short chapters that read like fiction. The Who Was? series features over 250 books that make “trailblazers, legends, innovators, cool places, and important events” accessible and interesting for chapter book readers.
In the backwoods of Jackson, Mississippi, in 1909, a man named Dr. Laurence Jones started a music school for Black women. Upon leaving school, this all-female band grew in size and racial makeup, making them the first integrated band to tour the world. This is a standout story from an under-celebrated group of brave women who broke down racist and sexist barriers everywhere they went.
Just a Lucky So and So
“Little Louis Armstrong was born Black and poor and lucky.” So begins this joyful tale of the man we call “Satchmo.” Louis Armstrong was the first African-American man to host a national radio show, the first jazz musician to write an autobiography, and became known for his huge dimpled smile. Dripping with James Ransome’s vibrant watercolor illustrations, we follow Louis from his childhood in New Orleans until he gets in trouble at age 11 and is sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. It is there that he hones his skills as a musician. As an adult, Armstrong plays up and down the Mississippi river and eventually tours the world with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the time. He transforms the genre with his signature scat style.
Nina Simone was a singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist with an unmistakably soulful sound to her voice. Dubbed “the high priestess of song,” she used her popularity and talent to voice the injustice of racial inequality during the civil rights movement. In tribute to the importance of music in Nina Simone’s life, Christian Robinson’s moving illustrations feature a piano on each page in a delightful and creative way. This book is a breathtaking celebration of this iconic singer and one of my favorite picture book biographies!
Harlem's Little Blackbird
Florence Mills was born to formerly enslaved parents and lived in a run-down, teeny tiny, itsy-bitsy house in Washington, D.C. Music was her life from early on. She grew up to star on Broadway in the 1920s, turned down the opportunity to become the first Black performer in the Ziegfeld Follies, and used her talent to help other little-known Black singers get a chance to shine. Mills traveled internationally and won hearts with her bird-like singing voice, energetic cakewalk dancing, activism, and generosity. This picture book biography is geared towards a younger audience, with interesting quotes and song snippets sprinkled throughout. Christian Robinson’s depiction of an almond-eyed Mills with bows in her hair will charm the socks off you and your little readers.
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Who Is Stevie Wonder?
Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born 6 weeks premature and suffered from retinopathy, causing him to go blind. This did not stop him from becoming a musical prodigy and taking Motown and the world by storm. Starting at age 11, he became the youngest solo artist with a number 1 hit. With 25 GRAMMYs to his name and as the recipient of the presidential medal of freedom, Stevie Wonder’s life is an inspiration to all. Another gem in the Who Was? chapter book series, this biography covers the life of this living music legend with black and white illustrations throughout. The books in this series are easy to read and highly relatable.
Beyoncé: A Little Golden Book Biography (Presented by Ebony Jr.)
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter needs no introduction. The singer, songwriter, and actress rose to fame in the 90s with one of the bestselling girl groups of all time, Destiny’s Child. This short biography inspires little readers to work hard and dream big. Little Golden Books has an expanding canon of titles, and I love this series featuring bite-sized biographies.
This title is a fun, poetic, and vibrantly illustrated picture book about jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, “the saxophone colossus.” Born in the 1930s at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance, Sonny Rollins falls in love with his first horn and gains experience by sneaking into clubs where jazz greats like Duke Ellington play. After decades of touring, Sonny takes a sabbatical to find the heart of music again. He practices daily on the Williamsburg Bridge that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn. His comeback album, The Bridge, becomes his bestselling album and is inducted into the music hall of fame in 2015. The endpapers on this book look like an album sleeve, adding to its retro vibe.
A is for Aretha
A is for Aretha, B is for Billie Holiday, G is for Gloria Gaynor, and Q is for Queen Latifah. This beautifully illustrated board book shines a well-deserved spotlight on 26 amazing women in Black music. The spare text celebrates their musical talent and contributions to the music industry and social justice causes. It’s the perfect baby shower gift for an expecting music lover!
Harry Belafonte: A Little Golden Book Biography (Presented by Ebony Jr.)
Created in partnership with Ebony Jr! magazine, this charming Little Golden Book introduces young readers to Harry Belafonte, the “King of Calypso.” Not only was he a Grammy award-winning singer and Emmy and Tony award-winning actor, but he was a passionate civil rights activist who stood on the front lines with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At 95 years old, Belafonte is a living legend and an important figure for all kids to read about.
Who Was Louis Armstrong?
Louis Armstrong defied the odds — and his upbringing — to become one of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. He was first introduced to music at a reform school, where a teacher recognized his talent for the coronet and trumpet. His passion for music would lead him to become a famed jazz artist with an unmistakable voice. This illustrated early chapter book is a fabulous introduction to a musician with a career that spanned a critical period in American music and Black history.
She Persisted: Ella Fitzgerald
The She Persisted series is an excellent introduction to women throughout history who rose against the odds. This book follows the story of vocal jazz great, Ella Fitzgerald. “The First Lady of Song” came from a troubled childhood, but things begin to turn around when Ella sings and wins amateur night at the Apollo theater. The rest is HERstory. I’m very excited about this one; Ella Fitzgerald is a favorite of mine.
(On sale: 4/4/2023)