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8 Nonfiction Kids’ Books That Celebrate Black Excellence

by the Brightly Editors

Ranging from picture books to young adult books, these nonfiction reads center on African American people who embodied excellence in their respective fields and inspired those around them. Dive into their stories to celebrate their extraordinary accomplishments, lives, and legacies with your young readers during Black History Month and throughout the year.

  • Child of the Civil Rights Movement

    by Paula Young Shelton, illustrated by Raúl Colón

    In this autobiographical picture book, Paula Young Shelton shares her early childhood memories of being surrounded by Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s. She recalls time spent with her parents and their friends — famous figures like Dorothy Cotton, Ralph Albernathy, and “Uncle Martin” Luther King, Jr. — as they built a strong activist community and planned nonviolent protests. Eventually, Shelton remembers getting to play her own small part in the movement by joining the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with her whole family. Child of the Civil Rights Movement beautifully tackles complex themes with stunning illustrations and poetic, simple language that young readers can understand.
    (Ages 4 – 8)

  • I am Martin Luther King, Jr.

    by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

    This installment of the Ordinary People Change the World series focuses on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. The story begins with his childhood, depicting him as a boy who showed the strength, perseverance, love for others, and will to make a difference that would eventually inspire the world. Using dynamic, comic book-style illustrations and speech bubbles, plus tons of compelling historical details, this picture book biography is sure to teach readers — both young and old — something they didn’t know about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his extraordinary life.
    (Ages 5 – 8)

  • Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century

    by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Raúl Colón

    Leontyne Price, born in Mississippi in 1927 to a midwife and a sawmill worker, loved music and singing in church as a child. But it wasn’t until she saw Marion Anderson, a legendary African American singer, perform that she discovered her true dream: to become an opera singer. With the support of her nurturing family, the gifted singer worked to achieve that dream at the grandest scale — she attended Juilliard, performed on Broadway, starred in leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, won 18 Grammy Awards, and was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century introduces readers to an all-around superstar. (Pair this book with recordings of her live performances for extra impact!)
    (Ages 5 – 9)

  • Ron’s Big Mission

    by Rose Blue and Corinne Naden, illustrated by Don Tate

    Well before Ron McNair was a real-life astronaut, he was a 9-year-old boy with a mission to change the rules at his public library in South Carolina, where only white people could check out books. In this story, young Ron dreams of someday becoming a pilot and loves to read books about airplanes at the library — but he wants to be able to take them home with him too! So he unexpectedly stages a peaceful protest, demanding the right to check out books. After much deliberation, the librarian gives him his own library card. Ron’s Big Mission depicts one event in 1959 that exemplified just how courageous and determined Ron McNair was.
    (Ages 6 – 8)

  • Who Was Maya Angelou?

    by Ellen Labrecque and Who HQ, illustrated by Dede Putra

    This little biography chronicles the remarkable life of Maya Angelou. Many know of Angelou for her work as a renowned poet and author, but her accomplishments extend well beyond the world of literature. During her life she was also a famous actress, singer, dancer, and the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She also spent a large portion of her life advocating for civil rights in America and around the world. This installment in the Who Was? series is a wonderfully accessible introduction to the writer for young readers and a tribute to her creative, courageous, and hopeful spirit.
    (Ages 8 – 12)

  • Portraits of African-American Heroes

    by Tonya Bolden, illustrated by Ansel Pitcairn

    Looking for a way to introduce kids to many African American heroes at once? This is the book for you. It’s a collection of 20 short biographies of extraordinary and hugely influential people— including abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, dancer Judith Jamison, and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Each entry also includes a stunning portrait that truly brings the subjects to life on the page.
    (Ages 8 – 12)

  • Strong Inside (Young Readers Edition): The True Story of How Perry Wallace Broke College Basketball's Color Line

    by Andrew Maraniss

    This middle grade book follows Perry Wallace’s journey after receiving a scholarship to Vanderbilt University and becoming the first African American athlete to play college basketball in the Southeastern Conference. Kids will experience a full range of emotions while reading his story, which describes the racism and (psychological and physical) abuse he faced both on and off the court, as well as the mental fortitude he maintained to continue playing. By turns heartbreaking and uplifting, Strong Inside tells the important history of a young sports pioneer who refused to give up. It’s riveting, hopeful, and thought-provoking — for any kind of reader, regardless of their interest in sports.
    (Ages 10+)

  • Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March

    by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, illustrated by PJ Loghran, retold by Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley

    Lynda Blackmon Lowery began bravely protesting alongside Martin Luther King Jr. when she was just 14 years old. In that year, she was arrested and jailed nine times (once for six days) for advocating for the rights of African Americans. This powerful illustrated memoir offers Lowery’s detailed account of her (often terrifying) experiences leading up to and during the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. She turned 15 while marching, making her the youngest person to complete the three-day journey.
    (Ages 12+)