Picture Books Featuring
Memorable Black Artists From the Past, Present, and Future

by Naima Jasmine Russell

Some activists march and protest, some make speeches and fight for changed laws, and some pick up a paintbrush and take it to the canvas. Black artists in America use their brushes, wood carving tools, fashion designs, and needles and threads as a voice for the change they want to see in their communities.

Focusing on famous artists and their work can be a fun theme for young learners during Black History Month because it pairs nicely with easy crafts or trips to the museum. Art can also teach us many things if we pay attention and look for lessons in the work. Here are 10 Black artists from the past, present, and future to celebrate Black History Month.

  • **Past**

  • A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin

    by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

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    Lesson: Don’t let setbacks stop you.

    American artist Horace Pippin was born in 1888 and loved to draw for friends and family. Even as a young adult in the trenches of World War I, Horace drew for his fellow soldiers. During the war, Horace was shot, unable to lift his right arm, and faced a long road to recovery. Through perseverance, he became a renowned folk artist whose paintings hang in museums and galleries nationwide. Melissa Sweet’s illustrations lift Jen Bryant’s thoughtful text, filled with quotes from Pippin. This book will give young readers a colorful sense of how making art was a joy for Pippin and a meaningful way to interpret his ever-changing world.

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  • Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist

    by Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

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    Lesson: Sew your own story.

    Unsung quilter Harriet Powers lived through enslavement, the Civil War, and reconstruction, relying on her skill with a needle and thread to feed and clothe her loved ones. Later in life, she made pictorial quilts that featured Bible stories and life in the American South. Powers’ work is now considered priceless folk art. Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s illustrations always shine, particularly in bringing little Harriet and her quilts to life.

    We gave this adorable story to our youngest daughter’s kindergarten teacher, who named her classroom after the famous artist.

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  • Art From Her Heart

    by Kathy Whitehead, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

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    Lesson: It’s never too late.

    Clementine Hunter was born on a Louisiana plantation and did back-breaking labor for most of her life. She didn’t sell her artwork until she was in her 50s, with her first painting only selling for $0.25. Hunter could not even see her first art show because of segregation. A friend sneaked her into the gallery after hours. By the end of her life, Hunter created between five and ten thousand paintings portraying scenes from the American South, and her work sold for thousands of dollars per piece. This book introduces young readers to the life of this self-taught folk artist and the hardships she overcame.

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  • You Gotta Meet Mr. Pierce: The Storied Life of Folk Artist Elijah Pierce

    by Chiquita Mullins Lee and Carmella Van Vleet, illustrated by Jennifer Mack-Watkins

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    Lesson: “The more you look, the more you see.”

    Elijah Pierce was born on a farm in Mississippi in 1892 and, with the gift of a pocketknife, began carving wood. In his later years, he displayed his carvings of farm animals, Bible stories, and notable events in his barber shop/art studio. This is where this heartwarming picture book biography begins. A young boy enters Pierce’s Columbus, Ohio, barbershop for a haircut and learns about this talented artist’s art, life, and kindness. This book is sure to inspire budding artists.

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  • Jackie Ormes Draws the Future

    by Liz Montague

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    Lesson: Go boldly in the direction of your dreams.

    Jackie Ormes was born in Pittsburgh in 1911. An avid doodler, she became the first African American cartoonist. She was an outspoken and bold artist, tackling politics and Jim Crow America and creating popular comic strips like Torchy Brown, Candy, and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. This picture book biography is delightfully penned by Liz Montague, one of the first African American cartoonists at the New Yorker, and aptly features a comic strip style illustration to highlight the text.

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  • Mae Makes a Way

    by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, illustrated by Andrea Pippins

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    Lesson: Lead the way.

    This stunning book was produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Mae Reeves, a pioneering milliner, was born in Vidalia, Georgia, in 1912. Readers follow this trailblazing fashion designer’s story from her humble beginnings in the segregated south through millinery school in Chicago and becoming the first Black woman to own a business on Philadelphia’s South Street. Andrea Pippins’s engaging illustrations make this little-known fashion artist pop off the page. If you’re in or around Washington, D.C., check out the permanent Mae Reeves exhibit at the Smithsonian.

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  • **Future**

  • The Artivist

    by Nikkolas Smith

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    Lesson: Heal the world with your art.

    This book is the only one on this list that is not a biography. However, it is an excellent read-aloud about the intersection of art as a means of change and activism. Told in first-person narration, this story is about a young boy who loves to paint, sees injustices in his community, and puts his art into action. Author and illustrator Nikkolas Smith, who considers himself an Artivist, came to picture book illustration after designing theme parks for Disney for 11 years.

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  • My Block Looks Like

    by Janelle Harper, illustrated by Frank Morrison

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    Lesson: Art is all around you.

    Frank Morrison is an artist turned picture book illustrator who will be celebrated for years to come. His unique style is described as a mash-up of graffiti, abstract contemporary, and social justice. Think full lips, exaggerated poses, bold color and light choices, and heart-tugging portraits. He has shown his work at the Schomburg in Washington, D.C., and the Mason Fine Art Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia. This award-winning picture book illustrator’s stunning illustrations are on full display in Janelle Harper’s ode to the Bronx, My Block Looks Like. Morrison’s art is as bustling, energetic, and full of life as the city. It’s a must-have for those who love city life, especially those who hail from the boogie-down Bronx!

    See also Harlem at Four and Standing in the Need of Prayer

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  • I Have a Dream

    by Martin Luther King Jr., illustrated by Kadir Nelson

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    Lesson: Dream big.

    Internationally renowned painter, illustrator, and Caldecott Honor winner Kadir Nelson doesn’t have a picture book biography written about him (yet), but maybe one day, he will. His work often graces the cover of the New Yorker, album covers for Michael Jackson and Drake, commemorative U.S. postage stamps, and the illustrations for numerous picture books. I Have a Dream uses Dr. King’s words with Nelson’s powerful oil paintings to give readers an immersive experience in King’s iconic, generation-changing speech A few other books with Kadir Nelson’s artwork include He's Got the Whole Word in His Hands, Blue Sky White Star, and Dancing in the Wings.

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