© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2010

15 Books to Celebrate Black History Month

With such rich, tumultuous and inspiring content, a single book in celebration of African American history would likely be so thick that kid’s eyes would fall right out of their heads. So how to share these monumental stories with the new generation? We at The Rusty Key have rounded up 15 of our favorite books in celebration of Black History Month, featuring some of the heroes of the civil rights movement, the African American leaders who are shaping the world today, some books that paint vibrant pictures of different eras in the pantheon of black history, and some that celebrate diversity in all its radiant colors. There’s something for everyone here in this all ages list!

I Have a Dream

By Martin Luther King Jr.

Recommended for: Ages 7 and Up


On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, Martin Luther King gave one of the most powerful and memorable speeches in our nation's history. His words, paired with Caldecott Honor winner Kadir Nelson's magificent paintings, make for a picture book certain to be treasured by children and adults alike. The themes of equality and freedom for all are not only relevant today, 50 years later, but also provide young readers with an important introduction to our nation's past. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Maya Angelou

Recommended for: Ages 13 and Up

Coretta Scott King Honor Book


Sent by their mother to their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” When she journeys at eight to her mother’s side in St. Louis, she is attacked by a man many times her age. Years later, in San Francisco, she learns about love for herself–and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. The kindness of others, Maya’s own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

Poetic and powerful, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ will touch hearts and change minds as long as people read.

Ninth Ward

By Jewell Parker Rhodes

Recommended for: Ages 10 and Up

Coretta Scott King Honor Book


Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. She doesn't have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya's visions show a powerful hurricane—Katrina—fast approaching, it's up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm. Ninth Ward is a deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family—as only love can define it.

One Crazy Summer

By Rita Williams-Garcia

Recommended for: Ages 10 and Up

Coretta Scott King Award Winner


Set during one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history, one crazy summer is the heartbreaking, funny tale of three girls in search of the mother who abandoned them. An unforgettable story told by a distinguished author of books for children and teens.


Check out our Review of this Golden Key Selection!

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope

By Nikki Grimes

Recommended for: Ages 10 and Up


Ever since Barack Obama was young, Hope has lived inside him. From the beaches of Hawaii to the streets of Chicago, from the jungles of Indonesia to the plains of Kenya, he has held on to Hope. Even as a boy, Barack knew he wasn't quite like anybody else, but through his journeys he found the ability to listen to Hope and become what he was meant to be: a bridge to bring people together. Barack Obama has motivated Americans to believe with him, to believe that every one of us has the power to change ourselves and change our world.

Bud, Not Buddy

By Christopher Paul Curtis

Recommended for: Ages 10 and Up

Winner of the Coretta Scott King award


Ten-year-old Bud, a motherless boy living in Flint, Michigan, during the Great Depression, escapes a bad foster home and sets out in search of the man he believes to be his father--the renowned bandleader, H.E. Calloway of Grand Rapids.


Check out our Review of this Golden Key Selection

We are the Ship: The Story of the Negro

Baseball League

By Kadir Nelson

Recommended for: Ages 9 to 12

Coretta Scott King Award Winner


The story of Negro League baseball is the story of gifted athletes and determined owners; of racial discrimination and international sportsmanship; of fortunes won and lost; of triumphs and defeats on and off the field. It is a perfect mirror for the social and political history of black America in the first half of the twentieth century. But most of all, the story of the Negro Leagues is about hundreds of unsung heroes who overcame segregation, hatred, terrible conditions, and low pay to do the one thing they loved more than anything else in the world: play ball.

Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky

By Faith Ringgold

Recommended for: Ages 7 and Up


Cassie, who flew above New York in Tar Beach, soars into the sky once more. This time, she and her brother Be Be meet a train full of people, and Be Be joins them. But the train departs before Cassie can climb aboard. With Harriet Tubman as her guide, Cassie retraces the steps escaping slaves took on the real Underground Railroad and is finally reunited with her brother at the story's end.

Our Children can Soar

By Michelle Cook

Recommended for: Ages 7 and Up


“Rosa sat so Martin could march. Martin marched so Barack could run. Barack ran so our children can soar.”

This is the seed of a unique picture book that is part historical, part poetry, and entirely inspirational. It takes the reader through the cumulative story of the US Civil Rights Movement, expanding the popular slogan beyond these three heroes to include more key players in the struggle for equality. Spare prose and vivid imagery make this a truly moving and accessible picture book to be savored by readers of all ages.

Come August, Come Freedom

By Gigi Amateau

Recommended for: Ages 14 and Up


In a time of post-Revolutionary fervor in Richmond, Virginia, an imposing twenty-four-year-old slave named Gabriel, known for his courage and intellect, plotted a rebellion involving thousands of African- American freedom seekers armed with refashioned pitchforks and other implements of Gabriel’s blacksmith trade. The revolt would be thwarted by a confluence of fierce weather and human betrayal, but Gabriel retained his dignity to the end. History knows little of Gabriel’s early life. But here, author Gigi Amateau imagines a childhood shaped by a mother’s devotion, a father’s passion for liberation, and a friendship with a white master’s son who later proved cowardly and

Something Beautiful

By Sharon Dennis Wyeth

Recommended for: Ages 7 to 10


Everyday a young girl is disheartened by the things in her neighborhood: the trash on the streets, the graffiti on the walls, and the homeless woman that sleeps in a box.  When she learns the word "beautiful" at school, she sets out to find "something beautiful" in her surroundings.  In her search, this little girl learns to see beyond the barren ugliness of her environment to find beauty in her friendships, her family, and herself.

Child of the Civil Rights Movement

By Paula Young Shelton

Recommended for: Ages 7 to 10


Paula Young Shelton, daughter of Civil Rights activist Andrew Young, brings a child’s unique perspective to an important chapter in America’s history. Paula grew up in the deep south, in a world where whites had and blacks did not. With an activist father and a community of leaders surrounding her, including Uncle Martin (Martin Luther King), Paula watched and listened to the struggles, eventually joining with her family—and thousands of others—in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Poignant, moving, and hopeful, this is an intimate look at the birth of the Civil Rights Movement.

Martin’s big words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Doreen Rappaport

Recommended for: Ages 6 and Up

Coretta Scott King Honor Book


This picture-book biography is an excellent and accessible introduction for young readers to learn about one of the world’s most influential leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Doreen Rappaport weaves the immortal words of Dr. King into a captivating narrative to tell the story of his life. Martin’s Big Words is an unforgettable portrait of a man whose dream changed America—and the world—forever.

Of thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters

By Barack Obama

Recommended for: Ages 6 to 10


In this tender, beautiful letter to his daughters, President Barack Obama has written a moving tribute to thirteen groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped our nation. From the artistry of Georgia O'Keeffe, to the courage of Jackie Robinson, to the patriotism of George Washington, President Obama sees the traits of these heroes within his own children, and within all of America’s children. This beautiful book celebrates the characteristics that unite all Americans, from our nation’s founders to generations to come. It is about the potential within each of us to pursue our dreams and forge our own paths.

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave

By Laban Carrick Hill

Recommended for: Ages 6 to 10

Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Winner


“To us it is just dirt, the ground we walk on...But to Dave it was clay, the plain and basic stuff upon which he formed a life as a slave nearly 200 years ago.”

Dave was an extraordinary artist, poet, and potter living in South Carolina in the 1800s. He combined his superb artistry with

deeply observant poetry, carved onto his pots, transcending the limitations he faced as a slave. In this inspiring and lyrical portrayal, National Book Award nominee Laban Carrick Hill's elegantly simple text and award-winning artist Bryan Collier's resplendent, earth-toned illustrations tell Dave's story, a story rich in history, hope, and long-lasting beauty.

cruel. She gives vibrant life to Gabriel’s love for his wife-to-be, Nanny, a slave woman whose freedom he worked tirelessly, and futilely, to buy. Interwoven with original documents, this poignant, illuminating novel gives a personal face to a remarkable moment in history. Read our Review