To Move Beyond Black History Month, You Need to Recognize the Month as a Motivation and Not a Destination

Susannah Richards

Black History is American history, but sometimes it is an overlooked part of American history. Black History Month, celebrated in February, is a great reminder that we should be sharing the accomplishments, history, and joy of African Americans. While the goal is to affirm the experiences, perspectives, and accomplishments of all people throughout the year, February is a time when you may want to make a concentrated effort to share information and stories that highlight, affirm, and recognize that there are many different experiences including those of Blacks and African Americans.

One way to integrate Black history, joy, and the experiences of African Americans into the curriculum is with books. The following is a list of recently published books that will inspire, delight, and increase students’ knowledge about the many and varied experiences of African Americans since 1619.

The picture book is an expressive and expansive place. The form permits stories to be accessible and inviting for a wide range of audiences. This means that the picture book is not just for young children but for everyone and is an invitation into ideas, information, and story.  The power of the picture book is infinite and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s and Newbery Honor winning Renée Watson’s The 1619 Project: Born on the Water demonstrates that infinite possibility as they share the history of slavery through a contemporary storyline tracing a family tree. Based on her own story, voting rights advocate Stacey Abram’s Stacey’s Extraordinary Words is a story about a girl, a spelling bee, the power of words, and perseverance. This book can open up conversations about how words provide strength. The Year We Learned to Fly from Newbery Coretta Scott King, Astrid Lindgren Memorial, and NAACP Image Awards winner Jacqueline Woodson, and illustrator Rafael Lopez is a powerful picture book that affirms possibility, imagination, and ancestry.

I am delighted to report that there are more picture book biographies to expand the canon beyond the traditional titles on Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and a few others. Nina: A Story about Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Caldecott Honor winning Christian Robinson, celebrates Nina, revolution, and hope. Because Claudette by Tracey Baptiste, illustrated by Tonya Engel, ensures that young readers know that the American Civil Rights Movement era was a chain of events and that young people played many roles. Former Maryland United States House of Representative Elijah Cummings died in 2019, but a new picture book biography, The Faith of Elijah Cummings: The North Star of Equal Justice, by Newbery honor winning Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Laura Freeman, makes sure that young readers learn about the politician and civil rights champion.

A couple of new middle grade novels are great for a read aloud, recommending for pleasure reading, or for a literary discussion. Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is a wondrous tale of sisterhood, family dynamics, and navigating change.  This book may be a wonderful addition to the to be read pile for readers who are Babysitter Club fans. National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and Newbery Honor winning Jason Reynolds and Pura Belpré Honoree Rául the Third created an action packed graphic novel about a new superhero, Stuntboy, In the Meantime, who is navigating all kinds of situations in his superhero and non-superhero lives.

Anthologies and story collections are efficient and delightful ways to share stories and here are a few to put on your radar. Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood edited by Kwame Mbalia includes, among others, stories by Newbery Award and Honor winners Jerry Craft, Jason Reynolds, and Kwame Mbalia. This collection has something for everyone—superheroes, magic, science, space travel, identity, space travel, and more. Brave. Black. First.: 50+ African Americans Women Who Changed the World by Cheryl Willis Hudson and illustrated by Erin K. Robinson honors an amazing group of contemporary and historical African Americans. Recognize!: An Anthology Honoring and Amplifying Black Life edited by Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson showcases a range of short stories, nonfiction, and art to reinforce that Black Lives Matter. 

This has already been an incredible year for young adult books and here are some that that I recommend. Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne is told in prose and poetry and beautifully shares a complex and layered story about trauma, support, and discovery. The Chosen One: A First-Generation Ivy League Odyssey a novel by Echo Brown is both a realistic portrait of being the outsider at an elite college and a fantasy of what it takes to navigate that challenge and thrive.  Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk is a novel in verse about queer friendship and love. Freedom! The Story of the Black Panther Party by Jetta Grace Martin, Joshua Bloom, and Waldo E. Martin Jr. focuses on a group of committed Black Panther members and presents the multifaceted aspects of the people and the party. This is a great companion to last year’s Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon.

These are not the only books that recognize the triumphs and struggles of Blacks and African Americans, but they are books that express and expand the stories that need to be shared with everyone. Please know that these dozen plus books are a small sample of the suggested titles to expand your canon of stories that affirm identities—young, old, and in the future. Each of these books was chosen for its potential to ignite, cultivate, and delight the audience as well as its potential to be “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” (Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop).

Susannah Richards (@SussingOutBooks on Twitter and Instagram) lives a life buried under books, teaching courses in literacy and literature for youth. She has served on many awards committees including the 2013 Newbery Committee, inaugural Anne Dewdney Read Together Award, Theodore Geisel Award in 2017, and others.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC.