Some of the Best Books Featuring African-American, Black Characters and Issues for Children and Teens

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Here are some of our favorite books for the classroom for preschool through ninth grade, which feature black Americans. There are picture books, nonfiction, and novels. For even more recommended books see our page on Teaching Tolerance.

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Grades PreK - 9
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena. Illustrated by Christian Robinson. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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This picture book is truly extraordinary and while delightful for the preschool set can be used with older students right up through middle school as well. An African-American child and his look-on-the-bright-side grandmother take a bus from church to a soup kitchen. Along the way the grandmother helps him appreciate the unexpected beauty in the city. The tone is quite light and playful while the themes explored are profound. It is so well regarded that it won the prestigious Newbery Medal, one of only two picture books ever to have won it. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 4 - 8
The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Novel. 224 pages.
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This is a very special book. It starts with humor and ends with tragedy. Byron Watson lives in Michigan with his parents, brother and sister. Most of the first part of the book is devoted to the high-jinks, many of them hilarious, of Byron who walks on the edge of delinquency. His parents are finally pushed into doing something drastic about Byron. The decision is made to drive to Birmingham, where Mrs. Watsons' mother lives and leave Byron with her for the summer. The real climax, however, comes when the church where his sister is at Sunday school is bombed. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades PreK - 3
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes. Illustrated by Gordon C. James. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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Here is a vivid, rich and textured celebration of self-worth. As a black boy goes to get a hair cut, the text and illustrations work wonderfully together to immerse us in the barbershop experience. You can feel and hear and smell the shop. Each page is filled to overflowing with the beautiful heads of black American men (and one woman) with a wide range of hairstyles. The boy narrates, describing how he feels going in and how confident he knows he'll feel coming out. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 4 - 8
The Land by Mildred D. Taylor. Novel. 375 pages.
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The main character in this book, Paul Edward, is the Grandfather of Cassie Logan from Mildred D. Taylor's Newbery Award winning Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry making this a prequel. Slavery ended when he was still very young but he, his sister, and his mother have stayed on the plantation. Paul's mother is the cook and housekeeper. Paul was born from the partnership of a slave and the white master of the plantation in Mississippi. Paul's father acknowledges his black children and they are part of his family although they can't sit at the dinner table with them when they have white guests and they live with their mother away from the Big House. Read More.

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Grades PreK - 2
It Is the Wind by Ferida Wolff. Illustrated by James Ransome. Picture Book. 32 pages.
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Lyrical text with rhyming onomatopoeia describe the thoughts of an African American boy awakened during the night by the sounds of the country. The text is accompanied by beautiful watercolor illustrations. Read More.

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Grades 7 - 12
They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an America Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Nonfiction. 172 pages.
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In 2009 there were 932 active hate groups in the US including Ku Klux Klan chapters. This makes it more important than ever to have a book such as this which describes in great detail their early years. Bartoletti uses primary sources (newspapers, documented interviews, photographs and political cartoons) to great effect here. Her research is thorough and she writes about it brilliantly bringing it to frightening life for 21st century readers. Highly recommended. Read More.

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Grades 6 - 9
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson. Novel. 448 pages.
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This captivating book is a wonderful piece of historical fiction with one genre-bending exception that the main character can sense the presence of gold, which gives the book a touch of fantasy. This is the first book in the Gold Seer Trilogy. Fifteen-year-old Lee lives with her parents in Dahlonega, Georgia in 1849. They have come there for the first major gold rush in the US, but now the gold is mostly gone. When Lee must flee and disguise herself as a boy, she works her way across the country to the California Gold Rush, first by horseback, then by boat, and finally by wagon train. Great for sixth grade and older. Read More.

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Grades 5 - 9
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Memoir. 336 pages.
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Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award and it's quite a gem. It's a book length memoir in verse of the author growing up in the sixties and seventies as well as some of her family history. Living in both South Carolina and then Brooklyn, New York we get to see the life of an African American family in the North and the South. Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement there is a lot of history here. Read More.

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Grades PreK - 1
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Picture Book. 40 pages.
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In this Caldecott Medal winner, a little African-American boy experiences the snow in the city spending the day outside playing. He slides down a snow bank in his red snow suit, makes tracks through the snow, makes snow angels, and knocks snow from a tree onto his head. Afraid the snow won't last, Peter tries to keep a snowball in his pocket until the next day. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades PreK - 4
Trombone Shorty by "Trombone Shorty" Troy Andrews. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Picture Book. 40 pages.
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Growing up in the '90s in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Troy was surrounded by music. This beautifully illustrated story follows him from making his own instruments out of household objects with his friends to becoming a world-famous musician. Along the way we get a taste of low-income New Orleans and Trombone Shorty's consuming passion for music. Great for preschool through at least fourth grade. Read More.

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Grades 5 - 8
The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. Novel. 256 pages.
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Jerome Foxworthy, 13, ace student, first black in an all-white school and a basketball fanatic, narrates this story of his friendship with Bix. Bix's game is baseball, but Jerome recognizes in his skill the same passion and technical accuracy that he himself has in his sport. This is an exquisite portrait of Jerome, a bright, confident loner and Bix, distant and frightened, and the fragile friendship that develops between them. Read More.

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Grades 4 - 7
Thank You, Jackie Robinson by Barbara Cohen. Illustrated by John Steptoe. Novel. 128 pages.
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Sam Green is nuts about baseball. His mother runs an inn in New Jersey and Sam's best friend is Davy, the African American cook at the inn. They especially admire Jackie Robinson, the first black man in major league baseball. Together Davy and Sam set out to see a game at each ballpark within a day's drive of their home. They can't go any farther than that since, in the 1940's, segregation prevents Davy from entering any restaurant or hotel. When Davy has a heart attack, Sam musters up his courage and gets past many obstacles to get Jackie Robinson's autograph on a baseball for Davy, somehow convinced that the ball will make him better. Read More.

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Grades 3 - 9
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Novel. 180 pages.
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Meet Jeffrey Lionel Magee, sometimes known as Maniac Magee, and the people of the fictional town of Two Mills. Maniac runs away from home and ends up in Two Mills, a racially split town where he becomes a catalyst for change. This excellent novel is about prejudice, love, home, baseball, fear and understanding. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 4 - 8
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. Novel. 256 pages.
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In this Newbery Award winning book we are asked to believe that a ten-year-old boy, without resources other than his own self-constructed list of rules "to Have a Funner Life and Make a Better Liar Out of Yourself", will find love, a home and a real family. Such is the skill of Christopher Paul Curtis that we take all that and more with hardly a nod toward the percentages. Meet Bud, not Buddy, one of the most delightful young people you'll ever know. The setting of the 1930s, the height of the Great Depression and the small tastes of racism that the author weaves in so skillfully make this book stand head and shoulders above the crowd. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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Grades 3 - 12
Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth by Anne Rockwell. Illustrated by Christie, R. Gregory. Picture Book, Nonfiction. 36 pages.
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The text is dramatic and gives information about slavery in the northern United States in the early 1800's because, of course, that's where the slave Isabelle, later to rename herself as Sojourner Truth lived her long and inspiring life. This is a picture book that you can use as low as third grade but don't let your high school students miss it either. Read More.

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Grades 4 - 9
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. Novel. 160 pages.
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In this Newbery Award winner, we meet Gilly, a foster child who has successfully manipulated the system for years. All that changes, however, when she is placed in the home of Mamie Trotter, an eccentric soul whose household consists of herself and W. E. (William Ernest) another foster child who, unlike Gilly, is fearful and easily intimidated. Next door neighbor Mr. Randolph, a blind African American and elderly gentleman, is a frequent visitor whom Gilly treats with contempt. Read More.

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Grades 5 - 9
Sounder by William H. Armstrong. Novel. 116 pages.
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Set in the south in the late 1800's, Sounder is based on a true story of a family of Black sharecroppers and their beloved hunting hound, Sounder. The family depends on Sounder for hunting game, until one year when there is not enough game in the woods to sustain them. The father steals a pig for meat and goes to jail and then to hard labor. The oldest son, who is still a child, narrates this story of love and faith, cruelty and death. Read More.

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Grades 3 - 8
The Underground Railroad by Raymond Bial. Nonfiction Picture Book. 48 pages.
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This is a short, clear and beautifully done informational book. The text is emotional without overdoing it. The color photographs of the Ohio River, some of the houses that served as stations and some of the shoes worn by the escaping slaves add a dimension to the book often missing in other books on the subject.

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Grades K - 2
Bigmama's by Donald Crews. Picture Book. 40 pages.
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Bigpapa and Bigmama both live in the white farmhouse in Cottondale, Florida where the author spent his summers as a boy, but they called it Bigmama's. When he and his family arrive the kids dash about exploring the farm checking everything. First the house and everything in it from fireplace to treadle sewing machine, then the porch, yard and outbuildings. The family's exuberance at being together is what comes through in this book as well as a picture of an African-American family's farm sixty years or so ago.

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Grades 4 - 8
Finding Buck McHenry by Alfred Slote. Novel. 256 pages.
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Jason loves baseball, although his playing skills are less than outstanding. Cut from his Little League team, he is crushed and unburdens himself on the school janitor, Mack Henry. It turns out that Mr. Henry knows a lot about baseball, especially about the Negro League which Jason knows nothing about. Jason's collection of baseball cards gives no indication of such a league. A trip to the card store, however, turns up a card for Negro League star Buck McHenry, who may or may not be Mack Henry.

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Grades 3 - 8
Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by Hudson Talbott. Picture Book. 48 pages.
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Soonie's great-grandmother was a slave, sold away from her parents when she was just seven years old with nothing but a scrap of muslin from her mother. On her new plantation, Soonie's great-grandmother listened to the tales of freedom whispered to her in the night by Big Mama who also taught her how to sew maps in quilts of the way to freedom. Based on the author's own family history, this beautiful picture book is illustrated with mixed media.

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Grades 4 - 7
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson. Nonfiction Picture Book. 96 pages.
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This is Kadir Nelson's first time both writing and illustrating a book. He previously won a Caldecott Honor for illustrating Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. Here his beautiful paintings bring an unexpected richness to baseball. There is a forward by Hank Aaron and text full of the history of baseball from the 1860's through 1947 and the effect that segregation and racism had on the game and the African American players who excelled at it.

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Grades 4 - 9
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Novel. 218 pages.
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It's 1968 in Oakland, California and eleven year old Delphine and her two younger sisters are spending a month with their mother who deserted them years ago. It's the height of the Black Power movement and the girls spend their days at the Black Panther's People's Center while their unstable mother writes poetry. This Newbery Honor Book is a fascinating look into the time period as well as an engrossing tale of one girl's struggle to understand her mother and to find her own authentic way of relating to her.

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Grades 6 - 12
Miles to Go for Freedom: Segregation and Civil Rights in the Jim Crow Years by Linda Barrett Osborne. Nonfiction. 128 pages.
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Here's a topnotch exploration of race relations from 1890 through the 1950's in the US. Osborne gives us a comprehensive look at this horrific side of our past with an understated clarity that makes the facts all the more moving. Covering the North as well as the South this book is full of primary source quotes, photos, and illustrations from the period. The book ends with the momentous Brown vs The Board of Education decision and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The back of the book includes a time line, notes, and a bibliography. We highly recommend it.

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Grades PreK - 4
In Our Mothers' House by Patricia Polacco. Picture Book. 48 pages.
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An adopted Africa-American daughter tells the story of growing up with two moms, an Asian-American brother, and a white sister. Surrounded by support, the family is filled with love and kindness. There's one neighbor who won't let her children play with the family, but otherwise this is a book of everyday happiness and caring.

For more books featuring people of color see our page on Teaching Tolerance.