Leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my kids have an assembly in his honor at their school. Parents don’t attend so I don’t know exactly what happens in the assembly, but it’s obvious that it leaves quite an impression on the kids. Mazzy and Harlow come home singing songs about Martin Luther King Jr. and repeating his words. He’s also become one of the few historical figures that both my girls recognize whenever we see a poster or representation of him when we are out and about. I see a little light go off in their eyes and then they’ll point, “Look, Mom. That’s Martin Luther King.” They are surprised and excited to see him outside of the classroom.
In fact, during this year’s Super Bowl, say what you want about the about the appropriateness of MLK being used for a Dodge Ram commercial, but Mazzy was completely uninterested in the game until the ad came on the TV. She came running into the room when she heard MLK’s voice, remaining transfixed until the end. The advertisement was completely lost on her. She just saw a civil rights hero being given airtime during a major sporting event.
Last year, I made an effort to buy a bunch of books that better reflected our diverse world, including books that focused on the black experience and books that had black main characters. “Chocolate Me!” is a book we’ve had since Taye Diggs was a guest on the Mommy Show. On Harlow’s first day of kindergarten, she was really timid walking into class, but then spotted “Chocolate Me” on the bookshelf. She ran over to show me, comforted to find something from home in school.
She did the same with Henry’s Freedom Box. She came home one day a few weeks ago, excited to tell me that she had found it in the school library. At the end of library time, each child is allowed to take out a book and keep it in their classroom for the week. When I dropped her off the next day, I saw that because of Harlow’s choice, Henry’s Freedom Box was now sitting on the class bookshelf, where other children could read and discover it for the first time. I’m not telling you this to pat myself on the back, but because this was an outcome I didn’t foresee. Exposing diverse books to our children at home, ultimately made those same books more available to Harlow’s classmates as well.
Just a few days ago, there was a question for the kids to answer on the smart board when they walked in the room. The children’s answers are then discussed during their morning meeting. The question was: “What is your favorite book?” Harlow surprised me by chosing “Martin’s Big Words” and as a result, she made that book a subject of discussion for the class. Another day, the smart board question asked the children to name a “changemaker.” Martin Luther King was already written on the wall so Harlow wanted to come up with a different answer. She turned to me and asked, “Was Rosa Parks a changemaker?” “Yes, Harlow, she was.” I’m not sure if they learned about her in class or if Harlow knew about Rosa Parks because we have a book about her at home. Either way, Harlow is getting the message and I think the combination of things being taught in school and reinforced at home (and vice versa) is what makes the biggest impact.
When it comes to Mazzy, I’ve found that she is very interested in reading books about people and events, after she learns about them in class. She wasn’t that interested in “I am Rosa Parks” when I brought it home initially, but she eagerly pulled it out to reread herself, after they learned about the civil rights movement at school. She’s also the one who pulled out Henry’s Freedom Box to read at bedtime (after months of it sitting idle on our shelf), which introduced the book to Harlow.
In honor of Black History Month, below are a few books about black leaders and historical events that we have at home. Some immediately left a big impression on my girls. Some were ignored for months but are now being revisited by my kids with renewed interest. And some are brand new additions to our collection.
By Doreen Rappaport, Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an excellent way to introduce your kids to Martin Luther King. Using some of his most famous quotes, along with beautiful illustrations, it takes you through his life as a young boy all the way up to his assassination. It touches on segregation, the civil rights movement and how the civil rights movement was met with resistance. But mainly it is about the power of words and how speaking up can drive change. When the book mentions his Nobel Peace Prize won in 1964, it says “He won it because he taught people to fight with words, not fists.”
By Brad Meltzer and Christopher Eliopoulus
I am Rosa Parks is from the “Ordinary People Change the World” series which tells the life story of important people in history in a very kid-friendly, almost cartoon-like fashion. I loved learning that Rosa Parks was one of the smallest kids in school and that when she refused to give up her seat for a white person on the bus, she was only 42 years-old! As a kid, I always imagined that she was an elderly lady.
By Roda Ahmed, Illustrated by Stasia Burrington
Mae Among the Stars was inspired by the true story of Mae Jemison, an engineer and physician who became the first African American woman to travel in space. It’s a wonderfully aspirational book which tells the story of Mae’s young life and her life long passion for space science. It teaches kids to believe in themselves and have the courage to follow their dreams.
By Lisbeth Kaiser and Leire Salaberria
The Little People, Big Dreams series is a beautiful set of books, each about an individual woman who made a difference in history. Other books include Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie and Rosa Parks. I picked the Maya Angelou book because it tells the story of a little girl who, due to a pretty traumatic childhood, was afraid to talk at all and how she became one of the most beloved speakers and writers of our time.
By Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson
Henry’s Freedom Box is a true story about the underground railroad, which follows a slave from the South who shipped himself in a box to find freedom in the North. It’s a suspenseful heroic story with a happy ending, but also a great tool to introduce your kids to the concept of slavery. Before Henry makes the decision to escape, he loses his entire family when his wife and kids are traded to a different slave owner. I think that fact really resonated with my kids to make them better understand the lack of freedom for black people in that time.
By Robert Coles, Illustrated by George Ford
I bought the The Story Of Ruby Bridges when Mazzy noticed that Ruby wasn’t included in the first Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls book. I think Ruby Bridges’ story leaves a big impression on many kids because she was only six-years-old when she became one of the faces of the civil rights movement. I knew that she was the first black girl to attend an all-white school in New Orleans after a court ruling in 1960. But I did not know that all the parents pulled their kids out of the school and she was taught alone in that school for a full year. The story is partially told through the eyes of Ruby’s teacher and really hits home how strong Ruby had to be to walk proudly through angry mobs of white people every day so that she could get the first grade education that was rightfully hers.
By Vashti Harrison
Similar to Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, Little Leaders is a beautifully illustrated book that focuses on change making black women. It includes Phillis Wheatley, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Joyner and Harlow’s favorite, Alma Woodsey Thomas, who had the first ever solo exhibition by an African American woman at a major American museum. In addition to learning about many new history making women, Mazzy and Harlow were very excited when they would see women that they had already learned about in Rebel Girls, like Harriet Tubman and Serena Williams.
By Margot Lee Shetterly, Illustrated by Laura Freeman
Hidden Figures is based on the true story of four African American women who were really good at math. So good, that despite being women and African American in 1961, they were hired by NASA to do the math that would one day send the United States into space for the very first time. This story was made popular by the recent movie, but it is one that can be shared with even younger kids, thanks to this surprisingly in depth new picture book which explains both segregation and the space race as well as the personal stories of Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden.
Obviously reading diverse books to our kids isn’t going to solve racial injustice in our country or our world, but I think it’s an excellent place to start.
Do you have any books recommendations that tell the story of change making people in black history? Tell me in the comments below!