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5 Children's Books To Read About Influential Black Leaders

Candlewick, Brown Books for Young Readers, Little Bee Books
While the tragedy and pain of Black history can't be ignored, Hermoine Bell-Henderson from the Milwaukee Public Library recommends five books to learn about the often forgotten successes in Black history.

Black history in the United States is often focused on the incredible tragedy and pain Black Americans have faced since the beginning of the nation’s history. While that history can’t be ignored, the success stories across Black history are rarely taught and often forgotten.

Hermione Bell-Henderson is the coordinator of business, technology and periodicals at the Milwaukee Public Library. For this year’s Black History Month, she put together a list of children's books aimed at teaching the stories of successful and influential Black Americans.

Credit Candlewick
What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors is a tribute to black inventors whose ingenuity and perseverance against great odds made our world safer, better and brighter.

1. What Color Is My World: The Lost History of African American Inventors by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

Twins Ella and Herbie are hanging out at home when a handyman arrives to fix up their house. He also takes some time to tell them stories about Black history because, as the handyman says, “There’s more to our history then slavery, jazz, sports and civil rights marches.”

Bell-Henderson says that the illustrations in the book add to the dive into famous, and some not so famous, inventors.

“It highlights African American inventors such as George Crum, who made the [first] potato chips; Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first documented and successful open-heart surgery; Monty Johnson, who is famous for the Super Soaker,” she says. “It does highlight one woman, Dr. Valerie Thomas, who has the patent for an illusion transmitter.”

Credit Brown Books for Young Readers
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History tells true stories of forty trailblazing black women in American history

  2. Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison

“It actually covers 40 trailblazing Black women in our history, both iconic and the lesser known,” Bell-Henderson says.

The book covers a wide range of history from contemporary figures like Gabby Douglas to a civil war spy.

“It’s nice to just have a nice mix to not only highlight, you know, the contemporary folks but also educate everyone who’s reading the book about history,” she says.

Credit Brown Books for Young Readers
Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History tells the the stories of Black aviators and artists, politicians and pop stars, athletes and activists.

  3. Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison

By the same author as Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, Bell-Harrison says this book looks at Black male inventors, authors, musicians, activists and other leaders through out history.

“Just, again, a really nice mix of Black men in history who have contributed, and this book is just a great way for us to expand our knowledge of African American contributions, it’s very inspiring for both kids and adults,” she says.

Credit Little Bee Books
Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott looks into the life of Georgia Gilmore, a hidden figure of history who used her passion for baking to help the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

  4. Pies From Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained The Montgomery Bus Boycott by Dee Romito

While many may know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the name Georgia Gilmore is often left out. She was a cook at the national lunch company in Alabama and after the boycotts began, she organized a group of women to cook and bake to raise money for gas and cars to continue the boycott.

“When people asked, ‘Hey, where did the money come from?,' Georgia pretty much said it came from nowhere and she held to that,” Bell-Henderson says. “Georgia’s home served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders, she testified on behalf of Martin Luther King Jr. when he was arrested during the boycott, and this is a great book because it shows how much one person can make a difference.”

5. A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put Americans On The Moon by Suzanne Slade

Some may know Catherine Johnson from the movie Hidden Figures, which told the story of the Black mathematicians who helped NASA during the space race.

“She was really just a brilliant mathematician who held a job that was not reserved for women or Blacks during that time period. She broke barriers,” Bell-Henderson says.

Credit Brown Books for Young Readers
A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon tells the story of how Katherine Johnson's calculations helped pioneer America's first manned flight into space, its first manned orbit of Earth, and the world's first trip to the moon

All of these books, and more, are available through the Milwaukee Public Library.

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.