I’m frequently asked for recommendations on diverse US history books for kids, especially to supplement American history curriculum.
There’s only so many books you can read about George Washington, know what I mean? And honestly — why would you keep reading about the same handful of people over and over, when there’s a whole wonderful world to embrace?
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Diverse Kids’ Books to Expand Your View of American History
American history is problematic, to say the least. It’s hard to find children’s books, since the accurate accounts are generally quite brutal, and the kid-friendly accounts are often inaccurate. But here and there, some literary gems stand out. These are a few of my favorite diverse picture books and chapter books, set in various US history eras from the 1700s colonies to 1900s south Florida. There are countless more delightful books, of course, but this list should jumpstart your next library trip. (I’ve also listed all the books on my Amazon Influencer Storefront.)
The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood
by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
What Are You Figuring Now? A Story About Benjamin Banneker
by Jeri Ferris
As a young boy, Benjamin Banneker’s curiosity and desire to learn was insatiable, leading him to later achievements in math, astronomy, and of course, his famous wooden clock. A captivating book, sure to keep a reader or listener’s attention. Chapter book.
American Lives: Benjamin Banneker
by Rick Burke
Shek and Wong, recently arrived in California from China, face danger and opportunity — as well as discrimination — as workers on the Central Pacific Railroad. The brothers’ stories unfold through rich, light-filled paintings and a strong narrative. A tremendous look at the sometimes-overlooked lives of Chinese laborers in mid-1800s America. Picture book.
Brick by Brick
by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
When the original White House was under construction, the US government paid slave owners five dollars a month to send slaves to work. Of course, it was the slave owners, not the slaves, who received the money. This rhythmic, lyrical picture book pays tribute to those whose labor built the White House. A Coretta Scott King Award winner. Picture book.
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
by Carole Boston Weatherford
Profoundly moving, Harriet Tubman’s journey to freedom is retold in poetic prose and soulful images, speaking to the very heart of adult and child alike. Spiritual and heart-wrenching, yet indescribably uplifting. “How far, Lord? As far as you can walk with Me, My child, and I can carry you…Use your gifts to break the chains.” Picture book.
With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School
by Suzanne Slade
Most of us know Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881, but we may not realize the depth of sheer determination and back-breaking work which got him to that point. From teaching himself to read, to eventually building bricks and kilns to create a school building himself, Booker T. Washington’s life is retold in compelling prose and ethereal illustrations which will especially appeal to book-loving kids. Picture book.
Coming to America: The Story of Immigration
by Betsy Maestro
FDR famously said, “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” This excellent book is a great choice to give an overview of, and set the stage for, the study of American history. Touching and informative, with heartwarming illustrations. Picture book.
The Story of the Statue of Liberty
by Betsy and Giulio Maestro
While it’s not specifically a diverse biography, this book tells the story of Emma Lazarus’ poem (“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) Full-page illustrations — and fascinating factual narrative — bring the construction of Lady Liberty to life in this oversized book. Picture book.
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty
by Linda Glaser
Jewish author Emma Lazarus is well-known for the lines she penned, which are inscribed on the Statute of Liberty. But who was she? And what was happening in America during the time she wrote the famed poem “The New Colossus”? Beautifully illustrated, and written in lilting prose. Picture book.
Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story
by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney
The stories of freed slaves-turned-cowboys is an oft-overlooked part of American history. In this adrenaline-packed picture book, cowboy Bob Lemmons and his horse Warrior face the exhilarating dangers of the wild desert as they corral a herd of horses. Picture book.
Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin’ Cowboy
by Andrea D. Pinkney
More detailed than “Black Cowboy, Wild Horses”, this picture book takes a closer look at the escapades of African-American rodeo star Bill Pickett, who was known for his daredevil bull-wrestling feats in the late 1800s. Picture book.
I Have Heard of a Land
by Joyce Carol Thomas
A poetic picture book from the perspective of a single African American woman staking a claim in the Oklahoma territory during the great land rush of 1889. Based on true stories from the author’s ancestry. Lovely! Picture book.
Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man Who Gave His People Writing
by James Rumford
Before Sequoyah, the Cherokee language was only spoken, never written.This bilingual picture book also contains Cherokee text, the distinctive curls of the Cherokee alphabet a beautiful contrast to the tall woodcut illustrations on each page. Picture book.
Shoes for Everyone: A Story About Jan Matzeliger
by Barbara Mitchell
Matzeliger’s invention changed the cobbling industry, but the prejudice he faced as an African-American in Philadelphia nearly kept his invention from seeing the light of day. An excellent biography for children. Chapter book.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills
by Renee Watson
With bold retro-style illustrations which bring Mills to life, this recent picture book is a lovely tribute to the African-American woman who was both a stunning performer and a champion of equal rights. Picture book.
This hauntingly beautiful book illustrates the power of music to counteract heartache, and follows Mary Lou’s journey across America. Tremendously written; through the words, you can feel connection to the music. Picture book.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone
by Katheryn Russell-Brown
Martin and Mahalia: His Words, Her Song
by Andrea Davis Pinkney
I grew up on Mahalia Jackson’s music. Her songs were the soundtrack to almost every childhood roadtrip. I can still close my eyes and hear the voice of the Queen of Gospel — a one-in-a-million kind of a voice — singing about heaven’s glory overcoming earthly struggles. Don’t miss this vibrant book about Jackson and about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”; it’s truly a gift. (And don’t miss this live recording of Mahalia Jackson singing “How I Got Over”.) Picture book.
The Story of Ruby Bridges
by Robert Coles
Day after day, first-grader Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to attend an all-white school, walks through angry, shouting mobs just to get to her classroom. But one day, Ruby stops in the middle of the crowd and prays for everyone around her. Picture book.
We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song
by Debbie Levy
I’m not sure I could love illustrations more than I do the ones in this picture book! Every single face has so much personality and expression. This excellent book spans the history of not just the “We Shall Overcome” song itself, but the movement and the spirit behind it — from slavery to the Civil Rights movement to modern day, beyond the United States. Picture book.
I Too, Am America
by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Hughes’ iconic poem is fleshed out here in picture book form, the famous phrases set alongside fractured collage images of a young African American porter at work on a train. In the afterward, illustrator Collier explains the symbolism used in the illustrations. This book is bit more on the abstract side, perhaps, but both the book and the afterward make a terrific read-aloud, and will definitely spur discussion not only of the power of poetry and art to communicate, but of Hughes’ powerful message as well. Picture book.
Kunu’s Basket: A Story From Indian Island
by Lee DeCora Francis
Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving
by Joseph Bruchac
With empathy and strength, author Joseph Bruchac tells Squanto’s story in the first person, beginning not with the First Thanksgiving or with planting corn, but with Squanto’s first journey from North America to England. Squanto is portrayed as a man of courage, and Bruchac — who himself is of Native American Heritage — masterfully writes of Squanto’s difficult role in Patuxet-turned-Plymouth. Picture book.
Konnichiwa Florida Moon: The Story of George Morikami, Pineapple Pioneer
by Virginia Aronson
The story of Japanese immigration to South Florida is not widely known. “Konichiwa Florida Moon” follows the life of Japanese immigrant George Morikami, who arrived in South Florida in 1906 and continued to live off the land until his death in 1976. Chapter book.
What books have been your favorite for teaching the broader, more complete, story of American history? I’d love to hear!
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