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Books that Celebrate Black Joy and Achievements

In 1966 Dr. Maulana Karenga, a scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, created a new holiday. Named after the Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits” and modeled after the first harvest celebrations in Africa, Kwanzaa is a time to celebrate family, culture, and heritage.

In honor of the holiday, celebrated each year for seven days beginning December 26, here are a few excellent picture books that laud Black empowerment, joy, community, and history.

Brown Sugar Babe by Charlotte Watson Sherman, illustrated by Akem – The inspiration for the story comes from an actual experience the author had with her daughter, who once claimed as a toddler she wanted to be pink. Brownness is a topic every parent of Black and Brown children knows they must discuss eventually. This book is an affirmation that this topic doesn’t have to be explored alone, but instead with the guidance and love of a trusted guardian.

Lizzie Demands a Seat!: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights by Beth Anderson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis – This book focuses on the bravery and integrity of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Jennings, a Black schoolteacher, who in 1854 fought back when she was unjustly denied entry to a New York City streetcar, sparking the beginnings of the long struggle to gain equal rights on public transportation.

Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner by Janice N. Harrington, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III – Called “understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing” in a starred School Library Journal, this nonfiction picture book focuses on the life and discoveries of Charles Henry Turner, the first Black entomologist, and his discoveries about ants, bees, and other insects.

Molly, by Golly!: The Legend of Molly Williams, America’s First Female Firefighter by Dianne Ochiltree, illustrated by Kathleen Kemly – This legendary tale introduces young readers to Molly Williams, an African American cook for New York City’s Fire Company 11, who is considered to be the first known female firefighter in U.S. history. One winter day in 1818, when many of the firefighting volunteers are sick with influenza and a small wooden house is ablaze, Molly jumps into action and helps stop the blaze, proudly earning the nickname Volunteer Number 11.

Born to Swing: Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Life in Jazz by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Michele Wood – Award-winning author Mara Rockliff and acclaimed illustrator Michele Wood brilliantly capture the rhythms and passions of “Hot Miss Lil” Hardin Armstrong, legendary jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader—and a female pioneer on the music stage.

Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson – This biography in verse was awarded a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Author Honor award. George Washington Carver is associated with the creation of peanut butter, yet his true motivations and achievements are often left unsaid. Carver was driven by scientific curiosity, devotion to the betterment of Black Americans, and his Christian faith to discover better ways to farm. Beautiful prose and photographs throughout give readers a detailed look at Carver as a scientist, as well as the tools he used and the world he lived in.

Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie – Called “(A) history that everyone should know: required and inspired,” in a starred Kirkus Reviews, this historical fiction picture book presents the story of nine-year-old Lorraine Jackson, who in 1968 witnessed the Memphis sanitation strike—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final stand for justice before his assassination—when her father, a sanitation worker, participated in the protest.