As the great melting pot, America has produced literature reflective of its rich cultural and ethnic diversity. This month, we celebrate African American authors’ contributions to American literature in the reading list below. Here are some of our favorites.
by Angela Johnson
Grade Level Equivalent: 1.5
Angela Johnson is a renowned author known for her books that celebrate African-American families, history, and relationships. Daddy Calls Me Man showcases a collection of four short simple poems from a little boy to his family. The stories all show his love for his family and the bonds that connect them each of them. With vivid oil paint illustrations, this children’s book of simple yet meaningful shorts can be enjoyed by all ages.
by Margaret H. Mason
Grade Level Equivalent: 2.8
Joseph’s grandfather has amazing hands. They can do anything. They can tie shoes and play piano keys, and they are still quick with playing cards. However, Joseph soon learns that there are something’s his grandfather’s hands aren’t allowed to do. In this touching story, a little boy learns why it’s important to stand up against injustice so that These Hands, and others, can one day do anything they dream.
by Elliot Zetta
Grade Level Equivalent: 3.4
In this touching story, a young boy called “Bird,” struggling to understand the death of his grandfather and dealing with his older brother’s addiction, uses his love of drawing to cope. With the help of his grandfather’s friend, Sonny, he learns how to move forward and fly. Zetta Elliot’s first picture book and a recipient of Lee & Low’s New Voices Award Honor, Bird is a great resource to teach students to persevere in the face of troubles.
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Grade Level Equivalent: 4.6
Rita Williams-Garcia, author of several award winning children’s books and young adult novels, produces a Newbery Honor book in One Crazy Summer. Set in 1968, the novel tells the story of three sisters who travel to meet the mother who abandoned them. Ever since her mother Cecile left seven years ago, eleven-year-old Delphine has watched her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. They travel from Brooklyn to spend the summer with her and are shocked when they arrive. Their mother, a staunch Black Panthers supporter, sends them to a day camp run by the Black Panthers where they receive a radical education. Full of surprising happenings and crazy events, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern learn so much more than they ever thought during this crazy summer.
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Grade Level Equivalent: 5.0
Set in the year 1963 in Flint, Michigan, Bud, Not Buddy is the story of a ten-year-old orphan boy named Bud who runs away from his foster home to find his long-lost father. Christopher Paul Curtis, born and raised in Flint himself, dreamed up Bud Caldwell out of his days of boredom while working on an assembly line in the 1970s and 80s. An excellent read for young readers, the book presents difficult subjects in a way that children can understand and to which they can relate. With only a band flyer to guide him and following his trusty rules for a “funnier” life, Bud embarks on a long whimsical journey to find a father he never knew.
by Natasha Tarpley
Grade Level Equivalent: 5.2
I Love My Hair is a wonderful story about a young girl who learns to love her hair. Natasha Tarpley, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in African American Studies, delves into African American identity and the role that unique physical features play. Though focused on the subject of African American hair, this book connects to all children by teaching them to love the way they are made.
by Jacqueline Woodson
Grade Level Equivalent: 5.4
Jacqueline Woodson is an award-winning writer whose imagination and passion for story telling used to get her in trouble. Now it’s the very thing that has helped her become a great American author. Her book Hush tells the story of a 12 year old girl named Toswiah. Toshwiah’s life is happy until she and her family are thrust into what Towish sees as a harsh and unfamiliar new place. Her family begins to change. Her father has become depressed and quiet, her mother quits teaching to embrace a new-found religion, and her only sister is planning to leave. Forced to change her name to Evie Thomas, she struggles to find belonging, happiness, and herself in this strange new life. A finalist for the National Book Award, the book tells a beautiful story of overcoming change, discovering self, and realizing the bond of family.
by Darlene C. and William C. Hine; Stanley Harrold
Grade Level Equivalent: 8-12
Aptly named, The African-American Odyssey takes readers on a journey through history and the rich culture and heritage that it holds. As readers weave in and out through the daily lives of ordinary people and great leaders alike, they will see just how interwoven the African American experience is into American history as a whole. This serves as a great book for educating students or anyone interested in learning more about American history.
by Maya Angelou
Grade Level Equivalent: 10-12
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, one of Maya Angelou’s most well-known works, is an autobiography that offers a glimpse into the life of the great African American Civil Rights figure. After Maya’s mother sends her to live with her devout grandmother in a small southern town, Maya endures racial prejudice, abuse, and many other struggles. Although her journey is long and hard, through it she comes to understand just “why the cage bird sings.” Using techniques often found in fictional works, this autobiography is also literary art. Maya Angelou’s story will touch, encourage, and inspire students.
by W.E.B. Du Bois
Grade Level Equivalent: 12
In this thought-provoking book, W.E.B. Du Bois dives into the heart of what it means to be “black” in American society. Still relevant for today, his words ring with eloquence and surety as he unpacks the emotions and the story of black culture and experience. One of his most popular works and a Penguin classic, this book will open the minds and hearts of your students toward a deeper understanding of the experience of the African American people.