As a strong proponent of bookshelves filled with diverse books — in our libraries, our schools, and certainly at home — I’ve become much more aware of not seeking out books featuring heroes of color, but ensuring that a diverse group of authors and illustrators are creating these books too.
The more perspectives all children are exposed to, the more they learn and grow.
So I’m thrilled to share three brand new biographical picture books for kids that are not only outstanding in their own right, but they happen to have been written by authors of color. I think each of them will captivate, educate, and delight young readers — and even teach some adults a thing or two they didn’t know.
I sure learned a lot.
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race
More than a year after the success of Hidden Figures, my 10-year-old in particular still can’t get enough of the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson. For kids who want to learn more — or maybe whose education about this important story is just beginning — bestselling author Margot Lee Shetterly and illustrator Laura Freeman have created an absolutely engaging, beautifully book in Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race.
Why yes, it does say four Black women.
What makes this book different than some similar this book also includes the story of Christine Darden, a mechanical engineer who started working at NASA in 1967 as an expert on sonic booms, thanks to the groundbreaking success of her predecessors. It also goes beyond the biographies, with information about how segregation laws began to change at this time, in schools, in offices — and on public busses.
The book is so gorgeous, I want every single page to be turned into a t-shirt or a print for my kids’ walls. And the timeline and glossaries in back are perfect for fact-hungry readers.
Mae Among the Stars
The first African American woman in space, Dr. Mae Jemison, is admittedly (and unfortunately) not a name I knew well when I was growing up. But my kids today are like, “of course we know her, Mom!” and that’s progress right there. For younger kids, I think they’ll love an introduction to her inspiring story in the brand new Mae Among the Stars, written by Somalia-born Norwegian columnist and first-time children’s author Roda Ahmed.
(Side note: Ahmed now lives in LA. Making her a successful US immigrant from both Africa and Norway. I’ll just leave that there.)
The story isn’t heavy on biographical information; it’s a sweet, relatable picture book about a young girl who’s obsessed with space and dreams of going there one day.
The most touching part of the book is when Mae finds her dreams mocked by classmates and dismissed by a teacher — something so many kids can relate to even today. Of course we know there’s a happy ending soon after, thanks to the encouragement of her own mom.
This is a perfect story book for early readers, whether you’re reading out loud at bedtime, or kids are picking it up themselves. And Japanese-American illustrator Stasia Burrington’s delightful illustrations make the story so accessible and fun, I’m sure it will get kids excited to move onto a richer Mae Jemison biography soon after.
Plenty of young sports fans know the significance of Jackie Robinson, who broke the pro baseball color barrier in 1947 by advancing from the Negro League Monarchs to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But what’s special about The United States v Jackie Robinson is that none of that happens until the very last page.
Really, this is a book about a lifetime of patience, grace and tenacity “in the face of racism and hatred,” and author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen pulls no punches in spelling out the myriad challenges Robinson faced throughout his life because of the color of his skin.
I think kids will be truly moved and inspired by the story of Robinson’s ongoing fight for dignity and equality, the pinnacle of which was his court martial for refusing to sit in the back of a military bus, as referenced in the book’s title.
This case made him one of the very first Black Americans to challenge a segregation law in court — and to win. In other words, his story is about way, way more than hard work and talent propelling him into history. In fact, it’s about pretty much everything about him besides athletic ability — and that is an incredible lesson for all kids.
The illustrations by Coretta Scott King Award winner R. Gregory Christie bring a painterly, 1930’s-40’s quality to the story with such detail, you can lose yourself in them. (We’ve loved other projects of his, including, most recently, Karyn Parson’s animated Bessie Coleman film.)
Also be sure not to miss the author’s note in the back, including a list of the kinds of signs that Jackie Robinson and other Americans of colors faced in their day to day life, like:
WE WANT WHITE TENANTS IN OUR WHITE COMMUNITY
PUBLIC SWIMMING POOL, WHITE ONLY
NO DOGS, NEGROES, MEXICANS
Do these sentiments seem familiar? Current, even? They should.
It’s an essential and difficult reminder that the struggle for civil rights, racial justice and dignity for all Americans isn’t some issue in our long-ago past, but a fight going on every single day. And that while there are books written about heroes like Jackie Robinson, Mae Jemison and the Black women of NASA, at the time, they just saw themselves as ordinary, everyday people standing up for what was right.
The world needs more everyday heroes. May our kids see themselves among them.