This February, Black History Month is undoubtedly a time when history is being made.
Kamala Harris has taken office as the first Black woman to be our nation’s vice president, an achievement that comes amid a national reckoning on racism. So there’s never been a better time to celebrate the achievements and experiences of those who came before.
Bestselling author Kwame Alexander stopped by TODAY to share some of his favorite books celebrating Black history for people of all ages. Below, he's joined by Harris’s niece, Meena Harris, author Andrea Davis Pinkney, “Bookmarks” host Marley Dias and former NFL player Malcolm Mitchell in curating these suggestions that celebrate and reflect the Black experience for Black History Month 2021 and throughout the year.
- Books seen on TODAY
- Books by our panelists
- Black history books for children
- Black history books for tweens and teens
- Best classic books
- Best memoirs
- Best books from authors to watch
- Best books turned into a movie
Books seen on TODAY
Alexander's imprint, Versify, published this book about lesser known heroines of the women's suffrage movement. "What we get in this book is a much fuller, more inclusive portrait of the fight for women’s right to vote, for readers of any age," he says. "This book could be an origin story for Kamala Harris, and all the little girls who see themselves in her."
Alexander's choice for older kids is Mbalia's epic fantasy set in a world inspired by Black and African folk heroes. It was his family's last read aloud with his daughter, Samayah. "Your kid won’t be able to put these adventures down."
"We all got the chills when we listened to Amanda Gorman deliver that necessary and majestic poem at the inauguration," Alexander says. "That is the power of poetry in telling a story, and who better to comfort us in words, to humor us with rhyme, to make us dance to the rhythm of verse than the black bard, the Shakespeare of Harlem, Langston Hughes."
"'Just Mercy' is a searing journey about a young lawyer defending a young man named Walter McMillian, who was wrongly condemned, and sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit," Alexander says. "We read the book, and Samayah was assigned to read the YA adaptation in her class, then we watched the movie as a family. It’s dramatic, it’s inspirational, it’s sad, it’s entertaining and ultimately it’s hopeful.
"I met Wayétu Moore almost a decade ago when she was publishing books for children in her native country, Liberia, where she also opened the first bookstore focused on leisure reading," Alexander says. Her memoir follows her journey from war-torn Liberia to the United States. "It’s about the search for home. And her life-long commitment to finding her voice and helping young children find theirs."
Alexander said when he heard Thompson-Spires read from this debut short story collection, "I was knocked off my feet. And, I was sitting down. I’ve never laughed so much in my life." Thompson-Spires won the PEN Open Book Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award.
Books by our panelists
Alexander, author of last year's Caldecott winner and Newbery honor "The Undefeated," teamed up with James Patterson for this book for young readers that combines poetry and prose, biography and novel to tell Ali's story to young readers.
Harris followed her debut picture book, "Kamala and Maya's Big Idea," with a story about a young girl who sees a strong woman labeled as "too ambitious" and discovers the ways girls and women "can reframe, redefine and reclaim words meant to knock them down," she says. "I wrote this book for anyone — of any age or gender — but particularly for women and black girls who have ever been underestimated or overshadowed."
Davis Pinkney's inspiring chapter book biography for young readers is part of a new series that expands on Chelsea Clinton's "She Persisted" picture books.
Dias loves sharing this with kids to help them know what they can accomplish. “Oftentimes kids believe that they have to wait until they “grow up” to help others, but I use my story to challenge this notion,” Dias says.
Mitchell, a former New England Patriot, wrote this book based on his belief that reading unlocks potential. "Henley, the main character, shares with us that while some words are too big, some sentences too long and some books too thick, overcoming reading obstacles equips children with the necessary tools to empower their future."
Black history books for children
Harris says her family has read this book too many times to count, and it has helped expand their notions of who and what they consider to be beautiful. "Last year, we spotted 'Hair Love' at a local bookstore, and my daughter’s eyes lit up; the pride and excitement in her voice—the joy at seeing people like her not just represented, but celebrated—were unmistakable."
Harris calls this picture book "beautiful, joyful and life affirming," especially for young Black girls. "'I am Enough' is a wonderful tool to teach all girls — or readers of any age — that you are perfect just the way you are."
"Talk about bold! The narrative and collage paintings in this book speak loud and clear — and beautifully," Pinkney says.
Pinkney says the trailblazers featured here "opened my eyes to notables that don’t appear in traditional history books — but should!"
"The title says it all. Brown boys are filled with goodness. It can’t be said enough," Pinkney says.
"Thank goodness for this book," Pinkney says. "I can now show my kids that today’s pop stars owe their success to the r-e-s-p-e-c-t Queen Aretha earned as a soul singer who opened doors for so many.
"The time has come to tell our kids the truth about greatness. This book does it," Pinkney says.
Mitchell calls his choice "an important message for the world. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, generation, religion beliefs and sexual orientation, YOU MATTER.”
Black history books for tweens and teens
Pinkney suggests this middle grade novel about a Depression-era girl who must be brave when the Ku Klux Klan returns to her segregated town.
"'King and the Dragonflies' reminds me of my childhood in Valdosta, Georgia," Mitchell says. "As a young African American boy searching for himself in sports and a plethora of poor decisions, I learned it was OK to be me."
Best classic books
Alexander chooses this specifically for the poem "Ego-Tripping."
"As city dwellers, Faith Ringgold’s celebration of rooftop magic is something our family has enjoyed for decades," Pinkney says. "And this book appeals to anyone who can see the sky’s magic on a summer night."
Dias recently read this Read With Jenna pick, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. "It is easily one of the best books I have read and I want everyone to read this book. It gives insight into colorism, racism, sexism, economic inequality and the intersectional struggles of being an American Black girl."
"Malcolm X’s journey is one of complex twists and turns," Mitchell says. "His experience in poverty, and as a detainee and a cultural/religious icon, gives plenty of opportunities for judgment. For me, his defining moment came when he stared down wrongful doing and hypocrisy within his circle and said, 'No more.'"
"My mom wrote a book (and no it is not just about me). I am really proud of her and this book because it combines social science research with the work she does with girls at the GrassROOTS Community Foundation and with me into one place," Dias says. "She offers a way for parents to develop their own passions and provides assignments that parents and kids can do together to be joyful and to also make a difference in the world."
Needless to say, Rudy Bridges is a hero and champion for the Black community. Her story is one of bravery and justice. "Through My Eyes" takes us on an uncensored journey through the lens of a woman full of courage.
Best books from authors to watch
Alexander also recommends Adjei-Brenyah's debut, which tackles racism and unrest with an arresting new voice.
"Best read-aloud ever!" Pinkney says. "I love this book for sharing with the kids in my life. We jump into that truck again and again."
Dias says Imani "highlights the experiences and contribution of amazing women and non-binary people who have made a difference in the world. Though I am also featured in the book, this book is really helpful to me because it teaches me more about the various kinds of work I could be doing to help others."
Best books turned into a movie
I read this book several years ago and I love the author and her vivid storytelling. I’m including this book especially for those who love a good story but do not necessarily love to read. "Tiny Pretty Things" was recently made into a Netflix show! So, if you are a teen who doesn’t love to read, try to both watch the series and read this beautiful story.
"'The Hate U Give' is a powerful story that documents the joys and terrors of growing up in the Black community," Mitchell says. "Unfortunately, misunderstandings and neglect leads to chaos. This book shows that unjust chaos is not immune to unity, courage and justice."
For more book recommendations, check out:
- 5 books to read if you enjoyed 'Black Buck' by Mateo Askaripour
- Looking for an inspirational story? 10 feel-good books to read right now
- 6 books to read right now, according to a New York Times bestselling author