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The Best Upper Elementary Read Alouds to Celebrate Black History

I’ve rounded up a list of five books that use African American pioneers and trailblazers to teach about perseverance, ingenuity, and advocacy. After each book summary, you will find some discussion questions that can be used to drive whole class conversations, table talk, or even journal writing.

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Black History Month is in February, and if you’re like me, you want to read a diverse range of books that acknowledges the challenges and disparities that African Americans have faced while inspiring and encouraging our students too.  I’ve rounded up a list of five books that use African American pioneers and trailblazers to teach about perseverance, ingenuity, and advocacy. After each book summary, you will find some discussion questions that can be used to drive whole class conversations, table talk, or even journal writing.


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Book 1:  Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine

Summary:  The award-winning story and illustrations from Henry’s Freedom Box will leave you emotion-filled and inspired. Henry Brown doesn’t know his age since he’s a slave, and his birth date wasn’t recorded.  He grows up dreaming of freedom but the circumstances of his life seem to make the reality of emancipation unattainable.  Then one day while working in a warehouse, Henry creates a plan and decides that he will get in a crate and mail himself to the North.  After an exhausting and painful journey, Henry reaches freedom and declares that he now has a birthday!

Discussion Questions:  What character traits would you use to describe Henry?  How do you think these characteristics assisted him in his journey?


Book 2:  The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander

Summary: This Caldecott Medal-winning book is a poem about Black life in the United States that highlights African American heroes and features the perseverance and determination they had to overcome.  The Undefeated brings to light the accomplishments of the past, such as the civil rights movement, and emphasizes Blacks who are currently thriving and excelling in America.  

Discussion Questions:   Which illustration evoked the most emotion in you?  Why? Why do you think the author chose to use the text “This is for the unspeakable.” on three pages of this story?


Book 3:  Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Summary: Known as “colored computers” or sometimes the “west computers,” four female African American mathematicians blasted through barriers related to race and gender to excel in careers at NASA.  Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden used intellect, perseverance, and determination to accomplish feats such as helping to advance supersonic flight and providing calculations related to the Mercury and Apollo missions.   The book Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race focuses on the challenges and struggles as well as the accomplishments and successes of these ladies during a time when being a woman and Black was limiting.

Discussion Questions:  What were some of the challenges these ladies faced during their time at NASA?  What connections can you make between these women and other African Americans you’ve read about?


Book 4:  Let the Children March by Monica-Clark Robinson

Summary: In response to a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. thousands of African American children in Birmingham, Alabama chose to march for their civil rights and to crush hate and fear step by step.  We learn about this often overlooked event in the story Let the Children March which highlights how the voices and actions of these children helped change the world.

Discussion Questions:  Why did children march during this protest?  Have you ever taken a stand for a cause or acted to make a change in the world?  Explain.


Book 5: What Color is My World? by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Summary: 

While technically not a picture book, this last one is a must read!  Composed of an overarching story about two twins and facts and details about famous African American inventors and their creations, What Color is My World? provides insight into the dedication and resourcefulness these men and women made to improve our world.  Read about inventors like James West who first invented the microphone in a cell phone or Dr. Percy Julian who synthesized cortisone, a medicine that helps alleviate pain.  

Discussion Questions:

Which inventor did you find the most interesting?  What did that inventor accomplish?  What were some challenges the inventor faced?

These books will be a great addition to your Black History Month reading list.  Each book includes thought-provoking text, vibrant, supportive illustrations, and will help your students learn more about the challenges and successes of Black Americans.