By Karen Williams
February is Black History Month—a dedicated time to acknowledge, celebrate, and honor the contributions of African Americans in the United States. During this month, we reflect on over 400 years of heritage and history, paying special attention to the unique struggles, successes, voices, and experiences of black Americans. Check out this curated list of books for young adult readers to help them learn and appreciate black history, not just in the month of February, but all year round.
Combining fantasy and reality, this National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel focuses on Cora, a young woman on the run after escaping from a Georgia plantation along with her friend, Caesar. Things get even more complicated as Cora is forced to commit murder to protect her friend. In Whitehead’s interpretation, the Underground Railroad is not just a metaphor—it’s an actual underground train system that runs through the American South, complete with engineers and conductors. This suspenseful tale was turned into a TV miniseries, directed by Barry Jenkins.
In this romantic comedy, Tessa finds herself with a horrible case of writer’s block after her acceptance into the creative writing program of a prestigious art school. Her friend Caroline advises her to create her own real-life love story and find a boyfriend for inspiration. As she zeroes in on Nico, a brooding artist and fellow student, she finds herself wondering if she truly desires the fantasy she’s created. Young readers will relate to the journey of discovering your authentic self, and perhaps they can find some ideas along with Tessa to discover their true wants and desires.
Author Rena Barron grew up with magical stories that sparked her imagination, and it shows in this enchanting story. Arrah, the main character, was born into a family of powerful witch doctors, but she has no magic of her own. Still, she attempts a forbidden ritual in a bid to help save the missing children of her kingdom. But soon, she’ll realize that her yearning for magic comes at a very high price, and it’s up to her to set things right. If you’re looking for a great read focusing on Black Girl Magic, Kingdom of Souls is it!
Set in an alternate history where the undead rise during the American Civil War, this novel recounts the story of Jane, who is studying to become a protector of the elite as she learns the rules of both etiquette and combat. But the life she wants is back home, and on her quest to go back, she’ll find herself in the middle of a conspiracy. Many young readers will relate to the struggle of living a life that may not be the one you want, and sympathize with Jane as she attempts to find the life that’s just right for her.
Michelle Obama’s memoir features stories about her journey to the White House, from her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago to her quest to create a welcoming, inclusive, and healthy White House. Read the words of the First Lady herself as she tells her inspirational story full of triumphs, failures, and reckonings. This book is also available in a special Young Readers edition adapted for children ages 10 and up, which includes a letter from the author to her younger self, plus a book club guide with discussion questions and Q&A.
The Hate U Give is an award-winning New York Times bestselling novel (and movie) inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. In this riveting tale, character Starr Carter balances two worlds—the black neighborhood she lives in and the white prep high school she attends. After witnessing the fatal police shooting of her unarmed childhood friend Khalil, Starr faces a difficult choice. Should she speak up in the face of death threats against her and her family? Young readers will be captivated by Starr and driven to discover what happens in this compelling story.
Marva has been looking forward to voting in her first-ever election. Duke, on the other hand, just wants to vote to get it out of the way. But when Duke is turned away, Marva won’t take it sitting down. They join forces and go on an adventure to ensure Duke’s vote counts. Brandy Colbert delivers a triumphant, yet stern reminder of the difficulties many face when trying to make a change in the world, and also shows young readers that in order to make a difference, we have to be proactive.
This gripping nonfiction book for young readers recounts the confrontation between a reverend and a police commissioner during the Civil Rights movement. In the 1950s and 60s, Reverend Shuttlesworth advocated for racial equality, while Eugene Conner worked to protect the status quo. In this Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, ALA Notable Children’s book, and Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Book of the Year, we learn about the lives of each man and how their experiences collided in a crucial historical moment.
No discussion of black history in the U.S. is complete without recognizing the triumphs and contributions of African American women. In this selection, young readers learn more about some well-known names, such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Lena Horne, and discover some lesser-known heroines like Hazel Dixon Payne, the only woman to serve on the remote Alaska-Canadian Highway, and Betty Murphy Phillips, the only black female overseas war correspondent. This is a good read for those interested in history and the people who supported the WWII war effort from behind the front lines.
“Picture a ballerina in a tutu and toe shoes. What does she look like?” With these words, Misty Copeland delivers a look into her own life as a ballet dancer. As the only African American soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, this history-making dancer and author shares her struggle between finding comfort in something she enjoys (ballet) and the harsh realities of life (custody battles). Copeland reveals a lesson of finding the courage to chase your dreams and hang on to your desire to live your best life.
This book is an engaging, informative, and illustrated read about the impact of the Great Migration, the relocation of black American families from rural communities in the South to large cities in the North and West. Young readers will learn about the experiences of prominent figures such as James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), Ella Baker, and more. Author and activist Blair Imani also explains how the Great Migration sparked stunning demographic and cultural changes in 20th-Century America and delves into its continued influence on the United States today.
These 11 books only begin to scratch the surface of the stories and contributions of African Americans. What are your favorite black history books for teens? Let us know!