Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Poetry Books for Black History Month

In mid January—when I was still teaching in an elementary school or working as a school librarian—I’d start gathering all my poetry books, picture books, and biographies that I’d use in the classroom or recommend to teachers to use during Black History Month. For those of you looking for some poems to share with children during the month of February…or any other month, here is a sampling of poetry books from my personal collection that I recommend. I’ve listed them alphabetically by the authors’ last names.
Written by Arnold Adoff
Illustrated by John Steptoe
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1982

Adoff, the husband of the late Virginia Hamilton, speaks in the voice of a girl who is the child of an interracial couple in this collection of free verse poems.

Written by Arnold Adoff
Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
HarperCollins, 2002

First published in 1973, this edition has new illustrations in a large picture book format. This book tells of the everyday experiences of a happy interracial family.

Poems and pictures by Ashley Bryan
HarperCollins, 1992

Bryan’s bright, colorful primitive-style paintings enhance this collection of poems about a tropical island, the seashore, flowers, music, and people.

From Ancestry

Mom and Dad
Teaching us spirituals
Reading us African tales
Singing songs
Teling stories
Reminding us
Of our ancestry

On the beach
Other children
Dig to China
I dig
To Africa

SPIN A SOFT BLACK SONG, Revised edition
Written by Nikki Giovanni
Illustrated by George Martins
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1985

This collection includes poems about school, sports, friends, and family love.

by Eloise Greenfield
Illustrated by Carole Byard
HarperCollins, 1977

In this brief book-length poem, a young Black girl has a dream in which she travels back to Africa in time, shops in the marketplace, visits a village, dances, sings, and meets her “long-ago granddaddy.”

by Eloise Greenfield
Illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon
Harper & Row, 1978

In this collection, the poems are told in the voice of a young Black girl. she speaks about everyday experiences and of people she knows and loves.
Written by Nikki Grimes
Illustrated by Angelo
Orchard/Scholastic, 2001

Read my review of Stepping Out with Grandma Mac in this post about Nikki Grimes at Blue Rose Girls.

Written by Langston Hughes
Illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Scholastic, 1994

This newer edition of The Dream Keeper includes an introduction by Lee Bennett Hopkins. This classic poetry book, written by one of our country’s most well-known African-American poets, should be included in all school library collections!
Written by Angela Johnson
Orchard, 1998

In this collection of poems written for students in middle school and high school, Johnson expresses her thoughts and feelings about growing up in Shorter, Alabama. Illustrated with family photographs.

From Counters

My Uncle Fred has a slash
across his face from
some redneck
trying to
stop him from ordering
a lemonade from a lunch counter
in Montgomery.
When the weather changes, it
aches him, he says,
but smiles when
he says it, whenever he says it.

Written by Walter Dean Myers
Illustrated by Christopher Myers
Scholastic, 1997

Christopher Myers’ striking collage illustrations are a fine complement to his father’s free verse poem about a famous American community, its music, its art, its history and life.

Written by Walter Dean Myers
Illustrated by Christopher Myers
Holiday House, 2006

Winner of the 2007 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, this collection of poems about jazz, jazz singers and musicians, and musical instruments reverberates with the beat and rhythm of this improvisational American music.

From Twenty-Finger Jack

Well, the walls are shaking,
and the ceiling’s coming down
‘Cause twenty-finger Jack
has come back to town
The keyboard’s jumping,
and the music’s going round…

Written by Walter Dean Myers
HarperCollins, 1993

Myers wrote the poems in this book for a selection of antique and vintage photographs of African-American children that he had collected over the years. The faces of the children in the wonderful sepia-toned pictures speak out to readers from the pages—and through the years.

Written by Marilyn Nelson
Front Street, 2001

This collection of biographical poems about one of the most famous African-Americans is a Newbery Honor Book. (Middle School and High School)

Written by Isaac Olaleye
Paintings by Frane Lessac
Wordsong, 1995

Olalaye, a native of Nigeria who now lives in the United States, writes about life in a Nigerian farming village. The book includes poems about a storyteller, a classroom, a grinding stone, village weavers, and a tropical rainstorm.

From The Grinding Stone

On a big brown stone
Set in the heart of the hut
My mother and sisters grind.

They grind soaked black-eyed peas
To make pea donuts that whine
In deep, hot palm oil.

Written by Joyce Carol Thomas
Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
HarperCollins, 1993

This is a touching collection of poems about family relationships, individuality, and feeling proud of one’s roots. Cooper’s illustrations exude a tenderness and warmth that complements Thomas’s heartfelt poetry.

From Cherish Me

I sprang from mother earth
She clothed me in her own colors
I was nourished by father sun
He glazed the pottery of my skin
I am beautiful by design

Written by Joyce Carol Thomas
Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins, 1995

This book of poems takes us through a year with a young African-American boy and his family. Poem titles include A Gingerbread January, Crawdads in July, and December’s Song.

From December’s Song (in which the boy talks about his father)

His chapped hands are brave
With work
Rough with knowing
How to keep a family from freezing
How to keep a young mind growing


Tricia said...

Thank you for this list. This is one area my collection is lacking, so I'm always looking for new titles. I do have Marilyn Nelson's book about George Washington Carver and love it. I'm going to add these to my shopping list and see what I can find!

Elaine Magliaro said...


A few of these books may be out of print. There are more poetry books to add, including a couple by Carole Boston Weatherford.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

What a great resource list. And seeing Sing to the Sun reminds me that I would like to do a library run of ALL Ashley Bryan's books.

I met Eloise Greenfield briefly once, and I got her to autograph a copy of Honey, I Love for Eisha. Man, that is a great anthology.

I've got a small stack of great, new picture book biographies about African-American musicians, sports figures, etc. that I want to do a post about, too. Thanks for this fab list. Every teacher and librarian in the country should know about your blog.

Jules, 7-Imp

Elaine Magliaro said...


Thanks for your kind words. I hope to compile a second list of poetry books for Black History Month.

I once heard Eloise Greenfield speak at a children's litertaure conference in Boston. I agree--HONEY, I LOVE is a fine book of poetry, a classic.

Have you ever heard Ashley Bryan read poetry? He is such an inspiring individual.

Sean Qualls said...

Hi Elaine, thanks for the nice words about my work!

Great list of poetry books as well. I'd never seen the Steptoe title before.

My wife Selina Alko is finishing up illustrations for a book that tells the story of an older sibling in a bi-racial family wondering what his sibling-to-be will look like. The story told from the perspective of the older, brother uses poetic language and metaphor.



Elaine Magliaro said...


Thanks for stopping by. I just checked on the publication date for BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANT. Since it won't be released until April, I ordered a copy of DIZZY, which has been on my list of books to buy.

Your wife's book sounds interesting.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Elaine, nope, I've never heard Ashley Bryan speak. O, how I wish!

Can't WAIT to read your poetry list. Wahoo!

Jules, 7-Imp

Anonymous said...

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Thanks for sharing books in your posts.