23 books featuring Black heroes and characters every child should read

Mica Murphy/Penguin

Clean Up! by Nathan Bryon & Dapo Adeola (2020)

Rocket is back and this time she sets off on a mission to save a Caribbean island from plastic pollution! When Rocket goes for a holiday to visit her grandparents, she's shocked by the pollution that is spoiling their island home and putting the local sea life at risk. Can she think of a way to save the day?

Recommended reading age: 2-5 years old

The Extraordinary Life of Rosa Parks by Dr Sheila Kanani & Nan Lawson (2019)

Young readers may know Rosa Parks for her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Alabama and ultimately causing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where Black people refused to use the public transport system until they were treated equally. But Parks' life stretches beyond her activism in Alabama, and this fact-filled, illustrated biography brings to life her inspiring and empowering dedication to fighting for equal rights.

Recommended reading age: 7-12 years old

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña & Christian Robinson(2017)

On this rainy, wet Sunday after church, CJ doesn’t want to ride the bus across town with his grandma. Why don’t they have a car like his friend Colby? The other boys on the bus have an iPod – where’s his? For every dissatisfied question from CJ, grandma has an encouraging and supportive answer – as only grandmothers can. She helps him see the beauty and fun in their routine and the world surrounding them. This wonderful, award-winning picture book is radiantly illustrated by Christian Robinson. It perfectly highlights the magical bond between grandparents and grandchildren – and how to be thankful for what you do have, instead of dwelling on what you don’t. 

Recommended reading age: 3-5 years old

Little Leaders: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison (2019)

All throughout history, Black men have stood up and fought for justice and what they believe in. This book tells the stories of 40 Black men, from campaigners, athletes, fashion journalists and musicians who realised their dreams and made the world a better place. Read about the amazing lives of Prince, Paul Stephenson and Kofi Annan with your own future little leader and learn about these great men together.

Recommended reading age: 5-7 years old

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o & Vashti Harrison

Written by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o, the story of Sulwe gently introduces children to the concepts of colourism, self-confidence and inner beauty. Stunningly illustrated by Vashti Harrison, Sulwe is the tale of a little girl who has a darker skin tone than her family and school friends. All she wants is to be lighter, until one night she goes on a magical adventure, and she realises her own natural beauty.

Recommended reading age: 3-7 years old

How to Be Extraordinary by Rashmi Sirdeshpande & Annabel Tempest (2019)

Your little reader will discover the real-life stories behind some of the most extraordinary people. From Nelson Mandela and Abdul Kalam to Mo Farah, Michelle Obama, and many more, all of these people have done amazing things – and with this colourful and easily digestible read, you can explore their stories together.

Recommended reading age: 5-7 years old

The Extraordinary Life of Serena Williams by Shelina Janmohamed & Ashley Evans (2020)

Widely regarded as one of the best athletes to ever live, Serena Williams is an inspiration to girls and boys across the world. From humble beginnings, she worked hard to become not just a great tennis player, but the best tennis player. Despite racism and sexism, she never listened to the spiteful words of others. Serena’s tale of hard work and triumph makes an empowering story.

Recommended reading age: 7-12 years old

Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry & Vashti Harrison (2019)

Based on the Oscar-winning short film, this is the story of Zuri, her dad, and her hair. Zuri's hair is beautiful, but it can have a mind of its own. For a special occasion, Zuri and her daddy need to work together to style her hair, and show that natural is brilliant! A wonderful book that celebrates the love of fathers and daughters, as well as putting black hair front and centre.

Recommended reading age: 5-7 years old

The Extraordinary Life of Katherine Johnson by Devika Jina & Maggie Cole (2019)

The biography of real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson will inspire and amaze. Featured in the recent film Hidden Voices, Johnson was one of the most important people in the history of space travel. Without her calculations, Neil Armstrong never would have walked on the Moon. Bursting at the seams with incredible facts and gorgeous illustrations, Johnson’s amazing achievements will inspire young readers.

Recommended reading age: 7-12 years old

The Silence Seeker by Ben Morley & Carl Pearce (2009)

The new family next door are asylum seekers, hoping for peace and calm in this noisy, busy city. But to Joe, they are ‘silence seekers’, and when he sees his young neighbour looking sad on the steps, he makes a vow. Joe wants to help his neighbour find a place for himself in this city Joe calls home – now his neighbours’ home too. This moving tale provides the perfect way to open up gentle and thoughtful discussion around the refugee crisis.

Recommended reading age: 5-7 years old

Magic Betsey by Malorie Blackman (2014)

This book is one of five short story collections featuring Betsey Biggalow. Betsey puts on a magic show but everyone is less than impressed with her tricks. No matter – in these four sweet and funny short stories, Betsey learns the importance of believing in yourself, that practise makes perfect, and that some magic is real...

Recommended reading age: 5-7 years

Dream Big, Little Leader by Vashti Harrison (2018)

Based on the Little Leaders series for older readers, this board book introduces little ones to incredible, inspirational Black women from history, with simple messaging encouraging them to be bold and dream big! A great one to read (again and again) at bedtime.

Recommended reading age: 0-3 years old

The Extraordinary Life of Michelle Obama by Dr Sheila Kanani & Sarah Walsh (2018)

Michelle Obama is one of the most popular First Ladies in American history. She has fought against racial injustice, is an advocate of healthy lifestyles and is a loud and proud feminist. In this biography, you can read about her life story from her childhood in Chicago, her brilliant law career and her revolutionary two terms as First Lady. Filled with facts and illustrations, this is an enthralling biography for young readers.

Recommended reading age: 7-12 years old

Funky Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah (2019)

Benjamin Zephaniah brings life and noise to poetry. In this collection of straight-talking poems about heroes, revolutions, racism, love, and animal rights, among other subjects, his words make you move and think. Read by Zephaniah, this audio edition is playful, clever, and provocative. Poems in this audiobook were first published in Funky Chickens and Talking Turkeys.

Recommended reading age: 9-11 years old

The Extraordinary Life of Nelson Mandela by E. L. Norry & Ashley Evans (2020)

In this biography of Nelson Mandela, young readers will learn all about his astonishing life, his stand against apartheid in South Africa, and the discrimination and disadvantages he faced because of it. From his imprisonment for 27 years to later becoming the first Black president of South Africa, readers will marvel at the astounding work of Mandela who dedicated his life to fighting racism.

Recommended reading age: 7-12 years old

How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons (2019)

Bullied for her light skin tone and missing her absent mother, life isn’t always sunny for 12-year-old Ella, growing up in segregated Alcolu in 1944. So, she’s ecstatic when her mother – pursuing her jazz singer dreams in Boston – invites her for Christmas. But whilst there, Ella discovers the secrets of her mother and the father she never knew – and her most unexpected family history. And upon her return to the South a month later, life changes even more with the news that her classmate has been arrested for the murder of two local white girls. Nothing will ever be the same…

Recommended reading age: 9-12 years old

The Extraordinary Life of Mary Seacole by Naida Redgrave & Alleanna Harris (2019)

A nurse during the Crimean War, Mary Seacole cared for the wounded soldiers on the battlefield, despite being turned down to work alongside Florence Nightingale. Seacole did invaluable work in Crimea – she often rode into battle on horseback to treat soldiers of both armies. Although previously forgotten, Seacole is a magnificent figure and led a very interesting life. 

Recommended reading age: 7-12 years old

Blackberry Blue by Jamila Gavin & Richard Collingridge (2014)

This collection of original, beautifully written stories – stunningly illustrated by Richard Collingridge – will lead you into a captivating world. You’ll encounter talking animals and wicked witches, magicians, and enchanted forests as you watch Blackberry Blue rise from the bramble patch, follow Emeka the pathfinder on his mission to save a lost king, and join Princess Desire as she gallops across the Milky Way on her jet-black horse… Perfect for readers of all ages, these magical tales will thrill and enchant again and again.

Recommended reading age: 9-11 years old

Fly Me Home by Polly Ho-Yen (2017)

As she struggles to adjust to life in a new country, Leelu dreams of flying back home to her father and the life she left behind. London is grey and cold, there’s concrete everywhere; she doesn’t want to be here. Leelu feels so lonely – but she’s not alone. Soon she discovers someone is leaving gifts for her, wondrous gifts that bring her curious magical powers. Will they help her find her way home? Filled with magic, family, and friendship, this is an unforgettable and moving tale of one family’s battle to belong. 

Recommended reading age: 9-11 years old

Pig-Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman (1997)

When you’re 13, you just want a normal life. To be like all the other teenagers, doing normal things. But most teenagers don’t need heart transplants. You’re the unlucky one. You think there’s no chance to live an ordinary life… but what if you’re wrong? What if there’s a doctor who says there might be a chance for you – though it’s risky. It’s experimental and controversial – and it’s never been done before… A powerful, thought-provoking story from the brilliant, award-winning Malorie Blackman, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Recommended reading age: 9-11 years old

The Hypnotist by Laurence Anholt (2015)

Officially endorsed by Amnesty International, this unforgettable debut novel is both a love story and a thriller. Thirteen-year-old Pip has been hired as a farmhand by Mr Zachery – but Pip is black, the farmer and his wife are white, and in 1960’s America, racism is rife. Meanwhile, Irishman Jack Morrow has arrived in the Deep South dreaming of a new life as a university professor. He carries with him a secret; certain skills in hypnotism and mind control. Now, as dangerous racial tensions threaten to overshadow everything, Pip and Jack’s lives become entwined and Jack's hypnotic skills are needed as never before…

Recommended reading age: 12-17 years old

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