5 books to share with pupils during Black History Month
With Black History Month celebrated in October, this is the time of year that our team usually receives an influx of requests for books that celebrate Black lives and stories that explore Black history both in the UK and around the globe. Such books can be used for Black History Month, when many schools and families dedicate time to research Britain’s Black history and to find out more about particular Black people from the past. We believe these books are just as important all year round, too – and you can see our full Black History booklist here.
Increasingly, schools are telling us that the books they have gathered for teaching Black History have an imbalance towards US Black history. While a global perspective is not only important but also thoroughly entwined with British history, we also have a separate list of children’s books about Black British History.
For balance and a widening of context, your school should aim to explore books that celebrate black communities or the lives of key Black figures as well as to develop pupils’ understanding of Black History in its global context. While stories about the slave trade or racial prejudice are often first to be selected, schools should bear in mind that if the only historical studies of black history that pupils encounter relate to struggle or slavery, this will allow for only a narrow segment of Black history to be covered – potentially resulting in prejudicial misconceptions and causing missed opportunities to learn about the rich and diverse cultural fabric of the UK or the accomplishments of particular communities and individuals. For further ideas, you may wish to look at the Black Lives section of our Black History booklist to find individual figures to study and celebrate.
In this blog post, we take a look at five recommended books to share with primary school children this Black History Month and we’ve also highlighted where supporting resources are available to download.
Black and British: An Illustrated History by David Olusoga, Jake Alexander & Melleny Taylor
Recommended for: an overview of the history of Black people in Britain from Roman times to the present day
This illustrated children’s edition of David Olusoga’s account of Black British history is an essential book for schools – not only as an accessible and informative non-fiction read for KS2, but also as a book that I would thoroughly recommend for improving primary teachers’ own historical subject knowledge and especially those with input into their school’s curriculum design. As expressed perfectly by Lavinya Stennett (CEO of the Black Curriculum) in the Afterword, ‘This book is a testimony to the rich experiences of Black people of Britain in different periods of our history, and a reminder of the dearth of Black history in our curriculums.’
In the book, Olusoga explains the overlooked history of Black people in Britain from Roman times to the present day. Readers may be surprised to imagine the multiculturally diverse make-up of Roman Britain – and indeed to question why sources of history in primary schools may paint a historically misrepresentative picture of Roman society. Equally interesting is the development of notions of race throughout the periods of history, as the book walks chronologically through key eras. Did you know that it was only during the time of James I that the term ‘white’ was used as a description of racial identity, or that long after the abolition of slavery, the Victorians were propagating their own racist theories to justify profiting from slave-powered commerce?
The illustrated version adds an impressive visual element with full-colour illustrations, maps, portrait galleries, timelines, and photographs. Teachers using the book may be interested in finding the pages that match their current history topics like Tudors to Romans and use them as a focus for history lessons, or pick out new themes to learn about like abolition or Windrush.
Schools may also wish to make use of the helping teaching resources pack provided by the publisher, which includes five history lessons for Key Stage 2. Lessons 1 and 2 concentrate on developing historical enquiry and Lesson 3 focuses on chronology skills with an exploration of the 1948 Windrush event incorporated within this. The three standalone activities, Tudors: Who was John Blanke?, Tudors: Would I lie to you? and Drama: Victorians in role could slot into thematic planning for the role of monarchs from Tudor times to the present, voyages of exploration, and changes in leisure and entertainment from 1837 to the present.
This illustrated edition makes the history behind the book accessible to a young audience and makes for a highly recommendable and informative non-fiction read. There is also a non-illustrated chapter book version of Black and British that older pupils may favour.
Coming to England by Baroness Floella Benjamin
Recommended for: a picturebook story suitable for all ages, exploring the topic of Windrush
So many schools have fallen in love with this appealing picturebook telling of the author’s true history. Baroness Floella Benjamin offers her own story of the 6000-mile journey from Trinidad to England, told for the youngest children in a picture book called Coming to England – An Inspiring True Story About the Windrush Generation.
The story explores and celebrates what it means to be a British person with Black Caribbean heritage, as well as opening doors to learning about the impact of Operation Windrush and experiences of racism.
Speaking about the background to the book, Baroness Floella says: “Britain has always been a nation that’s evolved due to different races coming in, from as far back as you can go. I hope Coming to England makes people of colour feel worthy, appreciated and that they belong and that it makes white people say, ‘That could be me, what would it be like if I moved somewhere else?’.”
This is a book that can be used across the whole primary school age range, although a chapter book version for older children is also available. Teaching notes are available from the publisher, and additional information about Floella’s story is available on the BBC Teach website.
- Purchase Coming to England from Amazon or BookShop. d
The Lizzie and Belle Mysteries by J. T. Williams & Simone Douglas
Recommended for: A fun, mystery series offering insights into the Black History of Georgian Britain
A recent and certainly worthy addition to our recommended Black British History booklist is J.T Williams’ Lizzie and Belle series. Set in eighteenth-century London, this is a fun middle-grade mystery series inspired by real Black British historical figures.
The first book in the series – Drama and Danger – sees the young best friends and amateur detectives use their skills to investigate odd goings-on in a theatre, which in turn reveals further mysteries and crimes which they must solve. Set in Georgian London, this book illuminates the multiracial history of Britain, and the struggles and injustices faced by Black people in a place where many powerful people thrived on keeping slavery alive. It also demonstrates that White people had an important role, as well as responsibility, to offer support to Black anti-slavery activists and to challenge the White slave owners of the time.
The second book in the ‘Lizzie and Belle Mysteries’ series – Portraits and Poison – follows the detective duo in a new investigation, this time involving the theft of a historic portrait. Through this investigation the reader will learn some of the critical thinking skills used when looking at art, and how we can learn from historical artworks in the context of our knowledge of the time.
Many of the characters and events in these books are based on real people and things that happened, and there is a lot of scope to research real stories. The real Elizabeth Sancho was daughter of the African-British writer and abolitionist Ignatius Sancho. Dido Belle was the daughter of Maria, an enslaved young African woman, and John Lindsay – captain in the British Royal Navy. There are plenty of threads for teachers to pick up on and explore further with their classes during Black History Month and all year round. Schools might find helpful the downloadable resource from Royal Museums Greenwich that introduces KS2 children to key figures from Black Georgian History, including Dido Belle and Ignatius Sancho.
This is a fantastic mystery series for Yaers 4-6 and one that could lead to wider discussions about race, art history, slavery and family history. Author J.T. Williams also visited our blog recently to discuss the role of fiction in bringing history to life for children.
Journey Back to Freedom by Catherine Johnson
In this short but powerful chapter book, Catherine Johnson celebrates the incredible life of Olaudah Equiano through a gripping retelling of a true experience of slavery.
Olaudah Equiano was cruelly snatched from his home in Essaka, Africa, aged only 11, in 1756. Initially taken with his older sister, Ifeoma, they soon became separated. Olaudah never heard from her again. From there he was taken to England, first enduring a long voyage where he was treated horribly, along with the other slaves. He was sold several times before being taken to America to be a house slave. The master was cruel and the slaves were too scared to even speak to each other. Next he was bought by an English naval officer and taken to sea. Here he finally made friends and began to learn to read and write, as well as experiencing many adventures and great peril.
Olaudah’s story does not end there. He is bought and sold a couple more times before he is taken to the West Indies. Here he sees a chance of freedom. It turns out he has a flair for business and becomes his master’s trusted slave. Working hard, he finally earns enough money to buy his freedom and returns to England as a free man. Here he wrote a book about his experiences and worked hard in the campaign against slavery.
This is an incredible true story, vividly brought to life by Catherine Johnson. It would be a brilliant addition to any UKS2 library or primary classes studying Britain’s history of slavery. A difficult subject matter is sensitively brought to life for children, and classes will benefit from time to discuss the real-life events behind the story as well as to pause and celebrate the resistance, resilience and strength of enslaved people in coping with and overcoming challenges. An excellent class activity pack is provided by the publisher, which offers guidance around teaching about slavery respectfully and sensitively to children of this age and also chapter-by-chapter reading notes and activities.
Young, British and Black by Jamia Wilson & Andrea Pippins
Recommended for: A celebratory anthology containing short biographies of inspirational black men and women from around the world
This is an eye-catching anthology that celebrates the inspirational achievements of fifty-two trailblazing black women and men, including artists, sports legends, scientists and activists among many others. In the introduction, the author notes that “all children deserve to see themselves represented positively in stories. That’s why we’re highlighting the talent and contributions of black changemakers from around the world—for readers of all backgrounds to discover.”
Each page contains a short biography of an influential figure, perfectly accessible in language and length to suit primary-aged children. The text on each page is set against a brightly-coloured background containing a dynamic portrait of the featured individual, accentuated by colours and patterns – such as crowns and stars – that add to the celebratory feel of the book.Many of the biographies mention, without being militant, ways in which each figure overcame prejudice and followed their dreams. Most also include an insightful quotation from each figure, helping readers to empathise with the motivation that drove the accomplishments of each man or woman. We enjoyed finding out, for example, about American congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who started her own debate club in college after the existing one had barred black people, asserting that “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Equally interesting is the story of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author who reflects that discovering books by African authors brought about the realisation that “people who looked like me could live in books.” She went on to become an award-winning author whose influential writing about equality has been translated into 30 different languages.
Here at BooksForTopics HQ, we couldn’t agree more with the authors of ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ that all children deserve to see themselves positively represented in books. This important text would make a superb addition to primary school libraries and is suitable for use across the whole primary age range. Schools could use the book as a focus for Black History Month, perhaps with each class choosing a different figure to study, or as a resource for teachers to draw on for assembles or story times. Reading Zone Live offers a series of videos, lesson resources and quizzes for schools to use alongside the book.
For more Black History Month book ideas, try these booklists:
Full packs of the books from the above lists are also available for schools with a 20% discount from Peters.