15 Great Children’s Books About African American Musicians And Dancers

Feb 12, 2016

Last May, I wrote a post about “10 Great Children’s Books about Classical Music.” Even now, months later, you, the readers of this blog, continue to show overwhelming interest in that post, so I decided to expand upon it with another annotated list of great children’s books about music and, this time, also dance, but with an even greater focus.

To celebrate Black History Month this month, I’ve compiled a list of some tremendous children’s books about African American musicians and dancers and/or written and illustrated by African American writers and visual artists.

Some of the books (listed in alphabetical order by title) show trailblazers making history by breaking through racism and other racially imposed barriers to become the first African Americans to make their mark.  Others tell equally powerful stories of fictional characters whose lives could inspire anyone.

All of the books have the power to inspire children with the phenomenal contributions of African American musicians and dancers, as well as to the work of the writers and illustrators who tell their stories.

Credit Abe Books/Voyager Books

Aïda by Leontyne Price (Voyager Books)

“In many ways, I believe Aïda is a portrait of my inner self,” reveals author Leontyne Price in her written note to her children’s book adaptation of the story of Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved opera Aida.

The opera’s title character was one the legendary soprano’s signature roles.

There is more text in Price’s retelling of Verdi’s emotionally weighty libretto than in many children’s picture books, and it will likely take parents and children more than one sitting together to get through the details of Price’s narrative.

But the story is gripping, and each of the illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon soars off the page like an aria.

For a children's book about Price's own remarkable life story, see Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century, below.

Credit Simon & Schuster

The Bat Boy and His Violin by Gavin Curtis and E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster)

A Coretta Scott King Book Award winner for illustrations.

“I sashay my bow across the violin strings the way a mosquito skims a summer pond.”

Any children’s book with a first sentence this vivid has me at hello. But there’s plenty more to this book than a great opening line.

Set in 1948, The Bat Boy and His Violin tells the story of an African American boy, Reginald, whose love of playing classical music on his violin – at first a little bit misunderstood by his father – ends up bringing him and his father closer together.

E. B. Lewis’ gorgeous watercolor illustrations radiate warmth and love as a child comes into his own with the blessing and admiration of his family and his community.

The cover of 'Before There Was Mozart.'
Credit amazon.com

Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome (Schwartz & Wade Books)

The Ransomes tell the story of one of the great black musicians of the 1700s, form Joseph Boulogne’s birth on the island of Guadeloupe as the child of a plantation owner and his slave, to his command performance before the king and queen of Francae.

The specter racial injustice runs like a leitmotif throughout the book, as Boulogne moves from his Guadeloupe plantation to Paris, where he encounters bigotry among a supposedly liberal society.

James E. Ransome’s gorgeous oil paintings illustrate Boulogne’s story from the dazzling sunshine of the West Indies to the umbrous elegance of the Parisian concert hall.

With talent, hard work and perseverance, Boulogne overcame racism and changed some people’s minds for the better – an encouraging reminder to us all.

Credit Charlesbridge

Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite by Anna Harwell Celenza and Don Tate (Charlesbridge)

How Duke Ellington, Bill Strayhorn, Irving Townsend and Slim Gaillard turned Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet The Nutcracker into a jazz masterpiece.

Tate’s illustrations amplify Celenza’s prose in whimsical line and vivid color.

The book will show to young readers the tremendous value of interpreting a long-standing masterwork from one’s unique perspective and in one’s unique voice.

Credit G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin Books

Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers (G. P. Putnam’s Sons)

Misty Copeland’s meteoric rise through the elite ranks of the ballet world has been the stuff of headlines for nearly two decades.

Since joining the American Ballet Theatre in 2000, Copeland has ascended through the ranks of the corps de ballet to become a soloist then, in June 2015, the first African American to be appointed one of the company’s principal dancers.

But things weren’t always so rosy for Copeland. In Firebird, she shares her own early struggles with self-doubt and how she overcame them with the help of a mentor who believed in her.

Firebird is cleverly written from the perspectives of a young girl – understood as Copeland’s younger self – with little confidence who dreams big dreams of dancing, and Copeland’s own adult perspective, encouraging the girl to follow her dream and persevere.

“Me? I am gray as rain,” says the girl, “heavy as naptime, low as a storm pressing on rooftops.” Copeland reassures her, “You will soar – become a swan, a beauty, a firebird for sure – soon with the same practice you’ll join me in this dancing dream.”

Christopher Myers’ decoupage-inspired illustrations show Copeland and her young mentee soaring to the heights in brilliant color.

This book has the power to make children think there’s nothing they can’t do.

Credit Random House

Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson and Christian Robinson (Random House)

Renée Watson’s text gives voice to the life story of singer and dancer Florence Mills, best known for her performances in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds vaudeville revues.

The story traces Mills’ life from her birth to former slaves, to international stardom during the energetic days of the Harlem Renaissance.

Christian Robinson’s delightful mixed-media illustrations take young minds into the “teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy house” where Mills grew up, across the color line and into a “whites-only” theater in Washington, D.C., onto the stages of Harlem’s vibrant theaters and Broadway itself and to the theaters and cabarets of Europe.

The story’s message to young readers is best summarized in the book’s final lines: “Florence’s dream lives on in the singers and dancers who came after her. It lives on in the heart of every boy and girl from a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy place who dreams of doing great big, gigantic, enormous things” – as every child should.

Credit Dial Books for Young Readers/Penguin Books

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson (Dial Books for Young Readers)

Parents won’t just read this book with their children – they’ll sing it with them. T

he book’s text – the lyrics of the title’s beloved spiritual – are brought to life by Nelson’s illustrations of a young African American boy who, along with his nurturing family, experiences the world’s greatness.

This book exposes children to the remarkable tradition of African American spirituals and also an affirming message of love and inclusiveness. A storytime gem.

Credit Chronicle Books

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell and Cristian Robinson (Chronicle Books)

A Coretta Scott King Book Award winner for illustrations. Winner of other awards, including the Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award and the Robert F. Sibert Informational book Award.

The extraordinary life and career of the African American singer and dancer Josephine Baker comes to life in snappy poetry and dazzling illustrations.

Josephine traces Baker’s life from her humble beginnings in St. Louis, where she fell in love with ragtime and dreamed of dancing in vaudeville shows, to her touring as a dancer with the Dixie Steppers vaudeville troupe, to her hamming it up on Broadway and her eventual move to Paris, where her now iconic banana dance at the Folies Bergère made her an international star.

The trajectory of Baker’s career is placed soberly in the context of the unfortunate realities – including racial violence and full-out segregation – that swirled around her. Baker’s life story has an important message for children: Let your spirit be free, no matter how unusual it may be.

Baker’s story also has an important message for adults: Her much-celebrated comeback at age 67, which launched the second phase of an already extraordinary career, proves that you’re never too old to be who you really are.  

Credit Amazon

Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherford and Raul Colón (Alfred A. Knopf)

Weatherford’s book tells the story of one of opera’s most remarkable talents.

Encouraged by her parents and inspired by hearing radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, Price moved from her native Mississippi and beyond the race barriers of the cotton belt and again crossed the color line to become one of the Metropolitan Opera’s principal soloists.

Weatherford’s prose and Colón’s illustrations are as comely and elegant as Price herself.

This book will inspire children and adults with Price’s life story, and it may well win over more than a few hearts to opera, as well.

Credit Lee & Low Books

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison (Lee & Low Books)

The jazz trombonist Melba Liston was not only a great musician; as the first woman trombonist to go big time with the great 1940s big bands, Liston was also a pioneer.

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is a beautifully written chronicle of the self-taught Liston’s rise from a modest Kansas City neighborhood to the touring big bands of Dizzie Gillespie, Count Basie and Billie Holiday.

Frank Morrison’s illustrations bebop in bold lines and crackle with commanding color.

This book will help preserve the legacy of Liston’s remarkable contributions – her phenomenal playing, her chipping away at the jazz world’s glass ceiling, her advancing the cause of African American musicians – for children and adults alike.

Credit Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

The Little Piano Girl by Ann Ingalls, Maryann Macdonald and Giselle Potter (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children)

Mary Lou Williams was one of the great jazz pianists of all time, but possibly by virtue of her sex, her name is eclipsed by those of Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk and Jelly Roll Morton. 

The Little Piano Girl makes Williams’ life story and accomplishments mainstream reading for children.

The book also carries an inspiring message: Be yourself, embrace your talent and follow your dreams. Those dreams might someday take you around the world!

Credit Harcourt Children's Books/Houghton Mifflin

Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her by Amy Novesky and Vanessa Brantley Newton (Harcourt Children’s Books)

The turbulent life of jazz singer Billie Holiday might not, at first blush, seem like great fodder for a children’s book.

But Holiday’s remarkable musical contributions stand on their own merit, and her love affair with dogs – perhaps the only loves that never wound up in the blues she sang – is a fun excuse to introduce children to an extraordinary, if troubled, artist.

Through Novesky’s text we learn of Holiday’s many canine companions – a poodle, a beagle, two Chihuahuas, a Great Dane, a wire-haired terrier, a mutt – and Mister, the boxer who walked with Holiday, protected her, watched her performances from the wings and waited loyally for her return from a year in prison for drug possession.

Novesky is right to omit from her narrative the details of the dark side of Holiday’s life. But the story of Holiday’s walking every step of her career path – all the way up to Carnegie Hall – with Fido by her side is delightful, as are Newton’s illustrations.

Credit Amazon

My Family Plays Music by Judy Cox and Elbrite Brown (Holiday House)

Winner of the Coretta Scott King - John Steptoe Award for New Talent.

In easy-to-read prose and vivacious illustrations, an African American girl and her family play all kinds of musical instruments in all kinds of situations.

Young readers will learn the names of some instruments – fiddle, tambourine, cello, clarinet, maracas, tuba and others – and will also learn about the string quartet, marching bands, jazz combos and even the music the happens when a toddler beats pots and pans on the kitchen floor.

This book shows what a joy it can be to play music at any age with the people who matter most – our families.

Credit Candlewick Press

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald by Roxanne Orgill and Sean Qualls (Candlewick Press)

Singer Ella Fitzgerald’s rise from childhood homelessness to jazz legend is given voice in this gorgeously illustrated book.

Orgill’s detailed text will challenge some young readers, even as it captivates with Fitzgerald’s inspiring rags-to-riches story. 

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat is a great foray into the world of jazz and to into the work of one of the art form’s greatest legends.

Credit Scholastic

When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press)

Every children's book is called to open the minds and vistas of its young readers.

Ryan's children's biography of the trailblazing African American contralto Marian Anderson has the potential to inspire a love for classical music and to plant the seeds of tolerance and acceptance in a single bound. 

Illustrated throughout by Selznick's sumptuous pictures, Ryan's text tells the story of Anderson's childhood in south Philadelphia, where her supportive church family fostered her early confidence in her gift, and of her later life navigating the roadblocks of racial prejudice she encountered at every stage of her career.

At the end of the book are personal notes by Ryan and Selznick, a list of notable dates in Marian Anderson's career and a selective discography of Anderson's recordings.

This is a book that has the power to change lives. (This description of When Marian Sang first published on May 7, 2015 in “10 Great Children’s Books about Classical Music,” Classical 101, WOSU Public Media).