Books About African American Artists

At the turn of the 20th century, a few African American artists were emerging into the spotlight. By the mid-1900s, several African American artists like Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage had established a name for themselves. Many of these artists dedicated their lives to artistically representing the struggles and triumphs of African American people throughout history. With the books on this list, you can bring African American art right into your own home. Each book provides the perfect jumping-off point for talking to your children about expressing themselves and influencing societal change through art.

Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, an Artist in Harlem Sharifa Rhodes-Pitt

See the sights, sounds, and colors that inspired Jacob Lawrence as a child. This book describes his mother’s house, the men playing checkers outside his building, the people on the streets. Through all of this, children will get a real feel for how Lawrence incorporated his world into this art. The Illustrations mirror Lawrence’s own bold colors and expressionist shapes. It’s a vibrant picture book that will inspire preschoolers and early elementary children.

Jacob Lawrence: Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists Mike Venezia

This series is a favorite of art teachers and parents alike. In this edition, kids will get a front-row seat to the life and work of Jacob Lawrence. They will laugh at the cartoon illustrations and jokes, but they will be learning about Lawrence’s art on every page. The book explains Lawrence’s artistic style and includes full-color reproductions of some of his most famous paintings. Read this one alongside your elementary-aged children.

The Great Migration Jacob Lawrence

In this book, Lawrence’s series of paintings by the same name is brought together with poetic text that describes the struggles and strength of the millions of African Americans who moved north. The text is simple, but significant. It’s a terrific introduction to this often forgotten time in American history. Kids as young as five years old can understand the story and appreciate the paintings.

Black Heroes: 51 Inspiring People from Ancient Africa to Modern-Day U.S.A. Arlisha Norwood

Read 51 fascinating biographies in this book that features heroes from several continents and time periods. From King Tut to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you’ll explore the life and work of people like George Washington Carver, Jesse Owens, Miles Davis, and others. This book does an excellent job of pointing out how these heroes, like Jacob Lawrence, worked to change the circumstances around them and positively impact the world. The biographies are reasonably brief, making this book a good pick for elementary students.

Harriet and the Promised Land Jacob Lawrence

See the story of Harriet Tubman like you’ve never seen it before. This book features Lawrence’s striking paintings that depict Tubman and her escape from slavery. The rhythmic story doesn’t use much text, but it conveys an incredibly powerful message. It’s a beautiful book that introduces the topics of slavery and freedom to young children in elementary school.

Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence John Duggleby

With this award-winning book, kids can page through the details of Jacob Lawrence’s life while studying his paintings at the same time. The biography explains Lawrence’s childhood, his artistic style, and his desire to portray the legacies of African Americans. There are 25 full-color reproductions in the book in order to make his paintings truly accessible to young children. This one is best for children 8 to 12 years old.

A History of Pictures for Children David Hockney and Martin Gayford

Use this book to help kids trace art history from cave drawings to the present day. Colorful cartoon-like art sits alongside famous artwork as the authors explain various artistic techniques and styles. A bit of information about the artists is included, too. This one is sure to spark curiosity and ignite creativity in children. It’s recommended for children ages 8 to 13.

Jacob Lawrence: A Painter’s Story Sneed B. Collard

This book invites kids to take a closer look at Jacob Lawrence’s life by studying some of his greatest paintings. His Migration series is the highlight of the book, and other paintings and photos are included too. The author describes Lawrence’s experiences in Harlem, his time in the Coast Guard, and other key events in the painter’s life. It’s an insightful biography for 2nd - 5th graders to read.

Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series MoMA

Produced by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, this book provides a collection of essays alongside reproductions of each of the 60 panels of the Migration series. There are also 11 poems that were recently written about the series. The book is nearly 200 pages long, and the text is best suited for middle school children and adults. However, the book is great resource to use in showing children of any age the entire Migration series.

Timelines from Black History: Leaders, Legends, Legacies Mireille Harper

This book provides 30 artistically designed timelines that highlight the lives of prominent African Americans and important cultural movements. From ancient African kingdoms to the Civil Rights Movement, the level of detail in this book is astonishing! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., LeBron James, Sarah Breedlove, and Maya Angelou are just a few of the people who are featured. Preteens and young teenagers will pore over this one for hours!

Jacob Lawrence: American Painter Ellen Harkins Wheat

This is a comprehensive biography of Jacob Lawrence and his work. Along with a thorough discussion of his life and inspiration, the book includes more than 150 illustrations of his work and several photos of him. You’ll find reproductions and a discussion of the work he completed later in his life, too. This is a great book to look at page-by-page with children who are interested in Lawrence’s artistic style.

Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem Various Authors

This book is based on a traveling art exhibit by the same name. It dives into more than one hundred pieces of art from The Studio Museum in Harlem and provides a detailed commentary for each work. The book takes you through black art from the 1930s to present day. It’s a great resource to have on hand so that children can page through and study each piece at their own pace.

The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson By Joseph D. Ketner

Journey through the rich and complex history of African American art in the late 1800s with this book focused on Robert S. Duncanson. You’ll learn how Duncanson’s art was a reflection of the times he lived in and see how it compares to African American art from other time periods. The book features full-color reproductions of Duncanson’s work and excerpts from letters that Duncanson wrote. This book discusses mature topics like racial discrimination and mental health, so we recommend it for teens and adults.

Celebrating Black Artists: Robert S. Duncanson By Charlotte Etinde-Crompton and Samuel Willard Crompton

In this biography of Robert S. Duncanson, you’ll learn about his global travels, the places where he found inspiration, his creative process, and the struggles he faced throughout his life. The book features nine chapters along with notes, a glossary, and a timeline. There are photographs scattered throughout the book, too. This is an in-depth biography that’s best for teens and adults.

Alma Woodsey Thomas: Painter and Educator By Charlotte Etinde-Crompton and Samuel Willard Crompton

This in-depth biography covers the life of Alma Thomas. For many years, Thomas worked as a middle-school teacher in Washington, D.C. She didn’t hold her first art exhibit until she was 75 years old! This book discusses her childhood in Georgia, her education at Howard University, and her journey to becoming one of the most famous African-American artists of all time. The book also features black-and-white photographs and sidebars that discuss things that were going on in society during Thomas’ life. Upper elementary kids and middle schoolers will enjoy reading this one on their own.

Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter By Kathy Whitehead

Clementine Hunter painted in a style that was similar to Grandma Moses, but her work is much less famous. Use this nonfiction picture book to introduce young elementary children to her art and her life of perseverance. Hunter was a self-taught artist who created folk art paintings. Her pieces depicted life on farms in the South in the early 1900s. Her days were full of hard work, but that didn’t stop her from painting. The book includes a few reproductions of her paintings and a short biography at the end. Read this one with early elementary kids.

Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring By Nancy Churnin

This book reminds children that brown isn’t a simple color—brown is a rainbow! They’ll learn all about Laura Wheeler Waring and her work in using a rainbow of brown to paint portraits of prominent African Americans like W. E. B. Du Bois, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and Marian Anderson. This book uses rich, descriptive language to describe Waring’s passion for art, and beautiful watercolor illustrations fill each page. Read it with elementary kids.

In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage By Alan Schroeder

This fictionalized story traces the life of Augusta Savage, a talented African-American sculptor, from childhood to her college years. Children will see how Savage fought against several challenges to achieve her dreams of going to art school. With lively dialogue and detailed illustrations, this story will excite children and inspire them too! The text is a bit longer than traditional picture books, so we recommend reading this one with kids ages 8-12.

Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis By Jeannine Atkins

The book takes a truly unique approach to telling the story of Edmonia Lewis: poetry. Lewis was a sculptor in the years that followed the Civil War, but because she was the daughter of an Ojibwe woman and a Haitian man, opportunities were often snatched right out of her hands. This book uses beautiful poetry to describe the historical time period in which Lewis worked and show how it deeply affected Lewis’ art. Even though few details are known about Lewis’ day-to-day life, the book traces her journey through Boston and Italy. This book is best suited for teens and adults.

Black Artists Shaping the World By Sharna Jackson

Pick up this book to get an overview of 26 contemporary African artists around the world! Kids will read about Faith Ringgold, Amy Sherald, and Chris Ofili. They’ll also read about photographers, ceramicists, and performance artists. Each page is brightly colored, and a piece of art from each creator is included. Kids in upper elementary can probably read this one on their own, but if you read it together, you'll have the opportunity to start meaningful conversations with your children.

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