6 Picture-Book Biographies of Black LGBTQ+ Americans

A collage of books about Black LGBTQ+ people. The titles include: “Jimmy's Rhythm & Blues: The Extraordinary Life of James Baldwin,” “Glenn Burke, Game Changer,” “A Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington,” “Unstoppable: How Bayard Rustin Organized the 1963 March on Washington,” “Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist,” and “Little Black Lives Matter.” In the bottom left corner is a book shelf full of books.
(Bottom left photo: Adobe Stock)

In honor of Black History Month — but best read all year round — here are some of my favorite recent children’s biographies of famous Black LGBTQ+ Americans.

Brand new is the superb “Jimmy’s Rhythm & Blues: The Extraordinary Life of James Baldwin,” by Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Jamiel Law (Harper Collins). This blank verse biography honors Baldwin’s legacy in the rhythm of its text, and offers young readers just enough detail to be informative without overwhelming. It looks at Baldwin’s life from his childhood in Harlem through his outspoken and fearless work as a writer, and includes his romantic relationship with Swiss painter Lucien Happersberger. The warm, evocative illustrations are the perfect complement to the lyrical words.

Also new is “Glenn Burke, Game Changer,” by Phil Bilder, illustrated by Daniel J. O’Brien (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a powerful biography of the first openly gay player in Major League Baseball and co-inventor of the high five. Bildner — whose earlier middle-grade novel “A High Five for Glenn Burke” is about a gay boy inspired by Burke — knows how to write action, and his punchy sentences give verve to Burke’s on-field play. Bildner also gives readers an unflinching but age-appropriate look at Burke’s later struggles, including the homophobia he encountered, how he “got into trouble with drugs and the law,” the car accident that shattered his leg, and his death from an AIDS-related illness at age 42. It is a compelling book that touches on some tough topics with thoughtfulness while celebrating the life of a changemaker.

“A Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington,” by Carole Boston Weatherford and Rob Sanders, illustrated by Byron McCray (Henry Holt), is a lyrical testament to Rustin and his work, not only conveying the story of his life from childhood but also helping readers emotionally connect with Rustin and the spirit of the era. Each spread includes suggestions for songs to sing, all drawn from the Civil Rights movement and Black spirituals. It’s a powerful, interactive approach to bring readers into the story. The book sits at the older end of the picture book age range for the amount of text and complexity of vocabulary (“committed,” “orchestrated,” etc.) but nevertheless feels clear and understandable.

“Unstoppable: How Bayard Rustin Organized the 1963 March on Washington,” by Michael G. Long, illustrated by Bea Jackson (Little Bee), begins with the assertion, “Bayard Rustin was a troublemaker.” Readers soon see that he was making trouble for a good reason: to change the unfair laws and customs that kept Black people from freedom. And although some white politicians opposed the civil rights movement and attacked Rustin for being gay, and civil rights leaders worried that these attacks would harm the movement, “Bayard was proud of who he was — Black, gay, and an activist for peace.” While this doesn’t reach the lyrical heights of “A Song for the Unsung,” it is an informative, intersectional, and inspiring look at the life and significance of this sometimes-forgotten civil rights leader.

“Pauli Murray: The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist,” by Rosita Stevens-Holsey and Terry Catasús Jennings, illustrated by Ashanti Fortson (Yellow Jacket), is a moving biography in verse of the acclaimed activist, attorney and Episcopal priest, from childhood in the Jim Crow South to involvement in some of the landmark civil rights cases of the 20th century. Stevens-Holsey, Murray’s niece, and co-author Jennings note that while Murray did not use the same terminology we do today, “Transgender/is possibly/what Pauli would call herself…Pauli’s pronouns/ may have been/they/them/their.” The life of this “unsung force” in two overlapping social justice movements deserves to be better known, and this book is a great place to start.

For the youngest children is “Little Black Lives Matter,” by Khodi Dill, illustrated by Chelsea Charles (Triangle Square), available as a regular hardcover or board book. Queer icons Marsha P. Johnson, James Baldwin, Billie Holiday and Audre Lorde are among the Black lives celebrated in this rhyming book (though only Johnson’s queer identity is noted). There aren’t full biographies here, but each spread offers a quote and a little information about a historical figure, and tells us that they each lived “a little Black life” as a child before becoming a changemaker. Although the book may inspire young readers to become changemakers, too, it also reminds them, “But don’t forget the greatest life you can lead belongs to you.” Even if one doesn’t change the world, it implies, there is value in simply living a Black life.

For a few other children’s biographies of notable LGBTQ+ Black Americans, including Laverne Cox, RuPaul and Marsha P. Johnson, please visit my Database of LGBTQ Family Books at mombian.com. I’ll note, too, that we could still use many more picture book biographies that show both the Black and the queer aspects of people’s identities. It’s shocking to me that there is not yet one of Audre Lorde, for example. There are many other figures, too, both historical and contemporary, whose lives could inspire and inform young people today. I urge authors and publishers to take action here as a way not only to look back, but also ahead.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a two-time GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, plus a searchable database of 1,400+ LGBTQ family books.

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