Kadir Nelson is an amazing, multiple award-winning artist who excels in picture books about leaders in African-American history and culture. With his typical large-detail focus on faces, each painting in his books are a work of art. While he has collaborated with authors, in my opinion, his best books are the ones that are his both solely, in writing and in illustrating. Having a collection of Mr. Nelson’s books ready to go is a guarantee at an excellent history experience. The books below are nowhere near the full list, but some of my favorites and a great place to start.
Picture Book Study
Picture books are an excellent way to learn history no matter the age of kids. Approach picture books with the same discernment you would use learning about a classical artist. Study his illustrations. See the patterns. Compare the pictures from his different books. How many have full page face portraits? Can you find several that show the main character standing high above the group with the sky behind him? How does he use reflections to pick up face details? Illustrator study isn’t hard; it’s a natural addition to the picture book reading you already do with your family.
Once you learn the patterns and favorite positions of the artist, you will see them repeated, and in Nelson’s case, whether historical figure or bunny rabbit, oil paints or colored pencils. His technique, style, and accuracy all make his art well-worth studying, not just a quick read of a book.
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Kadir Nelson Books
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
I Have a Dream: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Abe’s Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
Ellington Was Not A Street
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
If You Plant a Seed
Words and Paintings by Kadir Nelson; 2011
Topics: African American, History, America
As his magnum opus, this book is impressive both in scope and in beauty. If there is one Nelson book you should add to your library, it’s this one. I suggest you spring for the hardcover because of its thickness.
At more than a hundred pages, this beautifully illustrated picture book reads more like a history book for big kids. The story follows along from the early beginnings in America to slavery to abolition and through the Civil Rights Movement. Complete with a well-researched bibliography, an index, and a timeline of African American history, this is an essential book addition to your school and home library. Alongside portraits of famous Black Americans, there are also two-page spreads telling even more of the story as the author and illustrator follows along his own family history through the centuries.
Written and Illustrated by Kadir Nelson; 2013
Topics: Nelson Mandela, Africa, South Africa, History
Starting in his childhood, this beautifully illustrated book starts in his early schooling and takes you all the way through Mr. Mandela’s life up to his election as South Africa’s first black president. Apartheid is simply explained to show his fight to bring it to an end despite danger and arrest. Make sure you read the back pages for the full two-page biography of Nelson Mandela’s life.
Words from MLK’s Speech (1963); Paintings by Kadir Nelson; 2012
Topics: Martin Luther King, Jr., African American, History, Civil Rights Movement
Awards: Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award and multiple Best Book of the Year awards
Mr. Nelson brings back his beautiful Martin Luther King, Jr. paintings from Coretta with a focus this time on her husband. The words of this book are nothing other than straight from King’s own speech. You will understand the meaning of his words even better as you follow his beautiful landscapes across America. It’s hard to read his prayers for “little black boys and black girls” to join hands in play while looking at the beautiful illustrations of this very thing. This is a lovely book in so many ways that comes with a CD of an original recording of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the complete transcript of the speech in the backpages.
Poetry by Ntozake Shange; Illustrated Kadir Nelson; 2009
Awards: Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
Topics: Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr., African American, History, Civil Rights
Too often overlooked in the King story, Coretta’s role in his ministry and the Civil Rights Movement are brought to the forefront. Historical events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sit-ins, and the March on Washington are brought to light by the paintings and the prose of Ntozake Shange. While some of this story is very similar to the other King book, this is a excellent reminder of the story of their life and impact from a different perspective. Make sure you check out the back pages for the full story of Mrs. King’s impactful life.
Written by Doreen Rappaport; Illustrated by Kadir Nelson; 2008
Topics: Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Slavery, Emancipation Proclamation, African-American, History
While not focused on Black history, this book about our 14th president shows his significance as we follow Lincoln’s boyhood life up to when he witnessed slavery first-hand as a young adult. His life as a starting lawyer is paired up against his desire to be senator and fight against the practice of slavery. The Civil War begins with Fort Sumter’s shots and the story progresses all the way to the Emancipation Proclamation. With only a brief sentence about his assassination, this book does a good job covering hard topics.
Take this introduction to Doreen Rappaport and dive into her other amazing history and biographical picture books.
Written by Donna Jo Napoli; Illustrated Kadir Nelson; 2010
Topics: Wangari Maathai, Kenya, Conservation, Africa
Telling the story of the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, this Nelson illustrated picture book shows how one woman can make a difference. Kenya-born Wangari Muta Maathai started a grassroots organization to fight against deforestation which has resulted in the planting of more than thirty million trees. In addition to being an excellent biography, this book also ties in science subtly as the removal of the trees had caused so many changes in her home country: soil erosion, firewood and shelter material depletion, and filtering water and air.
This book is illustrated differently as Mr. Nelson mixes his usual oils with printed fabrics to reflect the African culture.
Written by Ellen Levine; Illustrated Kadir Nelson; 2007
Award: Caldecott Honors
Topics: Henry “Box” Brown, Slavery, Underground Railroad, African American, History
With paintings inspired by an antique lithograph of Henry “Box” Brown, Nelson’s illustrations once again take a different approach with pencil cross-hatching and layers of watercolor and oil. As the story begins in slavery, young Henry is sold to a new owner to work in tobacco until his wife and children were sold. With the help of white men, his plan to be delivered up North in a box is hatched, and he sets off on his history-making journey. This book does discuss the heartbreak of slavery and may be harder for younger listeners.
Written by Carole Boston Weatherford; Illustrated Kadir Nelson; 2006
Awards: NAACP Image Award, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, Caldecott Honors
Topics: Harriet Tubman, Slavery, Underground Railroad, African American, History
With Mr. Nelson’s large, detailed oil paintings leading the way, the reader will see Harriet Tubman’s ferocity as she bravely takes off through the woods and fields fighting for her own freedom only to return back and transport other slaves to safety. Make sure you read the foreword and the author’s note at the end to learn more about slavery in the United States and other details of Mrs. Tubman’s life.
Written by a Christian author, this fictionalized story is based on Harriet Tubman’s spiritual calling to help fight against slavery. Harriet was known to have seen visions and believed she spoke directly to God – this is portrayed through the story in a different font than the regular story. Just as Moses doubted his own ability to lead, we see her have the same doubts. Over and over again the book, she hears God speaking and follows in obedience.
Written by Ntozake Shange; Illustrated Kadir Nelson; 2004
Awards: Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
Poet Ntozake Shange’s “Mood Indigo” comes to life with Mr. Nelson to introduce the reader to several African American visionaries who visit the home of a young girl. The study of Black history will take off with new names including W.E.B. Dubois, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy GIllespie. Make sure you check out the back pages for a full list biographies of all the people the main character meets. With colored pencil illustrations different than his normal, the shorter book allows a study of different techniques and styles used by the same artist.
Words from Traditional Spiritual; Paintings by Kadir Nelson; 2005
Topics: African-American Spiritual, America
Aided by nothing other than the simple words of this well-loved song, this book isn’t just for younger readers. Read it. Sing the song. And marvel at the lovely illustrations of America.
Words and Paintings by Kadir Nelson; 2015
Topics: Kindness, Dealing with Conflict, Sharing, Friendship
As a departure from his typical biographical picture books, this brightly colored book and its simple words target a younger audience with lots of double spread paintings and minimal words. The main character, a rabbit, meets birds and a mouse to tell a sweet story of kindness after an episode of selfishness. With detailed paintings, these animals are brought to life amazingly; it’s beautiful. There is even a board book for the babies.
Words and Paintings by Kadir Nelson; 2014
Topics: Courage, Friendship
Baby Bear wanders through the forest after losing his way and encounters wise animals who help him gain courage through his journey. The illustrations in Baby Bear allow Nelson to highlight his landscape painting ability in vibrant colors. Another simpler story, pick this one up for your younger kids and be encouraged. Check out the board book version for even the smallest kids; they will love all the colors and the simple story.