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Famous African American scientists: recommended books for young people.


The value of improving literacy while teaching science content has far reaching effects. Using powerful biographies to teach students about famous African American scientists creates opportunities to increase student reading and writing skills. Furthermore, students will be able to relate multicultural literature to science and make connection between American history and science. Biographies can be a powerful way to transform the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum (Bamford & Kristo, 1998). With high-quality biographies, diverse students can become acquainted with the dreams, struggles and successes of actual individuals who may look just like them. These books can inspire historically underserved young people and provide relatable role models. This article contains several annotated bibliographies for young people, particularly African American children and young adults. These bibliographies also include instructional applications (Stagliano, & Boon, 2009). Some of these books received Newbery or Caldecott Medals. Some have been recognized by Coretta Scott King Award sponsored by the American Library Association, the Orbis Pictus Award by the National Council of Social Studies and/or the Carter G. Woodson Award. Instructors are encouraged to keep these awards in mind when attempting to make the STEM curriculum more culturally responsive and affirmative (Lovedahl, & Bricker, 2006).

Blumberg, Rhoda. York's Adventures with Lewis and Clark: An African-American's Part in the Great Expedition. Illus. by James J. Holmberg. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 2004.87 pp. ISBN 0-06-009111-8, $17.99. Gr. 4-6.

It is a little known fact that an African American man accompanied Lewis and Clark on their monumental journey across uncharted lands. However, even more unrevealed is the idea that without him the expedition may have been a failure. This story begins by having the reader become familiar with how the world looked through the eyes of an enslaved African. Then with detailed descriptions and historical sketches, the author brings you into the past, with all of its trials, despair and successes. York worked on the Kentucky plantation while enduring hardships related to his enslavement until he headed west with Lewis. During the expedition, York made, developed relationships with the Native Americans, hunted much-needed game, and worked hard to help to make this great adventure a success. Sadly, York returned to St. Louis with neither pay nor land like the other enlisted men, and later went to Louisville, KY., to deliver freight. Not only does this account introduce York, it reveals similarities between him and the only other enslaved person on the expedition, Sacagawea. With the strength of John Henry and the perseverance of Johnny Appleseed, York worked his way west and back again, risking his life all of the way. Unfortunately, many have forgotten his contributions. There are endless educational opportunities that can be related to the historical, geographical, political and social aspects of this story. Teachers can use an anticipation guide to assess students' prior knowledge as well as provide opportunities for students to improve their prediction skills. Since enslaved persons were not allowed to learn to read and write, York's story is only told from the point-of-view of his master, William Clark. Teachers can require students to rewrite Clark's journal entries from York's perspective. For strategies for social studies or history, York's accomplishments could also be displayed on a timeline that follows the Great Expedition's route across North America. To increase STEM applications, teachers could direct science students to research the biomes and weather encountered during the expeditions and use technology to create charts and diagrams of results.

Bolden, Tonya. George Washington Carver. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2008.41 pp. ISBN 978-0-81099366-2. $18.95. Gr. 4-8.

This inspirational book portrays the life of the great scientist George Washington Carver, who overcame adversities, through his ingenuity, zest for life and love of nature. Even as a former enslaved African, Carver did extensive research and work in peanuts, potatoes, and soy beans. He gave the world three hundred ways to use peanuts and one hundred and eighteen ways to use sweet potatoes. Encouraged by positive role models and mentors, Carver attended an art and agricultural school where he eventually earned a master's degree. His formal education concluded with Carver accepting a position to teach botany at what is now the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Bolden's vivid illustrations authentically represent the natural world and trails inhabited by Carver. This book can teach much about the power of perseverance and self-reliance from Carver's example. The illustrations consist of real pictures of Carver, his works of art, and some of the more prominent happenings in his life, all of which make this book come alive for the reader. This book would be an excellent introduction to the biography genre. Several instructional activities that could accompany Bolden's book include: writing an essay about an inspirational person in students' personal lives; utilizing context clues to identify unfamiliar words; and comparing and contrasting other Carver biographies. The glossary at the end of this book is a helpful addition. But most importantly, all young people should be encouraged to reach for the stars. Bolden uses Carver's life to tell them that no dream is impossible regardless of your background. This biography lends itself to required scientific study of life science curriculums, in particular ecosystems, soil conservation, and living things.

Braun, Eric. Mae Jemison: First Biographies, Capstone Press, Mankato, Minnesota. 2006 24 pp. ISBN 0736842314, $10.60 Gr. 1-2.

Mae Jemison has the distinguished honor of being the first African-American woman in space. Braun's biography chronicles Jemison's life from her beginnings in Chicago through her experiences as a medical doctor and NASA astronaut. This book is specifically published for the elementary students as a volume in a beginning biography series of historical figures. This biography, which would be excellent for students in first or second grade, contains a timeline which runs throughout the book to help readers organize key events. As the timeline grows, the reader will learn about much of Jemison's life to her formation of a science camp for kids. Braun's beginner biography includes a glossary with various content related terms. The vivid photographs and vocabulary within the text make this a great book for beginning guided reading groups. Teachers and students alike will find Internet sites for excellent extension activities related to this remarkable woman scientist. Connections activities for science include learning about mechanical leverage, simple and complex machines and space exploration. Young students should be encouraged to create and design robotic devices to be used in space.

Johnson, Delores. Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson. Washington D. C.: National Geographic. 2006.64 p.p. ISBN 9781428302688, $7.95. Gr. 3-6.

Adventure, excitement, determination, and perseverance all describe the reading adventure you embark upon when you open the pages of Onward: A Photobiography of African-American Polar Explorer Matthew Henson. This non-fiction work about Matthew Henson, the first African American to reach the North Pole opens with a foreword written by Henson's great, great, great niece, who was present when Henson was posthumously awarded the Hubbard Medal. Her comments set the tone for the story, one of pride of accomplishment and recognition. From his humble birth to sharecropper parents in Maryland to the mosquito infested swamps of Nicaragua to standing victoriously on the frozen ice plains of the North Pole, Matthew Henson emerges as a gentle man of strength, deep character, loyalty, and conviction. The photographs are intriguing glimpses into the heroic past of explorer history to an area that even today few people are privileged to witness. In addition to the informative photographs the book also includesa chronology of Matthew Henson's life that is useful for gaining an overall appreciation for the length of time and challenges he and others faced in order to reach the North Pole.

Onward provides a chronology of events, including many photos, of the 30 year quest by Robert Peary and Matthew Henson to reach the North Pole. It recounts the obstacles both in sponsorship and the arctic elements faced by Peary and Henson. The story also gives the reader insight into the challenges that a man of color faced during those years, including the sting of disappointment when the accomplishment of achieving such a challenging goal is discounted because of race. In a whole language curriculum, this book is a wealth of cross-subject area opportunities for the classroom. This book would be a great introduction to WebQuests which explore primary and secondary sources (the New York Times archives alone has over a dozen articles on Peary's exploration; exploration of the difference between magnetic north and geographic north). The challenges of exploration due to weather and the lack of a land mass at the North Pole are also relevant projects. This book is rich in STEM opportunities. Students could create interactive notebooks to depict life in the tundra.

McKissack, Patricia and Frederick. George Washington Carver The Peanut Scientist. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, Inc. 1991.32 pp. Illus. by Ned O. ISBN 0-89490-308-X, Gr. 2-3.

This book is about the life and accomplishments of a great African American scientist named George Washington Carver. The book begins by telling us about George's culture. Moses and Susan Carver owned a small farm in Missouri. George's mother Mary was their slave. There were slave raiders that took George and his mother Mary late one night. Moses Carver found George by the side of the road. The Carvers raised George as their son. George was a sickly child. He would stutter when he talked too fast. George loved plants and animals. George was a curious child and full of questions. His aunt Susan taught him how to read. More than anything, George wanted to go to school. At twelve years old he left the Carvers and walked to Neosho, Missouri. George went to Lincoln School for a few years. He heard about a school in Kansas and decided to go there. Another boy had the same name as George so he added Washington to his name in order to be different. He wanted to go to college, but in 1890 only a few black men attended college. George had to fight the odds, but he never gave up. George saved his money and went to Iowa State College to study plants and farming. George graduated in 1896. He was offered a teaching position at an all black school in Tuskegee, Alabama. Even though Professor Carver did not have a science lab it did not stop him from teaching. Professor Carver improvised because he knew the school had a farm. Professor Carver realized that farmers were working harder and harder, but the cotton crop was getting less and less, because the plants were not healthy. Professor Carver discovered ways to make improvements in the technology used in farming, because he studied the plants and found ways to improve the quality of the soil. Now farmers were using their land in new and better ways. Professor Carver helped people use the natural resources around them. The student will explain how producers use natural resources (water, soil, wood, and coal), human resources (people at work), and capital resources (machines, tools, and buildings) to produce goods and services for consumers. (SOL 3.7). Professor Carver and his students planted sweet potatoes. The next year they grew cowpeas. The third year they grew cotton. Professor Carver was one of the first scientists to teach crop rotation. Students can identify the natural, capital, and human resources used in the production of a good or service. (SOL 2.7). Professor Carver was also a businessman because he invited a group of important businessmen to dinner. The men agreed that the food was delicious. It is at that very moment Professor Carver told them that everything they had eaten had been made with peanuts. Professor Carver showed the businessmen even more things that could be made with peanuts, and he also told them why they should buy the farmer's peanut crops. Professor Carver won many awards. He could have made lots of money, but money wasn't as great as being an important scientist. They can also identify examples of specialized workers in the school and community. (SOL 2.12). In 1946, the United States Congress named January 5th "George Washington Carver Day." He gave the world three hundred ways to use peanuts and one hundred and eighteen ways to use sweet potatoes. The glossary at the end of this book is student friendly. This book will reinforce students' literacy skills. Teachers may use this book for free reading assignments as well as paired reading. This biography is written in an effective manner to encourage all students to reach for the stars. Teachers could use this work to provide opportunities for students to write about ways to develop their goals and dreams. Methods to enhance STEM would be to teach and discuss genetics. Then, place students in cooperative learning groups to create new crops to help end world hunger. Students must defend why the crops are essential. Students should be able to make analogies to Carver's work.

Murphy, Patricia J. Garrett Morgan: Inventor of the Traffic Light and Gas Mask (Famous Inventors), Enslow Publishers, Inc., Berkeley Heights, NJ. 2004.32 pp. ISBN 0766022749, $20.34. Gr. 4-6.

Garrett Morgan always told his children and grandchildren to "Work with your head." This message, typifies the life of the man who invented the gas mask and traffic signal. Morgan, born in 1877, was famous for those inventions and many more making him a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He was motivated by the desire to make people safe by improving the products and tools of his day. Ironically, this native of Kentucky from a large family (he was the seventh of eleven children) was a son of former enslaved Africans. Patricia Murphy's biography of this extraordinary African American inventor includes bold pictures which provide accurate and enlightening details to the young reader. This biography book contains useful information such as a timeline, books for future reading and websites based on the life and inventions of Garrett Morgan. The large print along with the pictures makes it an interesting and easy read for young students. Related to STEM, students could discuss the importance of safety in society and explain how the traffic light has saved lives. Further, the technology involved with creating the traffic light could be examined with students recording their thoughts in a K-W-L.

Nelson, Marilyn. Carver: A Life in Poems. Asheville, NC: Front Street. 2001. 103 pp. ISBN 9781886910539, $16.95, Gr. 6-12.

What unique and wonderful way to address a remarkable man's life! From almost the beginning George Washington Carver's life differed from that of most enslaved children. As a baby, the Carters, a White family, rescued George and raised George as if he was their own. Moses and Susan Carver actually believed the world eventually benefit from his gifts as both a scientist and artist. Before attending Booker T. Washington's renowned Tuskegee Institute, George received his early education in White schools. At Tuskegee, Carver began his investigations into the many diverse uses for peanuts. It was also at Tuskegee that he advocated for the poor Black farmers of his day. Marilyn Nelson's collection of poems tells Carver's story: challenges, outright failures and successes. He is shown as a multi-talented yet modest individual whose deeply-felt altruism always put the needs of others first. A man who faced life with a quiet strength not readily apparent to those he met; and though he would deny it, became a model for all people. The book could be used for both cross-curriculum and cross-cultural purposes. It could be used for read-aloud, reader's theatre or oral interpretation. Students who read this book will be exposed to the process involved in scientific investigation, biographical information on a historical figure and; the genre of poetry as valid source of reading material. Summarizing both orally and in writing after class discussions would assess comprehension. Additionally, students will be provided with an accessible but realistic depiction of life during the times of slavery, from both Black and White perspectives.

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Dear Benjamin Banneker. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Voyager Books: Harcourt, Inc. 1994. 32 pp. ISBN 978-0-15-201892, $7.00. Gr. 1-4.

This book tells the story of Benjamin Banneker a free black man who through hard work and perseverance became a self-taught mathematician and astronomer. Benjamin Bannekerwas born in 1731; his grandmother taught him how to read and write. His parents owned and worked their own tobacco farm. As a young child, Banneker was fascinated by the sun, moon and stars. During the day he worked on the farm. Nights were dedicated to studying the sky. Benjamin Banneker taught himself astronomy. At that time many White men wrote almanacs; Benjamin Banneker wanted to prove that a Black man could also write and publish an almanac. After achieving that goal, Banneker realized he had another task to complete. In August of 1791 he wrote a letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. His letter discussed the inconsistency that Mr. Jefferson had in regards to slavery. Benjamin Banneker believed that all people of African descent could study and learn if they were free to do so. Banneker sent the letter along with a copy of his almanac to Mr. Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson replied that in time he hoped that African Americans would be treated better. Benjamin Banneker saved that letter and printed it in his almanac of 1793. He went on to publish an almanac every year until 1797. This bookwill lend itself to important instructional uses in the reading classroom. Students can create a Venn Diagram comparing Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson. The text is enriched with passages that contain actual quotes and excerpts from documents and Jefferson and Benjamin's letters. This story is captivating.

Schraff, Anne. Dr. Charles Drew: Blood Bank Innovator. African-American Biographies, Enslow Publishers Inc., Berkeley Heights, NJ. 2003. 112 pp. ISBN 9780766021174, $19.95. Gr. 4-6.

Schraff's biography of Charles Drew includes his "Foggy Bottom" beginnings interspersed with family photos, to his rise as a prominent scholar, surgeon and scientist. Dr. Charles Drew had a very impressive educational background. He was recipient of degrees from institutions of higher learning like Amherst College, McGill Medical School, and Columbia University. Dr. Charles Drew: Blood Bank Innovator, a "junior biography" chronicles the life of the dedicated and focused Drew, who was born in Washington, D.C. in 1904 and died tragically in an automobile accident in North Carolina in 1950. His work in the field of blood preservation is probably considered Drew's crowning achievement. His research with blood plasma was thought to save thousands of lives during the global consuming conflict of World War II. Schraff also provides the impact that racism had on the lives of Drew and other African Americans during this era. Dr. Drew faced racism not just from a society that embraced "Jim Crow" but also from universities and hospitals. At Columbia University he was not even allowed to treat patients of his own race. Despite his humble beginnings and difficult professional challenges, Dr. Charles Drew stands out as a trailblazing doctor-scientist whose blood transfusion procedures saved lives in hospitals and emergency response organizations around the world. Applications for STEM include the study of blood cells and route through the circulatory system. Students can use this biography to associate cells, tissues, organs, organ systems and organisms.

Sullivan, Otha Richard. Black Stars: African American Women Scientists & Inventors, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, NY. 2002, 160 pp. ISBN 047138707X, $14.35. Gr. 7-10.

Annie T. Malone may not be well known as far as scientists and inventors go, but her contributions to society have not gone nearly as unnoticed as she. Annie Turnbo Malone created the Poro College, the first cosmetology school focused on the black consumer. In Sullivan's biographic work focusing on 27 African American Scientists and Inventors, Malone stands out as an innovator who experimented with different ways for African American women to care for their skin and hair. When Malone attended high school, she was drawn to physical science and chemistry. As detailed by Sullivan, she was always interested in hair and skin care combined with her developing knowledge in chemistry. Malone focused on methods to best care for African American women's hair causing pain and damage to their scalp. Malone eventually branded and sold multiple products while becoming a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur as well as becoming a multimillionaire. Although short in page length, Sullivan distinctly describes Annie T. Malone's dream and determination which could provide young readers with great aspirations, a historical figure to connect with. As an author, Sullivan provides adolescent readers with a very informative perspective and is very detail oriented without overwhelming the reader. This could attract students who might not particularly like reading, but upon reading short passages might develop interest them in specific biographies of some of the figures. Sullivan also provides a chronology of not only the featured women in the book, but also world events; this gives the reader perspective on how these inventors and scientists are defined in American history.

Sullivan, Otha ,Richard & Haskins, J. (1998). African American Inventors. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 9780471148043, $22.95. (Gr. K-l)

African American discoverers and inventors have been around for centuries. Only a few have been mentioned and well known throughout the years. This book describes the few that have given us fascinating science developments. The author takes us back in time to the early years, the civil war, reconstruction, new century, and modern times. Listed in the book are both male and female inventors like Benjamin Banneker, Elijah McCoy, George Washington Carver and Jane Cooke Wright. Each of these black inventors "left a special legacy" (Sullivan, p.1).Benjamin Banneker was an astronomer. He predicted that the eclipse would take place on a certain date. Later, Banneker's almanac became a success with farmers. It was as accurate as Benjamin Franklin's. George Washington Carver lived on a farm like Banneker and became another inventor that learned about agriculture. He discovered a fungus that was destroying the soybeans and various types of trees on local farms. Dr. Carver was a talented botanist. He found that peanuts could be used for several products. Elijah McCoy, an educated engineer, was interested in machinery. He was concerned about finding a safe way to oil machinery on railroad trains. His device was eventually known as the "Real McCoy". Jane Cooke Wright was a third generation physician. She made her mark in cancer research. She joined her father in her research. Dr. Louis Wright established the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital. The father and daughter team developed new techniques for chemotherapy.

Towle, Wendy. The Real McCoy: The Life of an African-American Inventor. Illus. by Wil Clay. New York: Scholastic, Inc. 1995.32 pp. ISBN: 9780590481021. $5.39. Gr. 2-5.

This is the true story of Elijah McCoy, an African-American inventor. He was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1844 to parents who had escaped slavery in Kentucky through the Underground Railroad. The story of his life is fascinating. From the time he was a young boy he was interested in machines and how they worked. At the age of sixteen Elijah McCoy's parents sent him to engineering school in Edinburgh, Scotland. During his time in Scotland the U. S. Civil War broke out. Unfortunately, when he returned from his schooling even though the Civil War was over no company was ready to hire an African American engineer. The only job he could find was that of a fireman/oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad. Because of his job as oilman, Elijah came up with an idea for a device that would automatically lubricate the train parts. In 1872 he applied for a patent for his lubricating oil cup. At first, other engineers were not interested in his invention, but eventually the Michigan Central Railroad recognized the superiority of his oil cup. That realization led to other engineers requesting "the real McCoy." Elijah McCoy made many other inventions including the first portable ironing board, a better rubber heel for shoes, tire designs, and even an automatic lawn sprinkler. McCoy's inventions were innovative at a time when many did not believe that African Americans had much to contribute to society. Detroit, Michigan has honoured him by naming a street after him and making the site of his home a historical landmark. Wendy Towle has created an interesting look at the life of a little known inventor and the illustrations by Wil Clay are vibrant and ethereal with an almost dreamlike quality. This biography would be a great way to introduce students to the genre. Additionally students could compare McCoy with another African American inventor like Benjamin Banekker.


The use of biographies about African American scientists will enable teachers to apply reading strategies, assess writing skills, relate social studies, enhance multicultural understanding and improve science knowledge. These annotations discuss the diverse contributions of African American inventors, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, botanists, astronauts and agriculturalists. Teachers, through concerted effort and thoughtfulness, can devise lessons that effectively teach students on many levels. These books make that task a little easier.


Bamford, R.A. & Kristo, J.V. (1998). Making facts come alive: Choosing quality nonfiction literature K-8. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Lovedahl, A.N.. & Bricker, P. (2006). Using biographies in science class . Science and Children, 44(3): p38-43.

Stagliano, C. & Boon, R. T. 2009. The effects of a story-mapping procedure to improve the comprehension skills of expository text passages for elementary students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities-A Contemporary Journal, 7 (2), 35-38.

Texley, J. (2008). Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12. Science and Children, 45 (7):43-50.

Gail Singleton Taylor

Lisa Moore

Stephanie Young

Old Dominion University
COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of African Children's and Youth Literature
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Author:Taylor, Gail Singleton; Moore, Lisa; Young, Stephanie
Publication:Journal of African Children's and Youth Literature
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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