Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business

Book review by
Carrie Kingsley, Common Sense Media
Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business Book Poster Image
Inspiring bio of wealthy Black female entrepreneur in 1800s.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Shows harshness of life for newly freed slaves after U.S. Civil War and gives age-appropriate look at what it took for Black people to build a life in those times. A lynching is part of the story. Parents may need to explain history and impact of that terrible practice. Activities at end of book focus on being an entrepreneur, helping readers focus on developing unique items that are either new or are improvements to existing products, then crafting an elevator pitch to market them.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about persistence, creativity, community, believing in yourself, surrounding yourself with people who believe in you. Community and hard work are important, as is taking care of yourself while you're doing the work.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Sarah is strong, persistent, hardworking. She overcomes obstacles to create a successful business and become a self-made millionaire.

Violence & Scariness

Sarah's husband in lynched. Story shows deep sadness and fear that this terrorist act brings. There aren't a lot of details, no description of the violence, just feeling that the violence leaves Ada and the Black community with: "The next morning, Sarah received the terrible news. Moses had been killed, and someone whispered that word again: Lynching. Just like that, Sarah was a widow at age twenty with a toddler to raise by herself."


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business, by the Rebel Girls and illustrated by Salini Perera, offers an inspiring look at Black entrepreneur Sarah Breedlove Walker, who became wealthy against all odds in the post-slavery era. It shows the devastating impact of slavery and poverty on the whole society. Sarah's husband is lynched (though nothing is described), and the story shows the huge emotional toll that the terrible practice of lynching took on the Black community, giving greater depth to this motivational story of never giving up on a dream. The messages of persistence and of lifting up others as you yourself rise are powerful, especially when set against the daily reality of the systemic racism that divided a nation. At the end of the book, there are activities that focus on being an entrepreneur, helping readers focus on developing unique items that are either new or that are improvements to existing products and then crafting an elevator pitch to market them.

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What's the story?

Beginning just after slavery ended, the story of Sarah Breedlove Walker in MADAM C.J. WALKER BUILDS A BUSINESS takes on two tough subjects -- poverty and racism -- while following her remarkable rise to the top of Black society. It would be an "up by her own bootstraps" account if Sarah had had enough money for boots as a child. Sarah was born just after slavery ended in the United States, and she was sent to live with an abusive relative after being orphaned when she was young. Her options limited by her status and education, Sarah did laundry and cleaning until becoming a saleswoman for a remarkable hair product. With a string of successes punctuated by sad times, she created her own shampoo blend and set out on her own, becoming America’s first self-made female millionaire and doing it on her own terms.

Is it any good?

In this detailed, remarkable book filled with both inspiration and sadness, young readers will see the motivation behind Sarah's outstanding achievement. Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business deftly (and age-appropriately) covers the reality of life after slaves were freed, the fear that many felt every day, and the economic disparity of a segregated nation. Heavy topics, but the book is also packed with feel-good moments when persistence pays off. The knowledge that her life wasn't easy makes Sarah's success that much sweeter for readers to enjoy.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why the odds were stacked against Sarah in Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business. Why didn't being born free give her the same advantages as every other free girl in America?

  • What kind of business would you start, especially if you had to start one right now? What kind of skills would you need? Who (if anyone) do you think would help you?

  • What other books about strong Black women have you read?

Book details

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For kids who love strong women and girls

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