Positive Images of Black Children and Families in Children’s Lit

Since Saturday night, I have been completely guttered with grief over the Trayvon Martin case, raging over the racist things people have said in response, and wrestling with a deep, abiding fear for my child, nieces and nephews, and cousins.  As longtime readers of this blog know, I have followed this case from the beginning, and I have written before about talking to your kids about race.  I will have more to say about this case and about race in America, particularly in my review of the incredible film Fruitvale Station, which will be published on Cinapse on Monday.

In the meantime, I am committed to positive action wherever I have influence.  I am wearying of adults, so I turn to children.  For the past six months, as my daughter’s voracious need for books has increased, I have taken to actively curating her reading list.  Olive is biracial, and the white side of her heritage is overrepresented in American culture, and in our predominantly white city.  So, I wanted to make sure the books she is exposed to are representative of both sides of her cultural background.

I started simply by finding an author or illustrator that I liked, then looking up all their other books and requesting them from the library, which, in San Francisco, you can do online.  Below is a list of the books we are really jamming on right now.  It is by no means comprehensive, but it is indicative of some of our favorites, and includes some beautiful images of black children and families, which I hope works as a palate cleanser in this week in which people all over the country are bringing into question the worth of a dead child.

I want my daughter, and children everywhere, to know that they are worthy.  They are worthy of being the main character of a book, not just the sidekick.  They are worthy of taking up space in the world.  And they are worthy to be mourned, not maligned, if they meet an untimely and unjust death.

I broke this list down by author, since that is my favorite way to find new books:

Mary Hoffman:

The Grace Series:

fierce Grace

Amazing Grace (illustrated by Caroline Binch): This is an excellent book to use as a jumping off point for talking to your kids about race (and gender!).  Grace’s classmates tell her she can’t play Peter Pan in the school play, because Peter wasn’t black, and he wasn’t a girl.  This makes Grace genuinely sad and upset, but she discusses it with her mom and Nana, and they help her find her courage to try out for the part anyway.

Grace as Peter Pan

Boundless Grace (illustrated by Caroline Binch): This sequel fills in some of the blanks about Grace’s family history, and does a great job navigating the feelings children have about family structures that don’t look like the nuclear family overrepresented in our culture.  Grace travels to Gambia to visit her dad and his new family, and finds peace with who she is.

Grace series books

Princess Grace (illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu): I love this book because it takes on princess craze, and turns it on its head.  Grace realizes that the Euro-centric princesses of Fairy Tales don’t really do anything, and researches princesses in history and present-day life who are powerful women.  She ends up dressing like an African princess for the parade, and the whole experience empowers her, rather than devalues her experience.

Princess Parade

Princess Grace

Grace at Christmas (illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu): This is a sweet book because it addresses the fact that not all families can be all together on important holidays.  Grace learns to make space for others and be blessed by their presence, even while missing her dad in Gambia.

An Angel Just Like Me

An Angel Just Like Me (illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu): The main character of this book asks some deep questions!  Why is Jesus depicted as white, when he was a Middle Eastern Jewish man?  Why can’t I find any black angels to adorn our Christmas tree?  Aren’t there black angels in Heaven?  This is a story for anyone who has felt left out of the cultural narrative of Christmas, but wanted to find a place to connect with it.

Vanessa Brantley-Newton:

Auntie Mabel

Don’t Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table: Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s books are always filled with multicultural socities.  In this funny book, a diverse community gathers for Sunday dinner at Auntie Mabel’s house, where they are surprised by her verbose prayer!

Every little thing

Every Little Thing (adapted by Cedella Marley, based on the Bob Marley song): This sweet book is best sung.  Not only does it have the kind message of helping children sort through their worries, it got my daughter interested in Bob Marley’s music!

one love

One Love (adapted by Cedella Marley, based on the Bob Marley song): In this book, a community cleans up a park, all set to the message of togetherness and love.

Molly Bang:

molly bang

Ten, Nine, Eight: Molly Bang is such a gifted illustrator, and this sweet story of a dad and his daughter is perfect for infants and young toddlers.

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher (Caldecott Honor winner): The fun thing about this book is it doesn’t have any words, but still depicts a vivid story.  You can tell the story yourself, then leave it to your child to flip through, over and over again.  It ends with a picture of a happy, inter-generational family.

Shane W. Evans:

We March

We March: This inspiring story is about a family who attends the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

We sing

The back page provides information about the civil rights struggle, and draws a direct line from the march depicted in the book to the National Voting Rights Act of 1965, key parts of which were struck down by the Supreme Court this summer.  If you’re looking for a way to share with your kids what we are fighting to uphold, this is a good book to start with.

He has written a plethora of books about Black History, and the next one we’ll dive into is Underground: Finding the Light To Freedom about the Underground Railroad.  I can’t wait!

Trish Cooke:

So Much

So Much (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury): My daughter cannot get enough of this book.  I think it is the sweetness, but also the rhythm of the text.  When I read it aloud at the impromptu Song/Story/Dance/Parade I did the other day in the playground, I changed one line, because that is the beauty of reading to preschoolers – they don’t know the difference!  The cousins in the story come over and say, “I wanna fight the baby” but what they mean is play-fight, so I just changed it to “I wanna play with the baby”, so as not to confuse the little ones.  I kept in all the wrestling they subsequently do with the infant.  Anyway, this book depicts a happy family all getting together for a surprise party for the father.

full of love

Full, Full, Full of Love (illustrated by Paul Howard): Another current favorite of my daughter’s, this book is about how going to Grannie’s house can be a wonderful, loving experience.

Karen Beaumont:

I like myself

I Like Myself! (illustrated by David Catrow): This is a wonderful book for any child about how to keep your self-esteem when the world tells you you’re less than awesome.

because i'm me

bell hooks:

Happy to be Nappy

Happy to be Nappy (illustrated by Chris Raschka): bell hooks is known for her writings on radical feminism, racial discourse and spirituality, but did you know that she also wrote children’s books?  Happy to be Nappy is my favorite because the watercolor drawings are exquisite, and the poetic words are a celebration of African-American hair, which is helpful for when I want to do my daughter’s hair up and she’s resisting – “Look at this cutie!  She’s happy to be nappy!  Let’s try for 3 ponytails today like her.”

Skin Again (illustrated by Chris Raschka) The writing in this one is slightly more obtuse, as it seeks to tackle the issue of race in a way that kids will understand.

Sharon Dennis Wyeth:

Something Beautiful

Something Beautiful (Illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet): This book is kind of sad, and it’s another one that I changed slightly when I read it aloud to Olive (someone wrote DIE on the protagonist’s door, and since I don’t think a 2 year old is ready to hear that kind of hate speech, I just said someone wrote “a word” on the door).  However, I think it’s a really important message, especially for children living in urban settings.  The main character seeks to make her world a better, more beautiful place, and her community helps her envision it.

Sarah Hayes:

Eat Up Gemma

Eat Up, Gemma (illustrated by Jan Ormerod): What parent can’t relate to having a finicky eater for a toddler, at least some of the time? This book spawned a fun game that my daughter and I play in which we think of all the other things Gemma might want to do, other than eating up: a handstand, an arabesque, play hopscotch.

midnight feast

Happy Christmas Gemma (illustrated by Jan Ormerod): The sequel, which is also adorable.

Rachel Isadora:

Bea at Ballet

Bea At Ballet: Since I go to dance class five times a week, my daughter is avidly looking forward to the day she gets to take her own classes.  In this sweet book, kids of diverse ethnicities and genders take ballet together.

Bea at Ballet 2

Ben’s Trumpet: We read this one awhile back, so I don’t have a photo of it, but it is a great jazz-era story of a boy who learns the trumpet.  Quite percussive in its prose.

Ezra Jack Keats:

A Letter to Amy

ANYthing by Ezra Jack Keats.  Before his untimely death in 1983, this prolific collage and watercolor artist illustrated 85 books, 24 of which he also wrote.

The Snowy Day: This is the classic everyone knows.  It is beyond gorgeous.

A Letter to Amy 2

A Letter to Amy: Our current favorite, A Letter to Amy is about Peter, a recurring character in Keats’ books, who wants to invite a girl to his birthday party, but fears his friends will ridicule him for doing so, or worse, that she won’t come!  So he tries to make it special, it all goes wrong, but then… she arrives!

Seriously, all of Keats’ books are beautiful and sweet.  I absolutely adore that they take place in an urban setting, filled with color as well as the common sights of graffiti, trash cans, and corner stores that make up the city landscape.

I know that this wee post won’t change the reality of racism in America, but I do believe that any small step we can take towards changing the picture that Americans have of black children is a step in the right direction.  These are not children to be feared.  They are members of families, parts of communities.  They take dance class and star in plays and worry about who is coming to their birthday party.  And their parents want them to be safe, and feel loved, and to always come home to them.

Do you have favorites that are not on this list?  Let me know in the comments, and we’ll add them to our library queue!

11 thoughts on “Positive Images of Black Children and Families in Children’s Lit

  1. Does your library have The Hard Times Jar by Ethel Footman Smothers, illustrated by John Holyfield. It’s awfully sweet; I’m biased, though, because it is about a little girl who wants to buy a book, an actual from-the-store book, but can’t because her family is too poor and they’re migrant workers so she just has to make her own. So in addition to having positive images of a black girl, it also reinforces the idea of saving money to buy what you want as well as being creative to make-do until you’ve saved enough. It’s also good for kids about to head off to school for the first time. And libraries!

    Water, Water is fun to read and is for a much younger set, all about the fun-ness of water. It’s by Eloise Greenfield and illustrated by Jan Gilchrist. It’s a good pre-introduction to water conservation and understanding that water is cyclical.

    Sorry. I know that’s not what you were talking about at all, but…books. I get excited. And thank you for the plug for the library! Yay, Community!

  2. Thank you, Rhea! This is actually really important to me even though I have a white child. Since most of our social circle is Jewish & thus more likely to be white, I try as much as I can to expose my kiddo to images of people of color so she doesn’t see white as “normal.” I will try to get some of the books above. Ezra Jack Keats is already one of our favorites (we have been reading Letter to Amy a lot recently, though I hate the part where they say “Ew, a girl” and sometimes leave it out). These are for slightly younger kids, but 2.5 year old still loves them: Any book by Gyo Fujikawa, beautiful pictures with kids of all colors playing together. Also Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers is good for babies of all colors and also shows lots of different family configurations (including gay) which I also think is important. We have the big lap version where you can see all the details, and this book is probably the most read book in our house (since kiddo has a baby obsession). I also recently got Who’s in a Family, which has sparked good conversations (though a little short on representations of black families, has other races, talks about being biracial, and explains gay families). We also love Todd Parr’s family book but that doesn’t give good images of any specific race, though it does address race and gender through cartoons. I’m excited to try some of these out. You are always my favorite book-recommender. Love this post, so important. Just as another point, I know how as a Jewish kid growing up, I was obsessed with reading books about other Jewish kids, I also remember being so happy when I got a cabbage patch doll with glasses that matched mine–it’s so important I think for sense of self to see yourself mirrored in your toys and books. xoxo

  3. Thank you for this wonderful list! I can’t wait to check some of them out. Another favorite of ours is Ron’s Big Mission, by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden. Its about astronaut Ron McNair fighting to get a library card as a child in South Carolina.

  4. Great post! I’m so glad someone has put together a list like this and I’ll be sure to direct friends with kids to it. I remember reading Amazing Grace as a child and being quite struck with the idea that someone not white, not male could play Peter Pan… Only now looking back do I truly appreciate its positive message and impact!

  5. Jazz Baby by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, is one of Serenity’s favorites right now. I think that I am more interested in other books that Christie has illustrated than books that Wheeler has written, though.

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