Several years ago I was asked by a local TV station to suggest some books for children in honor of Black History Month. Being a Black librarian (#BlackLibrarianLife) I relished the opportunity, but I did point out that my offerings would avoid the typical fare of Black children’s books: boycotts, buses and basketball. We’ve picked up a few other hobbies since the 1960s, and there are lots of books to show for it. Here is a humble sampling of 28 children’s picture books featuring Black children doing what all the other things children like to do: play, make up stories, learn life lessons, and dream.
I’m really excited about this year’s list for several reasons. The first is that there is so much more range in what children’s books are willing to engage: colorism, body-positivity, mental health, gender awareness, special needs education…the field has started to become a meaningful buffet of subjects related to the very real lives of children. Young people need to see positive versions of their experiences (and those of their families, schoolmates and friends) reflected in the media they consume. It makes them more empathetic and intelligent human beings. I am so emboldened by this realization that I am committing myself to doing these lists annually instead of every other year.
Another reason I’m excited for this year’s list (my third. You can see the first one here and the second one here) and this year’s list is special: ALL 28 BOOK WERE PUBLISHED IN 2019! Usually I extend a list back a few years, but this time I challenged myself to stick to books that came out this year.
Books are listed with writer/artist (i) for illustrator. Where there is no designation the person did double duty on the book (writing and artwork).
- Dear Dragon
Josh Funk/Rodolfo Montalvo (i)
Pen pals are a lost art. In this story, two friends trade letters back and forth, sharing their hobbies and interests, but upon meeting each other discover that one of them is a dragon. It’s cute, but I also like anything that might compel a child to write and communicate as an adventure.
- Stop That Yawn!
Caron Levis/LeUyen Pham (i)
Gabby Wild is the lead character’s name and also a complete sentence, as she and her grandmother hurtle through an adventure in ana tempt to stave off sleep.
- When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree
Jamie L. B. Deenihan/Lorraine Rocha (i)
A young girl is given a lemon tree for her birthday (which is, of course, not what she asked for) but in the spirit of “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” she learns a valuable lesson. This book comes with a lemonade recipe to boot.
- When Aidan Became A Brother
Kyle Lukoff/Kaylani Juanita (i)
Aidan is a young transgender boy that discovers his mother is pregnant, which will soon make him a big brother. A great story about self-awareness, acceptance, and thanks to the art of Juanita, notions of gender run through the rare lens of race. A great book for families that struggle with this conversation.
- Hair Love
Matthew A. Cherry/Vashti Harrison (i)
There are a ton of children’s books about black hair, but this one stands out because it has a refreshing father/daughter dynamic, and an accompanying short film which you can watch here.
- What If…
Samantha Berger/Mike Curato (i)
A girl tries to discover the best way to unleash her many creative ideas into the world through various forms of art. It’s an important lesson in how to find the work that works for you.
- A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon
Suzanne Slade/Veronica Miller Jamison (i)
Since the movie Hidden Figures came out you can find a lot of children’s books on mathematician Katherine Johnson, who (with other black women) persevered through segregation and racism at NASA to help put man on the moon. A lot of the books about her are chapter book level rather than intended for picture book readers, so this one is a nice entry into this particular piece of history. Once they put out a board book about Johnson, you’ll be able to read about her at every level of literacy. #BlackGirlScience for the win!
- Sisters: Venus & Serena Williams
I tend to stay away from biographies on these lists unless they function first as engaging children’s literature, and this one works.
- Fresh Princess
Denene Millner/Gladys Jose (i)
There will probably be a Denene Millner book on every list I make because she goes in the paint for black creators of children’s books through her publishing imprint, Denene Millner books. This particular book is a riff on Will Smith’s Fresh Prince character and is a lot of fun. It doesn’t hurt that Smith himself partnered with Millner to turn this into a series, so you could be seeing sequels on my lists moving forward depending on what else Millner does in a given year.
Lupita Nyong’o/Vashti Harrison (i)
I am always wary of celebrity books but this story by actress Lupita Nyong’o has a great message about colorism, which is one of the first things a child of color has to contend with. And Harrison’s art is magnificent.
- Have You Thanked an Inventor Today?
Patrice McLaurin/Dian Wang (i)
A young boy learns about the many things that Black inventors have created through the things he uses every day. It’s a great replacement for the Black History Month calendar with the big portrait of George Washington Carver on it.
- Dragons Eat Noodles on Tuesdays
Jon Stahl/Tadgh Bentley (i)
A couple of monsters get into a debate about the best way to tell tales and, having determined that they need to insert a dragon into the yarn, they also include a brave Black damsel that saves the day (almost).
- Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me
Eloise Greenfield/Ehsan Abdollahi (i)
Oh, just a normal story about a boy and his dog…both of whom create poetry!
- Power Up
Seth Fishman/Isabel Greenberg (i)
This is a cool toe-dip into the world of energy science, done in a completely digestible way. It focuses on physical activity and how that translates to energy. Get up and move, kids!
- Rocket Says Look Up!
Nathan Bryon/Dapo Adeola (i)
Rocket is a young Black girl who is WAY into space and endeavors to get her whole neighborhood to join her in witnessing a rare celestial event. The cover caught my eye because Rocket has to be one of the cutest characters I’ve ever seen, and reminds me of Marvel Comic’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur series that just ended (which you should also get, while also being on the lookout for a forthcoming TV series).
- A Boy Like You
Frank Murphy/Kayla Harren (i)
In the spirit of this list, this is a book that celebrates things that boys can do that aren’t just playing sports and toughing things out. Boyhood out the box!
- Party: A Mystery
Jamaica Kincaid/Ricardo Cortés (i)
Party has the brains of a Jamaica Kincaid book, but ramped down for children. It is an extremely clever book that holds up a love of literacy and is, in fact, a bit of a mystery. If you have an advanced reader on your hands, give this a shot: the story is smartly sprinkled with words they – and you – will have to look up as part of the fun.
- Not Quite Snow White
Ashley Franklin/Ebony Glenn (i)
A body-positive riff on the black-princess-dreaming trope.
- Reading Beauty
Deborah Underwood/Meg Hunt (i)
A fairy tale remix on the power of loving books and no small amount of #BlackGirlMagic.
- Missing Daddy
Mariame Kaba/bria royal (i)
A not-easy book to do, this story navigates a young girl’s feelings about having a father in prison, and the day she gets to go visit him.
- M Is for Melanin: A Celebration of the Black Child
If the title wasn’t clear, this is an alphabet book that uses plenty of Black-positive examples. You can never have enough ABC books for children who are looking to learn the alphabet, and this one expands the traditional S-is-for-sun catalog.
- Ruby Finds a Worry
This was one of my favorite books this year. The titular character tries to deal with her anxiety, personified here as a “worry” that follows her around and impacts her life. When she encounters another child with a similar dilemma, they learn some things about dealing with their special shadows. I love that this book exists because so many children need it whether they deal with issues surrounding emotional intelligence or not. It can be hard to be a good friend to someone dealing with such feelings, and this book helps break that down.
- Double Bass Blues
Andrea J. Loney/Rudy Gutierrez (i)
It is imperative to expose children to musical instruments – schools can’t guarantee that experience anymore – and this beautiful book makes playing music look awesome.
- Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment
Parker Curry/Brittany Jackson (i)
Ripped from the headlines, this book captures the true story of a young girl who came to the National Portrait Gallery and was struck by Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama. A picture of Parker Curry looking at the painting went viral on the internet, and this book was born. It’s a nice touch that she’s the author of her own story.
- The Classroom Mystery: A Book about ADHD
Tracy Packiam Alloway/Ana Sanfelippo (i)
Maybe it’s because of my vast history with Stephen King books, but I get nervous when I see a book about children with special educational needs. This book does a great job of using mystery to walk the line between seeing ADHD as a need and a way of seeing the world.
- I Am Perfectly Designed
Karamo Brown, Jason “Rachel” Brown/Anoosha Syed (i)
Queer Eye host Karamo Brown pens this warm day-in-the-city tale about a son and father enjoying each other’s similarities and answering some kid-tough questions about the future.
- Happy Right Now
Julie Berry/Holly Hatam (i)
There has been a real uptick in books attempting to address the emotional range of children and letting them know that it’s okay to feel sad sometimes. This is a great entry in that life-affirming vein.
The regular Saturday rituals shared by a mother and daughter are put to the test by one challenge after another, but in a slight twist, the daughter saves the day here. A delightful call to not only employ regular social rituals into your relationships with children, but also keep in mind what’s important: that you spent time together in the first place.