A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about middle grade and YA novels that center, honor, and celebrate Black lives, and I want to follow up with picture book recommendations on the same theme. These are stories that aren’t about struggle and oppression, but about life and joy, everyday delights and challenges. These are books that would be at home in the libraries of both kids of color and white kids, serving as mirrors and windows for our readers.
Of course, this is a limited list. There are so many more great books out there, and more coming out every day. Social media is a great resource for book news and recommendations. Here are some of the folx that I definitely suggest following:
(These are Instagram handles, but most have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, too.)
Also: Can we talk about the Kidlit These Days podcast?! I can’t say enough good things about it! Each episode has a timely theme, a featured guest, and a joyful booktalk section by the two awesome hosts, Matthew Winner and Nicole Young (Karina Yan Glaser in earlier episodes). Highly recommended for anyone who is trying to get good books into kids’ hands!
Now, onto the books!
The Hula-Hoopin Queen, by Thelma Lynne Godin, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Interest: Elementary)
Kameeka and Jamara are in a fierce, long-term competition to be the hula-hoopin queen of 139th Street, and Kameeka is sure that today is her day to win the title. A wrench is thrown into her plans when her mom reminds her that today she is also responsible for helping throw a birthday party for a beloved neighbor. Does Kameeka have to choose between Miz Adeline and hula hooping?
I Got the Rhythm (also I Got the School Spirit, and I Got the Christmas Spirit), by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Interest: Pre-K through 2nd)
These books are so joyful! In I Got the Rhythm, the little girl dances her way through her neighborhood, finding rhythm and music everywhere she goes. Repeating text makes this perfect for emerging readers. When one of my readers hit this level recently, she couldn’t stop reading this one, and returned to it over and over. It built up her confidence and fluency, plus she loves to dance, too, so it was a perfect match. Frank Morrison’s paintings are gorgeous, detailed, and full of life.
Thank You, Omu! By Oge Mora (Interest: Pre-K and up)
This is a beautiful story about community, sharing, and good food! Omu starts her day by making some delicious stew to enjoy for her dinner, but it smells so good that it keeps drawing folks in to knock on her door and ask if she has enough to share. Omu’s generosity ends up creating a joyful communal feast with all of her new friends.
Saturday, by Oge Mora (Interest: Elementary)
Another great offering by the same talented writer and illustrator as Thank You, Omu! Saturdays are special for this mother-daughter family, because the mom is off from work, and always plans special activities for them to do together. On this particular Saturday, something goes wrong at every turn as they try to do their favorite things. Luckily, the daughter remembers that the best thing about Saturdays is getting to spend time together.
Another, by Christian Robinson (Interest: Pre-K and up)
So, Christian Robinson is my favorite illustrator. I love the feelings he creates with his cut-paper artwork, plus the bright colors and clever ideas. Another is his first solo venture, and it’s a story told completely in pictures. This format is captivating, and it has been SO INTERESTING to share it with kids, and watch them read the pictures and tell the story. It’s really magical, and it really is engaging for readers of all ages.
I also recommend everything else that Christian has worked on! Other stories with Black protagonists include Rain, by Linda Ashman (Pre-K/K, a little rain-loving kid encounters a grumpy older gentleman on a stormy day—ask my brother how many times he’s read this book of few words to my nephew!) and Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena (elementary, a boy takes a long bus ride with his grandma through the city, and we see how they are part of their community on their way to feed neighbors at a soup kitchen). All of Christian’s books have diverse casts of characters, and they’re all a pleasure to read! Ask me if you’d like more suggestions about his books, or just look him up and try anything you find!
Hair Love, by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (Interest: Pre-K and up)
Little Zuri is trying her best to fix her hair in a special way, but it’s not easy to do all by herself when Mom isn’t there! Dad comes to the rescue, even though it’s a learning experience for him, too. This father-daughter story is so, so sweet, brought to life by Vashti Harrison’s vibrant illustrations. It was also made into an Oscar-winning short, which you should definitely go check out as well!
I Am Enough, by Grace Byers, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo (Interest: Pre-K and up)
This is a lyrical, heart-felt meditation on loving yourself, exactly as you are. It’s that simple, and that beautiful.
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James (Interest: Pre-K and up)
This book speaks to the particular magic of the barber shop, and the confidence-booster power of a great new cut. The mixed-media artwork is dynamic and as fresh as the cuts, and the writing is truly a poetic ode. Especially good for young guys preparing to go to the barber shop, but by no means exclusively for boys.
The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez (Interest: K and up)
Jacqueline Woodson is an incredibly gifted writer, and one of my all-time favorites, and I’ll never ceased to be impressed (and a little jealous) that she is so good at so many things. Her award-winning brown girl dreaming is a gorgeous memoir in verse, and she writes powerful prose for middle grade, young adult, AND adult readers. And in case you thought she couldn’t do it all, here comes this exceptional picture book (also it’s not her first one). The Day You Begin captures all of those familiar first-day-of-school emotions, including the ones that come up when you walk in the room and realize that you’re different in some way. It’s gentle and hopeful and empowering all at once. Perfect for back-to-school.
The King of Kindergarten, by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Interest: Pre-K and K!)
This one is perfect for back to school, too, obviously especially for our friends starting in K! The little guy in this story is SO ready for his first day of school! It includes lots of family love, excited new pals, and an enthusiastic teacher. As we walk through the day with the King, we get a good idea of what to expect in kindergarten, so it would be an empowering read for someone with some first-day-of-school nerves, too.
M is for Melanin: A Celebration of the Black Child, by Tiffany Rose (Interest: Pre-K through 2nd, but bigger kids will like the positive messages, too)
This is an alphabet book full of joyful, uplifting messages and brightly colored illustrations. The M page reads, “M is for Melanin, shining in every inch of your skin. Every shade, every hue. All beautiful and unique.” These ABCs are speaking right to Black children in a special way.
The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family, by Ibtihaj Muhammad & S.K. Ali, illustrated by Hatem Aly (Interest: Elementary)
This is actually another first-day-of-school book, written by Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. Faizah watches with admiration as her big sister Asiya dresses for the first day of school in a brilliant and beautiful blue hijab. It both celebrates the hijab and shows it as part of everyday life.
Jabari Jumps, by Gaia Cornwall (Interest: Pre-K through 2nd)
This is a light summer story just right for August! Jabari is determined to jump off the big diving board at the local pool, but finds himself hesitating as he looks for just the right conditions. His dad is encouraging and supportive, letting him know it’s okay to take his time. The picture of Jabari’s bird’s eye view from the top of the diving board is so effective makes me a little nervous! (Note: This is the only book on this list that isn’t Own Voices; it’s written and illustrated by a white author. I chose to include it for its representation of #BlackBoyJoy and Black fatherhood, but consider this a friendly reminder to be cognizant of who is writing the stories we include as we build up our diverse libraries, and to prioritize Own Voices of every kind!)
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.