Black Children's Books By Black Authors

I hated bugs, so playing in the backyard wasn’t an option. And my parents, who worked and slept and worked around the clock, didn’t have time to entertain me, so being taken to the park or bowling or the museum hardly ever happened—if at all. And I didn’t have many friends, so there was that. Books were my refuge. My babysitters. My BFFs. Judy Blume. Beverly Cleary. Frances Hodges Burnett. Their worlds, their spirits, their thoughts, their shenanigans—all of it made me… happy.

I never really noticed that none of the characters looked like me. There were no Black girls, no cornrows, no thick lips and chocolate kisses and double-dutch rhymes on the library shelves or at the bookstore at the mall or in the cleverly-wrapped boxes under our Christmas tree. It just was what it was.

So long ago, it was what it was.

But when I got pregnant with my first baby, I promised that this didn’t have to be her reality—that my child didn’t have to spend the most impressionable part of her life missing and longing for herself in the pages of the best gifts I could ever give her: literature. And before she made her big debut on this sweet Earth, she had a shelf full of books, many of them books that featured characters that looked like her: Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day,” “Goggles,” “and Whistle For Willie”; Vera B. Williams’ “More, More, More Said the Baby”; Faith Ringold’s “Tar Beach,” Nikki Giovanni’s “The Sun Is So Quiet,” Donald Crews’ “Big Mama,” Andrea Davis Pinkney’s “Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra.” Admittedly, the pickings were slim. But I found them.

All these years later, the pickings are still slim. I mean, presumably there are more books for, about and by children of color being published today than there were back in 1999, for sure. But finding them is about as elusive as a towheaded elf beneath a four-leaf clover. I swear, more times than I care to, I find myself standing in Barnes & Noble, watching some unsuspecting clerk search in vain for children’s books featuring Black characters, knowing full well they’re not there. Their exasperation with the search always leads to a heart-felt discussion about why the store doesn’t bother to carry Black children’s books (they insist no one buys them; I suggest that it’s impossible to buy something that isn’t available for purchase), which inevitably leads to me lecturing about how important it is for stores, librarians, teachers and parents to recognize that books featuring children of color not only can help make Black kids fall in love with the written word, but, in the most basic of ways, give white children an up close and personal view into the worlds of little people who don’t look like them—who, in many ways, are just like them.

I wrote about that last point in a piece here on MyBrownBaby, in which I fessed up to integrating the bookshelves of my children’s white friends by giving them Black books for birthdays, Christmas and, well, just because:

My hope is when I pass along a Black children’s book or a Black doll baby to my daughters’ friends, that they get the same subliminal lessons —that brown children matter. Books like “Ruby and the Booker Boys” speak to our experiences and show both our differences and our commonalities with white culture. Introducing books like these to white children is the most simple, basic way to introduce a child to another race in a positive, thoughtful way. A white child introduced to Ruby may not necessarily say, “Oh look! A Black girl is the star of this book!” when she reads it. She might not notice the character’s color at all. But she just might decide to make friends with a little Black girl out on the playground because she looks like the character in the book she liked. And since she really liked that book, she’ll probably really like that little girl, too. Children really are that simple. That uncomplicated…

And really, it is that uncomplicated. Debbie Allen’s “Dancing in the Wings” is every bit as poignant a tale about self-esteem as, say, Jamie Lee Curtis’s “I’m Gonna Like Me,” just as Derrick Barnes’ “Ruby and the Booker Boys” series is as sassy and humorous and identifiable as Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” books. But Black children hardly know this because the Black stories are hardly ever made available to them and white children are clueless about it because no one ever fixes their mouths to suggest them as good books they might enjoy.

And that is the shame of it all.

And so I’ll keep stashing Black children’s books in as many birthday gift bags as I can, donating them to as many charitable causes as I can find, and requesting them as additions to my own incredible and burgeoning Black children’s book collection. Simply put: everyone should buy Black children’s books by Black authors. Here’s are some of my girlpies’ favorites—all of which have found their way into the hands of their friends:

Tar Beach, by Faith Ringold
Homemade Love: Picture Book, by bell hooks
We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past, by Jacqueline Woodson
The Gospel Cinderella, by Joyce Carol Thomas
Olu’s Dream, by Shane Evans
Ruby and the Booker Boys #1: Brand New School, Brave New Ruby, by Derrick Barnes
Precious and the Boo Hag (Anne Schwartz Books), by Patricia McKissack
A Chair for My Mother 25th Anniversary Edition (Reading Rainbow Books), By Vera B. Williams
Zora and Me, by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
We Could Be Brothers, by Derrick Barnes
Candy Apple #27: Miss You, Mina, by Denene Millner
My Brother Charlie, by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Peete
Ellen’s Broom (Coretta Scott King Honor – Illustrator Honor Title), by Kelly Starling Lyons
When I Am Old With You (Orchard Paperbacks), by Angela Johnson
The Ghanaian Goldilocks, by Tamara Pizzoli

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

25 Comments

  1. Great article. And so true.

  2. Just recently stumbled across the Ruby and the Booker Boys series and we love it. We’re happy to have it as a new edition to our shelves and are requesting that our libraries add this series to their selection as well.

  3. This is something I am going to make a point to do this time around. Collecting books for my babys birth is on my agenda.

  4. YES. I would add the Sugar Plum Ballerina series, by Whoopi Goldberg. It’s a perfect early chapter book series, especially for any young girl who likes ballet.

  5. Great suggestions here, Denene. I’m going to go and pick up the ones I don’t have. I would add Shane Evans’ “Chocolate Me” which is a favorite in our house. Also there is another book about the Tuskeegee Airmen called “Wind Flyers” by Angela Johnson that my son (who is obsessed with airplanes) just loves.

  6. Diverse children’s books are very hard to find, even when looking. Vera Williams, Ashley Bryan, and Kadir Nelson are some of our favorite authors so far. Thanks for sharing your list!

  7. Thank you for this list!!! I search endlessly for books with black boys and it seems (to me, at least) even harder than for girls. I am ordering several of these for him. My son is only 18 months old, but I have already bought chapter books, because if I find them, I buy them. I worry they’ll go out of print by the time he’s old enough to read them. I have many of my friends keeping an eye out too.

  8. Great list! I’m saving this for when I need to buy books for friends’ kids.

  9. I sympathize. Maybe you could also consider books by black authors from other national contexts, e.g. from Caribbean and African nations, the UK etc.

  10. This is so true, and even worse in England. The killer is that there are plenty of great non-white writers out there who have written great books but as all the gatekeepers (agents and publishers) believe the same thing as the book shops you have spoken to, the books don’t get published.

  11. Right on, please keep writing about your experiences!

  12. Have you seen the series of books about Anna Hibiscus by Lauren Atinuke? Delightful stories about a little girl and her large extended family somewhere in “Amazing Africa”. I think the author is Nigerian.

  13. Excellent post. I also didn’t notice the characters in my favorite books as a child, and even in cartoons, did not look like me. ( I thought Scooby Doo was a “Black Show” because I was focused on the brown dog). As a writer, I wanted to add something to the collective that my kids could relate to. My children’s books are about a set of twins having adventures in and around their Island home. We live in Hawaii and there are no other books about little black/mixed children from here. The series is The Adventures of Amarys and Indigo and here is a link to them on Amazon if you or your readers are interested. http://goo.gl/VqtRqH they are also on my website here: http://www.paradisewriting.com/books.html

    Keep up the good work!

  14. Thank you so much for this article. I am trying to pass along my love for reading to my children. Thanks for including a list of recommended books.

  15. I love this! My daughter’s favorite book right now is “Please Baby Please” by Spike Lee. It’s for the younger crowd and has very few words, but is beautifully illustrated. She loves to talk about everything she sees on the pages and ALWAYS points out happily that the baby has kinky hair just like hers, and that the daddy has dark skin just like her daddy. It makes my heart happy, to see her self-esteem so obviously buoyed by something so simple as seeing her own face stare back at her from a book.

  16. Hi,

    Great article! May I suggest a book called, I am Beautiful: When I Look at Me, I see…very inspirational and empowering.

  17. May I recommend my children’s book “Gabby Saturday”? http://www.gabbysaturday.com.

  18. Love this post and am planning on sharing! I couldn’t agree more that diverse books are so important for every child to read and fall in love with! I would also recommend the Anna Hibiscus series – such wonderful writing! They are just adorable and harming and perfect for kids reading chapter books. Another great new chapter book series is Little Rhino, co-written by Ryan Howard and his wife. Some recent picture books my class of second graders have loved are Last Stop on Market Street and Monster Trouble. Anything by Jacqueline Woodson is brilliant, and of course there is the Amazing Grace and Jamaica series. There are so many good ones out there, but we have to keep demanding them! Check out #weneeddiversebooks on Twitter.

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