Throughout Black History Month, schools tend to assign books that focus on the myriad achievements of African-Americans, which highlights what is often missing in history books and national awards. However, what is also important is that children of color see themselves and their lives reflected in the culture around them — and that includes the literature they read and the images that accompany it. Positive and varied self-perception is developed in many ways, and the simple act of browsing a library shelf or finding a book featured in a book store can greatly impact a child.
In his 2014 op-ed, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Literature,” author Walter Dean Myers challenges us with “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” The last few years have further encouraged publishers, authors, and readers to spotlight a more diverse selection in literature. And libraries, schools, and bookstores have made strides to include wider selections for children to see, hear, and peruse. But there is still a deficit when it comes to overall availability. The list below highlights just a few ideas for stories and novels that center Black characters and the Black experience.
Early Readers/Picture Books
Crown: An Ode to a Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes is a gorgeously illustrated and joyful picture book that has already become a staple for many elementary school libraries. An affirmation of the potential and achievements of Black boys, Crown celebrates the appreciation and power of a “fresh cut.” Built around the experience of going to the barber shop, where customers are welcomed and treated like royalty, the young narrator anticipates how his new cut will have the girls and the whole school admiring how his cut will “frame his swagger” and have him leaving the shop like royalty every time.
Raising Dragons by Jerdine Nolen is not new, but it deserves a place on every child’s bookshelf. This beautiful picture book about a farmer’s daughter who, after finding a beautiful dragon egg, takes on the challenge of raising a dragon, and becoming his best friend. This book is about creative perseverance, friendship, and letting go. Hank, the dragon, starts out as a “fanciful critter” and becomes a helpful member of the farm. In the end, with a dream fulfilled, Hank must escape to a dragon island, but there is hope for a joyful reunion.
I Love You More Than by Taye Diggs is from the team that brought us Mixed Me! This book is a celebration of strong and enveloping fatherly love that conquers distance and time between visits. This positive and unambiguously loving depiction of a Black father and his child is a welcome addition to the children’s book universe. The story is applicable to families separated by divorce, work travel, deployment, or any other of life’s circumstances that cause physical separation.
Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite by Anna Harwell Celenza: This fun, frenetic story is about how Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn took Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet and made it swing and toot and jump. With dialogue and interactions based on published biographies, recordings, photographs and memoirs, the story feels both realistic and fantastic. Readers are brought in to eavesdrop on Ellington and Strayhorn as they work through creating a Nutcracker Suite that feels familiar to both the ear and the heart.
Middle GradeNightmare Detective by Monk Inyang (a Montclair author!) is a fast-paced and fun middle-grade novel that addresses both fighting fears (real and imagined) and strengthening confidence in young people. The novel’s main character, 12-year old Uko Hill, lives in Newark, NJ, has a loving family, a close-knit group of friends, and a vivid dream life. What he needs to do is shake off his self-doubt and develop self-confidence and a strong sense of independence — much like most tweens. In Uko’s adventures, he fights dream-monsters in his own nightmares as well as in others’. Sometimes he fails; sometimes he’s successful. And through the guidance of his Nightmare Detective mentor, Uko works towards becoming a talented Detective on his own terms.
Struttin’ With Some Barbecue by Patricia Hruby Powell combines history and verse to showcase the personality, talent, and successes of Lil Hardin Armstrong, the First Lady of Jazz. This biography is fun to read and filled with vivid details that almost dance off the page. The language is accessible and vibrant, and the poetic lines ask to be read aloud. The graphite and ink art throughout the book is also joyfully expressive. The author is direct in sharing topics like racial segregation and sexism in ways that even younger readers will grasp and appreciate.
New Kid by Jerry Craft is a middle-grade graphic novel that is honest, crammed with real moments, and an excellent commentary on the biases and vulnerabilities we all share. The main character, Jordan Banks, is a 12-year-old NYC kid about to start 7th grade at a prestigious private school that has little racial or economic diversity. He just wants to go to art school, but his parents aren’t about to pass up a golden opportunity. The book starts on Jordan’s first day of school, and as we follow him, we are immersed in Jordan’s experience confronting the high-end privilege and opportunity at Riverdale Academy. Biases are confronted on all sides, and assumptions are challenged. Characters are given avenues to change, and — as in real life — not all take the chance. With a hopeful message that doesn’t sugarcoat realities, this graphic novel will appeal to readers of all ages.
Oddity by Sarah Cannon starts off with a burst of hauntingly familiar but life-threatening activity, and it never lets up. Set in the future, Oddity (named after the town in which the events take place) is a cross between sci-fi, horror, and fantasy. The main character, Ada Roundtree, is a snarky, sharp-as-a-tack, likeable 5th Grader with a self-possessed ability to find adventure and trouble. Her town is a bizarre, dangerous, and intense environment where children have survival drills against leopards and they sometimes disappear, as happened with Ada’s twin, Pearl. Ada’s best friend, Raymond, and the new kid, Cayden, serve as supports to her energy even as they balance out her passion and daring.
The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste includes themes of overcoming fear, defending your family and home, discovering your own strength, and being misunderstood, these stories will appeal to a wide variety of children. The strong, spunky protagonist of The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies, Corinne Le Mer, isn’t afraid of anything, which brings more adventure than she expects. In addition, the connections to Caribbean and West African folklore and mythologies make this modern set of stories feel recognizable but fresh. Together, the books create an exciting story arc that will keep kids reading, and probably re-reading several times over.
Young Adult/TeensBlack Enough – Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi is a collection of short stories that address and celebrate the challenges and achievements of Black teens in real life situations. Figuring out complicated family relationships at summer camp, a first kiss, discovering a love for music that doesn’t fit into expectations, and more all appear in stories. The thread of being Black in America runs through each of the 17 stories, the diversity and individuality of each character’s experience shines throughout.
A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney doesn’t waste time before running headlong into action in this exciting sci-fi/fantasy take on Alice in Wonderland. With an Alice who resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dark Angel’s Max Guevera more than any of the Alices we’ve gotten to know over the years, the opportunities for a wide array of emotions and character driven plot twists occur throughout the novel. Alice is a Black teenager struggling to mourn her father and find common ground with her mother. Her friends, mentors, and the various Wonderland personalities surround her with moral support, friendship, romantic challenges, and role models of all kinds.
This Is Kind Of An Epic Love Story by Kheryn Callender is full of characters readers will immediately recognize. The main character, Nathan Bird, is a Black bi-sexual teen who is conflicted and vulnerable and hopeful and afraid – like many teens. With realistic friendships that show support and conflict, the novel feels authentic and insightful. Written in a journal-like format, it allows readers to get to know Nathan really well, warts and all. Recommended for 14+, mainly for occasional coarse language and sexual activities in one or two scenes, which include consent and prophylactic use. Nathan provides readers with a strong example of how to say no to or delay unwanted sexual activity until he is ready.
Solo by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess exudes a love of music throughout. The main character, Blade, is working through embarrassment about his famous father, handling that his girlfriend’s parents can’t stand him, and discovering an identity-altering secret. It includes much of what being a teenager is about crammed into one novel. Solo is written in accessible and lyrical verse that reflects the musical themes in the book. For readers who enjoy the themes and style of Solo, Alexander and Rand Hess recently released another book in verse: Swing.
Odd One Out by Nic Stone focuses on belonging and friendship, and it sets up a love triangle that removes expectations of sexual identities and how teens develop their identities. The complicated and raw relationships are balanced by dialogue and character development that feel true-to-life and modern. Teens will recognize many of the emotions and conflicts developed throughout the novel. Jupiter (Joop), one of the three main characters, especially struggles with her expectations of herself and the reality of her feelings. Many teenagers will find this relatable.
They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery should be required reading in any journalism program and for those interested in the origins and development of the Movement for Black Lives – or for anyone who just doesn’t “get it.” The narrative guides readers in a demonstration of how bias and perspective influence what we cling to as Truth. Lowery takes us behind the scenes of tragic murders in Ferguson, Cleveland, Charleston and more. He looks at each event through the lens of journalism, and applies his personal experience as well. It’s readable, painful, timely, and important. This is what introspective writing looks like. A solid example for us all.
We’ve featured just 15 books that center Black characters and the Black experience, but there are many other resources online to supplement what is here. Asking your local librarian or getting advice from your local bookstore is also a wealth of information. Please add your own suggestions for children and teens in the comments!