This past weekend there was an article in the New York Times titled “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” where the author explained how few picture books actually feature people of color.
After reading the article I got to thinking about my own childhood and how I actually read quite a lot of books with characters that looked like me and many picture books that had been adapted from African folktales. I decided to call my mom for the titles of the books I used to read as a child and some that have come out more recently.
To be clear this list isn’t discrediting the article above since there do need to be more stories featuring people of color. It is simply a list of books I think any child, but especially children of African American decent should read while they can. They’re all beautiful books with lovely stories. Please enjoy!
Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad In The Sky – Faith Ringgold
One of the first historical figures I was ever introduced to was Harriet Tubman, but not through school. Instead it was Faith Ringgold’s beautiful tale of Harriet Tubman’s brave escape from the slavery in the South to the salvation of the North always reminded me of what an incredible woman she was.
Abuela – Arthur Dorros
Since I come from a Puerto Rican background my mom tried to even out the many books I had with some containing Latin characters and I don’t think this list should be any different. This beautiful story about a little girl and her Abuela (Spanish for Grandmother) flying above the city always made me nostalgic for my grandparents.
The Big Pets – Lane Smith
Sadly this book is no longer in print, but you can find it and I recommend it. A little girl who goes on adventures with her Big Pet through the world of Big Pets is well worth the money. The art is stunning, the story is simple but compelling, your children will thank you.
The Big Box – Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison
This book by Toni Morrison wasn’t one I had the chance to read when I was growing up but I do know the artist Giselle Potter from the brilliant “Mr. Semolina, Semolina” which I also recommend. I have read this book recently and I have to say that it’s a lovely but slightly dark story about 3 different children who are banished to live in a box together after disobeying the adults. I won’t give more than that away, but I definitely think your children should read this.
Chita’s Christmas Tree – Linda Howard
It’s hard to believe that this book doesn’t get much mention now a days, but when I was little I loved making my parents read “Chita’s Christmas Tree” to me over and over again. I think it has to do with my love for Christmas and the moment she gets waffles with her father.
Corduroy – Don Freeman
I loved these books about a little bear named Corduroy and his adventures with his loving owner Lisa since I was a little kid and I promise your children will love following Corduroy on his adventures too.
The Fortune-Tellers – Lloyd Alexander
An African folktale about how a man who comes back to his home turns into the very Fortune-teller he meets after a series of little adventures. The stunning art by Trina Schart Hyman makes this book an essential addition to your children’s book collection.
Her Stories: African American Folktales – Virginia Hamilton
In all honesty this book terrified me as a child. The illustrations are both gorgeous, realistic and at the same time completely haunting. It’s filled with stories that could rival the Brother’s Grimm tales with their creativeness and twisted imagination. I highly recommend this book, though make sure your child has a nightlight after.
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters – John Steptoe
Another classic. The tale of Mufaro’s daughters should be read by everyone. My little sister and I used to love this story growing up and it’s stuck with me even now. I can’t recommend it more.
Nappy Hair – Carolivia Herron
A poetic picture book highlighting the beauty of blackness. It reads like a piece of spoken word perfectly and holds nothing back. If your children are feeling insecure about their natural beauty than I highly recommend that you get them this book.
Oh Kojo! How Could You? – Verna Aardema
This is the African version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” where a young, lazy man gets swindled out of his money and must overcome challenges with the help of a cat and dog in order to get his possessions back. The book is funny and has a humorous message at the end. If you want to teach your children to think twice before spending money this will be a great book for them.
The People Could Fly – Virginia Hamilton
Another series by the brilliant Virginia Hamilton, but instead of the fairy tale like folktales from “Her Stories” this focuses on the reality of slavery and uses the supernatural elements to make the book accessible to both parents and children. While cruel at times, this book is an important one that I definitely suggest you get it.
Please Baby Please – Spike Lee
Before the book “Go the F**k to Sleep” there was Spike Lee’s “Please Baby Please” by far the more politically correct of the two. It’s a rhyming book about parents pleading with their children to behave. I’m sure all of you can relate to that. The beautiful illustrations by Kadir Nelson are also reason enough to get this book.
The Princess and the Pea – Rachel Isadora
A twist on the typical fairy-tale of the Princess who had to sleep on a tower of mattresses on a pea, set in Africa where a young African Prince must find a bride from one of the many different countries is Africa. If your children want to learn more about Africa in a fairy-tale form this will be the perfect book for them.
The Snowy Day – Ezra Jack Keats
One of my all time favorites. In fact I love this book and the artwork so much I would love to cover my little apartment with it. Alas Ezra Jack Keats is no longer with us, but his stories live on and your children should read all of them.
The Story of Ruby Bridges – Robert Coles
The uplifting story about the little black 6 year old who defied the norm by going to an all white school in 1960s New Orleans. The book is written by her child psychiatrist Robert Coles who helped ruby overcome the abuse from the crowds as she walked to school escorted by U.S. Marines every day. This should definitely be on your bookshelf.
Tar Beach – Faith Ringgold
According to my mom I didn’t like this as a child, but I could have sworn I loved it since it was about hot city summers and being a Brooklyn girl I know plenty about those. FaIth Ringgold is a marvelous writer and artist that your children should be exposed to.
When Marian Sang – Pam Munoz Ryan
The magnificent story about the incredible Marian Anderson who broke barriers in the entertainment industry for African Americans when she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939 before the Civil Rights movement. This book perfectly captures Marian Anderson’s struggle to achieve her dreams of having her voice heard all over the world. Please buy this book.
Why The Sky Is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale – Mary-Joan Gerson and Carla Golembe
A family favorite for me. Stunning art with a deep message about abusing the gifts you’re given. I also loved that this was a folktale from Nigeria, there are very few of those that make it over to the states. In my personal opinion this is a must read.
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