Yesterday I wrote at length in my post “let’s talk about race” giving some context for today’s titles. If you haven’t read that, I’d encourage you to do that before diving into today’s collection.
I’ve got about a dozen titles to share with you today in order to help facilitate talking about race with your children. I’ll group them into a few categories. At the end of the post, I’ve got links to a number of websites with further resources for talking and reading about race with children.
First up, three books exploring aspects of the black racial experience. Race is, in fact, more than simply skin color. These books acknowledge that and help us consider 1) black identity as a belonging to a people, 2) the need for affirming black children in particular, and 3) the unique burdens faced by black males.
My People, written by Langston Hughes, photographs by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
published in 2009 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster
This gorgeous, sepia-toned photo essay conveys the dignity, beauty, joy, and above all, precious humanity of black people.
Absolutely radiant photography accompanies Hughes’ powerful, lyrical intonation, reveling in his people. Such an intimate, loving, proud, communal, embracing piece of work, it won the Coretta Scott King Illustration award in 2010. A quiet stunner for ages 2 and up.
Hey Black Child, written by Useni Eugene Perkins, illustrated by Bryan Collier
published in 2017 by Little, Brown and Company
A dazzling, exuberant proclamation of the wonder and possibility within you, black child!
Chicago poet Perkins’ 1975 poem thrums with a repeated calling out, a contagious cadence and effervescent hope! Here is the truth about your identity: You can learn, you can be, you can grow, you can follow your dreams in this world! That’s who you are! Meanwhile, Bryan Collier’s brilliant illustration work puts those gorgeous black faces front and center in his electric, complex, multi-layered collages. There is so much to notice here.
A fabulous read. Uplifting for black children, and offering a needed opportunity for white children to take a back seat and applaud their black peers. Ages 4 and up.
In Your Hands, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster
This poignant poem by Carole Boston Weatherford reveals the tender heart of a black mother as she reflects on her newborn son, the love, dreams, and prayers she harbors in her heart for him.
In the beginning, her sentiments are common to every mother. But as she traces his steady growth, Weatherford’s gentle words take on a much fuller and tragic undertone. With grace and understatement, this mother reckons with the prejudice, suspicions, injustices, and unique dangers her grown son will face, praying for courage, for God’s protection, for society’s fair judgement. Incredibly moving, accompanied by Pinkney’s gorgeous artwork, each cameo embraced in a caressing swirl, enfolded in God’s hands.
It’s a beautiful call to empathy for black sons, and equally so for their parents. Ages 5 through adult.
Next up, books extolling the beauty of diverse skin tones. All of these offer the opportunity to chat together about the loveliness of the whole medley of humans in our world.
All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color, written by Katie Kissinger, photographs by Chris Bohnhoff
first published in 1994; this edition 2014 by Redleaf Press
Why do we name skin colors so inaccurately? No one has truly white skin, nor black. Certainly not red or yellow. No, actually “all of us have skin that is a different shade of brown.” Following this marvelously thought-provoking opening, Katie Kissinger talks with us by posing real questions, as opposed to leading questions, as well as explaining what factors affect the pigmentation of our skin.
I love the tone of her forthright, clear, simple explanations. Kissinger is a talented educator. The text is written in both Spanish and English. Accompanying color photographs of a gorgeous array of faces grace the pages with a lovely, sunny, friendliness. A few added notes and activity suggestions are included. Ages 4 and up.
Shades of People, written by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, photographs by Shelley Rotner
published in 2009 by Holiday House
Such a happy, happy photo essay! These pages are simply bursting with beautiful faces in a full array of skin shades.
The minimal text names these shades with lovely, truer names. Not black and white. But coffee and almond, cocoa and rose and bronze. Plainspoken observations about all the different shades of skin we see in the world around us model a way of seeing racial differences with positive appreciation rather than erasing them. Lovely and accessible to the very young, ages 15 months and up.
Another book recognizing and affirming varying skin shades within the black community is:
Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children, written by Sandra L. Pinkney, photographs by Myles C. Pinkney
published in 2000 by Scholastic
A superb book drawing extra attention to the fact that “black” skin actually comes in a lovely, wide range of shades, from “the midnight blue of a licorice stick” to the “gingery brown of a cookie.”
Important, affirming, with engaging photographs, this is also available in a board book. It’s a great choice for ages 15 months through much older.
Happy in Our Skin, written by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Lauren Tobia
published in 2015 by Candlewick Press
The text in this book briefly names these dear babies’ lovely array of skin tones, including “cocoa brown, cinnamon, and honey gold” before noticing lots of other things about skin, the way it “keeps the outsides out and our insides in,” the way it heals itself and gets goose pimples. Jolly and full of wonder.
Meanwhile, Tobia’s enormously warm, engaging, friendly illustrations encompass the full spectrum of skin tones, including an inter-racial family.
Sweet, happy, less racially-focused than the other titles. Ages 2 and up.
Two esteemed activists in the black community have written books considering color as just one aspect of our identity, encouraging us to lower the walls, as it were, to suspend judgements based hastily and immediately on skin color alone.
Let’s Talk About Race, written by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour
published in 2005 by HarperCollins
Distinguished author, academic, and activist Julius Lester takes a warm, conversational tone as he chats with us about the many different ingredients in each of our stories.
Sharing colorful details of his own story, his upbringing, favorite food and time of day, he suggests that race is just one of many pieces of who we are, using this as a launching pad into questioning why this one element divides us so, creates such deep feelings of superiority and inferiority.
Why do we not look beneath our skin?, he asks. “To know my story, you have to put together everything I am.” Articulate, thoughtful, engaging, calm, deliberative. Karen Barbour’s bold, colorful artwork greatly enhances the text, contributing warmth, freedom, hope, and marvelous diversity to every page. Ages 5 and up.
Skin Again, written by bell hooks, illustrated by Chris Raschka
published in 2004 by Disney
This book is quite similar in message to Julius Lester’s, but briefer, more lyrical, and dancing with the ever-present energy and verve of Raschka’s artwork.
Communicating a positive, joyous identification with one’s skin color and race, bell hooks also declares that it’s only one aspect of who people are. Upbeat, simple, yet profound. Ages 3 and up.
Finally, several books conveying the beauty of black hair. I find it incomprehensible and sorrowful that this needs to be addressed, yet there it is. Black Americans have been shamed and insulted, made to feel ugly and inferior or even an object of curiosity, because their hair is not light and straight. What a world.
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, written by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
published in 2017 by Bolden, Agate Publishing
This multiple-award-winning book broke on the scene with a mighty roar a couple of years ago with its swaggering celebration of something many of us white readers would never in a million years have thought to celebrate: the black barbershop experience, the confidence and deep pride in being a young black male and connection within black male culture that are a magical outcome of a cool new cut.
I love that this book captures an experience that’s utterly outside the realm for most of us in the white community, strikes a chord so rich and true for a host of black readers, allows the rest of us an aha! moment of looking in through the doorway and discovering something wholly new.
Brilliant painterly illustration work that echoes Kehinde Wiley’s work. A sizzling selection that won just about every award there is to win in children’s literature. Hard to even fit them all on the cover! Ages 4 or 5 and up.
Princess Hair, written and illustrated by Sharee Miller
published in 2014 by Little Brown and Company
Subverting the golden-haired, ivory-skinned princess trope, bustling in with the delightful and manifold hair-styles worn by these fabulous dark-haired, dark-skinned princesses, this book is sheerly delightful and affirming.
From puffs to dreadlocks to “teeny-weeny afros” and “teeny-weeny bows” it’s a black-girl-power book with sparkle and pizzazz. These girls are busy doing awesome, creative things and having a grand time of it! Ages 3 and up.
Happy to be Nappy, written by bell hooks, illustrated by Chris Raschka
published in 1999 by Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children
Another fantastic collaboration between these two that’s twenty years old already, and as lively, uplifting, warmhearted, as ever.
“Girlpie hair smells clean and sweet, is soft like cotton, flower petal billowy soft, full of frizz and fuzz.” The lyricism of bell hooks’ text dips and sways, joys and caresses, while Raschka’s art sproings and fountains. Non-stop motion and a gorgeous color palette percolate across the pages along with dozens of small, minimalist portraits of these empowerd little girls. Ages 3 and up.
I Love My Hair!, written by Natasha Tarpley, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
published in 2001 by Little Brown Books for Young Readers
This beloved story has a somewhat quieter tone than the others, full of warmth and grace and family bonds, of a mother and daughter, forever dealing with hair. Just listen to the approval simply pouring from the title.
I love the commonalities, yet distinctions, of Tarpley’s account: “Every night before I go to bed, Mama combs my hair. I sit between her knees, resting my elbows on her thighs, like pillows. Mama is always gentle. She rubs coconut oil along my scalp and slowly pulls the comb through my hair.”
E.B. Lewis’s paintings glow with beauty, and again, that gorgeous black face, front and center.
Ages 3 and up.
That is not an exhaustive list by any means. Thankfully, more and more amazing, artistic books are being published that encourage positive connections between the races and a positive self-image among the marginalized races in America including black Americans.
Here are a few links to further resources:
my own Black History/Civil Rights index — over 100 titles, each with a link to its review
The Brown Bookshelf — “designed to push awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers.”
Reading While White — “working for racial diversity and inclusion in books for children and teens”
1000 Black Girl Books — a resource guide from the Grassroots Community Foundation
Books and Bros — “empowering boys, promoting literacy, and bringing awareness to African American literature”
Diverse Book Finder — a tool to identify and explore multicultural picture books
Everyday Diversity — a tool for finding books not about race, but featuring racially diverse main characters
We Need Diverse Books — links to more sites offering diverse reading suggestions
“I Don’t Think of You as Black” — an excellent article revealing the impact of this language
“What White Children Need to Know About Race” — an article from the National Association of Independent Schools