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Adult readers have long been able to enjoy Black contributions to literature, but until recently, the children’s book world was still largely a sea of white boys and animals. Thankfully, the gatekeepers of kid lit have at last recognized that all young readers benefit from seeing themselves, as well as people different from themselves, represented in books. Of course, there’s still a long way to go to achieve equality, but now we can at least see a solid selection of children’s books written by Black authors and illustrated by Black artists on the shelves.
As much as we all love A Snowy Day (written by white Ezra Jack Keats), it’s such a joy to have a broader range of talent available for young readers. These authors introduce kids to the great accomplishments of African Americans in history and culture, and they weave tales of everyday kids doing everyday things.
We picked several of our favorites, though this is by no means an exhaustive best-of list (and be sure to check out some of our other book lists for more suggestions). From the books that bring to life the poetry of Langston Hughes, bell hooks, and Kwame Alexander, to the ones that delight us with adorable characters, like Princess Cupcake Jones, to the unforgettable imagery of illustrator Jerry Pinkney, we think there’s a lot for your kids to love here.
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Reclaiming a Charged Phrase
A simple-yet-powerful book perfect for ages 4-8, Hands Up! follows a young Black girl through a lifetime of all the joyful ways in which she puts her hands up: playing, praising, greeting the sun. It takes an expression that has been charged with negative meaning and sweetly empowers young readers to reclaim it, making it into something positive.
A Mystery, a Fortune, and a Quest
Middle grade readers (ages 9-12) will love this riveting book by award-winning author Varian Johnson, which follows the story of two kids, a mysterious old letter, and a fortune promised to the person who solves a decades-old puzzle. The Parker Inheritance is not only a mystery, but a rich multigenerational family story and an exploration of 20th century race relations.
Celebration of All Things Brown & Beautiful
Magnificent Homespun Brown is a lyrical, poetic celebration of brown skin — and the way it connects to nature and family. Written by second-generation Haitian Samara Cole Doyon and gorgeously rendered by Kaylani Juanita, the book has won multiple awards, including being a 2021 Coretta Scott King honoree. A perfect read for ages 6-8.
A Love Letter to Boys of Color
Written by NFL pro Martellus Bennett, who uses his sports platform to encourage youth to dream big, Dear Black Boy (ages 2-6) is an encouraging letter to young boys of color reminding them of their vast potential — and of the qualities they can draw on to reach it.
Imagine the Possibilities
From scientist to astronaut to tennis player, join one curly-haired little girl’s exploration of all her potential career choices. This uplifting and motivational story by Valerie Thompkins is a #1 bestseller in several categories, and is beautifully illustrated by Abira Das.
A Little Sugar
The lyrical prose in this board book by Kevin Lewis, paired with charming illustrations by Jestenia Southerland, make it a perfect story time read-aloud for little ones. Its rhythm and rhyme encourage toddler language development and pattern recognition, too.
Debut author Traci N. Todd and illustrator Christian Robinson crafted the first-ever American picture book biography of singer Nina Simone. The book tells the story of a little girl named Eunice, who would grow up to become Nina Simone, one of the most celebrated singers of her time. The story chronicles her rise to fame and the lasting legacy she left behind. This picture book will undoubtedly teach children resilience and the power of one person’s voice.
The Sweetest Bond
Based on a song of the same name by Grammy award-winning musician, author, philanthropist, reggae icon, and dad Ziggy Marley, this book is a tribute to Ziggy’s own pet dog Romeo. The story tells the sweet tale of a boy and his beloved four-legged friend. The vibrant picture book will inspire little ones as follow these two sharing their love of music and play.
In addition to releasing the picture book My Dog Romeo, Ziggy Marley — along with his wife Orly Marley — wrote this story filled with memorable characters. Little John Crow is a vulture growing up in Jamaica. When he is abandoned by his animal friends, he has to learn what it really means to be a part of a community. Best for ages 3 to 8.
Hair Love for the Youngest Crowd
Joining in the catalog of hairspiration for Black youth is Curls, a board book written by poet Ruth Forman and illustrated by Geneva Bowers. It’s never too early for kids to learn to love themselves and others’ differences. (Baby and up.)
Keeping the Inaugural Spirit Going
Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s first children’s book, Change Sings, is a great addition to our children’s reading list. Illustrated by Loren Long, this story follows a young girl leading others as they all learn that everyone has the power to make change. Ages 4-8.
A Visual Feast of a Fable
There are almost no words in this retelling of the Rudyard Kipling story, The Lion and the Mouse, by the legendary children’s illustrator Jerry Pinkney. And that’s kind of the point: The concept of returning a good favor doesn’t need words, and it’s something even the littlest non-readers can grasp.
All the Colors of Black Joy
Angela Joy’s Black Is a Rainbow Color captures the nuances of what Black culture really is — not just beauty, but strength and endurance — in a way young children can understand. Illustrator Ekua Holmes inserts images of Black historical figures into the mix, too.
A Tearjerker About Giving
Parents might have a bit of trouble choking back the tears as they read Patricia C. McKissack’s story, What Is Given from the Heart, of a young boy who tries to comfort his mother after his dad dies and they lose their farm. When their church starts a collection for another family who’s lost everything in a fire, he tries to find something to give.
Huge Imagination in a Little Package
In Janay Brown-Wood’s Imani’s Moon, tiny Maasai girl Imani has a huge dream: to go to the moon. Her courage in the face of teasing makes us think she totally could do it, too.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Origin Story
When we see Basquiat’s work, it is easy to imagine the kind of work he must have made as a child. Radiant Child, an award-winning picture book by Javaka Steptoe imagines what was going on in his head as he dreamed of being an artist one day.
Feminist Theory for Littles
Not all feminist theorists can write children’s books, we assure you. But when bell hooks celebrates Black girls’ hair, you might forget she does anything else. Happy to Be Nappy is a joyous read with playful and powerful affirmations about all kinds of short, long, curly, coily, nappy, twisty, bouncy and beautiful hair.
The VP’s Origin Story
As little girls, Meena Harris’ mom, Maya, and aunt, Kamala, decided to turn their apartment courtyard into a playground. Thus two community leaders were born — and one went on to become vice president — and we think a few future ones might follow after reading this book, Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea.
Poetry of Black History
With stunning illustrations by Kadir Nelson, Kwame Alexander turns The Undefeated, his “love letter to Black America,” into an award-winning children’s book. It celebrates the hardships, survival, and victory of being Black in this country.
Things Are Looking Up
The moment preschooler Parker Curry saw Michelle Obama’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery was life-changing in two ways: The little girl saw herself represented with all those important people, and the photo of that moment also went viral, so she eventually got to meet Obama herself. Fortunately, this book by her mom, Jessica Curry, is about the moving gallery moment, not social media fame.
The willful and imaginative princess and her wise queen mother will remind kids and parents of each other, for sure. In the first of this series by Ylleya Fields, Princess Cupcake Jones searches for her favorite tutu and finds other treasures along the way.
The Importance of Little Things
In You Matter, award-winning illustrator Robinson shows children all the ways in which small, unseen things, and even small children, are important in the world. We actually might all need to read this as a pick-me-up once in a while.
An Explosion of Self-Expression
Copeland lifts the spirits of a young ballerina suffering from self-doubt in Firebird. Christopher Myers’ illustrations make us feel like we’re in a box seat watching the American Ballet Theatre star perform Stravinksy’s The Firebird just for us.
Being the Author of Your Story
Children know what it’s like to feel different. The Day You Begin, a poetic picture book written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López, is about how you shouldn’t shrink back from your differences; instead, let the world make space for you.
A Black History Primer
This beautiful and easy-to-read history book takes children from the slave trade through to the Black Lives Matter movement (it was published in 2018). A Child’s Introduction to African American History is both context and inspiration, with examples of great men and women who have changed the world, too.
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