Teaching our kids about diversity is perhaps more imperative than ever. Yes, it’s 2021, but honestly, how are we doing on racism these days? Decidedly not great. And regardless of how young your kids are and whether they’ve seen or participated in protests for racial justice, it’s important to talk to them about race and why / how it plays a role in our society. And what better way to positively introduce children to diverse stories and characters than through picture books?
For children of color, who bear unequal stresses from racism, reading about characters who look like them can be inspiring and motivating. And for all children, reading about kids who don’t look like them can foster social and emotional intelligence and expand their worldview. Plus, when we learn about, play with, and work with people of different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, abilities, religions, and perspectives, we do challenging mental work that enhances creativity. We become, in effect, smarter. And isn’t that something we want for all humans, including our kids?
Ahead, we’ve rounded up some of the best picture books out there featuring modern, memorable girls of color. Combining great illustration with classic themes like love, growth, and possibility, these are excellent books to read to children of all backgrounds. Because if there’s one thing this world needs, it’s more powerful, smart little girls.
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A version of this story was originally published in May 2019.
Nina: A Story of Nina Simone
Telling the complicated story of the larger-than-life composer, singer and civil rights activist, Nina Simone, to a young child has finally been made possible thanks to author Traci N. Todd and illustrator Christian Robinson, who masterfully share Nina’s story in a way that is approachable and inviting to young children.
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Tales of Black Girl Magic
Who needs to wait for Hollywood to add more black female heroes to their fictional stories when there are REAL stories of heroic black women? From author Toni Morrison to astronaut Jeanette Epps to athlete Naomi Osaka, there is no shortage of inspiration in the newest volume of this New York Times best-selling series that is sure to bring out the Black magic within all of the awesome little girls who read it.
Tomatoes for Neela
Nothing goes together better than family and food. Bravo’s Top Chef host, Padma Lakshmi, really made this winning combination come alive in this truly heartwarming story about an Indian-American little girl, her India-born mother, and her grandmother who lives in India.
This story of a Black dad learning to do his daughter’s hair is also an Oscar-winning short film — both by Matthew A. Cherry. The book’s beautiful illustrations by Vashti Harrison just make it even sweeter.
‘Please, Baby, Please’
In case you didn’t know that a board book about a misbehaving baby penned by Spike Lee and his wife Tonya Lewis Lee existed, it’s high time you bought this beauty. This little Black girl is no stranger to spills and thrills, and she’s impossible not to adore.
‘When God Made You’
This book takes a confident brown girl on an adventure to reaffirm that she is so very special and loved. It’s geared towards Christian families, but it’s a lovely story for anyone who’s not bothered by the God bit.
Kenyan-American actress Lupita Amondi Nyong’o’s picture book, Sulwe, is loosely based on her own experiences with colorism and self-esteem as a child. Sulwe is darker than her mother, sister, and everyone at school. She wants to look like everyone else but a “magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything.” This book is meant to encourage young girls to love the skin that they’re in and see the beauty that radiates from within.
‘I Am Enough’
Empire‘s Grace Byers teamed up with artist Keturah A. Bobo to create a lyrical ode for young girls — including those who are biracial like she is — about how to love who they are and respect others. This book for children is about knowing that they have a purpose in life and believing that they’re more than enough. These positive affirmations will carry your little one through life with confidence.
In an effort to better connect kids to their food, author Sarah Thomas released Kalamata’s Kitchen, a series of adventure books in which a brown-skinned protagonist named Kalamata explores new cuisines. The stories are robust, the illustrations are beautiful, and Kalamata embarks on these adventures with her best friend, Al Dente. It’s a truly enjoyable tale.
‘Lola Plants a Garden’
The adorable Lola books share the spirit of the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in the way they slow down and help kids learn. In this title, with the help of her mother, Lola plants a garden complete with silver bells from her favorite nursery rhyme, “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.” The author and illustrator duo from the U.K. portray Lola with brown skin, curls and lots of curiosity and involved parents who help her follow her interests. Lola’s popularity is well deserved in the six countries where these books are published.
‘Big Red Lollipop’
Of the recommended books, Big Red Lollipop tells the most complex story. About a Pakistani family that relocates to Canada, the main character, Rubina, is invited to a birthday party, a tradition unfamiliar to her mother, Ami. Charming illustrations capture the dynamics between Ami, Rubina and her younger sisters. Ami wears traditional garb, while the girls wear Western clothes; all are beautifully drawn. At points frustrated, angry and obedient, Rubina grows more generous by the end. Readers of all ages will grow to care about these characters and their journey to acceptance.
Abuela is a lasting classic with artwork that makes it magical. Centered on themes of imagination and cultural heritage, it tells the story of young Rosalba’s daydream of soaring over New York City with her grandmother. Kids will enjoy studying the folk-art illustrations (like the one showing the characters floating above the city), which are drawn in a tapestry of patterns, colors and details. Although Rosalba speaks English, she helps little readers feel comfortable trying out the Spanish phrases used by her abuela. The crux of this book is the love between grandmother and granddaughter. What’s sweeter than that?
‘The Hello, Goodbye Window’
A Caldecott Medal winner, this cheerful book features a toddler who spends days at her grandparents’ house. Remarkable for her engaging playfulness and humor, the child is able to fully reciprocate Nanna and Poppy’s love. The illustrations brim with life in a free, joyful style, almost like a (very talented) child’s finger paintings. One sweet picture shows the child napping in a quiet room with the text, “…nothing happens until I get up,” adorably capturing the toddler attitude. The toddler character is biracial, with a white American grandfather and Black British grandmother.
‘Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue’
With a caring, inventive heroine and stunning, light-imbued illustrations of skies and sea, this is a gem of a book. Red Knit Cap Girl finds a stranded polar bear cub and devises a means to help him, using a newspaper to make a hang-glider and a sailboat. Author and artist Naoko Stoop, of Japanese descent, draws simple characters and sets them amid gorgeous washes of paint on plywood. Yellows, pinks, peaches and blues capture the expanse and majesty of the natural world, with the wood grain adding texture to each landscape.
‘I Am Josephine (and I Am a Living Thing)’
I Am Josephine goes further than the Lola books in teaching about a science concept — that of classification. An enthusiastic beginner scientist, Josephine leads readers in classifying a wide range of living things. Fun drawings in a tropical palette show plants and animals (including humans) in categories that broaden as the story moves along, and illustrations of people from different cultures enhance the book’s theme of diversity. Together with Josephine, readers count groundhogs, mosquitoes and trees — and learn that they are all living things, just like us.
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