Tag Archives: African American

Start Poetry Month Right

Seeing into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright, illustrated by Nina Crews
From watching a sunset to finding a beetle, Richard Wright’s haiku puts everyday moments into focus. Paired with the photo-collage artwork of Nina Crews, Seeing into Tomorrow celebrates the lives of contemporary African American boys.

For a little context, you might want to borrow Richard Wright and the Library Card (based on a scene in his autobiography, Black Boy) or a biography. You can visit the database Something About the Author for more information about Nina Crews, who is the daughter of Donald Crews and Ann Jonas.

Black Joy


I was intrigued by an ad I saw this fall for the book Crown, for which the author and illustrator earned several honors at this month’s Youth Media Awards. At the top of the ad were the words of a writer for Kirkus Reviews: “This book oozes black cool and timely, much-needed black joy.”

I thought “black joy” was a great choice of words. While it’s important for students to learn and understand history, reading about history can be a painful experience. Children who are learning to read need to be motivated to read, and one of the best ways to do that is to let children read books they enjoy.

At a library conference I met Alan Irby, a man who really gets this. He started  Barbershop Books to “Help black boys ages 4-8 to identify as readers” by putting books in barbershops. The books he had on display were are all ones kids love to read: The Adventures of Captain Underpants, How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? and other fun things.

The author Carole Boston Weatherford wrote about how even though the number and variety of books with African American characters increased from when she was little to when she had kids, she still had trouble finding books that matched her son’s interests:

“But with the exception of Ringgold’s Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992), my children went five years — an eternity for a kid — without seeing another fantasy picture book with African American characters. In five years, a child can graduate from read-alouds to read-alones. A child’s interests can change. A child can even lose interest in books.”

So here, partly inspired by Scott Woods’ list of 28 MORE Black Picture Books That Aren’t About Boycotts, Buses or Basketball (2018), are some of the most appealing new books in the library. Some will touch on serious topics, but not in a way that overwhelms the reading experience.

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
I’ve talked to a couple of people in the past year or so who hadn’t realized that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an author; he’s covered topics like African American history and the world of Sherlock Holmes as well as fiction and nonfiction about basketball.

Dream Big Dreams: Photographs from Barack Obama’s Inspiring and Historic Presidency by Pete Souza (also available as an ebook on OverDrive)
The Chief Official White House Photographer shares his photographs of President Obama in a book especially for children.

Grandma’s Purse by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Grandma’s purse is full of things like family photos and sparkly earrings (and the art depicting her house is full of great textures)

Jake the Fake Keeps it Real by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach, art by Keith Knight
I’m familiar with Keith Knight’s comics for adults; to the best of my knowledge this is his first time illustrating a book (Wimpy Kid-style) just for kids.

King & Kayla series, written by Dori Hillestad Butler and illustrated by Nancy Meyers
A book from this series of beginning chapter books just earned a Geisel Honor as a distinguished title for beginning readers.

Lola Gets a Cat by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw
Stories about Lola and her baby brother Leo are available in both Spanish and English!

A Night Out with Mama by Quvenzhané Wallis, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
The young actress tells the story of attending a red carpet awards ceremony (and when you’re nine, who else would you bring as a date but your mom?) in a picture book full of sparkly dresses.

Shadows of Caesar’s Creek by Sharon M. Draper
Sharon Draper’s series Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs was one of the few chapter book series featuring African American boys. The series is now being reissued with new cover illustrations and a new name, Clubhouse Mysteries. This one has a haunted forest!

Springtime Blossoms by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Michelle Henninger
Not many beginning reader books feature African American kids, either, but Bradford Street Buddies is a newer series that is an exception.

Where’s Rodney? by Carmen Bogan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Rodney’s class takes a field trip that makes a big impression on him.

series by Asia Citro, art by Marion Lindsay
I’ve seen a kid go from I-don’t-like-reading to reading-while-walking in under 5 minutes because of this book! The rest of the beginning chapter fantasy series just arrived at the library.

Here are some places to look for more fiction and nonfiction featuring African Americans:

Amistad Press is an imprint of HarperCollins and published Chasing Space (there is a Young Readers’ edition as well as an edition for adults).

Jump at the Sun is a Disney imprint. It just published a board book edition of Homemade Love by bell hooks.

The NAACP Image Awards include a category for literature. Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History won in the children’s category and Clayton Byrd Goes Underground won in the youth/teens category. The nominees for the awards are also listed online.

Black Boys Matter


“First day of school” picture books are a pretty basic staple of children’s publishing. If a book about a new character does well, a common second act is So-and-so Goes to School (or Celebrates a Holiday or Has a New Baby Brother/Sister). Looking at first day of school books is kind of like taking a sample of children’s publishing as a whole.

I’m not sure when I first realized that I couldn’t find any “first day of school” picture books that featured contemporary African American boys. It may have been after years of pulling books for the annual display, or a hazy gift idea, or only after attending a conference where one of the panels addressed the need for diverse books. When I realized that there was a gap in the collection I started keeping an eye out, but I only found historical fiction to buy.

This past fall, I tried to help a mom find books for her son. Her face fell when she saw one of the books on her list–which featured an African American girl–was historical fiction. I found a book from 1990 featuring a contemporary African American girl to offer her (because the one from 2005 was already checked out) and at least one book about starting school in a diverse classroom. I figured it was time to ask for expert help.

I tried contacting Edith Campbell, who had been on a panel at a national conference I attended. She teaches grad students about the history of children’s literature; she is African American and I learned from her Tweets that she has a son. If the books existed, she would know.

She reached out to her network on Facebook and came up with the following list:

Shawn Goes to School by Petronella Breinburg, about going to nursery school (1974)

Jamal’s Busy Day by Wade Hudson (1991)
(This book shares an illustrator and publisher with Bright Eyes, Brown Skin by Cheryl Willis Hudson. Both show a typical day at school, although I’m not sure either is strictly about the first day.)

David’s Drawings by Cathryn Falwell (2001)
We own this one! Technically, it’s about the first day after transferring to a new school, rather than starting school for the first time.

Little Cliff’s First Day of School by Clifton L. Taulbert (2001)
We used to own this. It’s set during the 1950s, but it’s about the ordinary stuff (new clothes, not wanting to go, the prospect of new friends) rather than anything as scary as Ruby Bridges’ experience.

The First Day of School by Margaret McNamara (2005)
We own this one! It’s a beginning reader, so when I searched the picture book section I totally missed it.

Kindergarten with Charlie by T.J. Jeremie (2015)
This one was independently published. I couldn’t find it in WorldCat (Zetta Elliot has written about the difficulty of getting published and the stigma attached to self-published books).

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex (2016)
The school building literally is the main character here, attended by a diverse group of children depicted by Christian Robinson, an award-winning African American illustrator.

The King of Kindergarten written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, coming soon.

This makes fewer than 10 books in more than 40 years. It’s part of the bigger picture of children’s publishing, which you can also get a snapshot of in this infographic:


The Cooperative Children’s Book Center keeps statistics on diversity in children’s books. This was the newest infographic I could find, but you can find statistics through 2016 on their website. You can see how the numbers compare to the US population at the census website. If twice as many books were about African Americans, that would be close to the percentage of people in the country who are African American.

Even these numbers don’t tell the whole story, because it is easier to find books about African American girls than African American boys. What really brought this home to me was the blog article 2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People? by Elizabeth Bird. She found 5 chapter books published about African American boys that year. Readers commenting on the article added a tiny handful more. She returned to the subject last year and found 12– and a wider variety– but still fewer books about boys than girls.

Why does this matter? I’m going to defer to two authors who have the experience of having been African American boys. Walter Dean Myers wrote about the feeling of  “something missing” in the books he read as a teen. Later, when he read the work of James Baldwin as an adult, he felt recognized and valued. He wanted to give young readers the same feeling from reading his own work, as well as “a sense of who they are and what they can be.”

Towards the end of the essay that’s linked to above, he wrote about some ideas that his son, Christopher Myers, has also expressed. As important as books by and about African Americans are for African American readers, these books are also for all of the other people who are going to live and interact with African Americans. They can widen everybody’s imagination– especially if they’re not always about the same old topics.

A book about starting school is a book that helps a child imagine where he (or she) is going and who he (or she) is becoming in the most basic and practical sort of way. It’s an acknowledgement of a rite of passage and a pretty universal experience. I’m looking forward to being able to buy The King of Kindergarten. I wish I could depend on more books like it being published soon, but I suspect I might have to plan for the copies I buy to last as long as those books from the 1990s.

Free Resource for Teachers and Students


Are you studying any of the Coretta Scott King Award books in your classroom? TeachingBooks.net has a great collection of resources related to nearly 300 books that have won the award. Usually you need an account to access TeachingBooks.net, but “This Curriculum Resource Center was created by TeachingBooks.net with the support of the Coretta Scott King Book Award 40th Anniversary Public Awareness Campaign Committee” and you can access them without an account.

You can watch a meet-the-author video (maybe the one for Bryan Collier, who illustrated the Monarch Award nominee Trombone Shorty), listen to interviews with authors or listen to them read their books aloud. You can look for lesson plans or book discussion questions to go with a title. Teachers can even search for books to match a particular grade level, school subject, or type of reading (for example, poetry or realistic fiction).

Save the date! Sunday, February 25

The Poetic Storyteller: Oba William King – Part of The Great Read
Sunday, February 25, 2-3 p.m.
All ages, preschoolers with an adult
Celebrate Black History Month with stories, songs and drums from storyteller Oba William King. This lively presentation will delight your whole family. Drop in.



Jazzy birthdays

100 years ago this month, two great jazz musicians were born: Thelonious Monk and  Dizzy Gillespie. Here are some children’s books and recordings that celebrate their music:

Bird & Diz by Gary Goglio, illustrated by Ed Young
Presents a rhythmic tribute to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and their creation of bebop.

Dizzy by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sean Qualls
After arriving in New York, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was soon playing with the famous Cab Calloway Band, but his clowning around got him fired. Dizzy kept trying out his new music which took over the world of jazz. He had invented “bebop!”

Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
A poem from the author’s first collection of poetry pays tribute to the community of talented artists that frequented her childhood home.

I See the Rhythm by Toyomi Igus, illustrated by Michele Wood
Chronicles and captures poetically the history, mood, and movement of African American music.

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo
When Esquire magazine planned an issue to salute the American jazz scene in 1958, graphic designer Art Kane pitched a crazy idea: how about gathering a group of beloved jazz musicians and photographing them? He didn’t own a good camera, didn’t know if any musicians would show up, and insisted on setting up the shoot in front of a Harlem brownstone. Could he pull it off? In a captivating collection of poems, Roxane Orgill steps into the frame of Harlem 1958, bringing to life the musicians’ mischief and quirks, their memorable style, and the vivacious atmosphere of a Harlem block full of kids on a hot summer’s day. Francis Vallejo’s vibrant, detailed, and wonderfully expressive paintings do loving justice to the larger-than-life quality of jazz musicians of the era. Includes bios of several of the fifty-seven musicians, an author’s note, sources, a bibliography, and a foldout of Art Kane’s famous photograph.

Jazz for Kids: Everybody’s Boppin’ featuring various artists
This introduction to jazz includes music by greats like Dizzy Gillespie as well as original songs.

Jazz on a Saturday Night by Leo & Diane Dillon
If you have ever been lucky enough to hear great jazz, then you will understand the pure magic of this book. Leo and Diane Dillon use bright colors and musical patterns that make music skip off the page in this toe-tapping homage to many jazz greats. From Miles Davis and Charlie Parker to Ella Fitzgerald, here is a dream team sure to knock your socks off. Learn about this popular music form and read a biography of each player pictured-and then hear each instrument play on a specially produced CD. What’s the featured song? “Jazz on a Saturday Night,” written and recorded to accompany this book.

Portraits of African-American Heroes by Tanya Bolden
A stunningly beautiful picture book profiles twenty outstanding African-Americans with a three-page biography and black-and-white portrait of each, ranging from historical to contemporary figures who made a difference in their field.

I have to wait how many months?

So if you’re like my family, you might be captivated by a certain trailer that came out over the weekend:

It looks like a beautiful adaptation of a much-loved book. A lot of people watching and commenting on the trailer are surprised and excited to see an African American girl in the role of Meg.

I started thinking about what I might recommend to patrons who were excited about the movie. Madeleine L’Engle had a notoriously hard time finding a publisher for the manuscript, saying “It didn’t categorize. … ‘They’ like books that fit into pigeonholes, and Wrinkle didn’t.”

Novelist is a tool available in the online resources on the library’s website. It can provide book suggestions for fans of a certain book (in this case it recommends What Came From the Stars, When You Reach Me, Coraline, and the Missing series). You can also do an advanced search to find a books with certain characteristics.

I recently listened to a piece on the radio in remembrance of Octavia Butler, described as “one of the world’s premier science fiction writers, the first black female science fiction writer to reach national prominence, and the only writer in her genre to receive a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.” I was curious what African American authors might currently be writing science fiction and fantasy for kids. Searching NoveList produced Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the Kulipari fantasy novels by Trevor Pryce, the futuristic Robyn Hoodlum adventures by Kekla Magoon, and the Christian fantasy series The Prince Warriors by Priscilla Evans Shirer (among others).

If you’re looking for kids’ science fiction movies with diverse characters, you might enjoy Earth to Echo or Home (based on the book The True Meaning of Smekday). Alternatively, if you’d like to find more movies that re-imagine a story with an African American woman or girl playing the main character– something like the most recent remake of Annie— you might like Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella or one of the versions of The Wiz. If you’d like a sneak preview of Storm Reid (who plays Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time) you might also want to check out the American Girl movie Lea to the Rescue, in which she plays Aki.