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.