February is Black History Month and I really want to start this off with a picture book I absolutely adore: Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick D. Barnes, illustrated by James C. Gordon. This is a celebration of barbershop culture like nothing I’ve seen before, and absolutely blew me away! The illustrations & rhythm of the whole book were amazing, and it’s definitely meant to be read aloud. Barnes follows the young boy’s journey into the barbershop, where he becomes royalty, coming out of that shop with confidence in his step: “A fresh cut makes boys fly“.
I’m reminded of Barbershop Books (only in the U.S. right now, and I don’t know of anything like that in Canada, though there are also independent barbershops that have been inspired by Barbershop Books to encourage kids to read more, which is wonderful and also adorable), which I find a great initiative.
When I think of Black History Month recommended reads lists, what comes to mind are lists of books about:
- Slavery, and
- Civil Rights.
- I feel like that’s kind of the scope.
So I wanted to start us off first with children’s books that celebrate Black heritage by respecting Black people’s representation in books in all as full and diverse a range of possibilities as we see for white protagonists.
The first time I started thinking more about the scope of representation of Black protagonists in children’s books was when I first happened across an article in The Horn Book magazine that talked about how so many books targeted at Black kids were specifically on the topic of slavery & civil rights – which are important topics to talk about, given the continuing struggle against racism – and how it was fairly difficult to find books featuring Black protagonists just doing their thing and existing in a children’s book without the book overtly talking about racism. (I’m miffed that I can’t find the original article, but that was what I got out of it. ) So while some of these books are going to talk about race and slavery and civil rights, what I’m hoping for is that these books are also just going to be about the characters and what they’re doing in their lives.
So take a look below the cut for more!
I’m going to start this list off with some musically inspired picture books: The 5 O’Clock Band by Troy Andrews & Bill Taylor, illustrated by Bryan Collier, and Trombone Shorty by the same. Troy Andrews, AKA Trombone Shorty, is a Grammy-nominated musician from New Orleans, and these two picture books were created with Bill Taylor to tell the autobiographical story of how he came to become the great musician that he is today. In both Trombone Shorty & The 5 O’Clock Band, which is the follow-up where we get to join Shorty on his adventure through New Orleans, navigating what it means to be a leader, Andrews pays homage to the musical heritage that comes from New Orleans and makes the reader fall in love with it with the storytelling & the incredible illustrations by Collier. Trombone Shorty was the recipient of the Caldecott Honor and Coretta King Award.
This one’s another picture book based on the true story of another musical genius, Melba Doretta Liston, who also played the Trombone: Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison. Liston’s journey from a 7-year old playing the trombone to touring in a jazz band in her teens and becoming a composer & arranger as a Black woman is of course intertwined with race and gender, which are presented as just some of the obstacles that Liston had to overcome in order to play her best, with the best.
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, features Zulay, a little African-American girl who’s good at math, loves singing & dancing and being silly with her three best friends, and is blind. She is a fully rounded character faces the challenges and upsets that come to her with frankness and an exuberance for life, not allowing her blindness to get in the way of her participating in the Field Day race!
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwell follows a young boy, Jabari, on his first jump off the diving board. The story is sure to resonate with younger kids who are nervous about learning to do new things, whether that be jumping off the diving board for the first time or learning any other skill. Jabari tries to summon his courage multiple times before he is finally able to make the jump, and “down, down, down he went”. His father is there for him the entire time, telling him that it’s ok to be scared, it’s ok to have to take some time to get yourself ready for doing the task at hand. And when Jabari makes the jump, his dad is the first to tell him “You did it!”
Another medal-winner, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson takes the reader on a trip to the soup kitchen, a trip CJ makes with his grandma every week after Church. Along the way, CJ meets such a wide variety of people on the bus, learning with each question he asks his grandma that although they may not have a car, they can take the bus; they may not have a music player, but they can enjoy a live performance by the guitar player sitting across them on the bus; that it’s not a matter of not having something, in short, but of making do with what you have and enjoying life to the full while appreciating what you do have and the social ties that allows you to make with those around you.
Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts. It’s actually part of a series, and I love it for its fun rhyming and storylines that affirm children’s curiosity about the natural world and encourage them to explore these interests. I also love that Ada’s parents try their best to be patient and understand Ada and let her have space to grow, while also putting their foot down and drawing the line as to what is acceptable and what isn’t. For more STEAM-friendly picture books, I would also urge you to take a look at Rosie Revere, Engineer & Iggy Peck, Architect. Beaty has also moved onto slightly older audiences as well with Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters (can we take a moment to appreciate these titles?), which is a children’s novel, and into real-life inspiration for children to build & engineer their own things with Rose Revere’s Big Project Book!
I know I said I wanted to fill this list up with books that didn’t focus on slavery or civil rights, and this one very squarely talks about civil rights and protesting, but I also think it’s such an incredible story that empowers young readers. The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (same illustrator as for My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay, above), tells the tale of how 9-year old Audrey Faye Hendricks came to be the youngest civil rights protester to be arrested, showing little readers you’re never too little to make a difference and stand up for what you believe and know to be right. Here’s the description from our catalogue: “Nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks intended to go places and do things like anybody else. So when she heard grown-ups talk about wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws, she spoke up. As she listened to the preacher’s words, smooth as glass, she sat up tall. And when she heard the plan—picket those white stores! March to protest those unfair laws! Fill the jails!—she stepped right up and said, I’ll do it! She was going to j-a-a-il!”
OK the rest of this list will be purely in list format since this is starting to get a bit long, but that doesn’t mean the rest of these books are any less remarkable than the ones I’ve listed above!
- The Water Princess by Susan Verde, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
- Based on the story of supermodel Georgie Badiel’s childhood, Princess Gie Gie dreams about bringing clean drinking water to her African village. This book highlights the struggle of having access to clean water that still exists in many parts of the world by retelling the story of how Badiel and the other girls in her village would have to walk every day to retrieve drinking water and bring it back home.
- I Just Want to Say Good Night by Rachel Isadora
- Little Lala is just not ready to go to sleep! As her Papa and her Mama tell her it’s time to sleep, Lala replies each time that she just wants to say good night to something, starting with the fish her Papa brought home from fishing that day (which kind of gives a whole new perspective to what kind of good night this is for the fish – i.e. an eternal one – but I think that’s reading too deeply into it), before bidding good night to the cat, the goat, the bird, the ants… and finally to her book, Goodnight Moon. I loved the colourful portrayal of life in a village “on the African veld”, from the great variety of plants to the animals and the village itself. However, personally the appearance of Goodnight Moon struck me as a bit odd – it was sweet up until that point, and the reader almost surely knows that this is another spin-off of that classic children’s book, so I’m not sure we need to be hit over the head with the reference. Also, I’m interested to know whether Goodnight Moon has been translated into any of the languages spoken in South Africa (apart from English).
- One Word From Sophia by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail
- Sophia wants just one thing for her birthday: a giraffe. She has to convince 4 people: Mom, Dad, Uncle Conrad, and Grandmama. Armed with presentations, pie charts, and sophisticated arguments to persuade her equally critically-thinking opponents in the debates that take place throughout this story, Sophia learns the importance of the pleasantries of conversation. It’s really quite adorable and Sophia’s eloquence in explaining her point of view is lovely as it demonstrates how children, too, can use their words.
- However! I do agree with some of the critique behind this book on Goodreads that I’m not too sure what the moral of the story is, for a young child being read to, in this case: wouldn’t the takeaway be that rather than formulate articulate arguments for getting what you want and engaging in a back-and-forth with those you’re debating with, you should just depend on asking for it plain & simple (and expect to get it without having to convince anyone)? In a way, I guess asking plainly to begin with and having it all work out is great in one sense, but personally I feel like one should still go into it prepared to argue their heart out in an attempt to change the other person’s mind. That is, you should know your reasons, at least.
- A Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
- “Don’t go in the water, and don’t leave Sandy”, Gregory’s Dad warns. Sandy the sand drawing lion’s tail gets swept away little by little though, and Gregory soon becomes lost. Telling the story of a common enough experience for children at the beach, Williams tells of all the things a child might find on their journey along the beach, from the child’s perspective. This story will reassure young readers that even if they feel lost, their guardian will definitely be there for them (as Gregory’s Dad has been watching the entire time).
- Come On, Rain! by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Jon J. Muth
- You can feel the parched desire for rain to fall alongside the families in the oppressive heat, and when it finally comes, the refreshing rain brings with it a sense of joy and lightness.
- Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones
- Jeremy sees everyone at school wearing those shoes – the black high-tops with the two white stripes – and he wants more than anything else, definitely more than the winter boots his grandma tells him he needs more with winter on its way! So when he sees them in a thrift store, of course he snatches them up – even though they’re sizes too small for his feet. He crams his feet in and gets blisters from wearing them until one day he sees another classmate with smaller feet whose toes are peeking out of their tattered shoes. Jeremy puts on the snow boots his grandma bought for him and runs over to his classmate’s house to give him the shoes he so adored, that pained him to wear, and learns an important lesson about empathy and having enough.
- City Shapes by Diana Murray, illustrated by Bryan Collier
- Who Will I Be, Lord? by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Sean Qualls
- What does my future look like? This little girl looks to the past, at the family history and stories of her family role models, to figure that out. Nelson emphasizes the importance of the girl’s connections to her family’s past to demonstrate how they influence her in her life.
And of course, no list of picture books featuring Black protagonists would be complete (though this one is also far from being complete!) without The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. There’s an interesting history behind this one in the sense that Keats was one of the first to feature a Black character in a story that wasn’t focused on race. National Public Radio has a good cover on The Snowy Day: Breaking Color Barriers Quietly.