A Big List of Books: classic Black children’s books

Hey guys! It’s been a little while since my last… well, any sort of public post anywhere. I’ve been completely absorbed in school. I’m starting to get really antsy about graduating. And well I should, since I’ll be graduating in May! I’ve been in school for my whole life, and this will be the first time since preschool that I’m not working towards some sort of degree. I’m excited and intimidated, and which feeling wins out depends on how caffeinated I am. In the meantime, I did a project for my Collection Development class that was super fun, and I’m thrilled to share it here!

Our assignment was to select ten books to recommend to a specific library for acquisition. The library I picked had a lot of both modern and historical works (as old as the 1600s!), so I took this as a chance to find books to bolster both collections. The result was this miniature collection to supplement their Illustrated Children’s Literature collection: ten significant illustrated works for children with positive and supportive portrayals of Black or African American characters, representing the development of Black representation in picture books from 1945 to the modern day.

So obviously this is super valuable on its own, but recommending older books of any kind can sometimes be a hard sell. It makes sense–newer books are more popular and exciting, and when you have a limited budget, you want to prioritize stuff that’s going to circulate and keep people coming in. For this particular library, however, I think the diversity gap in their historical collections is ultimately harming their mission. The inclusion of Black-positive historical works would:

  • Show modern readers that diversity and inclusion in literature is not exclusively a modern issue
  • Give modern Black and African American readers a grounding in American history that is not defined by struggle alone
  • Highlight foundational Black and African American writers and illustrators
  • Provide a counterpoint to classical works in the collection with stereotypical or racist portrayals of Black people (which, while kept in the collection for their historical significance, are not the true representation of Black experience of the era or the sole portrayals of Black people presented at the time)

I was originally inspired by one of the “original” calls for diverse children’s books (at least in modern publishing and librarianship), an article called “The All-White World of Children’s Books” by Nancy Larrick written in 1965. This article helped inspire the contemporary We Need Diverse Books movement, and at the time of its publication it inspired the creation of the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, a newsletter that ran from 1966-1989. It was so fun and fascinating to read past issues of the Bulletin to see how people of the time responded to issues of representation and lack of diversity in publishing. It includes a ton of articles and book reviews (both positive and critical), cartoons, lists of nonwhite illustrators, original research and reporting–seriously, it’s so good. All issues have been digitized and hosted by the University of Wisconsin, and they’re available to read online for free: https://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/MXXKMT2BKLFTB84

Anyway, I wanted to share the ten books I ended up selecting. I had a ton of criteria in my selection process, but the most important was that the books were free from stereotypes or racial bias as much as possible (both bias common to the time and in the modern day) and that the work was well-received by supporters of Black and integrated works at the time and still reasonably well-liked today. Also, this list is only works of fiction, not those whose primary intention is informing about Black historical figures. There are of course thousands more out there!

Hope you like this list, and of course feel free to contact me for any more recommendations or personalized book lists! (P.S., lots of these are available to read for free on the Internet Archive or at your local library!)


Classic Black illustrated children’s books through the decades

Two is a Team (1945). Lorraine and Jerrold Beim, illustrated by Ernest Crichlow
As mentioned above, this was the first children’s book to be illustrated by a Black American artist. The friendship of a Black boy and a white boy in Two is a Team is presented as natural and positive, and this positive depiction of integration was especially important for the time.

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956). Gwendolyn Brooks, illustrated by Ronni Solbert
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gwendolyn Brooks is frequently praised in the Bulletin, and was the first Black woman to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Bronzeville is a book of poems for and about children, reminiscent of Robert McCloskey but celebrating the life and experience of Black children in particular by the inclusion of culturally Black names, dress, and language. The original illustrations are gentle, and a recent edition with colorful illustrations by Faith Ringgold speak to its staying power.

Stevie (1969). John Steptoe
Stevie is highly reviewed in multiple issues of the Bulletin. Author and illustrator John Steptoe received two Coretta Scottt King awards and two Caldecott Honors, and the John Steptoe New Talent Award was created in his name. The story has been highlighted for its impact in multiple other influential works, including Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Its use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and representation of inter-family mutual support was and remains praised for going beyond surface-level representation.

Cornrows (1979). Camille Yarbrough, illustrated by Carole Byard
Cornrows, a Coretta Scott King award winner praised in the Bulletin and listed on Social Justice Books, features Mama and Grammaw weaving cornrow designs into their children’s hair and telling the name, meanings, and importance of each design of cornrows. This book brought out the richness of the Black tradition and speaks strongly to Black cultural and social history, present and future.

Daydreamers (1981). Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Tom Feelings
Greenfield is a prolific and celebrated author of Black children’s literature. Illustrator Tom Feelings was the first Black artist to receive a Caldecott award. Daydreamers appears on AALBC’s Children’s from the 20th Century list. The poetry and illustrations of the wishes of Black children and affirming the world as a magical and dazzling place.

Mirandy and Brother Wind (1988). Patricia C McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkey
Mirandy appears on AALBC’s Top 10 Children’s from the 20th Century list and is highly reviewed in the final issue of the Bulletin. The book is praised for its engaging plot mixing fantasy with Black history and culture. This book is especially unique for its illustrations filling the entirety of the two-page spreads, a new development of the time in Children’s literature.

Tar Beach (1991). Faith Ringgold
Tar Beach appears on AALBC’s Top 10 Children’s from the 20th Century list and received a Caldecott honor. The book was groundbreaking for being the first children’s book based on a story quilt. The story features a girl flying over her city, and it is inspired by stories told by slaves of flying to freedom.

Bird (2008). Zetta Elliot, illustrated by Shadra Strickland
Bird appears on AALBC’s Top 10 Children’s from the 21st Century list and in a Social Justice Books list. It also received a John Steptoe Award for New Talent and was listed as a 2009 ALA Notable Children’s Book. This book deals with the topics of grief and drug use in the family in a way that is age-appropriate and supportive of readers for whom it is a reality, a groundbreaking broach of the subject in children’s book publishing at the time.

When Mama Braids My Hair (2018). Monique Duncan
When Mama Braids My Hair is a standout work as it represents the impact self-publishing can make on stories from marginalized people. It has been featured on PBS and a Social Justice Books list. The main character experiences having her hair braided in different styles and experiences the connection with African cultures from which the styles originate. This book represents the expansion beyond the traditional publishing industry.

Black is a Rainbow Color (2020). Angela Joy, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Black is a Rainbow Color expresses the importance of pride in Black identity instead of the erasure of race. While well-reviewed by critics and the public, this book also represents how books featuring Black characters are more likely to be challenged or banned, as this book received multiple challenges. The story itself is a colorful celebration of Black history, culture, and identity, and shares some of what unites Black people beyond skin color.