Picture Books That Aren’t About Boycotts, Buses or Basketball
By Scott Woods
A few years ago I was asked by a local TV station to suggest some books for children in honor of Black History Month. Being a Black librarian I relished the opportunity, but I did point out that my offerings would avoid the typical fare of Black children’s books: boycotts, buses and basketball. We’ve picked up a few other hobbies since the 1960s, and there are hundreds of books to show for it. Here is a humble sampling of some just in time for Black History Month. 28 children’s picture books, most of them featuring Black children doing what all children do: play, make up stories, learn life lessons, and dream.
I picked titles that came out within the last ten years (or so). I also tried to spread out the gender of the protagonists, as well as put some light on some typically ignored aspects of Black life in books (loving and present fathers, non-urban life, and so on). Books list creators as follows: author/illustrator.
Bigmama’s – Donald Crews A nostalgic riff on visiting your country folks, heavy on the love, light on the mosquitos.
Lizard from the Park – Mark Pett If you miss Calvin and Hobbes, this might help.
My Family Plays Music – Judy Cox/Elbrite Brown If you come from a musical family – or want to – this is your joint.
The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore – Vaunda Micheaux Nelson/R. Gregory Christie Nelson returns to the well of the famous National Memorial African Bookstore, but this time for a younger set than her previous offering, No Crystal Stair.
Tar Beach – Faith Ringgold A little older than much of this list, this modern classic proves you can make Black family magic anywhere.
Thunder Rose – Jerdine Nolen/Kadir Nelson Girl Power to the tenth power. I love this book. And the art? Fugedaboutit.
Don’t Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table – Vanessa Newton A hilarious take on one of Black families’ most stringent traditions.
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands – Kadir Nelson Nelson is a powerful artist as well as writer, and this book is a great marriage of his gifts.
Daddy Calls Me Man – Angela Johnson/Rhonda Mitchell The all-too-rare Black father book.
Momma, Where Are You From? – Marie Bradby/Chris Soentpiet A nice mother-daughter conversation goes historical and personal.
The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County – Janice N. Harrington/Shelley Jackson I’m partial to girl protagonists doing things no one thinks they’re supposed to do. The art is magnificent as well.
I Love My Hair! – Natasha Anastasia Tarpley/E.B. Lewis You can’t have a Black children’s book list without a book on Black hair.
When I Am Old with You – Angela Johnson/David Soman Grandfathers don’t get enough shine. A sweet generational tale.
Max and the Tag-Along Moon – Floyd Cooper Beautifully rendered and a nice surreal take on a pretty common observation by children.
Lola Reads to Leo – Anna McQuinn/Rosalind Beardshaw Any book that has children reading to other children is going on my lists about books for children.
How Many Stars in the Sky? – Lenny Hort/James E. Ransome A little science – and father-bonding – never hurt anybody.
Peeny Butter Fudge – Toni Morrison & Slade Morrison/Joe CepedaMorrison did some kids books, and this one is a LOT of fun. Grandma is off the chain.
Hot Day on Abbott Avenue – Karen English/Javaka Steptoe Girls fight. This book shows us how to get past the fight.
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop – Laban Carrick Hill/Theodore Taylor III A little wordy and historical for a picture book, but still a worthy addition to any collection.
Kitchen Dance – Maurie J. ManningKids not sleeping when they’re supposed to usually leads to trouble. Here, it leads to dancing…and love.
The Rain Stomper – Addie Boswell/Eric Velasquez Never mess with a Black girl’s parade.
Summer Sun Risin’ – W. Nikola-Lisa/Don Tate Country life never looked so good. This book is fun, and the art is some of the best to be found anywhere.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin – Jen Bryant/Melissa Sweet The art isn’t necessarily representative of the subject, but that’s not really the point. The point is children seeing famous people turning what they already do into a possible life path.
Yo! Yes? – Chris Raschka Simple, fun, and subtle.
Come on, Rain! – Karen Hesse/Jon Muth Some good ol’ playing in the rain fun, with some great descriptive language.
Monster Trouble – Lane Fredrickson/Michael Robertson A girl who not only isn’t scared of monsters, but sets out to show them why they should be scared of her.
The Ghost of Sifty Sifty Sam – Angela Shelf Medearis/Jacqueline Rogers A book about a Black chef you won’t have to hide from your kids. Beware: Sam’s a little creepy.
Yesterday I Had the Blues – Jeron Ashford Frame/R. Gregory Christie A lot of color association here married to some strong family life observations.And since this is coming out during a leap year, I’ll give you one more:
Trombone Shorty – Troy Andrews/Bryan Collier Why wait for someone to write the children’s book of your life when you can do it yourself? New Orleans musicians Trombone Shorty gives us a slice of that Tremé Second Line life.
Finally, I have to give a shout-out to the resource, The Brown Bookshelf. I wish I had found this site when I started compiling this list. Then I could have spent my night with a Playstation controller instead of my keyboard and a stack of books. If you’re looking to stay on top of the Black children’s book game, that’s my recommended resource right now.