In our most recent episode, two biracial kids school their mamas on what it means to be mixed. Kirya Traber, one of those kids—and now a grown woman—said in the story that when talking about ethnicity with kids, it’s “important to be aware of the celebratory things as well as the tragic history.” That idea has really stuck with me because I think that so often in school, the books that feature characters of color focus heavily on the tragic history. I wanted to put together a list of books that depict characters of color having all kinds of experiences, including books in which ethnicity is just a part of the story, not the *whole* story. To help out, I brought in librarian/former LST guest Kate Bowman-Johnston and her longtime pal Beth Perry. Beth is a Black mom to a mixed-race child and a media junkie with an interest in diversity issues.
Below are Beth and Kate’s favorite children’s books featuring characters of color for pre-schoolers, early elementary-schoolers, middle-grade readers, and teens. I hope these books will help your kids in the process of sorting out their own identities and in shaping how they see the complex people around them. I’ll let Beth and Kate take it from here. —HF
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Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers; illustrated by Marla Frazee
Each page of this picture book starts with the phrase “Every day, everywhere babies . . .” and then describes quotidian activities such as eating and drinking and making noise. The illustrations show babies and families from a diverse variety of backgrounds, including mixed-race families, same-sex parents, and multi-generational families. Everywhere Babies manages to remind us all of the wonder and excitement of babies learning about their world, and the beauty that is found in difference.
“More More More,” Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams
Williams refers to this book as “Three Love Stories” on the title page, and indeed they are. Little Guy, Little Pumpkin, and Little Bird are toddlers who find joy in different things, and whom are all loved by the adults in their lives. This book features children of different ethnicities, as well as a mixed-race grandmother and grandson pairing. Williams is also the author of the much beloved A Chair for My Mother and a number of other children’s books that feature characters from diverse backgrounds.
Global Babies by the Global Fund for Children
Even as newborns, babies enjoy looking at faces. This book features color photographs of babies of a variety of races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds from around the world in colorful clothing. While there is some text in addition to details about where each baby is from, the photos of this book are the standout.
The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster; illustrated by Chris Raschka
Written from the perspective of a little girl, and with lively pictures that are reminiscent of a child’s drawings, The Hello, Goodbye Window depicts the relationship between a child and her grandparents. The family is a mixed-race one, but that is not the focus of the story; the young narrator describes all the things that make a visit to her Nanna and Poppy’s home special.
The People Could Fly: Black American Folk Tales by Virginia Hamilton; illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon Ph.D.
For elementary-aged school children just learning about the history of slavery in the United States, this collection of African American folktales from an oral tradition can serve as a companion as they try to make meaning out of that history. The title story depicts the middle passage and slavery, as well as slaves who are able to magically fly to freedom. In an author’s note, Hamilton writes that it was “told and retold by those who only had their imaginations to set them free.” The book contains many other folk tales about animals and people alike.
I Love Saturdays y Domingos by Alma Flor Ada; illustrated by Elivia Savadier
On Saturdays, the young narrator of the book visits her Grandpa and Grandma, and on los Domingos, she spends the day with her Abuelito y Abuelita. The little girl loves and is loved by both sets of her grandparents, who come together with other family members for a birthday party. Their different backgrounds, Caucasian and Mexican American, only give her more experiences, culture, and history to be a part of. The book has a number of words in Spanish that are easily understood through context for readers who do not speak Spanish.
The Popularity Papers a series by Amy Ignatow
Julie Graham-Chang is a talented artist who illustrates a journal in which she and her best friend chronicle the triumphs and epic fails of their life in the suburbs. Julie has two dads, which is treated as unremarkable until an encounter in a later book in the series (when Julie witnesses the refusal of Daddy’s traditional Chinese parents to accept that he is a partnered gay man). Although she portrays herself as ethnically ambiguous, Julie was adopted from Bolivia, and her classmates represent various cultures and hues. Author Amy Ignatow tells us, “I designed Julie to purposefully be confusing—clearly not the biological child of either parent and not exactly white. I figured that more kids could see themselves in her, and I’m gratified to report that they do. (I also get excited whispered questions every now and then from kids wanting to know if Lydia is Jewish).”
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Finally, another Newbery Medal winner with a black protagonist! (The last one selected was Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis in 2000.) This story in verse stars dreadlocked 12-year-old Josh Bell, who is locked in fierce competition with his twin brother Jordan, both on and off the basketball court. Their home life is warm but not uncomplicated, as their dad’s health falters and their mother—a powerful community leader—juggles family and work. Tweens, regardless of color, will find emotional common ground with Josh and his brother.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Eldest sibling Delphine must help her younger sisters navigate a difficult relationship with their estranged, free-spirited mother as they travel cross-country to spend time with her after years of separation. Set in the heart of Oakland, CA, in 1968, the girls become part of a community of revolution, enrolled at a day camp run by the Black Panthers and learning more about their own family history. Two more books about the irrepressible Gaither sisters have followed, to the delight of fans who fell in love with them.
Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go: A Novel of Haiti by Laura Rose Wagner
Before the earthquake, Magdalie lives in Haiti with her aunt, who so raised her as her own that she calls her Manman, and a cousin, Nadine, who is more like a sister. Everything changes after the 2010 earthquake. Magdalie and Nadine survive and find their way together until Nadine’s father is able to secure a US visa for her and Magdalie is left behind to find her way on her own.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
This first part of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir details her experiences growing up in Tehran during the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution. The striking black and white images do just as much of the storytelling as the text, making a complex history readable by by both those who have lived through war, and those who have not.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This graphic novel is comprised of three distinct plotlines that interweave with one another. One plot is about Jin Wang, a Chinese American boy whose family moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to an overwhelmingly white suburb. Another plot is based on the 16th century folk tale of the Monkey King. The third plot is about a Caucasian American boy who is ashamed of his Chinese cousin. Ultimately, all of these stories are all Jin’s in this complex and visually engaging novel.
After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson is a YA superstar, but this beautiful, quiet novel has mostly flown under the radar since its release in 2008. The narrator, who is never named, describes how her longtime friendship with Neeka is shaken up when a new girl, D, joins their group. With Tupac Shakur’s visionary music and cultural influence as the backdrop, D pushes them to understand painful and complicated dimensions of life outside their closeknit neighborhood in Queens. In just over 150 pages, the girls’ story touches on foster care, the impact of prison on communities of color, grief, and a family member coming out—but these topics are never introduced as preachy tokens.
GOT THROUGH THOSE? HERE’S MORE!
Pragmatic Mom Education Matters has a number of lists featuring characters of color. Kids Like Us maintains a reading list dedicated to representing kids in urban schools. And Canerow is building a database of books featuring characters of color. You can add your own book recommendation to the list right here!
The mom who started that list at Canerow, Mia Birdsong, wrote an interesting article for On Being about why she exclusively chooses books without white people for her daughter’s home reading. Also, I think it’s worth noting that while these books are invaluable to non-white and mixed race families, they are, of course, a wonderful resource for white parents who want to raise children who value diversity. Here’s an article from Slate about why it’s important to talk about race with children early. —BP & KBJ
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What books have helped YOUR kids wrap their heads around race and ethnicity?
Titles, please. In the comments.