Find: Children’s Books Featuring African-American Kids

Over lunch a fellow BirminghamMom casually mentioned what a hard time she had finding books that featured African-American characters for her young son. She pointed out that there are many books about famous and accomplished black historical figures or books about black history, but it’s much more difficult to identify books that have a little boy or little girl as the main character and who just happens to be black.

I could see her dilemma; I mean, does a book always have to be so deep and fraught with meaning? When you’re three years old, you just want a fascinating story. You don’t necessarily want every book featuring black characters to be the boyhood story of a courageous African American icon. Nor does race, heritage or ethnicity always need to be central to the story. How about just an ordinary kid doing the usual stuff, like tying shoes or learning to count?

As luck would have it, shortly after that discussion I visited a preschool in West End as a volunteer in an early learning program. My task was simply to read some books to the children. As I sat down among the group of eager young faces, I realized that of the three books provided to me, two featured white families and one was about an elephant attending school in Paris. Surely I could do better than this.

Luckily, my friend offered some suggestions for next time:

Not Norman: A Goldfish Story, written by Kelly Bennett and illustrated by Noah Z. Jones. This book is precious and the perfect book for any parent who has thus far held requests for a puppy, kitten, or hamster at bay. If you’ve been putting off a furry pet and trying to persuade your kid to be content with a goldfish (the quintessential pre-pet pet), Not Norman is your book. I found my copy at Target.

The Snowy Day, written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. This is the  classic we all remember from our own childhood days. It’s a Caldecott Medal winner and, as my friend pointed out, so appropriate for our unusual snowy weather of late.

Peter’s Chair, also by Ezra Jack Keats. Here is the book for adjusting to the arrival of a new sibling. It was first published in 1967. That’s over 40 years of guidance on becoming an older brother or sister.

Ten, Nine, Eight, written and illustrated by Molly Bang. This is another Caldecott Medal winner and the perfect countdown for bed book. In researching this book further I found that the editors originally told Bang that she had probably cut her audience in half by having the child be a girl and the family African-American. She reasoned just the opposite, since there was already an abundance of books about white children and families. Happily, she says the book has “sold well to both white and black, and all shades in between.”

As an added bonus, all of these books have teacher’s guides readily available on the web, some created by educators and some by the publishers.

Now I can’t wait to go back to the daycare and share these books. Even better, I’m happy to have discovered some wonderful books for all children.