Picturebooks That Focus on Black Children and Their Families

Janelle Mathis, University of North Texas, Denton, TX

Cover of Tiara's Hat Parade depicting a young black girl smiling with a blue hat on her head as her mother smiles down at her while making a green hat.

As I continue sharing topics or theme that seemed to be predominant in the many books read by our Notable Children’s Books (ALA) committee, in this WOW currents I will share picturebooks focused on Black children and their families. While this is not a new topic within the books published each year, children’s literature advocates are quick to note that among our diverse populations, the demographics, as continuously recorded by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center regarding populations does not align proportionately with the books published that reflect diverse children. Books sharing the stories of Black / African American children have been continuously increasing in terms of rich tapestries of historical events, previously untold stories of significant individuals, and general narratives of childhood across genre. However, this past year I found interesting, important, and pleasing, the continuous and abundant submission of realistic fiction picturebooks to our committee that specifically focused on the contemporary Black child and family relationships. Among these many books from 2020, I noted culturally specific stories, universal narratives around Black families, and books that celebrate and affirm identity for a child within these families. The seven titles shared here are merely a sampling of these books that stood out for me over 2020 but ones that uphold the potential of children’s literature to serve as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990) for children across the globe.

The first two titles here reflect specific cultural traditions. Tiara’s Hat Parade (Kelley Starling Lyons) builds on the hat tradition that has been part of Black women’s style – “a way of being seen” as stated in the Author’s Note. Tiara’s mother, a highly respected hat maker must close her business when it dwindles due to other businesses that sell cheaper hats. Tiara maintains her interest in the unique hats and the stories they hold for community members as well as suggests a hat project for the art classes her mother teaches. A brief description of famous Black Milliners is provided at the end. The colorful and expressive illustrations add to the realistic, joyous tone.

Cover of Nana Akua Goes to School depicting a yong black girl walking besides her garndmother, who wear traditional Ghanan garb in purple.
While the tradition shared in Nana Akua Goes to School (Tricia Elam Walker) is specific to the grandmother’s African background, it is a reminder of the many specific traditions that are part of family culture. Zura is bringing her “favorite person” to school for Grandparent Day but is worried that the children will either be afraid or rude because of her Grandmother’s traditional tribal markings on her face. Growing up in Ghana, the markings carry specific meanings and were a gift from parents to a new child. While the tradition isn’t maintained today, Grandmother shares the symbols and their meaning with the class using a quilt that displays the Adinkra symbols as well as offering to paint the symbol of choice on each child’s face. The text and mixed-media collage illustrations vividly portray the African American family images. End pages provide Adinkra symbols and their meanings.

Another type of books noted with frequency was that of universal themes focused on Black families. While this is not a new topic, there were many books that authentically shared such stories within Black families. One book for very young readers is Me & Mama (Cozbi A. Cabrera) wherein a little girl shares her joy in being with and copying her mother throughout the day. With metaphors that only can come from a child’s creative mind and acrylic illustrations that are rich in color and expression, the shared daily events and relationship are universal.

Another favorite is The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann. Told in graphic styles with the plot developed in panels, this picturebook is highly relatable to anyone who has camped. Ernestine’s Aunt Jackie has invited her on a camping trip with her cousin – the first time she has experienced this. Each page holds humorously realistic insights about camping as well as the joy it brings to the two young cousins. Ernestine is the narrator in both text and speech bubbles and readers identify with her personal experience to include returning to her Dad, shown as a single parent, whom she thinks misses her.

Cover of All Because You Matter depicting a young black boy looking out to the viewer with colorful leaf cutouts in the background.
Affirmation of identity is needed for every child across the many dimensions of their lives and several books this past year have addressed this affirmation for Black children. All Because You Matter (Tami Charles) locates the child within the universe, history, society, and his own family. Affirmation of his role as he deals with various experiences is poetically described and concludes with mention of the young people needlessly lost in recent years—Trayvon, Tamir, Philando. Given “the racial climate in our country today” (Charles), such titles offer opportunities for all children to read and discuss the issues while nurturing pride in often marginalized groups. Illustrator Bryan Collier has used his award-winning talent in collage and watercolor to bring this family to life.

I Am Every Good Thing (Derrick Barnes) is filled with metaphors and vivid oil illustrations (Gordon C. James) that brings the reader into this celebration of life that considers magnificence in learning, sports, music, socialization, politeness, among other ways to excel by being oneself. The energy of text and images reveals the main character with family, friends, and connections to a smiling reader.

One more title, Black is a Rainbow Color (Angela Joy) shares the historical significance of Black as a cultural word full of colorful history, traditions, people and music. While the main character is shown in many contexts that reflect her home, the strong family focus here come in the Author Note where Angela Joy describes the origins of this book within her own family. Affirmation of the positive significances behind the color “black” is found on each page with illustrations that are boldly outlined, colorful, resembling a stained glass effect by Ekua Holmes. This book ends with a playlist, further information about the various people and events, poetry, and even a chronological listing of Black ethnonyms in America.

These are only seven of many such books recently published that represent significant resources for all readers of all ages and can encourage further exploration.

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