According to a 2018 study on diversity in children’s books, only 10 percent of all published children’s books depicted characters of African American or African descent.* We are missing chances to have students authentically connect to stories, gain a greater understanding of themselves and others, and provide opportunities of self-affirmation. Understandably, this can make it increasingly difficult to add diverse perspectives to the books presented in the classroom.

But have no fear, the SERC Library blog is here!

Every few weeks, the SERC Library blog will post a list of 18 book recommendations that feature protagonists and others characters from a nonwhite background.  This week, in honor of Black History Month, we are focusing on books that feature characters from an African American or African cultural background.

In this list, we have included some great suggestions in picture books, middle grade novels, and high school reads.  Most of these selected books are #ownvoices stories and have been published within the last few years. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather a taste of the variety of stories that provide representation to these communities, appreciate an underrepresented perspective or experience, and celebrate #ownvoices authors and stories.

Enjoy!

An open book with a green background

Picture Books

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James

This multiple award-winning book is a poetic and engaging celebration of black boys and the tradition of going to the barbershop.  Author Derrick Barnes will imbue readers with confidence and pride as he affirms the limitless possibilities they are worthy of.

Little Leaders Series (Bold Women in Black History and Exceptional Men in Black History) written and illustrated by Vashti Harrison

This picture book series provides an inspiring look at the many Black men and women who broke down barriers and trailblazed new paths.  Each book contains more than 35 short biographies and illustrations that will encourage young readers to shoot for their dreams.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and illustrated by Christopher Myers 

American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland encourages a young dancer of color to be confident in herself, be dedicated to her goals, and conquer her doubts.

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison

Sulwe tells the story of a little girl who doubts herself and is jealous of the beauty of the rest of her family—that is until she learns about the power of her own beauty.  This wonderful book by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o fosters self-esteem in young girls of color with its beautiful and evocative illustrations by author and filmmaker Vashti Harrison.

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and Bill Taylor illustrated by Bryan Collier

This autobiographical picture book tells the story of Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, a young boy from New Orleans with a gift for music.  By the age of 6, he was leading his own band and eventually achieved international recognition for his gifts.  This Caldecott award-winner is a celebration of determination and the life-empowering effect of music.

Princess Hair by Sharee Miller

This engaging picture book shows all the different hairstyles a princess can wear.  From Afros to Twists, all different representations of princesses and their hair are beautifully illustrated and described.

Pictures of the book covers of Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, the Little Leaders series, Firebird, Sulwe, Trombone Shorty, and Princess Hair.

Middle Grade Novels

The Track Series by Jason Reynolds

Reynolds’ Track series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu) follows the individual lives of four students on a middle school track team.  Each character has many hurdles to jump over in their lives, and not all of them are on the track field. They each have their problems, but they overcome them by remembering their team, their friends, and who they really are.

The Jumbies (The Jumbies series) by Tracey Baptiste

Corinne is on her way to sell oranges at the market when she sees the town witch talking to a beautiful woman in green, and she knows instinctively this mysterious woman is a Jumbie.  All this time she thought Jumbies, trickster creatures whose goal is to take back their island home from people, were made up.  When the beautiful Jumbie she saw earlier starts to bewitch her dad as the first step of her evil plan, Corinne and her friends must set up a plan to defeat the Jumbies and save her father and her home.

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Jordan Banks is a kid who loves to draw cartoons and wants nothing more than to go to art school. But when his parents enroll him in a fancy private school instead, Jordan struggles to fit in with the rest of the students there and feels increasingly separate from his old friends in his Washington Heights neighborhood.  Jordan must figure out a way to stay true to himself in a world that wants to tear him apart.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

Tristan Strong is a 7th grader grieving the loss of his best friend.  Though he is sent away to his grandparents’ farm in Alabama to recover, Tristan is soon entangled in a world where black American folk heroes are gods trying to fight against the destruction of their world.  Their only chance to save this magical world is to find and convince the god Anansi to weave closed the hole in the sky. Will Tristan be able to save the world before it is too late?

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

This Coretta Scott King honor book follows brothers Caleb and Bobby. The brothers dream of exciting adventures in the woods of their backyard and find their excitement fulfilled in Styx Malone, their cool new neighbor.  Styx convinces the brothers to participate in a scheme where the goal is to trade enough items to be able to get a shiny green scooter the boys have their eye on.  But there is more to Styx than meets the eye, and his secrets just might ruin things for all of them.

It All Comes Down To This by Karen English

Readers of this historical fiction novel will follow Sophie, a young girl living in suburban Los Angeles in 1965, during a life-changing summer.  Between friendship difficulties, a housekeeper who seems out to get her, her older sister moving away for college, and the tense relationship of her parents, Sophie has a lot to handle. But when riots break out in the nearby neighborhood of Watts and people she knows are caught in the chaos, Sophie must reevaluate who she is and her place in her community.

An image of the book covers of Ghost, The Jumbies, New Kid, Tristan Strong Punches the Sky, The Season of Styx Malone, and If It All Comes Down To This.

High School Reads

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

In the wake of his mother’s death, nothing seems right in Matt’s life.  But when he steps up to help out his dad by getting a job at a local funeral home, Matt meets Lovey. She may have a strange name and be the toughest person he knows, but Matt and Lovey find understanding with each other. It’s a story of grief, loneliness, love, and acceptance that will pull you in and leave you with a bittersweet feeling.

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Jade is an artist with the desire to make it out of her neighborhood and become successful.  She takes all the opportunities she can, but when one of those opportunities chooses her to participate based on her race, she decides to grin and bear it in the hopes that she will be accepted to the college of her choosing.  But Jade is a force of her own and she just might show everyone that she has the real talent to make an impact on the world.

After the Shot Drops by Randy Ribay

Bunny and Nasir were the best of friends—at least until Bunny accepts a scholarship to an elite private school, leaving Nasir all alone.  Bunny struggles to adjust to his new school while Nasir ends up spending more and more time with his cousin, Wallace. But when Wallace makes a bet against Bunny, Nasir will have to choose between friendship and family.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

The difficulties surrounding race relations and law enforcement are discussed in this book through the story of Justyce McAllister, a great student on track to go to an Ivy League school. But this bright future is shattered when a police officer puts him in handcuffs. In the confusion that follows, Justyce starts studying and writing journal entries to Martin Luther King, Jr., in the hopes that he can understand and seek answers. But when tragedy strikes, he might find the strength to stand up for what’s right.

Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of the Orisha series) by Tomi Adeyemi

This Yoruba-inspired, immersive fantasy tells the story of Zelie, one of the Orisha, a group of people who had their magic ripped away from them by a merciless monarchy afraid of their powerful magical abilities. Years later, Zelie discovers a mysterious document that might allow the Orisha to regain their powers. Though she has help on her side, enemies come from all sides to fight against Zelie’s goal.  But the most difficult battle she will have to wage might be with herself.

Akata Witch (The Akata Witch series) by Nnedi Okorafor

All Sunny wants to do is be normal: Play football outside in the Nigerian sun, get through a day without bullying, and not be albino. But Sunny soon learns that the things that make her different also make her powerful beyond measure.  Sunny, along with her friends, are witches, and together they make the Oha Coven.  When they are not studying magic, they are tasked with catching a magically gifted criminal who is harming children.  Will their powers be enough to stop him from fulfilling his evil goal?

Image of the book covers of The Boy in the Black Suit, Piecing Me Together, After The Shot Drops, Children of Blood and Bone, and Akata Witch.

References:

* Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/. 

Disclaimer: Resources and listings in this blog post do not indicate approval or endorsement by SERC or the Connecticut State Department of Education.  The listings are provided solely as a resource of general information.