Experts have been sounding an alarm for years: There’s a lack of own voices in children’s literature.
The phrase own voices was coined in 2015 by writer and activist Corinne Duyvis on Twitter, It refers to books in which “the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity” whether that’s a racial, cultural, or gender identity or a disability. You’ll see the term used frequently in discussing books with protagonists who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) that are also written by BIPOC.
In 2018, fewer than a third of children’s books had a main character of color. Also that year, Black, Latinx and Native authors combined wrote just 7% of new children’s books published, according to bookseller Lee & Low.
Why are own voices so important in children’s literature? For one thing, when children of color see themselves represented in books (and in popular culture of any kind, for that matter), they learn that people who look like them matter, and that they are seen. When that story is also told by someone who looks like them, they know that the person behind the story is someone like them, too, who has a shared experience. As children’s author Tina Athaide explains, “It is first-hand storytelling.”
It’s essential that kids who are White read books about and written by BIPOC, too. Doing so helps them gain a truly accurate and authentic understanding of identities, perspectives and experiences that are different from their own. Ultimately, own voices narratives help us to “move away from a monolithic idea about a particular cultural group,” Athaide argues.
As with all things, some books featuring BIPOC characters are better than others. Embrace Race offers a comprehensive guide (find it here) to choosing the best on the market. Their guidance includes finding books in which BIPOC are the stars, and aiming for a balanced set of portrayals, so children don’t start to identify one experience as defining BIPOC.
If you’re buying a book for your home library or school community, seek out Black-owned bookstores. Several sites have done the work of listing some. Find them at Lit Hub, the African American Literature Book Club and Bustle.
For starters, here are 24 own voices books recommended by the Tinkergarten team and broken down by age group.
Books for Infants and Toddlers
B is for Baby by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank
In this vibrantly illustrated book set in West Africa, Baby’s big brother sets out to take a basket of bananas to Baba’s bungalow. He doesn’t realize that his little sibling has stowed away on his bicycle and is along for the adventure. Each page features a different word with the letter B, offering a repetition that appeals to little ones learning language. Atinuke is the recipient of several awards including the Children’s Africana Book Award.
What is Light? by Markette Sheppard, illustrated by Cathy Ann Johnson
This inspiring board book is an ode to the light that shines within us all, written by Markette Sheppard, a broadcast journalist and an award-winning talk show host in Washington, DC. Light can be so many things—the flicker of a firefly, the radiance of a star, the feeling of friendship and the potential within every child. This book features vibrant illustrations by Cathy Ann Johnson, an award-winning children's book illustrator and the owner of Soul Ah-Mazing Productions, a company dedicated to children's product creations.
Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Asim, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
This interactive board book celebrates baby’s adorable knees and is sure to delight wee ones with its peek-a-boo ending. Jabari Asim is an author, poet, playwright, and associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College as well as a nominee of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work.
So Much! by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Award-winning author Trish Cooke’s story builds with excitement as each member of a family arrives at a party and bestows adoring love for a baby. Little ones will love the joy that exudes from this heart-warming story as well as the repeating, lyrical text.
Books for Preschoolers
I Got The Rhythm by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Frank Morrison
This wonderful story about the joy of music was our first-ever Tinkergarten Storytime on Instagram Live! A little girl hears rhythm everywhere she goes, and her trip through the park inspires all the other kids to join her in a joyful dance.
Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora
In her author’s note, Mora explains that “Omu” means “Queen” in Igbo, but that she always used it for “Grandma.” You can taste the love that goes into Omu’s stew in this tale of how the strong women in our lives feed everyone around them. The book’s lush art earned it a Caldecott Honor.
Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
The Oscar-winning actress and author drew from her own life experience for this story of a young girl, Sulwe, who feels like she’s treated differently because of her dark skin. We love how Sulwe’s magical learning journey teaches her to appreciate her beauty. The book earned an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children’s Literary Work and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor.
Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper
Saying goodbye to Grandpa is never easy. When Max has to leave, he’s comforted by knowing the moon outside Grandpa’s house will follow him home. It does, until it tucks behind some clouds. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the feeling of missing grandparents that so many kids are experiencing right now.
The Night is Yours by Abdul-Razak Zachariah, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo
Amani’s proud father lovingly narrates this story as he watches her play a game of hide-and-seek with her friends in the courtyard by the light of the moon. Amani is confident and persistent, and she harnesses the power of the moon to win her game. Artwork by New York Times bestselling illustrator Keturah A. Bobo help bring this charming book to life.
Full, Full, Full of Love by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Paul Howard
Jay Jay’s special bond with his Grannie comes to life in this tribute to grandparent love. As Jay Jay practices patience while waiting for Sunday dinner to start, and once the family arrives, it’s clear the wait was worth it. In the end, everyone is full—of food and love.
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
Based on the Oscar-winning animated short by filmmaker and former NFL player Matthew A. Cherry, this book tells the story of a father learning to do his daughter’s hair while her mother is away. Illustrated by Vashti Harrison, it’s a delightful tribute to dads and daughters and encourages children to embrace their natural hair and feel confident in who they are.
Books for School-Aged Kids
I am Enough by Grace Byers, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo
“Like the sun, I’m here to shine,” begins this New York Times bestseller about self-love, perseverance and taking your place in the world. Written by “Empire” actor Grace Byers, it’s a wonderful way to teach kids about kindness and picking themselves up after a fall.
Salt in His Shoes by Delores and Roslyn Jordan, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
What basketball fan can forget the fruits of Michael Jordan’s persistence? We’ve loved being able to share that story with Tinkergarten families—a story of a rocky start, dedication to practice, and passion that led to greatness.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Acclaimed poet Kwame Alexander wrote this poem in 2008, right after the birth of his daughter and the election of Barack Obama as president. Through the heroes who lived it, “The Undefeated” tells the history of Black life in the U.S. and includes historical context for further discussion with kids. It won the 2020 Caldecott Medal, was a 2020 Newbery Honor book and received the 2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.
The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
If you’ve ever experienced the feeling of walking into a room and realizing no one in it looks quite like you, this story, told by Hans Christian Andersen Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson, will resonate. The lyrics celebrate bravery, believing in yourself and the power of connecting with a friend when life feels scary and lonely. It’s not surprising to find it on the The New York Times Best Sellers list.
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
It’s 1939, in Harlem, and 8-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot is looking down over her neighborhood from her building’s rooftop. In this 1992 Caldecott Honor book, Cassie processes her parents’ personal and professional pain by imagining she can fly over New York City.
Pecan Pie Baby by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Whenever Mama talks about the “ding dang” baby who’s on the way, Gia rolls her eyes. After all, that baby is about to change everything. With the help of Mama and pecan pie, Gia works through her big feelings.
Max Found Two Sticks by Brian Pinkney
We love the way Max makes music from found objects—in this instance, two sticks that fall from a tree as he sits on his front steps. Imagine his excitement when a marching band rounds the corner, the perfect twist in this musical adventure. (You’ll also find this book featured in our Camp Tinkergarten summer curriculum.)
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon
Virginia Hamilton, one of the most distinguished authors of American children’s literature, tells 24 of the quintessential folktales that allowed her ancestors’ culture to survive enslavement. This 1986 book earned a The Other Award and Coretta Scott King Book Award.
Her Stories: African American Folktales by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon
Hamilton teams up again with Leo and Diane Dillon, a husband and wife team, to focus on folktales traditionally told by Black women. The stories, which focus on women both real and imagined, earned 1996 Coretta Scott King Awards for both the author and the illustrators.
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe
If you grew up watching Reading Rainbow, you might be familiar with this retelling of Cinderella, which takes place in Zimbabwe and touches on the nation’s history and culture. Based on an African tale recorded in the 19th century, the book earned Steptoe a Caldecott Medal nomination and a Coretta Scott King Award for illustration.
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Vashti Harrison tells the stories of 40 Black women who changed the course of American history—like abolitionist Sojourner Truth, politician Shirley Chisholm, poet Maya Angelou and heroines who deserve more attention than they’ve gotten, like chemist Alice Ball, pilot Bessie Coleman and filmmaker Julie Dash. The book was a New York Times besteller and earned an NAACP Image Award for Children.
Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison
Harrison celebrates Black men throughout history and across continents including civil rights leader John Lewis, choreographer Alvin Ailey, filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, musician Prince, photographer Gordon Parks, tennis champion Arthur Ashe and writer James Baldwin.
Where’s Rodney? by Carmen Bogan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Recommended by Diverse Book Finder and cited as an own-voices book about Black kids in nature, this story about Rodney, an elementary schooler who can’t sit still in school, is a celebration of the power of the outdoors. The only park Rodney knows is the tiny, dry triangle near his bus stop. When he ventures out into nature on a school trip, everything changes.
Images: Goodreads. Design by Tinkergarten.
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