Jun 12

24 Books With Black Protagonists by Black Authors All Kids Should Read

by Tinkergarten

In February—Black History Month—we celebrate the culture, accomplishments and impact of African Americans. Throughout the month, we will share different ways to honor Black History Month with young kids. And, like many of our Tinkergarten lessons, we start with stories.

Why Books Are So Important

Children learn about their world through books and stories, each story opening up new possibilities and putting the landscape of reality into greater focus. How the characters act, speak and look gives a child an opportunity to both expand and clarify their sense of self and sense of others. 

And, all kids need two kinds of stories—“mirror stories” to feel seen and “window stories” to open up to and understand others. Mirror stories help children see themselves and their family reflected in their world—strong, known and valued. Window stories enable children to learn about others, to develop both comfort and curiosity about the differences between us. 

Filling Your Bookshelves 

As parents, we can curate the stories that shape the landscape of our children’s minds to make sure that they have both mirrors and windows, and that those stories are authentic to the people they represent. Such work is not always easy, especially when it comes to children’s literature.

Experts have been sounding an alarm for years: There’s a lack of books that feature black characters and an even greater shortage of books told in own voices in children’s literature. 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

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 most frequently in discussing books with protagonists who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) that are also written by BIPOC. 

When children of color see themselves represented in books, 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 also 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.

Finding Quality Stories in Own Voices

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 to find books in which BIPOC are the protagonists or stars of the book, and to aim 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, too. You can find lists of bookstores on sites like Lit Hub, the African American Literature Book Club and Bustle.  

To help you get started, here are 27 own voices books recommended by the Tinkergarten team and broken down by age group. We’ve also added titles that celebrate the accomplishments of leaders in Black History.

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.)

Celebrations of Black History and Culture

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.

This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt

Music and dance are great ways to connect little kids to history. Preschoolers will love this rhythmic, inspiring tribute to African-American jazz giants, set to the classic, "This Old Man." The lively illustrations and language introduce kids to greats like Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bill "Bojangles" and more.

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 bestseller 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.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford

Introduce children to Harriet Tubman, the champion of the Underground Railroad who earned the nickname "Moses" for leading hundreds of slaves to freedom. Beautiful and strong images and words paint a compelling picture for kids of how Tubman's compassion, courage, and faith helped her lead fellow African-Americans to safety.

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans by Kadir Nelson (recommended for ages 8 and up)

This illustrated 108-page history chronicles many of both the incredible challenges and contributions of African-Americans have made throughout our history. Kadir Nelson tells this history from the perspective of a wise, old African-American woman whose ancestors arrived on slave ships and who lives to proudly cast a vote for the nation's first black president.

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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