A friend and I talking about Black creators in the publishing world on Facebook prompted me to go back through my list of rated picture books on Goodreads. I looked for books by and about Black characters for that age. I found remarkably few.
I am calling myself out. *And I am still learning. I have been reading that the preferred terminology is Black, capital B, Black being a more inclusive term, rather than African American, and African American only if told that that is the person’s preferred term, and that the two terms are not synonymous. So I am editing this piece on June 14 to reflect this. I apologize for being ill-informed before. Please correct me if I am wrong.
I found among the picture books that I had rated 5-stars only Mahogany L. Browne‘s board book, Woke Baby, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, and a picture book, Quvenzhané Wallis‘ A Night Out with Mama, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.
Looking further into my 4-star reads I found Sean Qualls illustrated The Case for Loving, the story of the couple that helped lift the ban on interracial marriage in the US. Edwidge Danticat, a black Haitian-American, wrote Mama’s Nightingale about the injustice of the detention of immigrants found to have overstayed their visas or entered without paperwork. Keith D. Shepherd illustrated Walking Home to Rosie Lee, which is about a freed boy looking for his mother in Reconstruction American.
I am highlighting these creators so that you might know their names too and look for them.
The following list is a compilation of picture books about characters of color.
I began these lists in 2016 to call myself to seek out more characters of color, to highlight the disparity of publications about white characters versus characters of color as highlighted by SLJ in 2015 and again in 2018 (those illustrations based off stats from this website), and to bring extra attention here to those works that do include characters of color.
I read 141 books altogether in 2019. These numbers include books for any age. 69 of those included a character of color, 49% of the total, very nearly half (28% in 2018, 27% in 2017, 26% in 2016, 23% in 2015). 26 of those included a character of color as a protagonist, 18% of the total and 38% of the books with a character of color at all (7% of the total in 2018, 14% in 2017, 9% in 2016). Those numbers are far better then than any year for which I have done this survey of my own reading, but I know I need to work to make them higher.
Picture books give me less information generally than do novels when trying to determine whether or not a character is a person of color or how that person would identify themselves, but I’ve done my best. I have also done my best this year to highlight creators of color based on biographies I found online.
Picture and Board Books (Ages 0-8)
Books with a POC as a protagonist
I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong and illustrated by Nidhi Chanani. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2019. The protagonist and her family seem to be either Indian or Pakistani, as do most of the families in their apartment building, who are not shown, but whose names are on the mailboxes. Her classmates are diverse. One of the teachers seems to be a woman of color as well. *Chanani is Indian-American.
Woke Baby by Mahogany L. Browne and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2018. A darker skinned infant wakes in a crib and the text follows the child through all the day in this lyrical celebration of its body and its power. The family is Black. *Browne and Taylor are both Black.
When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree by Jamie L. B. Deenihan and illustrated by Lorraine Rocha. Sterling, 2019. The protagonist, a little girl, and her family are darker skinned, probably Black. They live in a large city with diverse citizens.
The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Knopf-Random, 2004. This story was originally published by Hamilton in a collection of African American folktales. Told during a time of American enslavement, this is a tale about African people who had wings that fell off during the horrors of the Passage and the old man who spoke magic words to help a group of people on an American plantation fly away from their enslavement. In the author’s note, Hamilton notes that the power to fly is associated with the Gullah (Angolan) people. *Hamilton was Black and Leo Dillon was the son of Trinidadian immigrants to the US.
Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. Candlewick, 2018. Julián is Afro-Latinx. Julián and his abuela speak in Spanish and English in the text. I think every character depicted even the crowd and street scenes is darker skinned.
Harrison Dwight, Ballerina and Knight by Rachael MacFarlane and illustrated by Spencer Laudiero. Macmillan. 2019. Harrison appears to be biracial (his father has brown hair and a darker skin tone than his mother, who is blonde), and characters throughout the book have various skin tones and hair colors, including some of the characters in the city scenes and at the science fair, the winner of which appears to be Black as does the friend of Harrison’s that is moving away and the boy shown crying at a sad book while reading in bed. There is also a darker skinned ballerina.
Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jamie Kim. HarperCollins, 2019. The family of the protagonist, a little girl, is from somewhere in the Pampas, a region in South America that stretches across Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. This book provides a heartfelt answer full of love to the annoying question “But where are you from?”. * Méndez is Argentine-American. Kim is South Korean and immigrated to the US at 18.
A diverse cast with no protagonist
Sunny Day: A Celebration of Sesame Street by Joe Raposo and illustrated by Christian Robinson, Selina Alko, Brigette Barrager, Roger Bradford, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Ziyue Chen, Joey Chou, Pat Cummings, Mike Curato, Leo Espinosa, Tom Lichtenheld, Rafael López, Emily Winfield Martin, Joe Mathieu, Kenard Pak, Greg Pizzoli, Sean Qualls, and Dan Santat. Random, 2019. This book, each page spread illustrated by a different person, celebrates the power and history of Sesame Street. Most illustrators who use human characters (and almost all of them do) use diverse human characters. These include a woman in possibly a chador and several girls in hijabs. *Robinson, Brantley-Newton, Cummings, and Qualls are Black. Chen is from Singapore. Chou was born in Taiwan. Espinosa is Columbian. López is Mexican and splits his time between Mexico and the US now. Santat’s family is from Thailand.
Love Makes a Family by Sophie Beer. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Beer’s book is about all the different kinds of families and these include interracial and darker skinned families, families that I would guess are Black, Arabic with the mother wearing a hijab, and Latinx.
I Am Enough by Grace Byers and illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2018. I Am Enough features a Black girl on its cover, but its story is about the inherent worth of every girl, including Black girls (with natural hair it should be noted) and with more than one shade of brown skin, one girl wears a hijab and is likely Arabic, one looks to be possibly of East Asian descent, and one looks possibly Latina. *Byers is Caymanian-American and biracial. Bobo is Black.
How to Trap a Leprechaun by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Emma Randall. Sky Pony-Skyhorse, 2017. Of the four characters represented, two are white, one is dark skinned, probably Black, and the fourth has skin toned somewhere in the middle, possibly also Black or possibly meant to be maybe Latina. But all four children seem more props to the plot of explaining the legend of the leprechaun and how to trap one than full characters.
We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Jane Kates and illustrated by Joe Mathieu. Random, 1992. This book is about diversity. Put out by Sesame Street, the puppets’ bodies are compared to those of illustrated humans. The human characters are from many backgrounds, including Black, Asian, and white. The illustrations focus more on differences in physical appearances while the text seems to focus on differences in physical abilities.
All You Need Is Love by John Lennon and illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2019. This book illustrates the Beatles song of the same name. The illustrations start in a forest following a bear that wanders towards a city and finds a boy playing with a toy truck who has light brown skin and dark hair. The citizens of the city that the two go to are a diverse group, including a woman wearing a headscarf. A few of the citizens look to possibly be of Asian descent.
An animal or nonhuman protagonist with a secondary character who is a POC with a speaking role
Merry Christmas, Little Elliot by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2018. Elliot and Mouse search across New York City for the spirit of Christmas but are unsuccessful. They find a letter to Santa that has gone astray and travel to the suburbs to answer it, meeting a new friend, Noelle, who is darker skinned. The New Yorkers in the group scenes have different skin tones.
A Friend Like Him by Suzanne Francis and illustrated by Dominic Carola and Ryan Feltman. Disney, 2019. This book was released by Disney in conjunction with the new, live-action Aladdin. Aladdin and the people of Agrabah are depicted as Arabic. Jinni is the protagonist, though, I would say, and though he disguises himself at Aladdin’s request as human, appearing then in the guise of Will Smith, who is Black, the character is a jinni and not human.
Corduroy by Don Freeman. Penguin, 1968. Corduroy is the protagonist of this story, but he is returned to his pristine condition and loved by a Black girl, Lisa.
The Duchess and Guy: A Rescue-to-Royalty Puppy Love Story by Nancy Furstinger and illustrated by Julia Bereciartu. Houghton Mifflin, 2019. The dog, Guy, is the protagonist of this story, but he is loved by Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex and married to a prince, is biracial; her mother is Black; her father is white.
Daniel Chooses to Be Kind by Rachel Kalban and illustrated by Jason Fruchter. Simon Spotlight-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Daniel Tiger is the protagonist. Daniel is made king for a day by the white monarch, King Friday. In fulfilling his kingly duties, Daniel visits Baker Aker, who is darker skinned, and helps him with his rolls. He also visits Music Man Stan, who is darker skinned than Aker with a black afro hairstyle. Daniel helps Music Man Stan when his sheet music is caught in the wind. Daniel also cheers up Miss Elaina, a young dark skinned girl with textured hair. Miss Elaina as the daughter of Music Man Stan and Lady Elaine, who is white with blond hair, is biracial.
Love, Z by Jessie Sima. Simon & Schuster, 2018. The letter that the robot Z finds is from Beatrice. Searching for love in delicious food, Z visits a dark skinned and black haired baker. In visiting the school, Z encounters children with various skin tones. As a child, Beatrice holds hands with a darker skinned, black haired girl who makes her feel safe.
An animal or nonhuman protagonist with diverse background characters
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2018. Penelope Rex, a young T. rex, is the protagonist, but her classmates are a diverse group including a hijabi and a boy in a yarmulke as well as children with varied skin tones.
A white protagonist with diverse background characters
Cookies for Santa: The Story of How Santa’s Favorite Cookie Saved Christmas. Illustrated by Johanna Tarkela. America’s Test Kitchen Kids-Sourcebooks Explore-Sourcebooks, 2019. Santa and Santa’s family and the elves and the family that finds the cookbook are all white, but the family in lieu of getting the cookbook back to Santa in time for Christmas, broadcast the recipe and ask families across the country to bake cookies in Santa’s stead. (I cannot find a read-aloud online to check the illustrations for myself and the book is not currently on the shelves as it is not the season, so I am going from memory.)
Clifford the Small Red Puppy by Norman Bridwell. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 1972. One of the police officers who come to investigate the disturbance that is Clifford is darker skinned with gray, curly hair. Every other character in the book appears white.
Juno Valentine and the Fantastic Fashion Adventure by Eva Chen and illustrated by Derek Desierto. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2019.. Juno herself appears to be white. One of her friends has a skin tone near hers and blonde hair. Two have a tone that is darker. And one has a skin tone darker than any of the others’. In the story, Juno becomes famous women throughout history, many of whom are women of color. In the place of such women, Juno interacts with a few characters of color, including a few servants (slaves more likely) serving Cleopatra, possibly of Egyptian heritage. As Misty Copeland, Juno encounters ballerinas with a range of skin tones and hair colors. *Chen’s parents are from Taipei and Shanghai. Derek Desierto is Canadian-Filipino.
No More Monsters Under Your Bed! by Jordan Chouteau and illustrated by Anat Even Or. JIMMY Patterson-Little, Brown-Hatchette, 2019.. The unnamed boy appears white. The first child that the boy shares his magic pin with appears to be a Black girl with natural, curly hair. *Or was born in Tel-Aviv.
We Are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines and illustrated by Julianna Swaney. Thomas Nelson-HarperCollins, 2019. *Gaines’ mother is Korean and her father is half-Lebanese/half-German. She and her family are the protagonists of this story, which is really more nonfiction than fiction.
Elle the Entrepreneur by Andrea B. Newman. Petite, 2016. The second family to whom Elle reaches out are darker skinned with black hair and gray or brown eyes. They do not hire Elle because setting the table is already one of the chores that their children do.
We’re All Wonders by R. J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2017. The protagonist is actually pictured as having white—no, white—skin. The protagonist claims that he doesn’t look “ordinary […] like other kids.” The other kids he imagines are a diverse group include skin tones across the spectrum and a girl who wears something akin to a hijab. This diverse group is among those that “sometimes […] stare […] point or laugh [and] even say mean things behind [his] back.” The friend that he makes at the end is darker skinned, but this boy is never given any dialogue or narrative role. *Palacio’s parents were Columbian immigrants to the US.
Dear Girl, by Amy Krouse and Paris Rosenthal and illustrated by Holly Hatam. HarperCollins, 2017. The protagonist is a white skinned girl with black hair. A dark skinned girl with a black afro is seen thanking her birthmark for making her unique. Another dark skinned girl offers a hug. Another plays soccer and one with a lighter brown skin tone and brown hair paints.
Dear Boy, by Paris and Jason Rosenthal and illustrated by Holly Hatam. HarperCollins, 2019. The protagonist is an unnaturally white skinned boy with black hair but the friends who cheer him on are diverse. The inclusion of characters with more naturally white skin (more of a sawdust than milk) make me wonder if the boy’s white skin, skin so white as to match the uncolored page is meant to be an absence of skin tone rather than a white, but other characters are also represented as unnaturally white skinned too.
Greta and the Giants by Zoë Tucker and illustrated by Zoe Persico. Frances Lincoln Children’s-Quarto, 2019. Greta Thunberg is of course Swedish, but in this fantastic reimagining of her fight against disinterested governments and greedy big businesses, the second child to join her protest is a darker skinned boy. And the growing crowd of protesters is diverse.
As always, if you know I have misrepresented anyone, please tell me so that I can correct my information.