In the Movement for Black Lives, artistic contributions can serve as a form of activism and protest, and there has been an urgent call for diverse books created by Black authors and illustrators. Recently, many more newly published titles have at the center of their narratives children of African descent.
It isn’t enough, however, that these books just feature Black children. The best of these books also celebrate Black children being ordinary children—being themselves, being curious, being bold, being beautiful, being creative, being loving, or being playful. The best of these books never feature Blackness as an issue and may or may not mention any part of the child’s racial or ethnic identity. The best of these are #BlackJoy books in which not only the protagonists, their families, and their lived experiences shine and matter, but also we, the diverse readers, matter. After reading these books, we are changed, more awe-filled, more loving, more in touch with our shared humanity.
Researchers have defined joy as “delight that arises in response to a source of meaning or value in life.” According to researchers Damaris Dunn and Bettina Love, an anti-racist approach to teaching language arts must include Black joy because it “allows Black people to be more than their struggles and setbacks, to see Black folx creativity, imagination, healing, and ingenuity.”
A recent study by Jessica Lu and Catherine Knight Steele highlights how everyday expressions of Black joy help resist and dismantle persistent racist narratives that dehumanize Black people. “The expression of joy is a subversive intervention insofar as it asserts Black people as possessing a full range of emotion,” they explain.
While fewer than half of children’s books with Black primary characters were written by Black authors in 2018, the following list of nine picture books are—and they center joyful African American children. Each title can provide a unique reading experience for your family’s storytime and a valuable contribution to any home or school collection.
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, written by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
This multi-award-winning picture book is the ultimate celebration of Black boy barbershop joy. Vivid paintings of swag-filled boys, men, and one woman with fresh hairstyles are paired with clever and poetic descriptions of Black cool. This book is an ode not only to Black beauty, but also to the barbers and barbershops central to African American culture. Perfect for the stylish, the proud, and the bashful, this book invites all of us to recognize the beautiful lives of Black and Brown boys.
A Girl Like Me, written by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Nina Crews
Not many children’s books feature contemporary photographs of ordinary children doing ordinary things. This book shows a diverse group of girls dreaming, laughing, playing, and being themselves. A short prose poem takes readers along for the ride in the sky, underwater, and in the city, in a photo-collage journey. The girls featured are confident, fun, and bold, and they invite you to join them. Perfect for dreamers and superheroes, this brilliant book is a celebration of girlhood and fearlessness.
Jayden’s Impossible Garden, written by Mélina Mangal, illustrated by Ken Daley
In this colorful tale about two nature enthusiasts, children will get inspired to create their own city gardens. Young Jayden and his older neighbor Mr. Curtis, who is in a wheelchair, come together in their mutual love of observing nature. Their enthusiasm is the motivation for their special project of creating a magical garden that brings joy and wonder to skeptical family members and neighbors. Perfect for city dwellers and budding scientists, this book features facts about neighborhood plants and animals as well as instructions for two recycled crafts.
Max and the Tag-Along Moon, written and illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Max could be considered a 21st century Peter because this exciting, night ride of a book is reminiscent of Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. After Max bids farewell to his grandpa after a visit, Max keeps careful watch of the moon as it follows him home. Soft, colorful paintings strengthen the excitement of the journey and Max’s curiosity. Perfect for explorers, dreamers, and bedtime, this gentle book features a touching grandpa-grandson relationship and a warm, full moon.
Me & Mama, written and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
Lush acrylic paintings and poetic vignettes elevate this warm mother-daughter story, in which the young girl protagonist begins and ends a normal, rainy day with her mama. But, far from ordinary, her day with her mama centers around joyful experiences, insightful observations, and loving moments. Each page evokes a smile and encourages all of us to cherish each small moment with our loved ones. Perfect for budding poets and painters, this book’s gorgeous illustrations and words will inspire more time for cuddling and creating.
Ruby’s Reunion Day Dinner, written by Angela Dalton, illustrated by Jestenia Southerland
Lil’ Ruby isn’t quite sure what signature dish to make for her family’s reunion day dinner in this charming story. As she takes in the sights, smells, and sounds as family members prepare dishes, Ruby gets discouraged because she is a bit too small to handle the hot, heavy, and complicated cooking. But Ruby is soon filled with joy when she discovers and makes her own sweet, signature dish that delights her entire family. Perfect for summertime and foodies, this book has vibrant imagery and delicious dishes on every page.
Saturday, written and illustrated by Oge Mora
In this mother-daughter story, Saturday plans go awry one after the other and threaten to ruin Ava and her mother’s special day together. Yet despite cancellations, noise, and other mishaps, Ava and her mother are able to remain at peace and joyful on their precious Saturday. Cut and painted paper collages provide radiant textures and movement to this action-packed, emotion-filled narrative. Perfect for any storytime and for lovers of plot-driven stories, this delightful book promotes resiliency and more quality time with family every day of the week.
Seeing Into Tomorrow: Haiku, by Richard Wright, biography and illustrations by Nina Crews
What makes this book so magnificent is that it features photographs of ordinary children while also celebrating Black boys being, mattering, and seeing. Haiku that were written decades ago by Richard Wright capture quiet moments of boyhood. Each sweet poem is elevated by rich photo collages of contemporary African American boys in motion. Perfect for outdoor storytime, as well as any and every child, this joyful book centers the importance of play, wonder, and the ordinary lives of Black boys, including the late Richard Wright.
The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter, by Shabazz Larkin
This is a joyful book that describes bees and their benefits. Yet it is much more than ordinary nonfiction because the bee facts described through rhyming text become a father’s loving ode to his sons. Energetic illustrations strengthen this father-sons story that is at once heartwarming and humorous, educational and inspiring. Perfect for nature enthusiasts, artists, and poets, this glowing book celebrates love and letting go of fear.