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The summer of 2020 has been marked by protests across the country and a national conversation about, among other things, inequality, diversity and balanced representation in various media. Just as Hollywood, Broadway and other entertainment industries have been examining their culpability in perpetuating systemic racism, the world of children’s and young adult literature is also reckoning with the need for all children to have access to diverse stories — families, too, have been facing the need to diversify their bookshelves.
Author and illustrator Vashti Harrison says that, in recent months, she has often heard from educators and parents who are similarly interested in updating their collections of books. Harrison is best known for picture books that highlight Black history and for illustrating books about everyday family life like “Hair Love” and Lupita Nyong’o’s “Sulwe.” As parents and educators embrace a newfound interest in Black stories, Harrison says it’s particularly important to embrace books that highlight Black resilience and joy.
“When I was growing up, children’s books really boiled down to enslavement and the history of civil rights and stories of struggle,” says Harrison, 32. Her “Little Leaders” series introduces readers to significant historical and popular figures in Black history. “For me, as a shy kid who loved to draw in the corner by myself, the stories that inspired me were ones where I saw a reflection of myself.”
I don’t want to continue the notion that these books should be otherized.
Vashti Harrison, Author and Illustrator
In recent months, Harrison has seen her books make the rounds on social media, included in lists upon lists of book recommendations. “It is so exciting to see people buying my books and people post lists of ways to talk about race, but I don’t want the story to feel like it is over and that, once you buy these books, that you just keep them in the ‘race section’ of your bookshelf,” said Harrison. “I don’t want to continue the notion that these books should be otherized.” That’s why Harrison pushed for the “Little Leaders” books to sport a vintage look. “I like when parents have them on their bookshelf right next to classics like Madeline and Paddington and the Eloise books,” she explained.
But despite major inroads in recent years with initiatives like We Need Diverse Books, the world of children’s and young adult literature has been dominated by white authors and stories about white children. According to numbers released by the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children's Book Center in June, only 5.7 percent of the children’s and young adult books released in 2019 came from Black or African American writers or illustrators — and only 11.9 percent of children’s and young adult books featured a Black primary character.
In addition to impacting authors and illustrators of color trying to break into publishing, bestselling children’s book author Renée Watson says the small proportion of books by Black authors also impacts the way children of all backgrounds see the world, especially when it comes to everyday life. The need to showcase the lives and stories of Black girls, in particular, has always been a major theme in Watson’s books for teens and children.
“If you never have to read about a character who is Black and has a life similar to yours — they get to play or be magical and have boyfriends and girlfriends — I think that teaches white and non-Black people a certain viewpoint about Blackness,” says Watson, who authored the acclaimed middle grade novel “Some Places More Than Others.” Given that, “it is not a surprise that when they become adults, they do not value Black lives — they never had to value Black lives in their curriculum.”
Watson’s 2017 young adult novel “Piecing Me Together,” which tells the story of a Black girl in Portland who feels out of place at her private school, recently re-entered the New York Times bestseller list. Her latest chapter book, “Ways To Make Sunshine,” focuses on an energetic little girl named Ryan who struggles to adjust after her father experiences a sudden job loss — it’s an homage to Beverly Cleary’s classic Ramona Quimby books.
“I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and I remember being so excited when I read a Ramona book because I recognized Klickitat Street and I knew the library that she went to,” Watson recalled. However, the all-white world of the Ramona books did not reflect Watson’s own experiences as a Black child in Portland. “When I got older and reread that series, I thought, ‘Oh, there are people left out of that story.’”
Likewise, shining a light on Black stories inspired Harrison to create her “Little Leaders” series, a frequent bestseller since its release. Harrison realized there was an audience for picture books about Black historical figures following the popularity of a Black History Month-themed art series she created in 2017 and shared throughout the month on Instagram. “When I found out I had the opportunity to turn it into a book, I really started thinking about what it is I wanted to share with kids, especially if it is their first introduction to Black history.”
Fiction also provides parents and teachers a gateway into conversations that can sometimes be uncomfortable, noted Watson, formerly a teacher of poetry and theater. Her “Piecing Me Together,” hones in on a mostly-white private high school in Portland and dealing with the microaggressions and subtle racism of teachers, classmates and mentors. Watson adds that while some parents may be reluctant to talk about racism or ongoing protests and demonstrations with their kids, “we sometimes forget that our young people have something to say, too,” she said. In particular, diverse stories allow parents to safely open up dialogues about race, inequality and social imbalance. “For kids, seeing Black people in their everydayness is a way to introduce them to diversity and to say that everybody matters — people are human,” Watson noted, adding parents should be asking, “‘What questions do you have about this character?’ ‘What differences do you notice between their family and ours?’”
“They will start talking and the conversation will go from there,” she said. To help start such conversations, Watson and Harrison suggested several authors whose all-ages books might help families upend the diversity of their bookshelves with inspiring and uplifting tales of Black resilience. We added some of our own choices to the mix, as well, to round out a selection of reads worth considering this summer.
Recommended picture books
1. “Don’t Touch My Hair” by Sharee Miller (Pre-Order, Ships Nov. 3)
Harrison recommends the work of Sharee Miller, who has written about Black girls and their families. “Her books are just always really fun and energetic,” said Harrison. “The kids get to imagine themselves in that different world, which seems so simple but nothing like that existed when I was a kid.” In “Don’t Touch My Hair,” main character Aria gets increasingly frustrated as kids in her class, adults and even animals touch her curly hair without her permission. After wondering if she should start hiding her beautiful hair, Aria learns the importance of boundaries while also teaching readers the importance of respecting others.
2. “Speak Up” by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Ebony Glenn
Illustrator Ebony Glenn is one of Harrison’s favorite artists working in children’s books today. “She is so good at creating these adorable characters that you want to just hug — they are so pretty,” Harrison said. In “Speak Up,” a group of young kids learn how to express their feelings out loud about everything from gratitude to injustice.
3. “Southwest Sunrise” by Nikki Grimes, Illustrated by Wendell Minor
Moving to a new place can be hard, especially if you are in elementary school. In “Southwest Sunrise,” Nikki Grimes introduces readers to Jayden, a young boy who is not happy at all that his family is relocating to New Mexico. Jayden warms up to his new home as he embraces the beautiful mountains and deserts around him.
Recommended chapter books
4. “Jada Jones: Rock Star” by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Elementary kids will enjoy Kelly Starling Lyons’ Jada Jones series, in which the main character discovers how to be her true self through her love of science. The series begins with Jada struggling to make new friends after her best friend moves away. When her teacher announces the class will dig into rocks, Jada realizes it’s her time to shine.
5. “Two Naomis” by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick
Except for the fact that they share a first name and both have recently divorced parents, Naomi Marie and Naomi Edith are as different as can be. That’s why both girls become extremely unhappy when Naomi Marie’s mom and Naomi Edith’s dad begin dating. When their families decide the girls should take a class together in order to get to know each other better, both Naomis have to learn how to work together — and reimagine their vision of what families should look like.
Recommended middle grade books
6. “The Only Black Girls in Town” by Brandy Colbert
Alberta knows that she stands out in her small California town for two big reasons — the fact that she has two dads and that she’s always been the only Black girl in her grade. When the fashionable and sophisticated Edie moves into the bed and breakfast across the street, she hopes that they can soon become close friends. When Edie discovers an old diary by a young woman who lived in the bed and breakfast years ago, the two decide to try to find her and unravel the secrets of her past.
7. “The Season of Styx Malone” by Kekla Magoon
This powerful 2018 novel illustrates how one summer can change the way a child sees the world forever. Caleb and Bobby Gene can’t wait to spend their vacation hanging out and exploring the woods behind their house. It is there that Caleb is instantly dazzled when he meets their neighbor Styx Malone, a charismatic teen who convinces him to join him in what he calls “The Great Elevator Trade” through which the boys make a series of trades in order to land them the scooter they’d been eyeing for weeks.
8. “The Jumbies” by Tracey Baptiste
Rooted in Haitian folklore, Tracey Baptiste’s 2015 fantasy novel follows 11-year-old Corinne La Mer as she sets off into the forest on a mission to retrieve a treasured necklace belonging to her late mother from a wild animal. But, as she gets deeper into the forest, Corinne also has to watch out for the legendary “jumbies,” forest creatures said to be “always waiting for their moment to attack.”
Recommended young adult books
9. “A Blade So Black” by L.L. McKinney
The world of young adult literature has seen several modern day retellings of classic stories in recent years. In “A Blade So Black,” L.L. McKinney takes the beloved story of Alice in Wonderland and transports it to modern-day Atlanta. Like many teen girls, McKinney’s Alice Kingston struggles to be a good student and daughter to her overprotective and widowed mother. But, unlike other girls, Alice also has to battle the creatures known as The Nightmares after her beloved mentor is poisoned.
10. “All The Things We Never Knew” by Liara Tamani
The intensity and headiness of first love are on full display in “All The Things We Never Knew,” Liara Tamani’s latest young adult novel. Carli and Rex are both star basketball players who are drawn to each other the second that they meet. But while Carli navigates her new relationship, she is also trying to plan her future while making a bunch of decisions that include who she’ll live with after her parents’ divorce.
11. “Black Girl Magic” by Mahogany Browne
While this slim poetry volume looks from the outside as if it is a picture book for children, within is a powerful poem about the stereotypes and obstacles many Black girls face from childhood. But while readers are encouraged to question the messages the world projects onto them, Browne also urges readers to “shine,” “bloom” and embrace joy.