It wasn’t always a given that we could give you a list of the best children’s books featuring boys of color. In mainstream American pop culture, we have been quick to embrace the music and poetry of Black and Latino men. We love our Black and brown actors and comedians. But until very recent history, we have been far, far behind on giving them starring roles in literature, as little boys or as grown men.
That, as you must know if you’re reading this, is a serious problem that we’re still a long way from fixing entirely. But at least now little boys and girls don’t have to resort to reading only books about animals and white kids. They can see themselves in the pages too. These children’s books for boys of color are also for boys and girls of all backgrounds, of course, because we turn to books to expand our worlds as much as to see them reflected.
Some of what we list here, such as Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, bring to life true stories of slavery, oppression, and triumph. Children will be totally engrossed as they’re educated about what it’s like to have a family divided by immigration, such as in René Laínez’s From North to South, or to have little money, like in Trombone Shorty’s memoir for children.
We have gathered some of the best children’s books that uplift Black and brown boys, too. Karamo Brown’s I Am Perfectly Designed and Mechal Renee Roe’s Cool Cuts are full of infectious joy and love.
At the same time, the best children’s books don’t always aim to teach children, not so obviously anyway. Matt de la Peña’s award-winning Last Stop on Market Street shows rather than tells about the beauty we can find in everyday lives. Ezra Jack Keats’ beloved classic The Snowy Day gives us little more than a perfect slice of life that we would very much love to save in our pocket to cherish later. We can hear the music of Havana’s streets in the words of Margarita Engle’s All the Way to Havana, and the rhythm of New York’s neighborhoods in Laban Carrick Hill’s When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop.
We also won’t sleep on the illustrators of these children’s books boys and girls love to stare at for hours. From the inimitable work of Jerry Pinkney in God Bless the Child to the depictions of Little Legends from new rising star Vashti Harrison, these books are worthy of filling your bookshelves long past the days when your children outgrow picture books. But then we hope you’ll pass them on to others, too.
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