In this post: Gorgeous, captivating, and endearing children’s picture books written and illustrated by Black women & nonbinary* authors & illustrators.
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Disclosure: I’m not Black. As a non-Black woman of color, raised in the US, I’m bound to miss some things. I’ve done my best to boost the voices of Black women, but feel free to comment below if/when I screw up. This is bound to be an imperfect (and incomplete) list. I’m human.
Also: In an earlier version of this post, I accidentally appropriated the term ‘femme.’ Whoops – sorry! Learn why that’s not okay in the end of this post.
When White folks appropriate the identities of Black characters
Racism is so embedded in kidlit that we don’t see when authors perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce white supremacist narratives.
When women of color & Indigenous women tell us how we’re erasing them from the dominant narrative – listen to them. Even when it’s hard. Even when they force us to confront the horrors of slavery, the prison industrial complex, and the ways we are complicit in their oppression.
No matter how uncomfortable it gets, no matter how much you want to shout “NOT ME! I’M NOT THE PROBLEM!” – Hush. Believe Black women. After a lifetime of living in this skin, they are the experts on their experience.
What we can’t see through the white gaze
People of color are neither monolithic nor infallible – we grow up in the same racist society White folks do. Authors who write from lived experience can create problematic books – but these stories are more likely to humanize protagonists of color with dimension, agency, and cultural insight than authors without lived experience.
When a white author appropriates the identity of women of color, it’s easy to feed into subtle racism and stereotypes without realizing it.
To illustrate this – Let’s compare how athlete Althea Gibson is portrayed by a white author, with her treatment by a Black author.
Sue Stauffacher (a white author) feeds into the narrative of Gibson as a loud, angry Black girl in Nothing But Trouble. If you don’t know why this is a problem – I suggest you google ‘how the Angry Black Woman stereotype silences women.‘
Compare Stauffacher’s portrayal to Vashti Harrison’s biography of Gibson in Little Leaders, (Harrison is a Black woman).
Harrison focuses on Gibson’s accomplishments. Gibson’s troublesome behavior isn’t erased – but it’s placed in context of her behavior as a child. Gibson isn’t a one-dimensional, running stereotype, she’s a woman who grows up and matures over a lifetime.
Through the white gaze, Gibson’s nature is violent and out of control – it’s something to be overcome, or rather, to be tamped and adjusted (by a man, of course.) The entire book reads like a letter of gratitude to this dude – it’s centered on Gibson’s mentor, rather than Gibson herself. Stauffacher erases the discipline and drive that Gibson must have had to become the first Black athlete to desegregate international tennis and get inducted to the Tennis and International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. You don’t get that far when you’re just a wild puppet on a string.
In Harrison’s version, Gibson is self-driven to overcome her hurdles, she is self-motivated to mature and harness her strength and energy. We also see how she taps into the cultural wealth of her Black community. Growing up in a Black community is good for her, fighting against the trope of a troubled teen trying to escape a Black neighborhood.
Which book do you want your kids reading?
Or rather – what messages do you want your kids to take away from the books you read together? Are Black women complex, independent, autonomous individuals with power, strength, and vulnerability – or are they wild tools of aggression who need to be directed and saved by superior (re: white/male) forces?
Support Black Women & Nonbinary* Makers
White authors appropriate and profit off the identities of people of color. It’s not enough to read books about Black women – we need to support Black women and nonbinary artists and authors. Be cautious and do your research when searching #Ownvoices authors – I’ve come across so many reading lists who include books featuring Black characters by white authors and claim they are written by Black authors. Be cautious and do your research when searching #Ownvoices authors. Below, find our favorite books that I’ve been able to confirm are written or illustrated by Black women.
I’ve made this super simple for you – start with just one book each month.
Don’t wait until Black history month or Women’s history month to read books by women of color. Pick up a couple of these once a month from the library.
I can’t fit all the authors and illustrator’s I’d love to highlight in one post. If you get through all these and are eager for more, our patreon supporters get access to my working list of over 50 Black women & nonbinary* authors and illustrators I’ve found over the years, and that list grows every month. Click here support us on patreon & get access to my book lists in progress.
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Roda Ahmed (Author)
Originally from Nigeria, now living in the UK, Atinuke interweaves discussions of privilege, restorative justice, cultural wealth, wealth inequality, and normalizing multiracial families into endearing characters and adorable stories that leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. She’s got a collection of both board & picture books for toddlers and preschoolers as well as chapter book series for elementary-aged children. They are all amazing.
You might also like: Books About Girls of Color Are Not Just For Girls of Color.
Does your son’s bookshelf pass the Uhura Test?
Georgie Badiel – Activist
Badiel, an activist and model, has used her pretty privilege (yes this is a thing) to advocate for access to potable water for villages in Burkina Faso – an issue that is deeply intertwined with climate change, environmental racism, colonialism, sexism, education rights, and wealth inequality. This book is a fantastic starter to scaffold later discussions.
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Carole Boston Weatherford – Author
Boston Weatherford’s books are written for kids slightly above the BFL target age range (0-7), but her books on African American activists are wonderful. I will admit it’s a struggle to get the Earthquakes to read them more than once a year, but they will enjoy them more when they’re older. Her work is great for school book reports and library reference shelves, rather than bedtime stories.
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Janay Brown-Wood – Author
Deceptively simple book with a ton of complex layers – Brown-Wood interweaves magical realism, trickster heroes, faith and self-confidence, overcoming bullies and critics, and celebrates Maasai culture. It gets better with every read.
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Natacha Bustos – Illustrator
Born & raised in Spain to a Chilean father & Afro-Brazilian mother, Bustos is the multiracial Latinx Black illustrator we’ve been begging for to represent smart girls of color in the comic book industry.
Coincidence that the chaotic, goofy illustrations of a complicated, smart-but-also-immature braniac is my 6-year-old’s absolute favorite super hero? Probably not.
GIVE US MORE WOMEN OF COLOR IN MAINSTREAM COMICS, PLEASE.
Lucille Clifton – Author
Clifton’s picture books were a part of the early (second?) wave of picture books normalizing characters of color in urban communities. Her characters were vulnerable, complex, and childlike – which doesn’t seem like that big of a deal on at first glance (they are, after all, children).
Black children in kidlit are often forced to embody a single dimension of all-powerful, all-knowing, and invulnerable perfection to overcome negative stereotypes. In Clifton’s books, however, they are allowed to be – to misunderstand, to be misunderstood, to learn, and to be little.
Dr. Marietta Collins, PhD (Author)
It’s well done, and a must-read for kids growing up in the US.
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Marti Dumas (Author)
Jaden Toussaint is the smart, gentle model of healthy young masculinity we need. He’s funny, hard-working, innovative, and like the characters in Clifton’s books – still little and learning.
This series of chapter books spanning Jaden’s year in kindergarten is filled with pop-culture references that go over my 6-year-old’s head. But the jokes also make this series re-readable, since it will give my kids more to glom as they get older.
There’s also something very important in Jaden that I want to model for my kids – that it’s cool to care about things. Jaden is enthusiastically nerdy, his feelings get hurt, he gets scared and frustrated. But he’s cool and confident and not afraid to speak up and try and fail at things. I wish every little boy had the space to be his whole self the way Jaden does.
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Zetta Elliott (Author)
Elliott continues to work, and work hard at giving us complex, intersectional representation for kids of color with agency. It shows in her work – from picture books for preschoolers to chapter books and YA, Elliott has been pouring her heart and soul into creating mirrors for kids who are traditionally under-represented and erased from the dominant narrative.
What I love most about Elliott is her humility – she doesn’t suggest that she knows all, or is doing things perfectly. She’s worked tirelessly to reach out to people with the identities she’s representing to make sure they are heard, to counter stereotypes and misunderstandings, and to keep growing and learning.
Cheryl Foggo (Author)
Foggo appears to be a storytelling polymath, primarily focused in film (which is not within the BFL wheelhouse). Which is awesome because her expertise lends complexity to Dear Baobab, but also kind of sucks because she doesn’t have time to write more kidlit.
We need more stories like this!
Laura Freeman (Illustrator)
Freeman has illustrated so many books I haven’t even made a dent in her library. Her illustrations are dynamic and diverse – depicting a wide range of skin tones (including some multiracial characters) and lately, body sizes.
*Update: See the comments – some of Freeman’s authored work looks problematic in stigmatizing type 4 hair.
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Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow (Author) & Ebony Glenn (Illustrator)
There are a few stories destigmatizing & empowering stories for and about Muslim women who wear khimars (there are lots of different names and types of veils/hijabs worn by Muslim women depending on what language you’re using), and this one was by far our favorite.
Countering the Islamaphobic nonsense that a khimar is a tool of oppression against women, Mommy’s Khimar celebrates them as a symbol of joy, faith, warmth, and comfort. Wearing a khimar is choice, an honor, and a celebration.
I’ll admit I’m still working on getting the Earthquakes to stop pointing and shouting “MOMMY, LOOK!” when they see a person wearing a khimar in public (yikes). BUT, when they do, they are eager to say hello, and tell these new friends how beautiful their khimar is.
Monica Gunning – Author
A Shelter In Our Car was (for better or for worse) the Earthquake’s first introduction to homelessness, the fact that police officers are not concerned with the well being of all children, some of the obstacles that many immigrants face, and a reality for many families who hit hard times.
It hit them like a punch in the gut – and that’s a good thing. We shouldn’t be okay with the fact that many children are homeless and struggling. It’s not our job as parents to keep them from the pain of knowing this – it’s our job to help them channel those big feelings into world-changing action.
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Janice N. Harrington – Author
I’m a sucker for childish characters who are given space to learn, grow, and do better. Harrington’s stories are universal for all children, featuring characters of color in stories that aren’t about race.
Vashti Harrison – Author & Illustrator
Harrison suddenly hit the kidlit sphere and now we’ve got spinoffs to Little Leaders, both in board book form, and to cover international women in history. Her illustrations are adorable, and the anthologies are accessible and well-written.
Ekua Holmes – Illustrator
I’m just now recognizing a pattern of awesomeness in Holmes’s work, between Voice of Freedom (pictured above, written by Carole Boston Weatherford), The Stuff of Stars & What Do You Do With A Voice Like That, in particular, struck a chord with my particularly loud kid who has trouble regulating the volume of his voice.
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (Author) & Jade Johnson (Illustrator)
We don’t often see history’s heroes doing the tedious, unglamorous part of activism. We don’t see them facing doubt, worry, and fear. We also don’t see many books highlighting the power of teachers. But now we do. Yay!
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Kaylani Juanita – Illustrator
Okay so technically I haven’t gotten my hands on this book yet since it hasn’t come out, so I can’t really tell you beyond all doubt that it is totally awesome. BUT. I looked closely at the book trailer and noticed it features a multiracial family without a white parent. If you’re familiar with this website, you know this SO RARE.
And then I started looking closer. It features trans boy preparing for the arrival of his new sibling. And and and and…it’s illustrated by a Native Hawaiian/Black multiracial person who identifies as LGBQT+. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high but OH GOSH MY HOPES, SO HIGH.
Francie Latour – Author
Latour’s story touches on that uncomfortable liminal space that third-culture kids (TCK) inhabit, where we don’t feel like we belong in any specific community. She introduces kids to the history of the Haitian Revolution against slavers and colonist oppressors. She touches on that hunger we all have to understand our family narratives, our cultural background, and how we find a place to belong in the world. GO READ THIS NOW.
I could write a book about the great things in this book. So coming soon, I’ve connected with Francie to feature her in a maker spotlight, so follow BFL on Patreon if you want a heads up when that comes out.
Mélina Mangal – Author
Okay, I’ll admit this book is juuust a little too advanced to screen with my kids at 4.5 & 6.5. BUT the book is gorgeous, and we have this lovely biography about a thoughtful, innovative man who mixed poetry and science.
This book is lovely, and I’m excited for my kids to grow up a little so we can read it together.
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson – Author
From the story: “Me and my dad talk about important things. Things like truth and what it means to be free. Dad says books can help you. Not every book is true, he says, but the more you read, the easier it is to figure out for yourself what is true.”
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Sharee Miller – Author & Illustrator
Miller did a spectacular job creating a book that validates microaggressions against kids with fantastic hair that also help kids without curly kinky hair understand why it’s not okay to poke and prod.
I grew up with that straight black Asian hair that white people insisted on petting and tug, and this book was sat-is-fying to read. This book is adorable, hilarious, and accessible even for my boys, who learned why it’s not okay to treat other people like animals in a petting zoo.
Jerdine Nolen – Author
Nolen’s storytelling is a bit long-winded and difficult for a read-aloud, but her heros are intelligent, vulnerable, complicated, and everything I want in a childhood hero. The plots to her stories are irreverent, modern folktales that I want to hold on to and read to my grandchildren.
Elise Peterson – Illustrator
Peterson is a mixed-media collage artist who works with radical feminist authors to bring contemporary art into kidlit, creating sophisticated books with layers of meaning that are intended for adults just as much as for children. Her work is not for the fragile. I adore them.
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“I’ve seen stories about us revised, rewritten, turned on its head, and sold back to us by people who I know have no intention in mind but ‘selling a Black product to its intended buyers.'” Read more…
Andrea Davis Pinkney – Author
I’ll admit these aren’t exciting or sit-down-and-cuddle stories, my kids don’t pick these up and ask me to read them over and over again. Pinkney’s books lean toward didactic and do best in a school or library. But she’s a prolific powerhouse who has led the way for many women authors of color, and it would just feel weird not to include her in this list.
Sonia Lynn Sadler – Illustrator
Sadler passed away in 2013. This is an enormous loss for our children – she was just getting started illustrating children’s books and Seeds of Change remains one of the most gorgeously illustrated biographies I’ve ever read.
The author of Seeds Of Change, Jen Cullerton Johnson, established the Sonia Lynn Salder Award for children’s illustrators, and I’m looking forward to seeing how illustrators inspired by her work will continue her legacy.
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Ilyasah Shabazz – Author
Written by his daughter, this biography is the best one we’ve found on Malcolm X. It’s a little over our usual age range (the publisher page says it’s for grades 4-7) but we like to skim over the text and get the gist of the values and principles X grew up with that gave him the courage and fuel for his lifetime of activism.
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“Racism was programmed into you without your consent. Be mad about that. You never agreed to carry it forward”
Jacqueline Woodson – Author
I’m assuming you don’t live under a rock, and have heard of Jacqueline Woodson by now – she’s been at this for a while, and her craft and ability to connect with kids gets better with every book.