[Image Descriptions: Illustration from the inner pages of ‘Starring Carmen’ by Anika Denise & Lorena Alvarez Gomez, featuring a confident multiracial Black & Latina wearing a sparkly caped costume, waving two star-studded wands in the air.]
In this post: Fun-to-read kids books starring girls of color – focusing on agency and adventure, not race and gender
Do you read as many children’s books celebrating girls of color as you do that feature white dudes?
As I send my (tall, gorgeous, able-bodied, light-skinned) kids out into the world of classrooms and social events, it’s my job to keep them aware of this human tendency to idealize themselves and to only pick kids who look like them for the kickball team.
I don’t want my white-presenting kids ignoring, talking over, and objectifying women of color as they grow up. If I don’t take action now to counter the assumption that everything centers around white men – if I don’t show my sons that girls of color are peers and equals, that youthful entitlement will grow into something far more dangerous.
Books about girls are not just for girls.
Our boys (actually…girls and non-binary kids, too) must learn that all genders have a right to take up space and are worth listening to, even when they’re not acting ‘like boys.’ They need to learn that the things that matter to girls matter.
This same concept goes for all targeted identities – even modern stories teach kids to believe in a weird system of gender, race, and the roles we’re ‘naturally’ supposed to take. It’s up to us as parents and educators to expose and discuss these myths and stereotypes.
Normalizing kids of color in universal stories
Let’s learn from history and teach our kids to identify inequity. But if oppression is all the only narrative we show them, if every book featuring a Black character is about slavery and the civil rights movement, our kids will believe this false hierarchy of races is the mandate of heaven.
Systemic racism and sexism isn’t determined by white male superiority – it’s determined by greed, hate, and entrenched oppression. Uneven representation teaches our kids that people of color have a place in kids books only when they’re set apart from every day adventures and stories about our shared experiences.
This is incorrect. This is dangerous.
All kids need oodles of stories where girls of color don’t have to justify their existence – where every message isn’t about racism, sexism, and a tourist view of foreign lands. Even white boys – especially white boys – need to see girls of color who are valuable, powerful, and unique.
The Uhura Test: Making Space For Peers & Equals
The Uhura test makes space for regular kids who just happen to be girls of color.
We’re looking for engaging, fun-to-read, normalizing books – which should outnumber stories featuring white boys on our shelves if we’re going to counteract the idealization of masculine whiteness. You know – the message embedded in truck books that only feature male pronouns, adventure stories full of daring boys and their moms and girlfriends, or the token stories featuring a brown girl in the background for diversity-points.
Do your bedtime stories pass the Uhura test?
- Do girls of color have agency?
The protagonist is a girl (or non-binary) human of color who has agency in her own story. Not a supporting character, not a victim to be saved, not a racially coded wise Chinese panda, and not a manic pixie dream girl to be won like a trophy.
- Do makers write from lived experience, or do they acknowledge and search to fill gaps in their knowledge?
Nothing overrides lived experience. The maker is a woman of color and/or consulted women who share the character’s identity to avoid stereotypes, problematic plot devices, and exploitation.
Books by women & nonbinary authors and illustrators of color are *marked and in bold in this post.
- Is the plot engaging with universal appeal?
The story was written for all kids to enjoy and identify with. None of this ‘Bedtime stories for girls‘ or ‘Potty training – the Black version’ bullshit, implying the only contribution women have made in history are for other women, or that white folks can’t connect with a story unless they match the characters.
- Does the message connect ‘us,’ rather than othering ‘them?’
Stories written to educate us on a new perspective or validate and empower targeted kids are both helpful, but these are would be explicitly educational and validating – tools we will cover later. These stories speak to the human condition – that which connects us, from lost teeth and sibling rivalry to the excitement of exploration.
- Are girls of color valuable and successful outside the gaze of white supremacy?
Our culture defines success and power as more white/masculine/non-disabled/cisgender/etc. The presumption is: to be a real hero, she’d behave like a white dude. To be more beautiful, she’d have lighter skin. To be smarter, she’d speak without an accent in ‘proper’ English. Dismantling he supremacy of our kyriarchy requires we back up and evaluate how super (cough cough: supreme) heroes really behave. So none of this ‘She’s not like the other girls‘ or ‘noble savage‘ nonsense.
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*Books by women of color (author and/or illustrator) are bold and marked (*) and gender non-binary characters are noted, too. My resources for identifying makers of color are limited, so apologies if/when I make mistakes. If you find an error, leave a comment and I’ll fix it.
Adventure & Superheroes
Caveat on violence: ‘Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur contains classic comic-style smashes & bashes and ‘Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon’ includes a scene where she bowls over a bully using her powerful voice.
Caveat on violence: ‘Ironheart’ features a graphic death of drive-by shooting (sparked discussion on senseless gun violence with my 5yo) and here are. some. articles on what we need to be cautious of in representing young Black girls terms of sexualization, maturity, and colorism in comics – you’ll want to keep these in mind as you read this with kids.
STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering & Math
Animals & Fantastic Creatures
Hello Goodbye Dog, The Rabbit Listened (non-binary), The Little Little Girl With The Big Voice (which might be problematic since it plays into stereotypes about ‘loud’ black women. I’ll let you decide.)
Sibling Issues – New Baby & Rivalry
You might also like: Circumventing White Fragiity With Bharat Babies
Loquacious & Literary Heroes
Caveat: ‘One Word From Sophia’ features a hyperlexic multiracial girl – which is awesome, but her family urges her to reduce her logical arguments to a simple ‘please,’ and I’m not thrilled about that.
The classic ‘Anna Hibiscus’ series also has a spin-off set of books for toddlers, too.
Tenacious & Clever
Brave, Courageous & Kind
‘Come With Me,’ ‘Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade,’ ‘The Perfect Orange‘ (Some issues of consent with this one – The Great Nigus insists on providing a thank-you gift in exchange for the protagonist’s kindness, and my 5-year-old pointed out that he should have honored the her wishes when she insisted she didn’t want any – I’ve come to agree with him.)
Rhythms of Nature
Ordinary Kid Life & Daily Obstacles
Want even more books normalizing girls of color?
Some more books that didn’t make my ‘favorites’ list, but you might enjoy:
For Kindergartners & Up: Ages 5 through elementary
- *Nightlights – Too scary for my kids, but I am SO READY to read this once they’re old enough.
- *Katana at Super Hero High – Too advanced for us to screen, but we desperately need more super-hero girls of color.
- *Jojo’s Flying Sidekick – Worth a read or two, I love the premise but the story is clunky.
- *Silly Chicken – Heart-wrenching metaphor for sibling jealousy with themes of death, the hardships of single-parenting, and scarce resources. Not for everyone, but one of my favorite authors and this book is deceptively complex and beautiful.
- *Destiny’s Gift – Not engaging for us, but I like the premise of community activism.
- Katie Woo series – I find this series terribly boring, but Asian protagonists are rare enough that I will accept boring for now.
- Rachel Parker, Kindergarten Show-Off – Great premise of social awareness, kinda lumpy writing.
Not Recommended – Problematic books to avoid
Mitzi Tulane& Orange Peel Pocket: White-saviorism written by parents of trans-racial adoptees. Ugh. I Drive A Snow Plow– This boring book featuring a woman of color truck driver (Rare! Soooo rare!) was worth noting until I realized the fear-mongering fake-science ‘anti-autism warrior parent’ author thinks people like me are an ‘epidemic’ and should be prevented from being born. Sooo… nope. Screw that noise. Fussy Freya– Shitty behavior, shitty parenting, and food-shaming jokes step a bit too close classism. Monster Trouble– So cute, except for the lesson that we have the right to hug others without consent. Bummer. *America Vol. 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez– I wanted to love this, but it’s ham-fisted and clumsy, and (unintentionally) reads like a social-justice-warrior parody mocking progressive women of color.
Stay Curious & Stand Brave