The time is now to raise antiracist kids, and these children’s books about racism, anti-racism and identity will help. With a focus on Black authors and illustrators, these books teach children not just about the skin they are in, but how to stand up for others and be an ally to the Black community.
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This is part 1 of a 2 part series in honor of Black Lives Matter and my ongoing commitment to lifting the voices of Black authors and illustrators.
Getting Uncomfortable With My Privilege
Let’s put this out there immediately: I’m a White woman. I live in a beautiful neighborhood in Miami, went to college and law school, and have two boys in private elementary school. I have a good job, a pretty townhouse, and when I want new books (pretty much all the time!) I go out and buy them.
I am, in so many ways, the definition of White Privilege.
I’ve heard the term “White Privilege” more in the last couple of months than I ever have in my life, and I’m embarrassed to admit that only in the last several weeks have I sat down and truly thought about — or shall I say wrestled and unpacked and come to terms with — the uncomfortable luxuries this privilege affords me.
But, there is something else. I’m White — and I am also Jewish. And because I am Jewish — a minority myself as we make up less than one percent of the world’s population — I always thought that I understood racism and equality. I was a champion of all people, a champion for equal rights. After all, I have been discriminated against because of my religion, as has my family, for generations.
A quarter of my children’s ancestors were murdered in concentration camps during World War II. My dad was fired from a college summer job as a lifeguard when he was brave enough to wear his Jewish star necklace to work. Imprinted in my memory is the overwhelming fear I felt in seventh grade when I opened a note on my desk only to find a garish black swastika drawn on the paper, left for me anonymously. And at college? There was the day another girl on my floor learned I was Jewish and flippantly said “I thought you guys had horns.”
In recent days, I remember Charleston. Pittsburgh. The murder of Hassidic Jews in Brooklyn during Hanukkah.
Even when these atrocities were not committed against my immediate family, these horrific acts hurt just the same. Why? Because they were against my Jewish family for reasons based on ignorance and deep rooted bias and prejudice.
These events terrified me, their sheer evil a weight on my chest I could not remove for a long, long time. They made me look over my shoulder. They made me question whether I was safe at my synagogue, whether my kids would grow up proud to be Jewish or having to hide their beliefs from those who seek to harm them.
Given my Judaism, then, together with my strong morals and my incredible parents who raised me to be “color blind” and opened the doors of our home to artists and entertainers and business men and women of all colors and cultures, I knew I was not racist. Nor was my family.
I’ve been doing a lot of listening over the last couple of weeks.
I’ve been sitting in my own unease and gotten extremely uncomfortable.
Because what I’ve realized is that even though I do not believe I am racist, I am also not anti-racist. My Judaism does not give me a “pass.”
Yes, my children know we don’t judge a person by the color of their skin but by their integrity and their heart instead. Yes, our home is filled with books by the brightest diverse voices in children’s literature, I have diversified our school library, and I teach Black history every year. Yes, I am intentional about the books I share on Happily Ever Elephants and always seek to create diverse book lists featuring Black authors and illustrators as well as other marginalized voices.
But now — I think — I’m beginning to understand where I have gone wrong and how I can do so much better.
My noble ideals have never been enough.
I now understand that I have an ongoing and active responsibility to teach my children to be anti-racist. I can not just share diverse stories with them. I cannot rest easy knowing I model virtuous behavior. I must begin having hard conversations. I must use our books to talk actively about race, racism and antiracism. I must take action, by calling out injustice and racism when I see it. Being kind and inclusive is not enough. My noble thoughts have never been enough. Not to make a true and lasting difference, at least. To do this, I have to Do the Work. I’m continuing to listen and educate myself, and I am committed to learning and growing from my missteps.
Listening, and more listening.
It has been amazing to see many Black voices amplified in recent weeks, and I have discovered tons of wonderful new women to follow, listen to and learn from. I have been particularly drawn to Nicole, over at Polished Playhouse. Like me, Nicole is a boy mom. Her son Jonah smiles like sunshine, and she has a second son on the way. Like me, Nicole loves stories and shares the value she finds in children’s literature. Like me, Nicole’s family clearly means the world to her. They are her everything.
Yet, unlike me, Nicole has worries that, due to my privilege, I have never remotely considered. And as I read her words last week, I had a visceral reaction. Nicole’s posts have shaken me deeply. They are all I’ve been thinking about, all I’ve been talking about, and I thus asked Nicole if I could share her words from a post she wrote about Jonah. She graciously agreed:
“Mothers of Black boys live watching the clock. There is a countdown. Years, weeks, days. There is a point when our sons are no longer cute. Or innocent. Or viewed as children. It happens early and sometimes subtly. It’s parents literally shielding their children from our sons in public play spaces, or other kids assigning them the role of the ‘bad guy’ during imaginary play, or teachers taking their developmentally appropriate frustrations as preschoolers and labeling them as ‘aggressive.’ …
My son will someday be a man. A Black man. You won’t remember how organized his room was, or that I taught him to read at three. You may see him and cross the street, or clutch your purse, or call the police on him for insisting that you follow the rules. The countdown is on.”
Hearing Nicole’s words — sitting with them, thinking about them — has been transformative. And upon reading them, I suddenly understood why my actions are critical. I must use my voice to stand up for all Black children just as I would for my own. Because Jonah matters. His mom matters. And no mother should ever go through the trauma of thinking about her child’s journey in the way Nicole described above. It is unacceptable, and it is disgraceful that America has let it get to this point.
I see now.
I see you. And I stand with you.
Black Lives Matter.
I am committed to amplifying Black voices on Happily Ever Elephants, and in part one of my two-part Black Lives Matter post, I am sharing important books about racism and antiracism that we read and will continue reading, both at home and in my school. This list is in no way absolute, but these are powerful stories I love and believe in, all of which either have a Black author or illustrator. My next post will be on the importance of sharing stories that center Black children simply being that — Black, joyful, children. Kids being kids.
I recognize my voice isn’t the one that needs to be amplified on this subject, for all of the reasons expressed above. That being said, as a children’s book blogger, it is important to me to include these lists on my blog so that anyone who stumbles upon my corner of the internet can benefit from them.
I do, however, also want to amplify the following blogs, organizations and accounts (some I have only recently discovered, others I have followed for years) that are run by Black and Brown women whose voices I have come to value tremendously. I am constantly listening to what they say and am learning from them how to become a meaningful and active ally.
Tamara Russell (@mrsrussellsroom)
Additionally, if you are looking to support childhood literacy in Black communities, I highly recommend checking out these organizations:
And now, without further ado, here are the books we recommend.
Anti-Racist Children’s Books
A Kid’s Book About Racism, by Jelani Memory: This important book is the perfect tool to begin a discussion about skin color, racism and being antiracist in your home or classroom. It is accessible for even young children, with a kid-friendly tone and voice that instantly pulls little kids into the conversation. From defining racism, to explaining how and why racism hurts, to teaching children how to be antiracist, this book is a winner for all families seeking to learn and become antiracist.
Something Happened in Our Town, by Marianne Celano, PhD, Marietta Collins, PhD, Ann Hazard, PhD and illustrated by Jennifer Zivioin: Two young kids know that something major happened in their town — a Black man was shot and killed by the police. This story follows two families, one White, one Black, as they explain this horrific news to the children. It is a terrific book for families to use when kids have tough questions (aren’t police supposed to protect everyone? Can a policeman go to jail?) and parents need help figuring out ways to teach children about racial injustice and how to use their voices to respond to prejudice and harmful behavior they may see in their own lives and classrooms. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Hudson: This book is a beauty, combining short narratives, poems and illustrations by fifty of the most diverse children’s book creators. It is a salve, a ray of sunshine, and an important collection of essays for young activists who view an unjust world with heavy hearts and want to use their voices to create powerful, systemic change. Inspiring, empowering and bold, this one encourages young activists to listen and learn as they fight to create a brighter and antiracist future. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
This Book is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work, by Tiffany Jewell and illustrated by Aurelia Durand: Who are you, and what are you going to do to disrupt racism? In this fabulous and highly informative book for tweens and teens, children read and work through this book as a means to learn more about the origins of racism that continue to plague our schools, cities and systems today, and in turn gain the words and courage they need to begin to dismantle it. With a multitude of activities to help kids learn and grow, this book is a winner. It will spark critical conversations at home and in the classroom and give tweens language to disrupt racism, all while elegantly written with an eye towards inclusiveness, strength and joy. So, so well done. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped From the Beginning, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi: “This is not a history book. / This is a book about the here and now. / A book to help us better understand why we are where we are. / A book about race.” This book is a force! While this is the young adult version of the original, this is a fast paced, masterful read for both teens and adults alike. Through dynamic text and a narrative that breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to readers, Reynolds and Kendi bring readers directly into conversations about the origins of racism, and three important terms: segregationists, assimilationists, and the antiracist. If you are White, it will make you uncomfortable. It will make you question everything you have learned. It forces you to listen, but it encourages you to grow. This book should be required reading in every high school around the country. A masterpiece. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
An ABC of Equality, by Chana Ginelle Ewing and illustrated by Paulina Morgan: Now this is the kind of ABC book that will teach children to not only be inclusive and celebrate all people, but to be antiracist and fight for social justice as well! Vibrant and delightful, this is a wonderful book to introduce tough concepts to kids through age-appropriate language. Each letter is featured together with the word that letter stands for on the right side of the spread, while the left features “bite size text” to explain the concept. While this is definitely high concept and a book your big kids will grasp more than your littles, this is a great place to begin exploring these tough topics with children in a gentle manner. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
A is for Activist, by Innosanto Nagara: This is another brilliant ABC book for any family looking to raise a young activist. From civil rights to LGBQT rights, social justice to equality, this book teaches even the youngest kids to stand up, fight for those causes they believe in, and use their voices to affect positive change in their communities and worlds. As wonderful for your fourth graders as it is for your four year olds! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Antiracist Baby, by Ibram X. Kendi and illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky: This book publishes on June 16, 2020, and we are so excited! From the publisher: “Take your first steps with Antiracist Baby! Or rather, follow Antiracist Baby‘s nine easy steps for building a more equitable world. With bold art and thoughtful yet playful text, Antiracist Baby introduces the youngest readers and the grown-ups in their lives to the concept and power of antiracism. Providing the language necessary to begin critical conversations at the earliest age, Antiracist Baby is the perfect gift for readers of all ages dedicated to forming a just society.” Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Important Nonfiction About Black Men & Women, Moments and Movements that Defined America’s Fight for Civil Rights
The Undefeated, by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson: In this exquisite work of poetry, only surpassed by Nelson’s breathtaking artwork, Alexander takes readers on a journey through the Black experience in America. From the bitterness of slavery to the fervor of the civil rights movement to the perseverance and spirit of the country’s most important leaders and heroes, this is a moving look at the manner in which Black Americans have overcome trauma to create lasting and indelible achievements in this country. Gripping, powerful, and achingly triumphant, this book is a masterpiece that will be revered for years and years to come, by children and adults of all ages, colors and backgrounds. Absolutely gorgeous. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier: Through his own famous quotes, this beautiful picture book brings MLK to life. Beginning with his life as a young boy and his vow to one day get “big words” like his father, to his death at a garbage worker’s strike, this biography is a fabulous introduction to one of the most prominent voices of the Civil Rights Movement. This is one of my favorite books to read with early elementary students, for its simple narrative that doesn’t stray from the gritty facts but hits all the right notes for younger readers. Age appropriate, powerful, and elegant. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni and illustrated by Bryan Collier: Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on the city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, remains one of the most pivotal moments — and remarkable actions — in American history. The stunning prose and cut paper illustrations are a winning combo here, bringing new life to Parks’s perseverance, courageous story and steadfast commitment to the civil rights movement. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, by Jabari Asim and illustrated by E.B. Lewis: Provide kids with background on the civil rights movement and the childhood story of one of its most important heroes. John Lewis wants to be a preacher when he grows up — and he doesn’t want to wait! Upon being put in charge of the family’s farm, John discovers his chickens make an amazing congregation, and he begins preaching to them. Lewis’s journey — from addressing his farm animals to becoming one of the most vital voices of the civil rights movement, to his stint as a Georgia congressman to his continued contributions as a significant activist in America — is simply remarkable. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges: At just six years old, Bridges became a focal point of the civil rights movement when she walked, surrounded by federal marshals, through a mob of angry segregationists and became the first Black student at an all white school in New Orleans, Louisiana. This stunning memoir describes Bridge’s courageous — and at times harrowing — journey, in her own words. It is a testament to hope, courage, and the lengths one innocent child went to be afforded an equal education to her white peers. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Let the Children March, by Monica Clark-Robinson and illustrated by Frank Morrison: After hearing the powerful words of Martin Luther King, Jr., many Black children volunteered to march for their civil rights to protest the laws that forbid them from attending the same schools, playing on the same playgrounds, and drinking from the same water fountains, as white children. Despite their fears, these children faced hatred and danger to march in The Children’s Crusade, using their voices to change the world. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
A Ride to Remember: A Civil Rights Story, by Sharon Langley and Amy Nathan and illustrated by Floyd Cooper: When Sharon Langley was born in 1960, African Americans were forbidden from enjoying amusement parks due to segregation. In the summer of 1963, however, as a result of passionate demonstrations and protests, the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park outside of Baltimore, Maryland opened its doors to all. This is the true story of Sharon Langley and her family — the first African Americans to walk into the park — and Sharon’s famous ride on the carousel. A symbol of both integration and hope, this powerful work includes detailed back matter, real photographs, and a note from Sharon herself. I love reading this book with younger elementary students because the subject matter — an amusement park — is so tangible to them, and it provides a really wonderful entry point to important conversation. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Ekua Holmes: This gorgeous biography highlights the life and achievements of Fannie Lou Hamer, particularly her stunning accomplishments in connection with the civil rights movement. Fannie, the youngest of twenty children, grew up in a family of sharecroppers. She endured hardship after hardship at her home in Mississippi but never gave up, eventually making it to the stage at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, giving a speech that roused support for the Freedom Democrats and was integral to civil rights — including voting rights — for black Americans. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, by Vashti Harrison: This stunning anthology features snippets of 49 black women who, in their own various ways, helped change the world. From poets to pilots to politicians, the fascinating stories combined with stunning illustrations make this book a winner, conveying to our children how people can break barriers when they dream, persevere and never stop believing in themselves. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, by Selina Alko and illustrated by Sean Qualls: I love this beautiful, non-fiction book about the Lovings and their fight to make interracial marriage legal in every state across America. Richard (a White man) and Mildred (a Black woman) fell in love and got married — yet, marriage between people of different races was illegal in Virginia and they were thus forced to marry legally in Washington D.C. After their marriage, the police barged into their Virginia home and jailed the couple, prompting a fight against the unfair law that ended up before the Supreme Court — where the Lovings won. A fabulous intro to the Lovings and the fight for marriage equality. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, by Andrea Davis Pinkney and illustrated by Brian Pinkney: This wonderful book celebrates the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, when four college students, following Martin Luther King’s example of peaceful protest, sat down at the “white’s only” counter at Woolworths and placed a simple order for a doughnut and coffee with cream. This sit-in became a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in America. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Powerful Historical Fiction
Overground Railroad, by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome: Ruth Ellen, a young Black girl, leaves her home early one morning with her Mama and Daddy, saying goodbye to everything she has ever known. It is the Great Migration, and Ruth Ellen and her family are escaping a world of segregation and Jim Crow laws, one where her parents were sharecroppers and they had no freedoms. They journey north on a train, sitting in the colored car as they head to a world of opportunity, all as Ruth Ellen reads and shares snippets from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Beautiful, poignant, and powerful. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Freedom Summer, by Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue: This remarkable story describes what happened after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forbidding segregation. When two best friends, one white and one black, discovered the town pool would now be open to everyone, the two boys raced each other there in excitement only to be in for a very rude awakening. Use this story as a springboard to discuss segregation and the unfortunate reality that it takes more than new laws to eclipse hate. One of my very, very favorite stories — harrowing and thought-provoking. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue: In this powerful book based on the Greensboro Sit-Ins, young Connie knows exactly where she can and cannot go in her town because there are crude signs everywhere telling her that Black people are not allowed. Yet, the moment she sees four young men refuse to stand up from the counter at Woolworth’s, she believes that maybe things will eventually change. Connie learns what it means to protest, and how, with even the smallest actions, we can all use our voices to demand change. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Books Celebrating Black Identity
Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison: Sulwe’s skin is dark — the color of midnight. And because she is darker than everyone, including her family and her friends at school, Sulwe does not feel beautiful. But one night, a magical journey shows her that she is, indeed, not just beautiful, but worthy, too. An early introduction to colorism, this book will help any child feel comfortable and confident in the skin they’re in. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James: This one blew me away on the first read through, with its striking illustrations, fabulous pacing, and breathtakingly phenomenal voice. From the very first sentence, Barnes transports his readers right into barbershop culture through vivid details that come to life with brilliant authenticity. It is a celebration of self-confidence and self-worth, a beautiful window into one boy’s transformation that enables him to feel recognized and powerful. The voice, the word choice, the rhythm – it is all astonishingly perfect. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
I am Enough, by Grace Byers and illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo: This is a lovely poem about finding your inner beauty, respecting yourself and treating others with kindness. If you are looking to teach your kids about self worth and confidence, this lyrical book is the perfect tool! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
I Love My Hair, by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and illustrated by E.B. Lewis: This book has become a classic, in print for more than twenty years! This is a wonderful story celebrating the beauty of African American hair. This diverse board book centers around a child named Keyana who discovers that her hair is beautiful — and magical and musical, too. We adore this story of a child learning to love herself, as well as its beautiful watercolor illustrations. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
My Hair is a Garden, by Cozbi A. Cabrera: In this exquisite book, Mackenzie is frustrated because she is continually made fun of for her natural black hair. She seeks comfort from her neighbor, Miss Tillie, who, using the backyard gardens as a metaphor, tells Mackenzie how to maintain and care for her hair with love. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Black is a Rainbow Color, by Angela Joy and illustrated by Ekua Holmes: Black may not be a color in the rainbow, but it is a beautiful, powerful rainbow color nonetheless. This gorgeous book showcases the elegance, beauty and joy in the color black. From a friend’s braids to the tires on a bicycle to the robe on Thurgood Marshall’s back, black describes not only beloved things, but also influential people who made our world a better place. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Hey Black Child, by Useni Eugene Perkins and illustrated by Bryan Collier: All children need to be empowered and encouraged to live and pursue their dreams, and this forty year old poem by Perkins, a leader of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 70s, is an ode to Black children, inspiring them to do just that! Lyrically written and exquisitely illustrated, this prose reminds Black kids to go after their goals, whether they want to be astronauts or artists. With illustrations depicting the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements, this powerful book is a joy to read and remind kids that Black is beautiful, strong, and perfect. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Novels About Black Identity
Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes: This is an absolutely fantastic and gut wrenching novel about Jerome, a twelve year old black boy who is shot and killed by a white police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real one. As a ghost, Jerome sees the devastation and chaos his death has caused, with his family and community at the heart of it. While his family protests what they believe is an unjust killing, Jerome meets another ghost — that of Emmet Till, a boy who lived decades earlier and experienced the same destructive injustice — as well as Sarah, the police officer’s daughter, who is still alive. Together, Emmet and Sarah help Jerome process his death. Deftly weaving history with today’s pressing issues, this story is a haunting beauty, one that has a place of importance on every tween bookshelf and in every school collection. Though this is undoubtedly a tough topic, Ghost Boys is age appropriate and expertly written. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
New Kid, by Jerry Craft: New Kid, the 2020 Newbery Award winner, is an authentic graphic novel about a tween beginning seventh grade at a new school — a prestigious academic private school, that is — where Jordan Banks is one of the only kids of color in his whole grade. As Jordan tries to find a place within his new school, he finds himself straddled between two worlds — the upscale students at Riverdale Academy and his neighborhood friends in Washington Heights. More than a simple “new kid” story, New Kid tackles racism, hostility, socio-economic disparity and micro-aggressions that many children encounter on a regular basis. Absolutely, positively, fantastic. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Genesis Begins Again, by Alicia D. Williams: Genesis hates a lot of things about herself. Most especially? Her dark, dark, skin, which even her own father holds against her. But this isn’t the only thing she doesn’t like. She also hates that her family keeps getting put out of their home because dad gambles, and he loses the rent money on a regular basis. When Genesis is forced to start over again, at a new school, she not only discovers herself and a talent, but she also has the support of a trusted teacher who helps Genesis discover her own truth — and her own confidence. An amazingly powerful book! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
A Good Kind of Trouble, by Lisa Moore Ramee: Shayla has always been a rule follower. Yet, when she gets to junior high, everything suddenly changes. Her friends are acting different, some people are telling her she is not “Black enough,” and her sister, Hana, becomes involved with Black Lives Matter. After Shayla experiences a protest in response to an officer’s shooting of a Black man, she decides to wear an armband to school and challenge the administration because these armbands are banned. Now Shayla is breaking rules left and right — what will she do when she is forced to make hard choices, and her friendships begin to unravel? Shayla’s pitch-perfect story is one of courage, reflection, and discovery, with a message that is as important as it is timely. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!