These children’s books with black characters are sure to hook your tweens. The stories are captivating, the characters compelling, and they are all absolute page turners. Check them out!
These Children’s Books with Black Characters Are Must-Haves for Your Tweens!
This past summer, following an initiative to diversify my book shelves even further and infuse our school curriculum with more “Own Voices” stories, I made a commitment to only read middle grade books by Black Authors. Given the climate of our country and my own dedication to antiracism, it became crucial to me to read children’s books with Black characters in an effort to bring more of these stories to the (mostly White) children at my school. Of course, I also wanted to read books by authors I hadn’t yet “met.”
I read with abandon, which wasn’t hard because I love books for tweens. I bought more books than I can count, spent long pandemic nights under the covers with a book and some hot tea, and I fell in love with so many characters and stories.
Children’s Books with Black Characters will Serve as Windows and Mirrors for Kids
These children’s books with Black characters will be both window and mirror books for kids.
In some of the stories, children will see themselves. There will be kids who find themselves in the story of a girl trying to free her father from prison, or a boy being told he can no longer play with a toy gun outside. There will be a child who identifies with a boy struggling to determine who he can and cannot love, and another who identifies with the struggles between best friends.
There will be many more who simply see their own close parents and siblings in the loving Black families eating at the dinner table together.
At their most basic, these children’s books with Black characters will link us all through universal emotions and shared values. Even if the experiences in each story aren’t common, the feelings they inspire are. Thus, in their own unique ways, each of these stories build understanding, foster empathy, and help kids see outside the walls of their own homes.
Without further ado, here are our favorite children’s books with Black characters, written by Black authors.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington, by Janae Marks: On her twelfth birthday, baking-fanatic Zoe makes a shocking discovery — a letter from her father who has been imprisoned for a terrible crime — one he says he has not committed. She wants to write back but has no idea what to say. After all, what does a girl say to a dad she has never met? Zoe eventually responds but is forced to hide their blossoming relationship from her mom. As their connection grows, so, too, does Zoe’s conviction that her father is truly innocent, and it’s up to her to prove he’s incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. I just love this story and the way it explores social justice and gives tweens an intro to The Innocence Project. I could not put this down! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Amari and the Night Brothers, by B.B. Alston: Amari is a tween from the housing projects who believes her big brother, Quentin, is still alive — even if no one else thinks so. And when she discovers a ticking briefcase in his closet containing a nomination for her tryout to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she suddenly knows there is a lot to discover behind his sudden disappearance. Was there more to her brother than meets the eye? Is there more to Amari herself? Most importantly, is magic actually real? Amari is a strong Black girl who is witty, persistent and smarter than she realizes. Her story brilliantly tackles issues of racism, classism, poverty, and profiling, all wrapped up in a fast-paced fantasy that leaves you turning pages with a ferocity you never knew. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
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 Jerome’s 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 Emmett 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!
King and the Dragon Flies, by Kacen Callender: Winner of the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, this mind blowing story leaves you heartbroken and hopeful at the very same time. King is a twelve year old Black boy, who is still reeling from the sudden death of his older brother, Khalid. King wishes he could spend time with his best friend Sandy, but just before Khalid died, Khalid made a grave statement to King: King should not hang out with Sandy, or others would begin to believe that King, like Sandy, is gay. King abides by Khalid’s warning— until Sandy goes missing. And King’s anger at himself for abandoning his friend, as well as his explosive feelings that he is struggling to understand, leave him reeling. Then the two boys reunite… and the result is a testament to love, authenticity, and truth.⠀This one shook me to my core, and it’s a must-read. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Before the Ever After, by Jacqueline Woodson: What happens when a hero becomes anything but? When a star on the football field becomes trapped by the dark side of the sport that made him appear larger than life? In this powerful novel in verse, ZJ’s dad used to be a fan favorite and football superstar – but he suddenly falls from grace. He’s having trouble remembering things, he’s angry all the time, and one day, he can’t even recall ZJ’s name. ZJ’s mom said it’s due to all the head injuries he sustained while playing football, and ZJ has to come to terms with his father’s brain injury and the brutal realization that glory days don’t last forever. Though his father seems to be slipping away, ZJ’s family and friends rally around him, and the result is a poignant, beautiful story that touches upon a significant issue in the sports world. Moving, heartbreaking and hopeful, ZJ’s story will grab hold of readers and stick with them long after the final page is turned. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Twins, by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright: Oh WOW did I love this book! Whether you have twins at home or not, this fabulous story will speak to any child with siblings or with a close best friend. What happens when the person you are closest to in the entire world begins to pull away? This is exactly what happens with twins Maureen and Francine Carter, two girls who have always been attached at the hip. Yet when sixth grade begins, Francine suddenly becomes “Fran,” and she’ll stop at nothing to set herself apart from her sister. Will middle school change everything? Or will the girls find their way back to each other, even as one of them seeks nothing more than her own unique identity? A perfect book for any child struggling to find his place among friends and family. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
What Lane, by Torrey Maldonado: Stay in your lane. It’s a popular phrase these days, but not one many of us want to hear. Especially not a mixed boy who often finds himself walking a tightrope between his two identities. Stephen always thought he could do everything his friends do. But suddenly, he begins to realize that’s not the case – especially as he notices strangers treating him differently than his white friends. As Stephen tries to navigate the unspoken rules between his two worlds, he has a hard time figuring out which lane is actually his – and which friends will stick by his side no matter what. Stephen’s voice is pitch perfect, and his struggle to become more self-aware as he grapples with issues of identity and racism is powerful. This is a great entryway for discussions and teachings on antiracism and allyship for all children! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
The Only Black Girls in Town, by Brandy Colbert: Alberta has been the only Black girl in her town for years, and even though her best friend Laramie is always at her side, there are some things Laramie just doesn’t understand. When Alberta discovers the new family moving in across the street is Black — and there’s a girl her exact age going to her same school — Alberta can’t contain her excitement. Yet Edie, the new girl, is different. And maybe they won’t be the best of friends like Alberta thought. When the two discover a box of old journals up in Edie’s attic, however, the girls find themselves bonding over the mystery of the words in the notebooks, learning empathy, gaining insight and growing along the way. 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!
Ghost, by Jason Reynolds: Ghost wants to be the fastest runner. In fact, running is all he ever knows. Yet Ghost is running for the wrong reasons, like a past that constantly brings him to his knees. Then Ghost meets Coach, who brings Ghost to the middle school track team along with Lu, Sunny and Patina. And if Ghost can only stay on track, both literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in his city — and maybe even qualify for the Junior Olympics. Powerful, explosive and a National Book Award Finalist, this is the first book in the Track series that kids won’t soon forget. A must read! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Piecing Me Together, by Renee Watson: This is a breathtaking novel for tweens and young teens (a Newbery Honor, mind you!) about Jade, a Black high school teen seeking to discover herself as she navigates being a scholarship kid at a ritzy private high school. Jade tackles being an outsider, faces discrimination, and tries to navigate her involvement in a mentorship program she believes wants to “fix” her — all while knowing she is perfectly fine and not in need of any changing. This is a beautiful coming-of-age story, one that seamlessly weaves between self-discovery, reflection and speaking truth to power. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Black Brother, Black Brother, by Jewell Parker Rhodes: Ghost Boys will forever be one of my favorite middle grade books, so when Parker Rhodes’ newest book came out, I jumped on it. I had such high hopes and it did NOT let me down! This is the story of two biracial brothers — one who presents as White, the other Black — and the struggles they face as they begin to realize the world looks upon them so differently. Donte is one of just a few Black kids at his middle school, and many of the students— and teachers for that matter — simply don’t like him. After being framed for trouble at school by the captain of the fencing team, Donte is arrested and suspended from school. He ends up searching for guidance and solace- and he finds it at the local youth center where he meets a former Olympic Fencer. Donte begins to take up fencing- and as his skills grow, so, too, does his inner confidence and his strength to tackle racism and colorism. 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!
Harbor Me, by Jacqueline Woodson: Six children are taken to their school’s old art room and told it’s a place for them to have a weekly chat— without teachers — thus making it totally unmonitored. The six kids, from varying walks of life, are hesitant at first. They each have their stories, but is it safe? Can they open up to one another? The room becomes dubbed the ARTT room, an acronym for “a room to talk,” and soon enough, their stories begin. As the kids’ connections develop and their words bridge divides, the students realize that sharing their stories could be the very thing they needed to give them the strength to handle circumstances that once made them feel so desperately alone. Timely, tough, but oh-so-touching, this is one not to be missed. For our full review of Harbor Me, click here! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Turning Point, by Paula Chase: Sign me up for any and all ballet books! And when that ballet book is told through the eyes of a young Black girl who offers a little seen perspective of the competitive world of dancers, I’m pretty sure to be hooked. Turning Point is told in dual perspectives. Mo, a ballerina, is off to a prestigious ballet intensive with mostly White dancers, and she tries hard not to make waves. Is she imagining the racial barriers, or do they really exist? Mo’s best friend Sheeda is stuck back home with her uber religious and very strict aunt, but what happens when Mo’s older brother starts to pay Sheeda an awful lot of attention? From friends to family to finding your voice when in unfamiliar territory, there is so much to love about this important and complex novel! 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!
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams Garcia: Eleven year old Delphine and her two younger sisters travel from Brooklyn all the way to Oakland, California, to meet the mother who abandoned them. The year is 1968, and the fight for racial equality is alive and well. Unfortunately for the sisters, their mother, Cecile, is not at all what they had hoped she would be, showing little interest in her children. Instead of engaging with her daughters, the radical Cecile sends them to a daily summer camp run by the Black Panthers while she spends time shut up in her kitchen, working on a mysterious project. Over the course of their month in California, the girls learn about the revolution and do their best to stay far away from their mother. And throughout this time, the sisters learn some startling truths about their mother, their culture, and their country. I absolutely love the way this book explores how pivotal moments in our country’s history can shape and mold the every day lives of its citizens — both with respect to their families and friends, their communities at large, and their education. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Becoming Muhammad Ali, by Kwame Alexander and James Patterson: Alexander writes in verse from Ali’s perspective, whereas Patterson writes from the perspective of Ali’s best friend. They tell the story of Ali before he was Ali— a young boy named Cassius Clay who had challenges like so many other kids. Clay dealt with school struggles and racism, all while never giving up his desire to become a champion boxer and win his first Golden Gloves. Written in cooperation with Ali’s estate, this inspirational and moving novel portrays Ali’s dedication to family, his drive for success, and how a young kid from Louisville, Kentucky grew up to be a true champion — one of the greatest boxers of all time. This is a fantastic book and a story that will hook even the most reluctant reader. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander: This is another novel my fourth and fifth graders are absolutely in love with — they simply cannot get enough of Kwame Alexander’s books. Alexander’s novels in verse have become some of the most popular books for tweens, and this one won both the Newbery Award and a Coretta Scott King Honor. Josh and Jordan, twins, are middle school basketball stars who suddenly, for the very first time, begin to drift apart — due, in part, to a girl. Told in Alexander’s exquisite, lyrical, verse, and fusing basketball, beats, brothers and family bonds, this is a book that pulses with energy and will hook any tween reader – especially those who have an affinity for sports and music. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson: In this fictionalized memoir, Woodson writes about growing up as an African American child in the sixties and seventies during the height and aftermath of the civil rights movement — first in Ohio, then in South Carolina and, eventually, New York. The remnants of Jim Crow are everywhere, and as Woodson navigates her own identity and worth, she is also faced with a country battling racism, animosity and segregation. A powerful and mesmerizing read, Woodson’s poetry reflects a young woman’s journey to find not just her voice, but her place at home, in school and in society at large. Woodson’s ability to keep each of her poems both accessible and relatable. Despite their richness and her beautiful use of language, her poems never feel too cerebral or heady for a child reader. Instead, a young one can so easily grasp Woodson’s poignant verses and, most importantly, her yearning- for family, friends, and most importantly, for writing. This is a true work of art. Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!
The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson: I love when puzzling stories of the past become present day mysteries just begging to be brought to life and explored. That is exactly what happens here, in this fabulous, intricately plotted story about Candice and her sidekick, Brandon. After Candice discovers a letter addressed to her grandmother describing an injustice that happened long before Candice’s time, she goes on the hunt to solve a puzzle — and find a fortune. Expertly moving between past and present, the challenge leads the friends deep into the history of their South Carolina town and is marked by great discovery — not just about their home, but about themselves, too. This book has received a long list of accolades for a reason – love, love, love it! Support independent bookstores and get the book on Bookshop.org right here!