We’re experiencing a renaissance in children’s literature; never before has there been such a large pool of talented authors & illustrators. Though we’re getting more diverse books, we still have a long way to go. There simply are not enough books that feature diverse perspectives for children and we especially need more books written by authors of color and marginalized voices.
Why are diverse books so important? They’re important because they give children the chance to see themselves in stories and they nurture open-mindedness. Children’s book characters are still mostly white, straight, cis-gender, non-disabled, humans…and cute animals/creatures.
2016 produced many exceptional books but these are ten that left an impression on me. They all have great stories, amazing illustrations and lots of heart!
1) Plants Can’t Sit Still written by Rebecca E. Hirsch & illustrated by Mia Posada
This is a beautiful and creative book! Just like antsy children, plants can’t sit still and move around as they grow and thrive. Strong roots creep, brave seedlings fly and plants climb high! Posada’s collage and watercolor illustrations are pretty, delicate and realistic. Her art reminds me of Lois Ehlert’s. If you have a child who loves nature and learning about plants, they’ll love this book.
2) Thunder Boy Jr. written by Sherman Alexie & illustrated by Yuyi Morales
A spunky Native American boy wants a name that is uniquely his own, a name that celebrates how cool he is! This is Sherman Alexie’s first picture book and his writing is heartfelt and funny. This book is excellent storytelling and makes a great read aloud. It’s encouraging to see more positive portrayals of modern Native peoples in children’s literature. Yuyi Morales’ mixed media art is, as always, stunning and powerful. This is a story of family and love.
3) Preaching to the Chickens written by Jabari Asim & illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Preaching to the Chickens is a sweet and reflective book. Jabari Asim gives us a peek into Congressman/Civil Rights Leader John Lewis’ childhood in rural Alabama. His compassionate nature began early as he tended to (and preached to!) the chickens on his family’s farm. I really love Asim’s writing. E. B. Lewis’ watercolor illustrations are beautiful and tender. What a great way to celebrate John Lewis and Black spirituality.
4) Dear Dragon written by Josh Funk & illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo
Blaise Dragomir (dragon boy) and George Slair (human boy) are pen-pals. The catch is that they don’t know each other’s identity! They exchange letters about their daily lives and as time goes on, they become closer. This book has themes of inclusiveness, acceptance, and kindness. Funk writes the book in verse and the rhymes are fun. Montalvo’s illustrations are gorgeously detailed. I love seeing George, a brown boy with thick, curly hair, playing and dreaming!
5) We Sang You Home written by Richard Van Camp & illustrated by Julie Flett
This is a very sweet board book about the magic of a new baby. A Native American couple wishes for a child and their prayers are answered. They delight in the everyday wonders of having their child in their lives. Julie Flett’s illustrations are joyful and beautiful. This is a perfect gift for new parents!
6) Horrible Bear! written by Ame Dyckman & illustrated by Zachariah OHora
I’m a sucker for good picture books with shouting. In this book, a little girl loses it when she loses her kite in a bear’s cave and the bear accidentally breaks it! This funny and clever book discusses forgiveness; sometimes it’s best to calm down and think about how others feel. I love OHora’s use of contrasting colors; his illustrations are always vivid and bold. The illustrations and text are very dependent on each other, which makes for a fun read.
7) Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe
This is a moving tribute to the radiant child that was artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Steptoe uses found wood and other objects to create powerful images inspired by Basquiat’s work. He tells the story of a young brown boy who dreamed through art and loved his mother deeply. This is a GREAT non-fiction picture book for young readers; it’s honest, discusses mental illness, dreams and determination. Radiant Child is a beautiful and important book.
8) Freedom in Congo Square written by Carole Boston Weatherford & illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Congo Square was where slaves in New Orleans could celebrate, dance and sell their goods. Sunday was the only day they had a slice of freedom and in this book, Weatherford uses verse to share their anxiousness and jubilation. They pushed through a week of slopping the hogs, cleaning the estate and escaping the overseer’s lash to find respite and joy. Christie’s illustrations are powerful and refreshing in their simplicity. Long, limber bodies move and sway to the beat of Africa…and freedom.
9) Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea! by Ben Clanton
This book is funny, honest and original. Narwhal, a happy-go-lucky Narwhal, runs into Jellyfish one day in unfamiliar waters. They both question each other’s existence; Jellyfish has NEVER seen a Narwhal and Narwhal has NEVER seen a Jellyfish. Surely they’re imagining each other! They quickly become friends and set out on adventures. Clanton is great at witty dialogue and his illustrations are cute and well designed. Kids will enjoy reading this funny beginner-graphic novel.
10) A Hat for Mrs. Goldman written by Michelle Edwards & illustrated by G. Brian Karas
I love this story of selflessness and friendship! Sophia is very good friends with Mrs. Goldman, who is a knitter. On a cold, blustery day, Sophia notices that Mrs. Goldman doesn’t have a hat; she’s too busy knitting for everyone else! Though Sophia struggles with knitting, she’s determined to make a hat for her friend. This is a great story of friendship and kids will learn a little Yiddish too! Karas’ mixed media illustrations are very cute and tender.
I know I said 10 books but…here’s one more!!
11). Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life By Ashley Bryan
Hope. Survival. Dreams. In this powerful book, eleven slaves tell us their lives, occupations, relations and dreams. Ashley Bryan gives voice to these people, reminding readers that enslaved people were beautiful, multifaceted and loving. Though history left only a document listing eleven names and the prices of their bodies, we have a glimpse of the dreamers they may have been. Bryan’s poetry is moving and his art is strong, colorful and honest.