The best children's books featuring every kind of person.
I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.
“Violence in here is always happening or just about to happen. I think these guys like it – they want it to be normal because that’s what they’re used to dealing with.” p. 144
Monster by Walter Dean Myers.
HarperCollins Children’s Books, New York, 1999.
Teen fictional chapter book/screenplay, 281 pages.
Coretta Scott King Award Winner, Michael L. Prinz Award, National Book Award and more
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 5.0 points).
Monster is a complicated novel of a story-within-a-story. At first glance it is the straightforward tale of a boy who is accused of assisting in a murder during a robbery-gone-wrong, mostly expressed through his recreation of the trial as a screenplay and his diary notes from prison. But it is also the story of a criminal justice system where the mostly white cast assumes all the power over the mostly black “monsters.” Then there are also flashbacks that add more information about Steve Harmon and the other characters which call into question his real role in the murder. Meanwhile, we are seeing all of this through the lens of one desperate young boy – what is the truth?
Honestly, for a book to get this many awards and never attract my attention is very unusual. This book also has never been checked out of the school library I got it from. But opening the book, I’m not surprised. The format is challenging, the language certainly above the level indicated in many places, and the content seems aimed more at high school students in terms of the complexity of thought required to process the novel.
“Mrs. Sikelo took me behind a curtain to a smaller room, where three floor-to-ceiling shelves were filled with books. It smelled sweet and musty, like nothing I’d ever encountered.” page 161
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.
William Morrow, HarperCollins, New York, 2009. My P.S. edition 2010.
New York Times Bestseller.
Lexile: 960L .
AR Level: 6.4 (worth 15.0 points) .
NOTE: There are three books with this title. This review is of the adult edition. There is also a picture book and a young reader’s edition chapter book.
William Kamkwamba had access to a small library and a scrapyard full of parts, and a dream – to ensure that his family would never starve again. Against all odds and despite ridicule, he built a windmill and brought electricity to his family’s rural Malawian home.
This book surprised me. I knew the basic premise – boy builds windmill with scrap parts to bring change to his village. But I didn’t realize that this was actually the story of Kamkwamba’s life, which starts long before windmills were even a gleam in his eye.
“Each time I remove my scarf I pass it through my fingers, in awe of what a simple thing it is, the dilemma it poses. The rules from the Iranian embassy are surprisingly unclear, open to bewildering interpretation.” page 31
The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec.
Twelve, Hachett Book Group, New York, 2014. My edition 2017.
Memoir, 230 pages including extras.
Jennifer Klinec is a fearless jet-setter, leaving her London life behind to explore the culinary arts of every corner of the world. This book is the story of her month in Iran, wearing a headscarf, finding locals who will let her cook with them, and unexpectedly falling in love.
This was so random. I had a long afternoon and wanted a book, so I grabbed this one, but then ended up reading another book that I already had instead. It sat on the shelf for a while – I have to be honest that the subtitle reminded me of Eat, Pray, Love which was a DNF for me. And there were some legitimate concerns about how Klinec would portray Iran, since she’s an outsider, a Canadian with Serbo-Croation roots living in London.
However, once I got started, I enjoyed this book. Klinec lays everything bare. She is brutally honest yet insightful, and not afraid to make herself, or her loved ones look bad. There were points where I disliked Klinec as well as others in the story, but I did feel that she was telling the truth as objectively as she could, given that she was a major participant. When she’s viewing things through her own unique lens, she’s generally up front about the perspective.
The simple format of our seventh board book is perfect for babies and toddlers.
Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora.
Putnam, New York, 2008.
Board book, 24 pages.
This book starts with “Peekaboo! I see…” and then the reader (or their adult helper) must turn the page to find out what. Baby sees Mommy, Daddy, and many other people and things.
I had no idea what to expect when I ordered this book sight unseen. At the time it didn’t occur to me that it could be simply a game of peekaboo. It’s pretty cleverly done though. As baby moves through his morning, he sees his entire family and many other items.
The pages with the repeating text “Peekaboo! I see…” are set off from the others by being visually smaller, with a large white space around the illustration and the text directly below the illustration in the white space. The text is cleverly worked into the illustration of the other pages, but remains typed and clearly readable.
Generally I’m not too into pastels as a medium for illustrating an entire book, but it works well here. Isadora is able to work a lot of detail into each illustration and I was particularly impressed with her ability to show very expressive faces for baby.
The best and most intriguing part of this book is the set up for each peekaboo. Baby is subtly moving through his morning (waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast). More often than not, each illustration includes some nod both toward what will be revealed as well as the previous page. Some of the peekaboos are fairly obvious to the adult reader while others are actually surprising (at least on the first or second read-through).
My absolute favorite part of this, however, is that baby is anchored in a loving nuclear family and caring extended family who are part of his day. He is clearly loved and cherished by his family and nurtured in his home environment. This is exactly the sort of subliminal message I want the kids to be receiving before the outside media and majority white culture is able to negatively impact their developing minds.
The author is intriguing. A white woman who was formerly a ballerina, more than half of her currently in-print books feature children of color. Even this book is part of a series with follow-ups Peekaboo Evening and Uh-Oh. Unfortunately the other books aren’t available as board books – too bad because I would definitely buy them!
Baby likes this book, but won’t yet sit through the whole thing every time. It is the perfect size for him to hold so at the moment he likes to bang it on the floor or against the table. As he gets older I expect it will interest him more. This book is great for babies from about three months up to toddlers but won’t hold much interest for older children.
“There are no dancers / on this temple’s walls. / Here, even Shiva / stands still.” page 99
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman.
Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2014.
Novel in verse, 307 pages.
Lexile: 720L .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 5.0 points) .
Veda is a classical dance prodigy starting out on a glorious career in Bharatanatyam when her leg has to be amputated. But dance is her life and the center of her being. Can she forge a new life? Can dance be part of it?
Pretty sure this is going on my favorite 2017 reads list although the competition will be steep this year. Not what you expected me to say about a novel in verse, right?
My biggest problem with novels in verse is that they are incredibly difficult to balance. I love novels, and I love poetry, but inevitably most novels in verse lose out either in plot or in poetry. This book has ample plot and appropriate narrative arc, while still having generally gorgeous poetry. I’m in awe of how Venkatraman pulled this off, because it is very, very difficult to do.
“It was a trivial secret, but one I would remember as vividly as my feeling that while some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.” page 71
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
Grove Press, Grove Atlantic, New York, 2017.
Adult short story collection, 207 pages.
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.
This collection of eight short stories is tied together not so much by the characters as by a common theme – they all deal with Vietnamese immigrants, albeit in very different and sometimes surprising ways.
I first heard of this book when reading an interview with the author prior to the release. Instantly knew I wanted to read it and put in a library request. Received it at the end of April and was about to send it back unread because I didn’t think I’d have time to read it, but then Shenwei posted about the Asian Lit Bingo Challenge … so I read one story at a time during lunch breaks. Because of the tight time frame for this challenge and needing to return the book, I only read it once.
The diverse characters in our sixth board book will get you and baby dancing!
Baby Dance by Ann Taylor, pictures by Marjorie van Heerden.
HarperFestival Devision, HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999.
Board book, 14 pages.
Baby is crying and Mom and the cat are napping, so Dad takes baby for a movement-filled dance that dries up the tears until the happy, well-rested family reunites on their couch.
I absolutely loved the swirling movement of the illustrations, and the way that the background subtly moved through the rainbow from a calm purple to an energetic yellow.
I wasn’t keen on the depiction of the hair. We meet three characters – mother, baby, and a man presumably father, but not named, so he could also be an uncle, stepfather, or other relation. Mom’s hair is long and curly/wavy. Baby’s hair appears in some pictures to be in twists or short braids, but in others to be loose with bows on it. Dad’s hair is equally ambiguous. In this case I would have liked a little more definition for the hair.
Again referring to the art, I was a bit confused by how baby was drawn. Were the pictures intending to depict an older child, or did the illustrator just not have much experience drawing babies? Since father and child are continually in motion, the art is much more difficult to execute, and the child looked adult or awkward on some pages.
However, I did enjoy the shading, interesting backgrounds, and portrayal of dad. I’m curious what medium was used (chalk? pastels?) to get the layered swirls of color on the backgrounds. The balance of text/picture was perfect for a board book; there is never more than a sentence on each page spread.
The text is based on a poem from the 1800s – I assume white South African illustrator Marjorie van Heerden did the adaption, although perhaps it was the publisher.
Probably the aspect of this that annoys me the most is the spine. This is part of the Harper Growing Tree line, so the spine is red to correspond with the level and the logo takes up half the space. It doesn’t connect with the book at all, and since the book is rather slim, this makes it quite hard to pick it out off the shelf when I want to read it.
Rated for Newborns and up, this certainly is interactive to read to a wee baby and dance along. However, the size is a bit big for Baby to play with, so we mainly use this as a lap book. I think it will be more intriguing to a toddler, and the text, despite a few difficult words (ceiling), could be deciphered by an early reader.
I did have some qualms about a few aspects of this book, but overall the dancing and portrayal of a caring, involved father figure won me over.