Celebrating Black Joy: Books About Kids Being Kids
- Written By
- Charnaie Gordon
Did you know that studies show children with a positive attitude about their own racial identity are more likely to thrive academically and socially? That’s one of the reasons why it’s important for me to frequently read books with my children that feature Black and brown characters that look like them and our family.
While I think it's important to teach kids about Black history, it's also equally important to expose them to stories about joy. Let's normalize having more inclusive conversations about joy, specifically Black joy. I’m talking about books that showcase kids being everyday kids, enjoying lived experiences without explicitly mentioning race or ethnic identity.
Books featuring children of color don’t always have to be about slavery, racism, struggle, and oppression. I believe children of all races need to be exposed to "feel-good" stories that feature Black children being celebrated and feeling joyful. Some of the picture books I’ve included below are a good place to start. These books may have some Black children shouting, “I can do that too!” as they turn the page.
I Can Go Smming
Leo Can Swim by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Ruth Hearson (Ages 0 - 3)
Join Leo, his daddy, and several other babies as they all go to swim class. Watch them as they get ready for the pool, sing songs, and kick and splash in the water. What I love most about this book is that it’s Leo’s father who accompanies him to swim. You often hear of many Black fathers being absent from their children’s lives, so it was refreshing to see Leo and his father bonding — so precious. I also love how well this book showcases diversity. There are babies and caregivers of all different skin tones and hair types and colors featured throughout. A great book for the littlest readers!
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall (Ages 4 - 8)
Little Jabari is ready to jump off the diving board, at least he thinks he is. He passed his swim test and completed his swimming lessons. So, jumping off the diving board should be easy, right? With a little encouragement and a pep talk from his dad, Jabari overcomes his fear and works up the courage to make a big splash. I love that this is another book that features a father with the kids instead of a mother.
I think this story is well-formed, easy to follow and has a good overall storyline. The text uses a couple of fun water-related phrases that appeal to little ones like: “splash”, “whoosh” and “down, down down” with cute and lively illustrations to match. I also like that this book builds a foundation for water safety for children. Jabari is shown stretching, wearing his safety goggles, and his little sister is wearing appropriate swim gear as well. Don’t miss the fun hidden book cover underneath the book jacket – it’s so cute!
I Can Go to School
The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Ages 3 - 6)
From the Newbery Honor-winning author of Crown comes a story about confidence. After his mother tells him he'll be the "King of Kindergarten," this little boy has all the enthusiasm he needs to seize the first day of school! The King of Kindergarten is sure to inspire other kids who are a little apprehensive about starting school and remind them to be brave and kind to those around them.
In this adorable book, a little boy imagines himself as being a king living in the far-off village of Osh and Kosh preparing to make the big transition to school. The illustrations are well done and help bring this relatable story to life for small children.
I Got the School Spirit by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Frank Morrison (Ages 4 – 8)
This picture book introduces readers to a little girl ready to head to school on the first day. She washes up, gets dressed, and eats a healthy breakfast before grabbing her book bag and heading to the bus stop. For the remainder of the school day, the girl proclaims she can see, share, breathe in, and sing the spirit in various things she does. A sweet and cheerful book perfect for helping kids cope with those first day of school jitters.
I Can Be ihttps://bookshop.org/p/books/not-quite-snow-white-ashley-franklin/7968562?ean=9780062798602 a School Play!
Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (Ages 4 – 8)
Many fairy tales depict a world of predominantly blonde heroines with twinkling blue eyes and a fair complexion. This is problematic and an unrealistic view of the world we live in today.
Seeing oneself is an affirming moment, but for little girls of color, this mirror image is as rare as Cinderella’s glass slipper fitting properly. Yet, we all crave representation and deserve access to reflections of ourselves, and that is why I’m excited by this book.
When little Tameika auditions for the role of Snow White, she overhears kids saying she’s “too chubby” and making comments about her having brown skin. They whisper and giggle and stare at her which causes Tameika to second guess her decision about playing the lead role.
I adore this book for so many reasons. It shows all marginalized kids that everything is possible. Tameika auditioning for the role of Snow White is powerful not only for readers of color but for everyone, enabling us to see beyond the dominant images of White protagonists in childhood stories and fairy tales. It is revolutionary that fairy tales and stories represent children of all colors. With her brown skin, and kinky hair, Tameika is the furthest from classic Disney fantasies—but closest to my reality. Hopefully, all children (and adults) reading this book will realize that we can become our wishes and dreams, and that we’re worthy of being seen despite what others may think or say.
I Can Be in a Spelling Bee!
Stacey’s Extraordinary Words by Stacey Abrams, illustrated by Kitt Thomas (Ages 4 – 8)
As a child, Stacey loved words. She loved to read, write, and say words aloud. Every time Stacey came across a new word, she wrote it in her special Notebook of Extraordinary Words. Not only did Stacey enjoy learning new words, but she also learned at a young age that words were a gift and shouldn’t be used to hurt people.
After Stacey’s second-grade teacher Mrs. Blakeslee noticed Stacey’s gift to spell words, she invited her to participate in the school spelling bee. At first, Stacey is excited about the spelling bee, but her excitement quickly evaporates when she learns the school bully Jake would also be competing. Stacey is intimidated by Jake and isn’t looking forward to competing with him in the spelling bee.
Stacey studied all week long, reviewing the words she wrote in her Notebook of Extraordinary Words. When the day of the competition arrives, her mother tells her to do her best and lets her know how proud she and her father are of her. Although Stacey places second in the spelling bee, she is a good sport as Jake receives his trophy, and she gets a second-place ribbon.
In the end, Stacey learns essential lessons and remembers one of her favorite words: P-E-R-S-E-V-E-R-A-N-C-E. I loved this story for many different reasons: the adorable illustrations, the vocabulary words featured throughout, and the lessons Stacey learned along the way.
I Can Heal After Suffering Loss of a Loved One
Many Shapes of Clay: A Story of Healing by Kenesha Sneed (Ages 4 – 8)
This is a beautiful story about a little girl who finds a clay shape that reminds her of picking lemons with her father, who recently passed away. When the shape accidentally breaks, Eisha and her mother find a creative and meaningful way to put the broken pieces back together again.
This book is a comforting and heartwarming story about grief, which celebrates the healing power of creativity.
I Can Have a Family Reunion
Ruby’s Reunion Day Dinner by Angela Dalton, illustrated by Jestenia Southerland (Ages 4 – 8)
It’s almost time for Ruby’s closest relatives to gather again for their annual family reunion. Each family member contributes their own special “signature dish”...everyone except Ruby. This year Ruby wants to have her own special dish, but what will she make?
This story is so cute and heartwarming. I love how it showcases love, food, and a Black multigenerational family experiencing joy and togetherness.
Going Down Home With Daddy by Kelly Starling-Lyons, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Ages 4 – 8)
As long as there have been families, there have been reunions of sorts - annual summer barbecues, holiday gatherings, get-togethers for weddings, and funerals. But these days, with families living far and wide, it's the latter–weddings and funerals–that tend to draw the most family members together in the same space. At least that’s true for our family. We’ve often tried and talked about organizing family reunions, but life always gets in the way, and it never comes to fruition.
When our family finally has a family reunion, I hope it will be as beautiful and meaningful as the reunion in Going Down Home With Daddy. This book shows readers family reunions are a way for families to reconnect with their roots, find a sense of belonging and honor their elders. Lil Alan, his sister, and their family prepare to go “down home” for their annual family reunion. Every year, the family gathers to learn more about their family history, traditions, and more family stories than they can count.
I love how proud this family is of all the land they own, how they honor and pay tribute to their ancestors, and how each child shares a unique talent, song, poem, or written passage with the family. In the end, each family member leaves feeling a renewed sense of the family bond and a re-attachment to the land where the family in America began. This is a feel-good story that will warm your heart and show readers the importance of family.
I Can Create Something Beautiful for My Community
The All-Together Quilt by Lizzy Rockwell (Ages 4- 8)
The community quilt is a metaphor, showing that good things can happen when people decide to unite in harmony. Based on the author’s real life, this is a beautiful and heartwarming story about kindness, teamwork, and creativity. It features a diverse, multigenerational set of characters all working together to create something beautiful for their community. The story takes place in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Lizzy Rockwell is the artistic director and organizing force behind the Norwalk Community Quilt Project: Peace by Piece. This book is inspired by all the people who have gathered over the years to teach and learn and to make something beautiful together. Good things can happen when a community decides to come together as one.
I Can Learn Ballet
Langston Dances by Kaija Langley, illustrated by Keith Mallett (Ages 4 – 8)
Langston liked playing basketball, but he adored ballet. He first discovered ballet when his mother took him to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. It was then he decided he wanted to dance just like the professional ballet dancers on the stage. Langston’s mother wanted to support her son, so she enrolled him to take a ballet class at Ms. Marie’s Dance Studio. But not everyone was as supportive as Langston’s mother. Langston overheard one boy say, “Boys don’t dance like that.” Can Langston become the ballet dancer he dreams of becoming?
Ballet teaches discipline, perseverance, and endurance. It also strengthens and stretches our bodies, improves balance and flexibility, and challenges our brains. Another benefit of ballet is it can allow people to express their emotions through their body language.
Zuri Ray Tries Ballet by Tami Charles, illustrated by Sharon Sordo (Ages 4 – 8)
Meet Zuri Ray. A Black biracial girl (Black mom, White dad) who is always ready to try new challenges. Well....most of the time. When her best friend Jessie asks her to join a ballet camp, Zuri isn’t thrilled about the idea at all, but she can’t let her friend down either. What will Zuri Ray do to handle this dilemma? This delightful and charming story may inspire readers to be willing to try new things but remind them to always remain true to themselves.
I Can Get a Pet
Lola Gets a Cat by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw (Ages 2 – 5)
This book teaches kids they can also own a pet like Lola, but it also teaches them about responsibility, feelings, adjusting to change, adoption, giving, love, and family. But most importantly, it allows little girls and boys to see themselves reflected in a book surrounded by a loving and supportive family.
I Can Go on a Family Camping Trip
The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann (Ages 3 – 7)
Ernestine is thrilled to go on her first camping trip with her aunt Jackie and cousin Samantha. With the help of her dad, she stuffs her duffel bag full of supplies and eagerly charges into the great outdoors. But will camping be all it’s cracked up to be? (Hint: s’mores make everything less scary.)
I Can Go Hiking
Where’s Rodney? by Carmen Bogan, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Ages 4 - 8)
Little Rodney is a bit fidgety because all he wants to do is go outside. He doesn’t want to sit in Miss Garcia’s classroom and learn about the word of the week when there are so many other interesting things to see outside. But Rodney’s exposure to the great outdoors is limited because of the low-income neighborhood where he lives. His idea of going to the “park” is hanging out with a bunch of grown-ups at a triangle-shaped piece of yellow grass where there are two benches, a broken gate, and a sleeping bully-dog. Rodney’s mother always warns him to stay away from that park and stay inside where it's safe. But outside was where Rodney really wanted to be.
Where’s Rodney? reminds readers that universe provides us with unlimited opportunities for connecting and growing with children. Whether you are watching a blackbird soar, watching ants march up a hill—all it takes is some time spent together in the great outdoors and an attitude of inquiry to make the world come alive with infinite possibilities for discovery. I love how this book supports the countless research studies about how much kids benefit from unstructured play outside. Being in the park seemed to give Rodney a place of peace and refreshment in the busy world around him.
I think Where’s Rodney? is a magical book about the beauties of exploring the variety that the great outdoors has to offer. But there are also deeper messages here that can lead to further discussions. For example, some parents and educators may conclude that Rodney has ADHD – perhaps that’s why he’s so fidgety and doesn’t want to sit still. Or does Rodney just have a different way of learning than his peers? There is also the message that some kids who live in low-income areas have limited exposure to nature and the outdoors. It’s safer for kids living in these areas to stay indoors which can lead to obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and increased amounts of screen time instead of exploring and playing outside. Therefore, I think ALL children should have ample recess time at school. Often, it’s the only exposure underprivileged children get to be outdoors in a safe and supervised environment.
Budding naturalists will love Floyd Cooper’s luscious, earthy, and detailed illustrations that showcase the beauty and diversity of nature. I think Where’s Rodney? is brimming with ideas that will surely spark a trip to a local park of your own. This book will be a great companion for spring, summer, and fall explorations. It’s a touching and engaging story with a clear message – the natural world has amazing things to offer to those willing to slow down to explore them. I hope you’ll take the time to check out this story about a young boy who discovers a majestic world in a park.
The back matter includes some information on how to visit a park from the Yosemite Conservancy. Look for the companion picture book, Tasha’s Voice, publishing summer 2022.
Southwest Sunrise by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Wendell Minor (Ages 4 – 8)
When little Jayden and his family move from New York City to New Mexico, Jayden is upset about moving to a place of shadows in the desert surrounded by the colors of brown and tan. Much to his surprise, once Jayden steps outside the next day, he is thrilled to find flowers, trees, and animals in all different shades. He even discovers that New Mexico has its own skyscrapers–the red rock pillars. Southwest Sunrise is a delight to read, told in poetic prose. This is perfect for outdoors lovers and children moving to a new city, state, or country.
I Can Love My Hair
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (Ages 4 - 8)
Twist outs. Braid outs. Wash and Gos. Bantu knots. Locs. Afros. Braids. Top Knots. Ponytails. Today's natural-haired beauties embrace their kinks, coils, and curls more than ever to express their style. Just ask little Zuri. She wants to have the perfect hairstyle to welcome her mother home.
I adore this book for so many reasons. First, it showcases a Black father in a positive light bonding with his daughter doing her hair. I love how Zuri’s dad steps up to the plate and figures out what needs to be done to do his daughter’s hair in his wife’s absence.
With the help of social media, Zuri’s father learns how to comb, part, oil, twist, and style Zuri’s hair. This experience allowed Zuri to bond with her dad in an entirely new way, and likely instilled a deep pride about the heritage in her hair.
Magic Like That by Samara Cole Doyon, illustrated by Geneva Bowers (Ages 5 - 6)
Magic. Mesmerizing. Elegant. Whimsical. Strong. A little girl uses all these words (and more) to describe her Black natural hair. She reminisces about different ways her mom has styled her hair in the past. From braids to bantu knots each hairstyle makes her feel beautiful and empowered.
“My hair is magic. But magic isn’t easy. My hair, with its tangles and snarls, defies my mother’s comb. Tall and strong, my hair stands like regal pine trees, silently guarding the pristine peace of mountainside lakes. My hair is majestic like that.”
When it comes to hair, there is so much to explore. It is so complex, historically and currently. Empowering and affirming children’s books like this one allow children and grown-ups to have open conversations about different hair textures, self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-love.
I Can Pivot When Things Don’t Always Go as Planned
Saturday by Oge Mora (Ages 4 - 8)
Little Ava loves Saturdays because it’s the one day of the week when her mother doesn’t have to work. This Saturday is an extra special one because Ava and her mother are going to a one-night-only puppet show. But first, they have plans to attend storytime at the library, get their hair done at a salon, and have a picnic in the park. Their special day doesn’t turn out as well as they hoped it would, but does it end well? You’ll have to read it to find out.
This book is a wonderful story about bonding, family, and how to handle situations when things don’t go as planned. Kids will love the repetition, the vibrant collage illustrations, and seeing how the story ends.
I Can Do and Be Anything I Want to Be
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James (Ages 4 – 8)
This beautiful book encourages readers to celebrate everything that makes them the person they are. Kids learn they can be a leader, an explorer, the life of the party, and an undisputed champion. They also learn it’s okay to make mistakes, get back up when they fall, and be a shoulder to cry on when needed.
I Am Every Good Thing is an affirming book that will likely leave kids (and adults) feeling like they can achieve anything. My heart was so full as I read this with my kids–I shed happy tears. I want to gift this to every child I know to let them know how special they are.
As the ending states, “I am worthy of success, of respect, of safety, of kindness, of happiness. And without a shadow of a doubt, I am worthy to be loved.” Isn’t that such a beautiful message to read with kids?
While this book is a celebration of Black joy and self-love, it's a story to be enjoyed by everyone. Children of all races and cultures can appreciate this book's uplifting and positive messages. If your children or students ever start to doubt their beauty and begin to reject themselves, let this book serve as a mirror for children by reflecting and reminding them of how special they are. An excellent resource to help reinforce a positive self-image.
Charnaie Gordon is the founder of Here Wee Read where she connects people with diverse and inclusive books and champions the importance of children's literacy. She and her two children also founded the non-profit 50 States 50 Books with the goal of bringing 50 diverse books at a time to deserving kids in all 50 states. Find her on Instagram or listen to her podcast.