13 books for young children that feature protagonists of color

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  • Representation matters: Exposure to different people and beliefs encourages empathy, acceptance, and perspective-taking.
  • When you encourage diversity in your children's books early, you facilitate their social-emotional intelligence. 
  • Here are 13 children's books that feature protagonists of color and explore themes like empowerment, sharing, empathy, and cultural pride.

Undoing generations of systemic, damaging attitudes toward people of color is an enormous undertaking that is paramount to their health, safety, and quality of life. One small way you can contribute to this ongoing movement is by encouraging your children to talk and think about race. My family lives in a diverse city, but I still feel day-to-day as though we are not always exposed to or doing our most to talk about diversity or racism. This is why I make sure my children's library is full of books that feature protagonists of color, so they see and hear the things that make us similar and different.

This list includes some of the books that my children — almost 2 and 5 years old — enjoy reading. Sometimes a character's background is central to the story. Other times, it's not a focus at all.

The value of representation in your child's library is substantial. These stories frequently explore salient themes like empowerment, sharing, empathy, mental health, and cultural pride. Unlike other popular children's books, the main characters in these stories are more likely to be portrayed in STEM or leadership roles. And these books give voice to authors and illustrators of color who are typically underrepresented in the literary world. There are 11 and 5 on this list, respectively. 

The books below are diverse, informative, and vividly illustrated — all the best things a picture book for children can be. Some of the titles came into our lives organically and have been enjoyed over and over. Some are new acquisitions that were thoroughly researched based on recommendations by teachers. They were all chosen because of the beauty of their characters, inside and out. If your toddler can handle non-board books, introduce these (and others like them!) as early as you can.

"Thank You, Omu" by Oge Mora

"Thank You, Omu" by Oge Mora, available at Amazon for $14.89

This is a beautifully told and illustrated story of Omu (pronounced AH-moo), who makes her best stew ever and then shares it with neighbors and friends as they drop in one by one for a taste. When there is no stew left for Omu, an impromptu feast is born, with special dishes from all of her thankful stew recipients. I love the images featured in a paper cutout style, and the way Omu's kitchen plays against the city backdrop.

"Leila in Saffron" by Rukhsanna Guidroz

"Leila in Saffron" by Rukhsanna Guidroz available at Amazon for $11.99

Leila is at her grandmother's house and on the search for things that make her feel good about herself. She finds that the love of her family, the pride of cooking a good meal, and the beauty of her grandmother's saffron scarf all make her feel special. A glossary at the end helps with the pronunciation of some Arabic words woven throughout the bright colors and patterns of the story.

"Mae Among the Stars" by Roda Ahmed

"Mae Among the Stars" by Roda Ahmed, available at Amazon for $13.49 and Barnes & Noble for $15.99

A quiet tale about real-life astronaut Mae Jemison's early childhood challenges of asserting her desire to go to space, I love this book for its spotlight on an incredibly smart, driven woman in STEM almost as much as its message that if you "dream it, believe it, and work hard for it, anything is possible." A page at the end offers a brief bio of the real Mae's lifelong achievements, solidifying that mantra as fact.

"Alma and How She Got Her Name" by Juana Martinez-Neal

"Alma and How She Got Her Name" by Juana Martinez-Neal, available at Amazon for $13.99 and Barnes & Noble for $15.29

Alma doesn't love that her name has so many, well, names! But by the end of this book, she is excited to know all of the fascinating ancestors she shares them with, and it is a delight to take that journey with her. Combined with the illustrations that feel like flashbacks to the time each ancestor was alive, this is a wonderful opportunity to learn briefly about different Latinx traditions and histories.

"Jabari Jumps" by Gaia Cornwall

"Jabari Jumps" by Gaia Cornwall, available at Amazon for $13.76 and Barnes & Noble for $15.49

It's not always easy for kids to process their emotions, and fear is a BIG one. Jabari's dad is thoughtful and supportive while Jabari reckons with the high diving board, and we get to see how he eventually meets his goal from different perspectives at the pool. A quick and easy read about perseverance, this would be a great tool for talking to your little one about confronting their own fears.

"Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story" by Kevin Noble Maillard

"Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story" by Kevin Noble Maillard available at Amazon for $16.99 and Barnes & Noble for $16.99

A Best Picture Book on about a dozen lists in 2019 and 2020, Maillard and illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal (yes, from No. 4 on this list!) combine simple prose with round, doughy, subtle depictions of all the new and old elements that make fry bread special: color, time, history, art, place, and you, among other things. A deep look at the cultural roots of fry bread, this story is abstract in many ways and the illustrations emanate so much love that even younger toddlers can see that sharing really is caring.

"The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats

"The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats available at Amazon for $13.49 and Barnes & Noble for $16.49

Quiet Peter has quite a day enjoying the new snow that has blanketed his neighborhood, but I don't have to tell you that since this book has been a classic since it was first published in 1962. Enjoy this sweet tale of a boy on a snowy city adventure with your kids, or without.

"A Big Mooncake for Little Star" by Grace Lin

"A Big Mooncake for Little Star" by Grace Lin available at Amazon for $11.59 and Barnes & Noble for $16.99

Written as a way to share the importance of the Asian holiday Mid Autumn Moon Festival with Lin's own daughter, the focus of this story is Little Star's love affair with the big mooncake her mama made. When Mama eventually discovers that the once full moon(cake) has been whittled down to a crescent before being completely consumed, you can almost feel her quiet joy. The black pages of this book create an all-consuming backdrop for the bright yellow of Little Star's pajamas, blanket, and later, her crumbs.

"Sofia Valdez, Future Prez" by Andrea Beaty

"Sofia Valdez, Future Prez" by Andrea Beaty available at Amazon for $15.28 and Barnes & Noble for $16.99

Sofia serves as a wonderful example for young friends wondering how they can make a difference in their communities, and how to motivate others to believe in you as much as you believe in yourself. I love the intersectionality of this story and others in this series from Beaty and illustrator David Roberts, including Ada Twist, Scientist, which features a young black girl who loves solving mysteries in science.

"We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga" by Traci Sorell

"We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga" by Traci Sorell available at Amazon for $14.49

This is a very loaded book that features Cherokee vocabulary words, including their phonetic pronunciations, symbols, and English translations. Told chronologically, this story and the accompanying illustrations depict how a Cherokee family adapts with the changing seasons, including what they celebrate, eat, plant, and create. Younger children will love looking at all the busy people, while older children may have an easier time relating to the book's discussion of gratitude.

"The King of Kindergarten" by Derrick Barnes

"The King of Kindergarten" by Derrick Barnes, available at Amazon for $11.50

This bright, fun story piles on themes of self-esteem about as high as they can go. Barnes' prose helps young friends feel confident and ready for kindergarten, with palpable excitement about the day. He offers a brief glimpse at the structure of a real-life school day, which I also love for my almost-kindergartener. Modeled by the eponymous King, this is a strong lesson in self-confidence, via an author who has made a career of empowering young black children through his literature.

"The Proudest Blue" by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali

"The Proudest Blue" by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali, available at Amazon for $15.78 or Barnes & Noble for $15.99

Muhammad is known largely for being the first woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Olympics, and now she can add storyteller to her list of achievements. Unsurprisingly, this story is all about pride, in yourself and your heritage, as our main character, Faizah, watches her sister wear her first hijab on the first day of a new school year. I love the delicate descriptions of the experience of wearing your first hijab, and the bright, almost emotional illustrations that are paired with them.

"Last Stop on Market Street" by Matt de la Peña

"Last Stop on Market Street" by Matt de la Peña, available at Amazon for $14.51 and Barnes & Noble for $16.99

Precocious CJ has a lot of big, important questions for his grandmother during the trip back to their neighborhood after church. His experience is different (and in many cases, more difficult) than others', but his grandmother replies with optimism and her deep laugh. CJ has many opportunities to interact with a wide variety of people — the blind person who hears and smells their way around the city, for example — and it is not lost on me the value of having conversations about privilege and perspective with my own city babies. This author/illustrator team released another subtly challenging story in 2018, "Carmela Full of Wishes," also worth checking out.

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