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10 Books to Start a Conversation about #BlackLivesMatter with Young Children

[Originally published June 1, 2020]

In processing the death of George Floyd and the surrounding events and news stories, I have been trying to find resources to share that are helpful for talking with children about this event and the (far too many) like it.

I know that there are children out there with questions and parents who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to tackling important and complex subjects.

Below is a list of some of my favorite books about Black children for young readers. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and some of these books outline a deep history of racism and injustice in the United States. Others are focused on daily life and positive Black representation. All of these books, however, can be a way to start a conversation with the young ones in your life.

I try not to spoil too many of the endings, so you’ll have to read these books yourself! I would recommend checking them out from your local library, and I included links to purchase these books from Black-owned bookshops.

1.) Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch This book was read to me during library class in elementary school, and I revisited it in college during one of my seminar courses. A young girl, Grace, wants to play Peter Pan in her school play. She is told by her classmates that she can’t because she is a girl. Additionally, she is told she can’t because she is Black. After Grace tells her Ma and Nana about these incidents, they take her to see a Black ballerina dancing the part of Juliet, and Grace decides to audition for the part of Peter Pan. . .

2.) Tar Beach, written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold “Tar Beach” is one of my favorite books. We read it in elementary school and then created an art project based on the book. I don’t remember anything about the art project, but I have revisited this book many times since then. The book takes place in Harlem in 1939. Cassie, a young girl lays on top of her apartment building and dreams of being free to go wherever she wants. The stars help her fly across the city, and she decides she can own everything she flies over. This book is a Caldecott Honor Book winner and features stunning illustrations.

3.) The Snowy Day, written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats This book has received criticism about representation of Black children as the author himself is not Black. However, I added this book to the list because it is the first picture book with a Black protagonist to win a major children’s award (Caldecott Medal for artwork). Its publication marked a shift in children’s books to portray Black children in a positive light instead of relying on negative stereotypes. The book follows a very young boy, Peter, as he goes outside during the season’s first snowfall. Peter builds a snowman and tries to bring some snow home with him.

4.) Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones This is another book I encountered in college, and I fell in love with it for its focus on giving. This book examines both race and class. A young boy, Jeremey, wants a pair of “those shoes” that everyone at school is wearing. However, as his grandmother says, they have no room in the budget for “wanting.” One day at school, Jeremey’s shoes fall apart, and he is determined to get a pair of “those shoes” as a replacement. To his surprise, he finds a pair at a thrift shop! But they’re the wrong size, and his feet are sore and blistered. He finally gives up on wearing the too-tight shoes, and decides to help a friend. . .

5.) We March, written and illustrated by Shane W. Evans We March is about the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. However this detail is not revealed until the end of the book. What I like about this book is how it features children and their families marching together. Children are often forgotten as activists, and this book puts them front and center as an important part of creating social change.

6.) The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford My dad brought this book home after deciding to read it with my brother’s Cub Scout troop. This book is written by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Coles and illustrated by Coretta Scott King Award winner George Ford. The book follows the true story of six-year-old Ruby Bridges in 1960, entering a whites-only school in New Orleans. White parents pulled their children out of the school, and Ruby faced angry mobs of these parents daily on her way to school. For context, Ruby Bridges is still alive today, and she’s only 65.

7.) The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas This book is for teens, not your very young ones. It is a young adult novel expanded from a short story by the same author which she wrote in reaction to the police shooting of Oscar Grant. The story centers around a 16-year-old girl, Starr, witnessing a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. Starr becomes a national news story as she attempts to find justice for Khalil. The book also looks at Starr’s experiences in her nearly all-white high school, working in her father’s store, and dating her white boyfriend. I recently listened to this audio book and found myself completely captivated by the story and writing.

8.) Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson This book is another Caldecott Honor Book Winner. CJ and his Nana leave church during a rainstorm to walk to the bus stop. The book follows the pair’s journey on the bus and ends with Nana working at a soup kitchen. The book features poetic narration and interesting artwork. It is warm and makes the everyday beautiful.

9.) The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis This book is for slightly older children. I believe I read it in fourth grade. The Watsons, who live in Flint, Michigan, travel to Birmingham, Alabama to visit their grandmother. However, while the family is in Birmingham, a local church is bombed around the time their youngest daughter, Joetta is attending Sunday school. While the events in this book are fictional, they are based on the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that happened in Birmingham when KKK members bombed a church and killed four girls and injured many more.

10.) Mother to Son by Langston Hughes Finally, I wanted to share a poem that I first encountered while I was at theatre camp one summer. “Mother to Son” was first published in 1922 in a civil rights magazine, The Crisis. This poem is about the dangers and difficulties that Black people face in a racist society. It is also about resilience in the face of injustice and inspiring younger generations to keep going.

Black lives matter, and if you are looking for a way to engage with your children about recent events, these books can be a great starting point.

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