• Grace McKinney

Race and Reading Aloud: Books for Black Joy

Joy is an act of resistance (as says Toi Derricotte), and Juneteenth is a day to remember a long-awaited celebration. On June 19th, 1865, a group of enslaved people learned of their freedom in Galveston, Texas, when Union soldiers told them that the war had ended—two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been ratified. The holiday has remained a day of celebration for decades since, and it holds particular import for families across the country right now.

We find ourselves recalibrating the way we talk about race, especially with children. Children’s understanding of and attitudes about race begin to solidify by age seven. This means that they’re constantly absorbing messages about race that are being communicated, directly or indirectly, from their birth. As adults, we have the opportunity to directly bring about conversations on race at a developmentally appropriate level for even the youngest children.

Thankfully, there are more and more tools at our fingertips to do so—and books are some of the most powerful. Diverse characters, experiences, and perspectives simply being on your child’s bookshelf opens them up to empathize with others, and shared reading experiences offer a safe space in which you both can talk about race. Whether it’s the reality of bullying someone based on their skin color or simply showing the beauty of Brown and Black skin, stories within children’s books are rife with opportunities to expand your child’s (and your own!) mind.

While there is a rich collection of books for children about Juneteenth (and we’d be happy to help you find those titles, too!), we’re hoping to offer a small collection here that carries the joy of this momentous event into modern, everyday Black life. The stories here empower characters of color who beam with pride and confidence, learn new skills, and experience the love of family and friends. This short list of books offers something for the span of early childhood—all from authors and illustrators of color.

We hope you and your family are able to take a moment to relish in joyful resistance with these books and begin to tackle the good and necessary conversations about race that may bubble up in the midst of storytime.

Lullaby (for a Black Mother) by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Sean Qualls

Langston Hughes’ poem translates beautifully into a loving board book that celebrates the bond between a Black mother and her baby. The language and rhythmic text pulse with a mother’s heartbeat as wonders how to soothe her child to sleep:

My little dark baby,

My little earth-thing,

My little love-one,

What shall I sing

For your lullaby?

Qualls’ nighttime palette of soft lavender, cream, and charcoal encircle a mother and child as they gaze at the stars, moon, and one another until at last the child falls asleep in her arms.

Hands Up! By Breanna J. McDaniel, illus. by Shane W. Evans

An exuberant reclamation of a typically negative command, Hands Up! follows a young Black girl through the many ways in which she can raise her hands over the course of a typical week. Her hands can reach up to do dishes, fix her own hair, serve herself some juice, and snag a book from a high shelf. Her hands can reach into the sky for dancing, praising, and celebrating a victory. Raised alongside the hands of others, they can also call for change, when “As one we say, ‘Hands up!” Vibrant illustrations from Evans render this reflection on the power of hands into an opportunity for joy—just as he says in his Illustrator’s Note.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illus. by Gordon C. James

A young Black boy takes a trip to the barber shop, a trip that promises not only a new look but a fresh feeling, as well. While at the barber shop, he admires the others getting their hair done—the fades, braids, and shaves that make them look and feel so fine. The text is rife with royal metaphors, like “that cape that keeps the fine hairs from getting on your princely robes,” while the illustrations are lush and detailed, reminiscent of fine portraiture. The young boy tips well and emerges from the barber shop feeling “magnificent, flawless, like royalty.”

Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson

This new chapter book is a delight, and rides that perfect line of a book that suits both independent readers and younger children ready for longer read-alouds. Ryan, whose name means “king,” lives in Portland, Oregon, with her parents and older brother, Ray. She loves to be creative in the kitchen and play with her best friends, but some big changes are happening for her family: a not-so-new house with a too-small kitchen, just to start. Ryan navigates the new challenges in her life with sharpness and wit, doing her best to keep in mind what her father always tells her: “Be who we named you to be.” An empowering story of family, friendship, and the joy of coming into one’s own.

Alongside this short list, we also want to highlight the work happening in the children’s literature community that’s spearheaded by Black voices. For us, it’s a time to listen; for many others, it’s a time to be heard. Below, find a short list of resources from folks participating in the necessary conversations happening right now: what to read, where to donate, how to learn.

The Brown Bookshelf: Anti-Racist Resources for Children, Families, and Educators

The Conscious Kid: Children’s Books Celebrating Black Boys

Here Wee Read

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