10 Children's Books Handling Race and Identity In A Smart Way

It’s too soon to enroll my children in school. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to start teaching them some of life’s lessons. If you’ve ever sat and had a conversation with a 3-year-old, you’ll notice they pick up on a lot. As a black mother, my goal is to help give my children the vocabulary to express self-awareness (i.e., what it feels like to be marginalized in America) while preserving their sense of empowerment and self-efficacy — and smart children's books dealing with race are a great way to do that. Ultimately, I hope to raise my kids to understand that they control their futures. Especially since I often felt my future was predesignated, as a young black girl.

It isn’t always easy to translate these concepts in a way that young children understand, but I’ve learned reading can be an excellent gateway to discussing tough topics with young kids.

One day, my husband and I will sit down with our kids and have “the talk” about race and the obstacles Black Americans have faced in this country. But before then, I’m working hard to introduce them to books that set a foundation for the conversations. It might be a while before they have the words, but I believe they can have the understanding. The following books are great for promoting children’s critical thinking about race and identity — just in time for Black History Month.

'What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan' by Chris Barton

Beach Lane Books

Barbara Jordan was an extraordinary example of Black achievement as an educator, lawyer and congresswoman. This book takes children on a journey from childhood to life post-congress. Through it, we learn lessons about the importance of wanting more for yourself, following one's passions and even hint on the ways we run for office. What do you do with a voice like that, reinforces the idea that all of us have the potential to have an impact through government. I like that this book introduces so many complex historical events around the former congresswoman's life in such easily digestible pieces.

'A is for Activist' by Innosanto Nagara

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

If you’re looking to raise kids who are down with social change, this is it! As the title suggests, A Is for Activist goes through all the letters of the alphabet while introducing children to concepts around the revolution. They’ll hear topics related to class, race, and even workers’ rights in this book. But it is small enough that it's not completely overwhelming. A Is for Activist motivates our children to start asking the right questions. Because, you got to start somewhere. As a board book, this book has utility for older kids in a quick delivery that keeps a toddler’s attention.

'The Bell Rang' by James E. Ransome

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Initially, I was hesitant about The Bell Rang. I’m not a fan of books that limit Black existence to depictions of slavery. Still, I think knowledge of one of our nation’s worst transgressions is important so I gave it a try. I was pleasantly surprised at the realism in this book and the unique perspective it offered. I’d even say The Bell Rang includes the best handling of the topic I’ve seen thus far. The author successfully humanized the experience of American slaves without glamorizing American slavery. It’s even thought-provoking as it uniquely discusses run away slavery and how it impacted those left behind.

'My People' by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Charles R. Smith Jr.

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Langston Hughes’s poetry will always be near and dear to my heart. I was excited when I found My People, which is a photo interpretation of Hughes’s piece of the same name. The images seen as you flip through these pages are gorgeous and show the diversity of skin tones and appearances included in Blackness. Heart-warming images and a tribute to one of the best poets of the 20th century — what’s not to love?

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Black women's experiences are shaped by life at the intersection of race and gender. Although challenging, it hasn’t stopped Black women from accomplishing great things. Little Leaders feature 40 Black women who impacted society despite these barriers. The women listed come from an array of careers- freedom fighters to scientist and everything in between! I love how this book included the classics along with some figures we’re hearing of for the first time.

Plus, it’s darling to look at those cute little illustrations.

'Abby Invents Unbreakable Crayons' by Dr. Arlyne Simon

Bella Agnes Books

Abby is sick of her crayons breaking. But instead of being completely sidetracked from crayon use and being limited by fret, she comes up with a plan. Abby creates her own unbreakable crayons and gets the patent to prove it! This book provides an excellent gateway to discussing STEM and Art related topics — it even teaching kids about the scientific method!

Abby Invents gives young children of all races a chance to visualize a Black inventor. Worried your child doesn’t know a lot about inventing? There is a glossary and even an explainer guide in the back!

'I Am Enough' by Grace Beyers

Courtesy of HarperCollins

I Am Enough deserves a permanent spot on my shelf don’t be shocked if it makes you tear up! This book teaches confidence and efficacy all without talking down on the importance of the collective. Again, I’m a sucker for good illustrations. Seeing this brown skin beauty proudly displayed on the cover is an excellent reminder for young Black girls and woman that our aesthetic is beautiful — regardless of what media suggests. And guess what else, it’s a quick read that would be great for bedtime.

'Let the Children March' by Monica Clark-Robinson

HMH Books for Young Readers

Unless we are talking about school integration, how often do we touch on the experience of Black children growing up during the Civil Rights Movement? Similarly, when we discuss the brave Black Americans, who rose in protest of injustice, we can’t forget those who wanted to stand yet couldn’t due to lack of job security. Let the Children March sheds light on both of those realities and shares the story of children who answered when justice called. Yes, their experience mirrored that of what the adults endured. This book challenges the way we view children's role in social change.

'Look What Brown Can Do!' by T. Marie Harris

Sweetberry Books

Contrary to popular belief, Black achievement exists outside of sports and entertainment. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these industries. However, it’s critical that Black youth know our possibility for success is limitless. Look What Brown Can Do highlights Black historical figures who have achieved what was once believed to be unachievable in a variety of industries. This book reminds our children that they can be investors, business folks, or even opera singers! In a world that type casts Black Americans, books like these are vital.

'Lillian's Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965' by Jonah Winter

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Lilian reflects on the experiences of her foremothers and fathers as she walks to the polls. Lilian’s Right To Vote puts things into perspective reminding all of us that freedom wasn't free. Black, white and brown folks can all benefit from a book that reminds us of the privilege of voting and the role Black Americans played in lifting those restrictions.